There’s a moment in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut where Alice (Nicole Kidman) calls her husband, Dr. Bill (Tom Cruise), wondering when he’s returning home. It’s very late, and he answers his cell phone quietly, pretending to be sitting with the bereaved daughter of a dead patient, when, in reality (in some kind of reality), he is in the apartment of a prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw) who picked him up on the street, getting ready to complete his transaction. Maybe. Maybe he will. Maybe he would have. Eyes Wide Shut is – at some level – about forks on the road – the labyrinth of paths not taken. Possibilities. “It’s a little difficult to talk right now. It could be a while… we’re still waiting for some relatives to arrive,” he lies to his wife.
Alice sits at the small kitchen table eating a box of cookies in front of her, the picture of domestic normalcy as she watches a movie on the little TV. Which movie? It’s Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love – obviously not an accident on the part of Kubrick. A movie about a man (George Segal) who cheats on his wife, his wife leaves him, and then the man spends the entire movie pining for his now ex-wife, wanting to win her back in all kinds of selfish, sad, funny and in the end, frighteningly forceful ways.
Mazursky’s film is a comic tragic portrait of marriage – and, in my mind, it exists, half of the time, with its fragmented narrative and wistful moments, in Venice – within some kind of dream or fantasy world. I’m not even sure if the final scene of the movie occurs in reality or in the fevered imagination of Blume.
As Alice watches, in one of those real but feels-like-a-dream reveries, Segal’s Blume is seen sitting in romantic Venice in the Piazza San Marco, his favorite place, where he says “Grazie” to a waiter. The Italian waiter answers back, a little curt, “You’re welcome.” Blume narrates, self-obsessed and insecure and slightly annoyed: “If I was Italian, he would have answered me in Italian.” It’s a funny, dreamy moment in Mazursky’s best film, pairing the selfishness and insecurity of Blume to Dr. Bill, who also, I believe, loves his wife, even as he’s about to possibly cheat on her. And it, of course, calls back, obliquely, to Mazursky’s early work as an actor – starring in Stanley Kubrick’s first feature film as a director, a movie Kubrick disliked, and was possibly mortified by (it’s actually an impressive, beautifully shot film, I think) – Fear and Desire.
Fear and desire indeed because as soon as his wife calls – Dr. Bill cancels the possible interlude with the prostitute and leaves. Guilt? Yes, there is that, perhaps, but also just a fear of the unknown – the unfamiliar (in more ways than one). After all, he wasn’t even sure what to ask Domino – what he preferred, sexually – and allowed himself to be entirely in her hands. What would they do? He’s not used to indulging in prostitutes, we’re guessing, and even in this transactional arrangement, he’s conceding some power, which is, well, a little demure, a little sweet? Is it? No, that’s not quite it.
But Bill is certainly an intriguing character: often smiling and laughing nervously at the women who come on to him – flattered and aroused but also, nervous. Scared. And then there’s the also the idea… maybe he wasn’t as into sex, at least just at that minute with Domino, as he thought he was? (It’s possible) Maybe sex isn’t the answer to what is bothering him right now? Though it’s often what seems to be an answer for many people when upset (I once talked to a psychiatrist who studied male depression and aggression and she told me that, frequently, when men feel powerless, they choose between two things: “Fight or fuck”). Well, Dr. Bill doesn’t fight and he doesn’t fuck. Instead, Bill, floats. Floats around the city in a semi-somnambulant state, thinking of his wife’s near infidelity in steamy black and reverie.
