A Couple on Kubrick: Eyes Wide Shut (1999) - Can't Stop the Movies
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A Couple on Kubrick: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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Well, sweetie, it has come to this. The last movie Stanley Kubrick was the primary auteur for.  It was widely hyped, it had a very sexy trailer (that I still remember even though this came out when I was 12), some people were upset about some CGI used in order to keep the movie at an “R” rating, and everyone was talking how Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were not sexually compatible.  Are you ready for it? OK!

Let me start off by saying that, in spite of remembering the promotional material surrounding the movie, I’ve never actually seen Eyes Wide Shut until now. Now that I have seen the  movie, I am left with many questions.

For now, I am going to skip the questions and focus on what I liked about the movie, which I can fully express in my favorite scene of the movie. Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) and his wife, Alice Harford (Kidman) are smoking pot and enjoying themselves, when Alice decides to ask if Bill slept with the two nymphet models at the party they attended the night before. Bill assures her that he did not. That exchange leads into a heated discussion about why men interact with women (sex, according to Bill), how that applies to Bill (is he not sleeping with other women out of devotion or out of courtesy), and lastly, whether cheating lies along gender line while Bill explains that even though Nicole was dancing with an older Hungarian gentlemen who wanted to have sex with, he trusted her. The reason why he trusts his wife was not only because she was a devoted wife and mother, but also that women have no evolutionary need to cheat, so she is unable to cheat.

Alice, angry and high, shifts her mood from bubbly and annoyed to deadly serious and cruel when she tells Bill how she saw a handsome and nameless Naval Officer and how she would have had sex with the Naval Officer regardless of the dissolution of her marriage and family if given the opportunity. Alice’s revelation stuns Bill and leaves him insecure and confused, starting his journey into sexuality, morality and consequences leading him into the sex cult. This scene has it all. A great performance by Tom Cruise, a scarily familiar conversation about sexuality and human interaction across gender lines, the start of a great character journey for Bill and the only part of the movie where I like Alice.

I have to address what things I did not like about the movie, namely Alice and the details of the ever-confusing secret sex cult.  Alice is defined by how Bill sees her (except in my favorite scene) instead of being defined as an autonomous character. Before my favorite scene, Nicole Kidman is sexualized, monogamous, and very friendly without ever crossing the line even when dancing with attempting Hungarian silver fox while Bill is clearly flirting with two sexy nymphets.  She is also a devoted mother with a killer body that is never an intellectual equal to Bill, and she just so happens to have a healthy sexual appetite for only her husband.

The secret sex cult left me with questions, specifically about the secret sex cult in the movie and what the hell was going on with it. How did it form? How do people find out about the cult? How does one become a member of the cult? Why is there only one naked guy in the cult, but plenty of naked ladies? Do all the members buy their cloaks and masks from the same shop? Why is the club wrapped in such mystery, and goes to such lengths to keep itself a secret, if nothing illegal is happening behind closed doors? If the secret sex club is a powerful as Tom Cruise thinks it is, then how does the club have all the power it does? Why did no one call the police when Nick disappeared? Did the club bribe the police? If it is such a secretive club, why hire an outsider to play the music for the unveiling ritual in the first place? How can a secret sex club be both banal and unsexy?

I know these questions are not important to the story, and I understand that details about the cult are as important as whether or not the hotel in The Shining was haunted, but these questions about the cult really takes me out of the movie.  The cult makes more sense within the context of Bill’s journey into sexuality, morality, and consequences that was mentioned earlier.

I think that’s all I can talk about. What about you, sweetie?

For the most part, love, while we’ve been going through Kubrick’s films we’ve seen eye-to-eye just about everything.  Eyes Wide Shut is a major differing point, and it’s also my favorite Kubrick film to analyze.  The Shining is more satisfactory in an aesthetic and storytelling way.  But desire is one of my favorite subjects and film, and never have desire and death been as wonderfully intertwined as they are in this film.

