I hadn’t seen Eyes Wide Shut (1999) since it opened, though in the years since—the years that found me stumbling into criticism—countless friends and colleagues have urged me to revisit the film, Stanley Kubrick’s last and, on the surface, least obviously “Kubrickian.” Films have a way of changing on us while we’re off doing other things, and indeed, coming back to Eyes Wide Shut after 12 years—on the occasion of Warner’s new Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection blu-ray box—yielded a tremendous amount of interesting detail that I’d either not noticed the first time around or had forgotten. Yet my overall response was exactly the same: Eyes Wide Shut is a fascinating failure, more fun to think about or argue over than to actually sit through, though you’ve really got to sit through it to think or argue about it.
Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle, or Dream Story, Eyes Wide Shut—its title evoking both the wilful blindness of marital complacency and the dream state—is a story of re-marriage in which the apparently harmonious coexistence of Bill and Alice, a handsome upper class couple (real-life handsome upper class couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), is disrupted by Alice’s confession of erotic fantasies involving a naval officer. Just as Alice completes her confession, Doctor Bill, now thoroughly tormented, gets called away to attend to the death of an elderly patient. While paying his respects, Bill becomes audience to a second, equally disorienting confession, this one coming from the deceased’s daughter, who explains that she’s always been in love with Bill. Bill flees, eventually finding himself at a jazz club where an old friend plays piano. The friend accidentally lets slip that he’s playing another gig that same night for some clandestine masquerade/sex party and, having learned the password needed to gain entry (Fidelio, or “fidelity”), Bill rents a costume from some pervert who whores out his teenage daughter and attends the event, which seems to be organized by a wealthy cult—the same cult from The 7th Victim (1943)?—and proves more dangerous than he’d anticipated.
Brimming with blemish-free, perfectly groomed, fresh-from-the-gym naked bodies and a parade of women who inexplicably can’t keep their hands off Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, at times like David Lynch without the flights of imagination, at others like Roman Polanski without the genuine perversity, is not a very sexy movie. It cautions us to the potentially mortal dangers of sexual adventure, dangers that Bill evades partly through the seemingly clairvoyant protective powers of Alice, who, for example, calls Bill on his mobile just as he’s about to engage a prostitute, prompting him to abort the arrangement. The next day Bill finds out that the prostitute is HIV positive; moments later he buys a newspaper bearing the headline LUCKY TO BE ALIVE. Similarly, while Bill’s at the sex party Alice has a dream that nearly parallels his experience, something which, along with the film’s curiously artificial-looking Manhattan, its cryptic coincidences and pervasive use of blue gels and Christmas lights, alludes to the source material’s dreamlike quality without quite ever fully surrendering to it.
There’s something uncertain about the tone of Eyes Wide Shut, and this, along with a preposterously flabby script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael—a script that finds nearly every question followed by someone repeating the question back to the questioner—and the pause-laden, alternately stiff, strained, or distracted performances from Cruise and, far more surprisingly, Kidman, renders the film turgid and tiring and over two-and-a-half hours long. Not even his champions would characterize Kubrick as a director especially sensitive to eros or love, and one suspects he may have hoped that having a real couple, a celebrity couple, together onscreen would carry its own special charge. But Cruise and Kidman, who divorced in 2001, seem strangely awkward, comfortable with each other’s bodies but not with each other’s presence, and reveal nothing of the particular nature of their relationship—other than, perhaps, this rigid unease—through Bill and Alice. Whatever brought them together or tore them apart, they kept it to themselves.