But leaving Domino, he doesn’t rush home. He instead stops off to see his old medical school buddy who dropped out (He says something like, “Never a doctor. Never a doctor.” Possibilities) and is now a pianist gigging in the city – Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), a guy who has a wife and kids in Seattle (the movie makes sure we know this) – a guy who gets a break from family to lead a more bohemian life. But the movie never plays him like he’s ultra-cool or enviable – there’s something kind of sad, workman-like and lonely aura about the guy. And it’s not as if he can partake in the bizarre orgy that he will tell his old friend Bill about, because who is he? He’s just the piano player. To the absurdly rich and powerful, he is, in a way, some kind of servant. As for Dr. Bill – to those same people, he’s just a doctor. And a doctor is a wealthy man’s accessory – but back to that later…
Released soon after Kubrick’s startling death in 1999 (he was 70 years old, but reportedly not in ill health), the then controversial movie has, through these last twenty years, been re-assessed as not only one of his best, or certainly one of his most interesting, but, to some, a masterpiece (this incredibly smart recent piece by Adam Nayman and Manuela Lazic in The Ringer is a wonderfully discussed, deep dive defense). At the time of Eyes Wide Shut’s release, however, there was an argument to be had if you were throwing down for this film (and there are other terrific, earlier pieces out there either lauding or lovingly defending the picture).
But some critics (some writing really beautifully and smart too – I’m not saying all of these critics were wrong, specifically, it’s their opinion, and they didn’t have the benefit of watching the movie numerous times before writing – not everyone is simply wrong), but some thought it silly, or disappointing, for not being erotic enough. Some found it laughable (like a lot of Kubrick, it is often dry and comedic, on purpose), some found it hopelessly old fashioned and moralistic, others found it (a critique I am tired of) cold and removed and un-emotional and proof that Kubrick doesn’t understand human beings. And then some thought since perfectionist Kubrick was known to edit films even after they were released – like The Shining – there was no way this was his true film and should only be viewed as unfinished, etc. and so on. Part of the latter is likely a little true – Kubrick probably would have tweaked something until the last moment – but from all that we do know, this was his cut. Maybe not the last cut, but his cut.
One thing that is evident to me, after all these years – is that Eyes Wide Shut looks and feels timeless. An oft-raised critique of the film was how New York City “did not look like New York,” since Kubrick, who famously did not travel far from home, shot the film in London (with some pickup shots peppered throughout) and so, the city didn’t feel like any city anyone really had experienced. Externally, perhaps. But internally? I think we all have. Unless we’ve never felt frustrated or jealous or had any kind of nightmare in our lives. Since the movie exists as a wide-awake dream real, the alternate universe city (bathed in the glow of Christmas lights) feels appropriate – and necessary. Curiously unpopulated, ethereal. How many dreams have you had when, recounting, you say something like “I was in Los Angeles, but it didn’t feel like Los Angeles, it felt like Portland, Oregon, but Portland, Oregon made to look like Los Angeles…”? In your dream you have one foot planted in your home, and the other …God knows where. Everyone has their own version of Oz.
An updating of Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story – co-adapted by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael), a book that has a long history with Kubrick – his widow, Christiane Kubrick, stated that she was glad he made the film when he was older because, as she said in some fashion, that he was wiser then. Eyes Wide Shut remains an unsettling alternate sexual universe haunted by past, present and future desires. And, in this universe, death exists side-by-side with lust and often is invoked by it. And of course, it feels mournful – nightmarish – that Kubrick died upon completion. Or near completion.
Eyes Wide Shut exists in a cinematic universe wherein reality, dreams, order, death and possible insanity progress on distinct, ever-intersecting planes – and we watch and feel, trying to sort this out. Life is a surreal work in progress that veers from hilarious to sexy to terrifying, sometimes within seconds. Attempting to understand order – any system, in fact, designed to make our world more rational or safe seems 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, yet with almost Zen-like concession, spits one of cinema’s greatest final lines: “Eh, what’s the difference?”
They’re all possibilities.
In this world of Eyes Wide Shut “live” two seemingly healthy, handsome people – as already discussed, Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice (Kidman), a glamorous, rich couple who appear the picture of tightly controlled perfection. But like most supposed perfection, there are cracks in that portrait.
At a big, beautiful, but eerily hollow, tomb-like Christmas party given by Bill’s obscenely wealthy friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), a party where both Bill and Alice know pretty much no one (and discuss this – Alice even asks why they are invited every year – Bill answers because he’s a doctor who gives house calls), they wander the party, off on their own. Bill is flanked by two models who come on to him, and he is aroused, asking, where are they going: “Where the rainbow ends,” they answer.
