Bill and Alice Harford live in a beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side. He’s a successful physician. She stays at home and takes care of their daughter.
They’re a young couple, and they’re played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a real-life (at the time), wealthy, privileged couple.
At a holiday thrown by rich hosts, Bill is seen flirting with two younger women. Later, Alice asks if he slept with them.
Bill shrugs it off, telling Alice he loves her.
She reminds him that love has nothing to do with it.
Bill promises he’s been faithful, and then he tells Alice, apropos of nothing in particular, that women are inherently more faithful than men.
Alice laughs, high on marijuana, and tells Bill that, recently, she almost cheated on him with a seaman in Massachusetts.
Bill, overcome with jealousy and pride, grabs his coat and wanders the streets in search of sexual gratification.
Eyes Wide Shut is Stanley Kubrick’s final film. He completed the final cut five days before his death in 1999, and the film was met with a lukewarm reception upon its release. In fact, the film was more famous for its record-breaking production length and elaborately-built sets than its quality as a film. Real-life husband and wife (and really, really famous humans) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman had been rumored as separated around the release of the film, and the bad press killed any chances of Eyes Wide Shut getting a fair trial on the year of its release.
In the decade since, the movie has achieved cult status, with some (including myself) hailing it as Kubrick’s masterpiece. But why? Some people (again, including myself) love to be contrarian, but there’s also a strange spell Eyes Wide Shut can put you under, if you let it. There’s a genius to it. You just have to look.
On the surface, Eyes Wide Shut is a simple morality tale. A man hits the streets looking for sexual gratification outside his marriage. Bad things happen, he learns his lesson, and his wife takes him back.
It’s as conservative as any romantic comedy, and, on the surface, about as complex.
But then why did principle photography go on for over six hundred days? Why did Stanley Kubrick build an enormous, and enormously expensive, Manhattan set in the middle of London? Why are the ads (that Kubrick himself edited together) more akin to cheap porn than moral centeredness?
There’s more going on. At the same time, it’s exactly as it is.
Kubrick believed that films are living. The advertising, the film, and the conversation afterward are all part of the film as a whole. Watch that trailer, and you see that Kubrick is selling you an experience that you aren’t going to have. Despite the nudity and the subject matter, Eyes Wide Shut is one of the least sexy movies ever made. In fact, the entire film is about a man who can’t seem to get laid. No matter how hard he tries. No matter how handsome he is. Circumstance prevents him from cheating on his wife.
But look at that trailer, and it appears that we’ll see all kinds of action. Kubrick is deliberately making us feel like Bill. We expect sex the entire movie, and yet we never get it. He’s starting the film before we even see it.
Eyes Wide Shut is about fidelity and jealousy. It’s about the masks we wear and the secrets we keep. So it makes sense that the climax is at a masquerade party. And it makes sense that the password to get inside sounds a lot like the word “fidelity.” (It’s also the title of Beethoven’s opera of revenge and redemption)
But did you notice that the film has two party scenes, and that those two scenes are mirrors? In the first party, everybody has a secret that they’re trying to keep, and they’re held back by their inhibitions. On the walls, each portrait is of a person wearing a mask.
In the second party, the portraits reveal full faces, but nobody’s actual face can be seen. In the second party, everybody’s secrets are out in the open, but their identities and their social obligations are hidden under mask and cloak.
There’s speculation that everybody in the first party can be seen in the second party, including both Bill and Alice.
With that in mind, watch both party scenes again. Watch closely. Watch the similarities. Watch the differences.
Bill is a stranger at this party, as Alice was a stranger in the previous party. He has a chance encounter with a stranger that ultimately stands as a tease for sexual intimacy.
Bill and Alice are both looking for intimacy in the wrong places. It’s Christmas time, but there’s no mention of extended family. In fact, every discussion concerning Christmas revolves around gifts for their daughter. She’s the only thread keeping them in that apartment together, even though they are both desperately trying to find a connection.
Their eyes are closed.
Kubrick’s films often take place in a heightened reality. Not quite a dream state, but definitely a world physically affected by the emotions inside of it.
Many accuse Kubrick’s filmography of being too cold, but this is only half right. It’s true that he asked his actors to tone down their emotions, but that’s because he framed his shots and built his sets to match the emotional stakes and experiences of his characters.
Eyes Wide Shut, about a man who has a grotesque rage over his wife’s almost infidelity, takes place in a New York that doesn’t exist. The sets were built in Britain. The New York streets are too small. The sidewalks are too empty. The streets are narrow, claustrophobic, labyrinthine. None of these streets exist in the real world. None of these odd specialty shops, selling cloaks and elaborate masks, really exist.
But Bill finds them. Nestled somewhere in the Kubrickian Other, a place reserved for understated emotional chaos. A place reserved for the lost.
Kubrick shot his films (the latter half, anyway) with a steadicam that sometimes spent minutes at a time in the still position, before moving slowly and deliberately with a full-frame, wide angle lens. The depth-of-field is full and almost fish-eyed by the framing. When the steadicam moves, we feel like Dave Bowman zooming through the infinite.
It’s not real life, but it’s not exactly false. It’s a waking dream. It’s a nightmare.
The Kubrickian Other is responsible for the Overlook Hotel’s inherent creepiness. For Vietnam’s claustrophobic terror. For Eyes Wide Shut‘s nightmare of Manhattan, where none of the streets look familiar.
All of these people are in a transitionary state, and Kubrick never handled it better than he did with Eyes Wide Shut, where even the pastel photography makes real life feel false. Where the staccato piano sounds like an irregular heartbeat waiting to switch off.
Eyes Wide Shut is a film of contradictions, where the masquerade orgy is more chaste than the dignified Christmas party, where Tom Cruise is perpetually unlucky, and where masks represent honesty. It’s a film about the contradictions of fidelity. Of how we have to contradict ourselves to remain faithful. And it’s not only the best use of the Kubrickian Other, it’s also Stanley Kubrick’s best film.