Monday, 25 July 2022

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut was Stanley Kubrick’s final film. It marked something of a departure for him, but then every single movie that Kubrick made marked a departure from his previous work.

It was a controversial movie at the time, and remains somewhat controversial today. Partly it was the sexual content which caused the film to run into major censorship headaches. Mostly though the controversy centres on questions such as what kind of movie was Kubrick trying to make, how seriously did he intend it to be taken, how seriously we should take the conspiracy theory angles. There were also many who thought Tom Cruise was the wrong actor for the movie and those people generally hated his performance. Most of all there’s controversy over whether Eyes Wie Shut works or not.

As with all Kubrick’s movies there’s also the aspect ratio question. Kubrick usually filmed in open matte. There are those who believe he intended his movies to be viewed in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. In practice they were often screened in matted versions at 1.85:1. My old DVD copy presented the movie in 1.33:1. My new Blu-Ray copy presents it in 1.85:1.

Dr William Harford (Tom Cruise) is a successful medical practitioner. He is happily married to Alice (Nicole Kidman). They go to a party, they both have a few drinks. Dr Harford (his friends call him Bill) gets into some heavy flirting with a couple of gorgeous models. Alice gets into heavy flirting with a smooth continental charmer. They get into a discussion about it the next day. Bill thinks it was so innocent that it’s not worth talking about. He has never been unfaithful to Alice and had no intention of having sex with the models. He knows that there was no way Alice was going to go to bed with her continental charmer. He trusts himself absolutely and he trusts Alice absolutely.

Then Alice drops a bit of a bombshell. She tells him about an incident about a year earlier.

Alice had not only thought about having an affair with a young officer, she had really wanted to so. She was so hot for this guy that she’d have risked everything for one night in the sack with him. And, worst of all, the next time she and Bill made love she was fantasising that it was the officer making love to her.

Bill is stunned. Of course Alice didn’t actually do anything. She wasn’t unfaithful. In the normal course of events he’d brood about it for a couple of days and then get over it. But fate intervenes. He is about to have a very unusual night.

He gets a call. He has to go to the house of a patient who has just died (the death had been expected for some time). He has to show his respects, and offer what comfort he can to the deceased patient’s daughter. The daughter then throws herself at him, declaring her undying love for him. Of course she’s just in shock, but Bill has already had a disturbing evening and this disturbs him still more.

After leaving the patient’s house he encounters a streetwalker. Bill has never done such a thing in his life but on this night he decides he really wants to have sex with this prostitute. And she’s quite pretty, very friendly and really a rather nice girl. Just what Bill needs. Just as he’s about to jump into bed with her his phone rings. It’s Alice. He can’t go through with it with the girl, but he pays her anyway.

The night gets stranger. He goes into a club where an old friend named Nick, now a musician, is playing. Nick tells Bill that he has another gig to go to. It’s a regular gig but a strange one. The location is different every time, he’s only told the location an hour beforehand and you need a password. Bill has overheard the password and he is determined to investigate this mysterious event.

What he witnesses is a kind of ritual followed by an orgy.

This movie attracts conspiracy theories the way honey attracts bees. Bill appears to have stumbled upon a sex club for the rich and powerful. Intriguingly we get just a few hints about the real nature of the secret society involved and of course those hints might be deliberately misleading and it might just be Bill’s fever dream. You could spend several years trying to puzzle out and debate the conspiracy theories that have grown up about this spect of the film.

While the movies does contain mystery and thriller elements and there are some suspense scenes the real focus is the Harfords’ marriage. It’s a good marriage but they’re both oddly dissatisfied.

One of the interesting things about Eyes Wide Shut is the tameness of the sexual fantasies. It’s not just that the famous orgy scene isn’t very shocking or kinky. Both Bill and Alice like to fantasise about themselves as sexual outlaws but they lack imagination. The best Bill can come up with on his own is the idea of having sex with a prostitute. Alice can only manage to fantasise about having sex with a handsome naval officer. They’re the kinds of sexual fantasies that would have seemed shocking to bourgeois Vienna in 1900 and of course the movie is based on a novel written in 1925 and set in Vienna in 1900. Maybe the point Kubrick was trying to make is that Bill and Alice are not cut out to be sexual outlaws, even in fantasy. They were cut out for married monogamy.

I’m sure that I’m not revealing anything startling by referring to the interpretation of the film that states that all or most of the events are in fact dreams. And they’re the sorts of sexual dreams that Bill and Alice would have. Any genuine sexual sinister secret society would undoubtedly get up to much kinkier things than we see in the orgy scene. But if Bill is dreaming this scene he simply cannot imagine anything really shocking. To the viewer the orgy is incredibly tame but to Bill it’s the height of depravity.

To both Bill and Alice any sex at all outside of marriage is deeply shocking. When Alice has a dream about having sex with other men, men other than her husband, she is devastated and cries. To her such a thing is just horrifyingly wicked. She feels guilty about even flirting with other men.

In his nocturnal adventure (whether it’s real or a dream) Bill has lots of opportunities for illicit sex. Gorgeous women are falling over themselves to have sex with him. But he does not have a single actual sexual encounter. In the entire movie the only woman he has sex with is his wife. It seems certain that he not been unfaithful to Alice even once in his nine years of marriage. The only man Alice actually has sex with is Bill. It seems equally certain that she has never been unfaithful to him.

You can’t help thinking that Bill and Alice would be a whole lot happier if they bought themselves a few kink and fetish magazines and tried out some of the things in those magazines. It might rekindle the sexual blaze of their early married life. Being faithful is extremely admirable but perhaps they take it too far. Perhaps all their problems boil down to the fact that their sex life has become too routine.

The key scene is the one in which Alice tells Bill about almost being unfaithful to him. In 1998 convincing us that Bill had never even considered the possibility that his wife might have sexual thoughts about other men was a tough sell. If that scene doesn’t convince us then the rest of the movie makes no sense. It is the key to everything that follows. Tom Cruise manages to sell it. He really does convince us that this is a total bolt from the blue which has shaken the very foundations of his being. I doubt if any other actor could have pulled it off since it relies so much on Cruise being able to use his established screen persona. That screen persona makes us believe that his self-confidence really is so sky high that he doesn’t think Alice is capable of even thinking about betraying him, and it makes it believable that once that one illusion is shattered his whole psychological world would collapse. That scene is more than enough to justify Kubrick’s decision to cast Cruise.

Nicole Kidman is terrifyingly intense at times. Her performance works.

Eyes Wide Shut is an odd, perplexing, exasperating, bewildering movie that doesn’t entirely come off but it’s totally fascinating all the same. It’s one of those movies you change your mind about every time you see it. You find yourself thinking that particular scenes are total misfires but next time you watch it you think those same scenes are absolutely perfect. Eyes Wide Shut is highly recommended.

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