At the same time, bored Alice puts up/flirts with an absurdly forward Hungarian man, Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont) who resembles one of the better looking, but cadaverous party-goers from The Shining. He discusses marriage with her (why is she married?) and she, tipsy, goes along with his blunt attempts at seduction, likely out of amusement, but perhaps, too, thrilled to be seen again – earlier, she was a bit annoyed with Bill not paying enough attention to her before leaving for the party (“You’re not even looking at it”) – so she’s somewhat enjoying being perceived, once again, as a sexual, complex woman (however complex this man believes her to be) and not just as saintly domesticity. (Though this is a woman who, when she leaves the house, surely receives a lot of male attention.)
Not tempted, she mostly seems curious to see how much this grand Hungarian will say – one of those anthropological moments women often find themselves in when studying the male species, and what men will do in attempts to get laid:
“You know why women used to get married, don’t you?” He asks. “Why don’t you tell me” she answers, half-laughing, probably already knowing some version of his horny answer. “It was the only way they could lose their virginity and be free to do what they wanted with other men. The ones they really wanted.” He’s so elegant, but, oh, brother. No wonder Kidman laughs in fits when Bill later asks her about the man she was dancing with – he is somewhat ridiculous in his suave “sophistication”. And Kubrick knows this, as he did know it about Humbert Humbert in Lolita.
But while Alice is being seduced by a man who appears as a ghost of affairs past, or future, or a fairy tale wolf you read about in childhood stories, Bill is called away from the models to contend with Ziegler’s situation in his large bathroom upstairs. Near death. A near ghost. A long-legged naked woman, Mandy (Julienne Davis), is passed out on a chair – Ziegler is panicking. She shot up a speed ball before or during their copulation, and he’s worried she’s going to fatally OD. Well, really, he’s worried people will find out, and he’ll risk embarrassment. He doesn’t seem to care much for her. Ziegler’s attitude towards Mandy – it’s so condescending and disgusting – he’s acting all faux agreeable and avuncular after their very adult acts up there. Standing over her and talking to her like a child, he lectures: “That was one hell of a scare you gave us, Kiddo.”
At least Dr. Bill advises that she seek rehab. At least he smiles at her, reassuringly, something. (Though this is something he’s used to doing – he’s a doctor) At least he may have even saved her life. But then he possibly gets off on this. Being such a “good guy.” Earlier with the models, one of the women remembers him for being such a “gentleman,” helping her remove something from her eye. He says, flirting and boasting/joking about himself, “Well that is the kind of hero I can be.”
But this also encapsulates a truth about Dr. Bill, for he is not entirely wise, even if he’s learned.
The next evening, stoned on pot, upset by Bill’s seeming lack of interest in her curiosity as a woman, and the idea that men only are interested in fucking her, Alice challenges him on wanting to fuck the models at the party, and indeed, some of his prettier patients. She also points out what she perceives as his sexism regarding female desire:
Alice: Millions of years of evolution, right? Right? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women… women it is just about security and commitment and whatever the fuck else!
Bill: A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that.
Alice: If you men only knew…
So, when the idea comes forward that she could stray, and Bill states that he trusts her, she laughs. She laughs at him. And then comes her speech. 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 with a gorgeous naval officer she spies in a hotel on a family trip with their daughter, Helena. Alice says:
“And yet at no time was he ever out of my mind. And I thought if he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything. You, Helena, my whole fucking future. Everything! And yet it was weird, because at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever, and at that moment, my love for you was both tender and sad.”
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 – as it is throughout the picture). Feeling offended, enraged, by Bill’s description of her passive, trustworthy domesticity, she comes alive and reveals a complexity in which she can feel desire for other men and yet love her husband tenderly at the very same time. But it’s so much for him to take in, that Bill simply appears stunned, numb even.
After this confession, Bill is abruptly called away to confirm the death of a patient and keeping in tune with the love/death/sex themes of the picture, the daughter of the deceased makes a pass at him and states her love, that she would even leave her fiancée (it also confirms what Alice has previously stated – a woman could throw everything away for one man). It’s so on-the-nose, it must feel a bit like … is he dreaming? And so, the grief stricken but, considering the circumstances, kinkily arousing gesture aids in Bill’s decision to not immediately return home.
