Opinion is sharply divided on the merits of Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, but then you could say that of most of his films. What’s surprising is that so many people seem to believe that it’s a movie about sex. To me it seem to be a movie about reality and dream. Nothing in the movie looks real. It’s supposed to be set in contemporary New York but it doesn’t look like New York or any other city in the real world. It also doesn’t look like 1999. This is absolutely deliberate. It’s as if the two main characters, Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), have strayed into the ball room of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, and are now in a kind of temporal limbo. At the beginning of the movie they are attending a party, a party which could just as easily be taking place in the 1920s as the 1990s. A man attempts to seduce Alice, a man who looks and behaves like he’s wandered into the movie from an old black-and-white Hollywood film of the 40s. The street scenes look like they were shot on a sound stage, and everything moves impossibly slowly for New York in the 90s. Everything moves at the pace of a dream. Interiors are shot in typically Kubrickian fashion, with such an obsessive eye for detail and with such perfectionism that they seem hyper-real rather than real. We notice the details, in the way that we would in a dream and in the way that we would not notice them in real life.
Alice and Bill have been married for nine years. After attending a party at which they both spent a good deal of time flirting with other people Alice tells Bill about an affair she almost had. They’d been on holiday, and she saw this man in a hotel, became obsessed by him, and couldn’t stop thinking about having sex with him. Bill (a doctor) is then called away to the home of one of his patients who has just died. The deceased patient’s daughter tries to seduce him, but the whole scene has a bizarre dreamlike quality to it. Bill already appears like a man in a nightmare, unable to affect events, compelled to watch obsessively as increasingly odd things start to happen. He picks up a hooker, but seems unable to bring himself to have sex with her. He goes to a bar, and has a few drinks with an old friend from medical school who is now a pianist. The friend tells him about a mysterious gathering at which he regularly plays the piano, a gathering that meets at various locations, and he reluctantly gives Bill the password to gain admittance. Bill then finds himself at a palatial country house that looks like it belongs in an old gothic horror movie rather than in present-day Manhattan. The gathering is a kind of combination orgy and black mass, with everyone wearing masks. All kinds of sexual activities are on offer, but again Bill behaves in an oddly detached manner, as if he was being compelled to be a spectator rather than being allowed to be a participant. Events take a sinister turn when he is unmasked as an intruder. The movie now starts to resemble a horror thriller, with what may be a gigantic conspiracy involving powerful people, and possible murders, and vague threats. When he hired his costume for the orgy he witnessed an odd scene at the costume hire shop; when he returns the costume the following day he witnesses another scene that casts doubt on what he saw the previous night. The key point seems to be that both Alice and Bill have a little sexual adventure. Alice’s adventure takes place in a dream that seems real; Bill’s takes place in a reality that seems like a dream. Is there a difference? Which is real? Is any of it real? There are mirrors and masks everywhere, and in the most intimate scene that takes place between Alice and Bill she is looking not at him, but at herself in a mirror. Is she watching herself watching herself? Or is she watching us watching her?
Kidman is good, but the surprise is Cruise. He’s perfect. Totally detached, distant, uninvolved, trapped and rendered impotent by his inability to distinguish what is real. Kubrick has a reputation for being obsessed by the idea of dehumanisation, but it’s important to
realise that the movie is not (as many people seem to think) claiming that casual sex dehumanises people. The anonymous and weirdly uninvolved sex in the movie is a symptom rather than a cause of dehumanisation. I don’t think it’s an anti-erotic film, and I don’t think it’s anything as dreary or uninteresting as a propaganda piece for monogamy, as some have interpreted it. It’s a movie that obviously needs to be watched more than once, a movie that is as complex and enigmatic as anything in Kubrick’s career. Ideally I think you should watch The Shining first, then watch this one. They seem to be to be very closely linked in mood and in theme. Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s final masterpiece, and a masterpiece it is.