Eyes Wide Shut - Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman

July 16, 1999.

That was the last day of my eighteenth year and the first day Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was released into the world. As an eighteen-year-old kid obsessed with film still devastated by the loss of Kubrick just a few months prior, I was dying to see this film. I’d hardly seen anything in the theatre but The Phantom Menace since its release in May, so this was going to be a refreshing change of pace. 

Naturally, Eyes Wide Shut deals with themes that an eighteen-year-old kid ought to have very little frame of reference for. Jealousy was an abstract that I understood, but the intimate moments in a relationship recreated in the film were as much film fantasy as Star Wars was to me. I’d never been in a serious relationship to that point and the art of Eyes Wide Shut would help inform my understanding more than I would be able to decode anything from it.

The Filmmaking and Structure 

As a film nerd who was barely shaving, the thing that attracted me to Eyes Wide Shut was the craft in making it. Although the themes were too dense for my forming brain to truly grasp (though at the time I was confident I understood all of it), there was something sublime about the filmmaking. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio felt like the film had fallen out of time and the dreamy nature of the Christmas-time source lighting had taken Kubrick’s techniques from Barry Lyndon and brought them into a modern era. The way the camera floats through each scene provides all the feeling of a fantasy that can easily turn into a nightmare, but then when Kubrick makes hard cuts to locked off close-ups, you can feel the oppression of reality intruding. Watching Tom Cruise take such a daring risk with his stardom to bring Dr. Bill Harford to life in his best performance since Scorsese’s The Color of Money was awe-inspiring. (When Eyes Wide Shut came out, we had no idea that Magnolia would come just a few months later and would showcase a totally different aspect of Cruise’s brilliance.)

But it was the structure of the film that really took my breath away. I didn’t know that I wasn’t really getting the film on a deeper, existential level. Instead, I was bowled over completely by the shape of the thing. Eyes Wide Shut isn’t paced or assembled like other films. It’s split into two distinct parts and, instead of an intermission, we’re given a climax—literally and figuratively—in the center of the film. The film turns on the stove and lets the cool water slowly boil to the mid-point. But once the water is boiling, everything steams from then on. 

The film begins with situations that put Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman—who is even better here than her on-screen and former husband) where they could be unfaithful to each other. We, as the audience see them resist these temptations, whether from willpower or outside forces. They end the night taking all of that pent up sexual energy sleeping with each other. By all appearances, this is a healthy relationship, though the next night it’s infected with jealousy.

After smoking some weed, Alice reveals to her husband that there was the possibility that she conceived a brief and fleeting moment where she could have been unfaithful to him. Whether it’s the influence of the weed making him paranoid or the relationship isn’t on as solid footing as we thought, this revelation shakes Dr. Bill to his core and he spends the rest of the first half of the movie floating from one sexual situation to another. At first, he’s not seeking them out, he’s objectified and sexualized by everyone from a grieving daughter to a pack of frat boys on the street. But soon he’s trying. He tries to sleep with a sex worker named Domino (Vinessa Shaw), but can’t bring himself to do it. Then he finds himself tumbling into a secret society of the rich and powerful where sex feels more like a matter-of-fact curiosity than something that drives human relationships.

This is where the film percolates and boils over. Dr. Bill is found out and ejected from the party, but is forced to retrace his steps and finds that any situation he would have put himself in that would have gratified him sexually wouldn’t have only left him feeling empty, but could have landed him in deeper trouble or even killed him. But since the second half plays out like a thriller, with Dr. Bill trying to understand what it was he’s witnessed and who he really is, it takes the film in different direction completely, winding back in on itself and its themes. 

The film is almost a structural palindrome as he retraces his steps in the light of day and it’s startling how well it works. I’ve never seen another film that does this and manages to hold the attention of the audience over every single moment.

Evolving Life, Evolves Understanding

When I was younger, my understanding of the film’s themes was an adaptation of a quote from Homer Simpson. “To alcohol,” Homer said in Homer vs. The Eighteenth Amendment, “the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems.” By the end of Eyes Wide Shut, I thought that’s really what the film was about, but substituting alcohol for sex. Why else would Kubrick end the film on such a sharp note?

To some degree, this is a completely valid reading of the film. But it was as naive and simplistic as I was at that age. I’d watched the film probably a dozen times in the theatre and probably three or four times on DVD afterward, but haven’t revisited since. To write this piece, I went back to it. After almost 20 years of relationships, marriage, kids, and all the life experience that brings with it.

It was like I’d watched a different film. A brand new motion picture. With different feelings and movements through it. More than anything, it felt to be a much more honest film. I was struck by one particular shot of Nicole Kidman’s character in the final minutes of the film. Her husband has come home, defeated. When he finds her in bed next to the mask he’d used to infiltrate the orgy, he breaks down completely, offering to tell her everything. The shot cuts to a close up of Nicole Kidman in the gray of the small hours, her eyes red from lack of sleep, her face puffy from tears recently shed. It’s stunning in its honesty. This is a couple who loves each other deeply, who have, presumably, spent all night recounting the deeply unnerving and hurtful situations that brought them to that moment. The story is told in that single cut and lands on Nicole Kidman’s exhausted, wounded face. It’s perfect and does more storytelling than Kubrick could have done in any of his long scenes.

There are incredible swings between the mundanity of everyday life and the secret lives behind closed doors. Mundanity we recognize in our own lives. 

I found my teenage reaction to the film was valid, but overly simplistic, based on not enough data. Now, Eyes Wide Shut says different things to me. It speaks to the complicated nature of relationships and how fragile they can be and how communication and honesty can work to heal those things. It’s also a story about the constant temptation in a world that over-emphasizes sex. In some cases there is danger there, too. How many of the situations that Dr. Harford found himself in would have threatened his life significantly? Not just the rich and powerful wanting to kill him, but the threat of HIV and even illegal activity that would land him behind bars.

Dr. Harford sees every social strata of person trying to fulfill those basic biological urges and sees that it can be complicated at any level, from the sex worker on the street and the infatuated patient to the pimping businessman and rich and powerful engaged in ornate sex parties. It’s something that brings all of humanity together in some way, but it can also bring us down if we aren’t careful.

Coda

Perhaps the thing I love most about Kubrick movies is that they can be watched at different stages of life and one can come to different understandings of them. 2001: A Space Odyssey means something different to me now than it did when I first saw it in my teenage years. Eyes Wide Shut is no different. Like a fine whiskey, the age adds to the experience, adding layers and depth to the flavor of the picture. 

The film itself is a masterpiece worth revisiting every so often. It might even be Kubrick’s crowning achievement, though only time will tell. It’s definitely his most mature film. It may be his most layered and complex, too. But that’s what we love about an artist making art, being able to peel back those layers.

Eyes Wide Shut is a perfect onion, and I hope I never find the last layer.

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