Instead, he wanders the streets of New York looking for the validation of his potency – his masculinity – 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 – perennially awake and available – sexual underworld that he’s both attracted to and repelled by. And he is constantly humiliated and tested – from the hateful young men on the street (“Hey watch it, faggot! Merry Christmas, Mary!” they yell at him, “Come on Macho Man!” they keep going), to the later treatment at the orgy which I keep bringing up, to the thoughts of Alice fucking that handsome naval officer. That specter of the ever-potent man.
Some of the best filmmakers tackled the tightly wound ballet of death and desire. Hitchcock did it brilliantly with the hermetic Vertigo and Bunuel with his masterpiece El. These narratives question both the very masculinity of their protagonists and the mystery and power they contemplate in their female objects of desire. Both Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon share a funereal march, an inexorable rhythm – both of them have male stars, regarded as empowered and popular, beautiful and boyish, lost in the turbulence of circumstance and the pursuit of satisfaction. And over both, the specter of death hovers.
“It was in the reign of King George III that the above personages lived and quarreled, good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now…”
So, a grieving woman, a prostitute, a piano player, a bizarre costume-store owner and his Lolita-esque daughter lead Bill to the film’s infamous ritualistic orgy sequence, during which participants are cloaked and masked, and naked women are used as, what appears to be, sacrificial sex lambs. The point 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 (just pretend those covered up sex parts didn’t happen) compel us to look, no matter what happens, and, Bill is looking, like the sex tourist he is. If ever a person was out of place in a Bohemian Grove-like orgy, it is Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill. What the hell is going on here besides a bunch of rich men getting their jollies with beautifully breasted, long legged look-alike Helmut Newton models? (Women’s bodies – from the orgy participants to Kidman’s are observed throughout this movie – as ideal forms, yes, and then also as slumped in chairs, or in Kidman’s case, on the toilet – they are real, live people after all. Both Julienne Davis and Kidman imbue those small moments with humanness).
And as we watch – questions abound: Why is Bill being called out by the red-cloaked one? Why does the woman warn him that he’s in danger? Why does she worry for him so much, that she sacrifices herself for him? If that is, indeed, what really happened. In true dreamlike fashion, when Bill is called up to state the password (“Fidelio” – perfect choice: Beethoven’s only opera and one concerned with marital faithfulness) and then can’t provide the second password (there isn’t one), he is asked to not only remove his mask, but to strip off his clothes. To be naked and afraid in front of strangers is a common dream. And it also doubles and evokes the good doctor’s power to ask his patients to remove their clothes and stand before him.
Further, it will echo the dream Alice wakes up from when he returns home from the orgy. “Oh, I was having such a horrible dream,” she says, disturbed and confused. But she doesn’t, at first, appear to be going through such horror. When Bill sits on the bed next to her after his own crazy fantasia of a night – she is laughing. She is laughing in her sleep to something quite delightful or something quite terrible or something delightfully terrible. But Alice wakes up. And there is no delight in the dream she tells her husband. He asks what she dreamt about – and she worriedly demurs at first, but then tells him – and tells him, again, humiliating him. She was fucking so many men in this dream… so many men… Bill is offered no comfort. Now, he must solve a possible crime and unwrap the riddle of the orgy? Why must he solve anything?
Back to that orgy: I find it curious how some critics had read the orgy scene as terrible. So not sexy, some complained. Ridiculous! They opined. Well, I don’t think it’s supposed to be sexy (and it is kind of ridiculous). It’s an orgy for the benefit of men and the benefit of men only – most of them assuredly powerful but almost infallibly old – you do not get a sense that these women are the ones who signed up, excitedly, for some swinger’s night to get their rocks off. They’re being paid, hired – like the pianist, like the house call doctor. Accessories too. Curious things to play with and discard. Sure, that can be sexy to some, but that is not how this party is presented. It’s mechanical and soulless and creepy and weirdly hilarious at the same time. It’s curiously not sexist when viewed as an act of male power, not sex. No wonder some of these women need to get high before participating. No joy.
