Before 2009 comes to a close, I'm dipping into my archives to consider ten years of Eyes Wide Shut. One of Stanley Kubrick's most underrated pictures, and a movie that in terms of love, sex, death, fuck, fear and träume remains timeless. It's also a great Christmas movie...
In Stanley Kubrick's cinematic universe reality, dreams, order and insanity progress on distinct, intersecting planes. Whether he was depicting an absurd, chillingly real war room in Dr. Strangelove, the disturbing but oddly sexy ultra violence of an Orwellian future in A Clockwork Orange, the siren call of insanity in The Shining, the hyper fantastical yet authentic Vietnam War in Full Metal Jacket, or the irony and powerlessness among such transcendent opulence in Barry Lyndon, life was a surreal work in progress -- an ambiguous joke that veered from hilarious to sexy to terrifying, sometimes within seconds. Attempting to understand order, or how any system designed to make our universe more rational or safe seemed fruitless. Think Sterling Hayden approaching such a predicament at the end of Kubrick's The Killing. He watches his life literally fly away on an airport tarmac and bitterly spits one of cinema’s greatest final lines: “Eh, what’s the difference?”
Which brings me to the final line of Kubrick’s frequently misunderstood Eyes Wide Shut in which Nicole Kidman states rather flatly, “Fuck” -- as in, that’s the answer, that’s what we need to do. A movie I’ve defended since its release, it’s a picture that deserves closer inspection and a worthy finale for the enigmatic auteur.
The controversial movie (some thought it silly, some, un-erotic) Eyes Wide Shut found the director once again studying the perplexing nature of dreams and reality, this time exploring them in a more personal and private arena: sexuality. As he did with Lolita, Kubrick created more than a film about sexual desire; he created a film about bitter romance, troublesome marital bonds, societal contradictions and, significantly, the fear of death.
An updating of the 1927 Traumnovelle (Dream Novel) by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler, the picture remains an unsettling blend of antiquated garishness and modern transgression -- an alternate sexual universe haunted by ghouls of the past, present and future.
In this universe “live” the healthy, handsome walking dead -- Dr. Bill Harford (an impressive Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (a slinky, wonderfully creepy Nicole Kidman), a glamorous, rich couple who appear the picture of storybook perfection. But like most supposed perfection, there are cracks in that portrait, and in their case, it’s the usual: they want to screw other people (or at least they think they do). At a sumptuous party given by Bill's obscenely wealthy friend Victor (Sydney Pollack), Bill almost strays upstairs with two models while Alice flirts with a bizarre Hungarian man who looks like one of the cadaverous party-goers from The Shining. The next evening, in a fit of jealousy over Bill's near indiscretion (he ended up contending with a beautiful, naked drug overdose instead of a debauched roll in the hay -- though the way her body sits in this shot is disturbingly erotic), Alice confesses that she’s had thoughts of cheating and, even worse, reveals that if things had been different, she would have thrown her entire life away for one flight of sexual fancy.
Unmasking something that should remain one of those deep, dark secrets you never confess to your significant other, Alice deftly rattles Bill's perception of her fidelity and the strength of their marriage in a speech that makes his mind spin out of control (Kidman's performance here is superb). After this confession, Bill is abruptly called away to confirm the death of a patient and keeping in tune with the love/death/sex of the picture, the daughter of the deceased makes a pass at him. The grief stricken but, considering the circumstances, kinky gesture aids in Bill’s decision to not immediately return home. Instead, he wanders the streets of New York and embarks on a sequence of actions that, though not as outwardly comic, somewhat resemble those in the Scorsese movie After Hours: He discovers a surreal sexual underworld that he’s both attracted to and repelled by.
A prostitute, a piano player, a bizarre costume-store owner and his Lolita-esque 14-year-old daughter lead Bill to the film's infamous ritualistic orgy sequence, during which participants are cloaked and masked, and naked women are used as sacrificial sex lambs. The gothic, terrifying yet titillating feel of this sequence walks a fine line between horror and parody and true to Kubrick’s genius, manages to cross into both camps. The magnificent, exacting camera work and unrelenting music compel us to look, no matter what happens, and though I was actually a little scared the first time I saw this moment, I found myself highly amused --laughing even. If ever a person was out of place in a Bohemian Grove-like orgy, it is Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill. And yet, I was absolutely hypnotized, watching these moments like a waking dream and investing it with multiple meanings. What the hell is going on here besides a bunch of silly old rich men getting their jollies with beautifully breasted, long legged Helmut Newton models? And further, what do all of Bill’s adventures mean? Are Bill's encounters simply nightmares that will damage his marriage beyond repair, or are they mere titillating fantasy -- fodder for a closer relationship and better sex with his spouse?
Well, I can’t answer that. Given the picture's ominous tone, however, there is something definitely rotten within its slinky, Christmas-lit loveliness. Like the impeccable environment of The Shining, the aura of Eyes Wide Shut is one of beauty ready to be defiled, sexuality ready to be slaughtered, lovely exteriors that reek of formaldehyde. The pall that hangs over this picture is fear: fear of the unknown; fear of yourself or of others; and fear that if sex can lead to freedom, it can just as easily lead to death.
In fact, the picture can be viewed as a commentary on sexual attitudes in the last few decades -- a time when meaningless indiscretions can lead to horrifying blood-test results. It is no surprise, then, that Bill is a doctor and that throughout the film, he flashes his physician's ID as a police detective would his badge. "I'm a doctor," he constantly says, for both reassurance and intimidation. In a profession that requires intimate investigation of flesh that may well be on its way to the morgue, sex is serious. These unsettling references to AIDS, necrophilia and forbidden sex (not to mention Kubrick's own death upon bringing the film to completion, une petite mort of sorts) permeate the picture like one giant prick tease. In today's world, sex is still there for the taking, but at what cost and for what gain? Kubrick's frustrating, brilliant coda neither answers nor ignores its own questions. Rather, it leaves us in a mysterious, contradictory mishmash of dream and reality, where not only are our eyes wide shut, but our legs are too.