First of all, I have to take great exception to your reading of Alice.  She is certainly not Bill’s intellectual inferior, nor is she the devoted mother that you define.  The dance with the Hungarian proves she is far more sexually aggressive and hungry than Bill is.  He may be led off by the two models, but it is Alice who decides to let her basic needs, fueled by a bit of champagne, drive her closer to the handsome older man’s lips before pulling away at the last moment.  If they were alone in a club somewhere, she would have not stopped.  Compare this to his many pathetic stabs at adultery with the models, his overly willing friend, and every other potential encounter.

As for her intelligence, it is her measured response to Bill’s simplistic analysis of sexuality that slowly drives him mad.  The dialogue drives this home in one wonderful line, “If you men only knew”.  Or, in this case, if you (Bill) only knew that I (Alice) was completely willing to throw away my life with you and our child just to have one night of intense sex with someone I only saw briefly.  Alice is not devoted, she hides herself behind the mask of a doting wife and mother but only barely, and is just as passionate about screwing as Bill is complacent.

That complacency is what completely undoes him.  The themes of Eyes Wide Shut are just as in the open as other Kubrick films, just not as underlined as in Full Metal Jacket or A Clockwork Orange.  If you literally outline the events of a film, a man drives himself mad trying to make himself the object of his wife’s unknown fantasy, and she is considerably more at peace as she succumbs to the mystery and anonymity of the fantasy.  She understands there are parts of her which will never be fully controlled or explained, he is trapped in a single-minded male sexual drive left over from the gender redefinition of the ‘40s that places him as the hungry predator and she the unwilling sex slave.

Calling into question the eroticism, and many of the other questions you raise regarding the sex cult, is almost beyond the point.  It’s an issue of definition instead of interpretation.  The details of the sex cult are not important other than what we see, a bunch of people play acting at their most basic desires completely aware they will never really know each other.  They share a healthy acknowledgement of an existential crisis manifested in a dangerous way only the privileged, careful, and, to a point, cruel know how to be.

This is why the masks and the elaborate ritual behind closed doors with Victorian masks.  The Victorians were no strangers to decadent behavior, and our society makes such a fuss regarding the sex lives of the most powerful that there must be a degree of care.  This is also why any criticism of the lack of eroticism in the film is somewhat missing the point as it’s a zero sum game.  Either the party engages in the blind faith of duty and family to unhealthy sex lives, or dangerous behavior with full knowledge of the masks worn in clumsy grasps at intimacy. The casting of Cruise and Kidman is masterful in further distorting the distance between the erotic and the real (compare Eyes Wide Shut to the unfortunate Mickey Rourke film Blue Orchid).

Kubrick is brilliant in establishing this early on and throwing the audience off of thinking this will be traditionally sexy in any way.  Kidman is seen slipping out of her dress in the first shot, and as soon as she is naked the film cuts to darkness, then back to Kidman sitting on the toilet and urinating.  The first framed erotically, the second as a fact of life.  Even the sequences which might be at all sexy, for example Bill’s frequent imagining of Alice’s fantasy, are distorted and jumbled while the sex we do see is boring and masked in charade.

This is not a game either one can win, but Alice is far healthier than Bill at the end of the film.  The crucial piece of the dialogue is at the end, when Alice’s advice on how to proceed since Bill knows she engaged in the orgy (another thrill he was denied and will have to once again imagine) is that they go home and fuck.  They need to forget the trappings of the cult, the fantasies she engaged in and he obsessed over, to just go home and be nothing in one another

Essentially, they must die.  They need to go to a place beyond recognition and names, forgetting the pageantry and decadence, and simply fall into pleasured non-existence.  Chipper, huh?

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Kubrick with text

Posted by Andrew

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  1. A very eerie flick that definitely got more and more tense as it went on and is one of Kubrick’s most underrated ever. Great commentary!

    • Thank you Dan. It’s definitely the most interesting of his films to analyze since it’s the least blatant about it’s themes, and the tension is lovely in the “life will crush you in the most banal ways” sense.

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