So, is Bill even turned on? We can’t tell and we shouldn’t be able to tell, with that mask on. When the masked woman warns Dr. Bill of danger, one could read that as a woman who sees a compassionate man through the mask (the “gentleman” he is referred to earlier by the model), or as a shattering of his own masculine dream of being the compassionate savior. She’s going to save him. He’s learning a lot this night, about how women really can take control of a situation. And how badly men treat them for doing so. And so, in searching for the dead woman, is he trying to afford her the respect she deserves? But does he when he sees her body, laid out on the slab, his face near hers, nearly kissing her head? I am not sure…
I’m not perfectly certain about much of Eyes Wide Shut – what it all means – and that is how I prefer this masterpiece. It’s not a movie that ties events up in a neat little bow. It presents a waking dream/nightmare – one of the normality of marriage and boredom and temptation leading to transgressions never fulfilled, sex becoming so sad and weird and slaughtered (again, that poor woman on the slab); and then, those lovely-creepy Christmas-lit houses and shops and clubs that, like Christmas, twinkle with excitement, but what happens after the bang of Christmas? Often depression. Eyes Wide Shut uses Christmas lights, trees and traditional Christmas colors with almost perverse relentlessness – it’s gorgeous, but it also can produce insanity-inducing yuletide anxiety. Fear.
Sex and death are near and the pall that hangs over this picture is fear: fear of betrayal, fear of yourself, fear of humiliation, fear of the unknown and the fear of knowing yourself. Do you want to know yourself? Do you want to be unmasked? But it’s also about being drawn towards that fear, towards that excitement, towards discovering what’s at the end of the rainbow. Perhaps it is death. Or, in a more positive reading, it’s a better understanding of your marriage.
One of the reasons Eyes Wide Shut is so complex and rich upon each viewing is – the idea of possibly cheating on your spouse (which seems like an easy plot point for a movie, but, here, isn’t) – brings up emotions that are as hard to navigate, mentally, as that topiary maze in The Shining. Bill may think he wants to stray, to experience a world he rarely visits because, as the model reminds him, he probably works too hard (and doctors do), but then… what is he seeking? Really? Beyond mended pride and masculinity and the fleeting pleasure of getting laid?
“Bill, do you have any idea how much trouble you got yourself into last night just by going over there? Who do you think those people were? Those were not just some ordinary people. If I told you their names… no, I’m not going to tell you their names… but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well at night.”
Bill returns home. He then sees something that terrifies him, and I think, breaks his heart a little. The orgy mask he wore – the one he thought he had lost. It’s resting there, facing him on the pillow next to Alice’s sleeping head. He breaks down crying. I’ve read that some view this moment as comical – “I’ll tell you everything!” Bill cries. But I find it immensely moving and Cruise delivers it beautifully. Bill breaks, and after all of these titillating/stressful adventures, he returns to what he hopes is the love of his wife. And he does tell her all. Or, rather, we think he tells her all of it. He clearly tells her something that makes an emotional impression.
Alice: The important thing is: we’re awake now. And hopefully… for a long time to come.”
Alice: Forever? Hum…
Alice: Let’s not use that word. You know? It frightens me. But I do love you. And, you know, there’s something very important that we need to do as soon as possible.
Bill: What’s that?
Bill seems a bit taken aback by that response over forever. Forever scares her? What does she seek beyond and apart from him and their lives together? Would she like to live another dream? Maybe she would and that’s perfectly her own dream or decision later on down the line.
Kubrick’s brilliant coda neither answers nor ignores these questions. Rather, it leaves us in a mysterious, contradictory mishmash of dream and reality, where not only can our eyes be wide shut, but our legs can too. Unless, they do as Alice asks, something important, “as soon as possible.” The film’s final line – fuck. We hope they do. And we hope, unlike Sterling Hayden’s money on the tarmac statement, it actually does make a difference.