Much has been written about Eyes Wide Shut since the film’s release in July 1999. The film has polarized critics, fans, film buffs, really everyone who has ever watched the film in its entirety (as it probably should). More than the other works of Stanley Kubrick, which have led to their own debates, Eyes Wide Shut has perhaps created so much diversity of opinion because on top of the film's cryptic narrative, Kubrick's passing before the film's release meant there would never be any interviews in which he could explain, or at least hint at, the meaning of his film.
But on the surface, as all Kubrick films are cryptic puzzles, just waiting for us to explore.
After re-watching Eyes Wide Shut, and reading some material on it, I’m certain on its place as Kubrick’s most daring films in terms of its cinematic elements Unlike Kubrick’s other films, which deal with science fiction, war, or horror, Eyes Wide Shut comforts itself right in the middle of a very human theme: infidelity. But Kubrick makes it about more, specifically the metaphysics of infidelity (bear with me here). Like all of Kubrick’s works, he centers us in this theme through a distancing of the characters, where we are attuned to, but never involved emotionally, in the central relationship. However, the relationship is crucial to the story—we need to believe in the relationship of Bill and Alice (played by then married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) in order to take a ride on this story.
This is not new territory for Kubrick—the attack on Kubrick for lacking sympathy toward his characters has been happening since his earliest films. Jonathan Rossenbaum, in his excellent text Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, writes on Eyes Wide Shut and Kubrick’s work as a whole. He defends, “They’re full of emotions, though most of them are so convoluted and elusive that you have to follow them as if through a maze…He so strongly resists sentimentality that cynicism and derision often seem close at hand” (264-265). Rossenbaum is correct—the only reason we follow Bill’s journey into the night is because we feel that Alice has wronged him, even if it was just telling him a story. Most of Kubrick’s films are about characters driven by emotions, and often the most primal: Lust in A Clockwork Orange, kealousy in Full Metal Jacket, and here, Bill is driven by revenge. The emotions Kubrick pulls with are not as happy-go-lucky as those that his contemporaries could often bring (and a good reason why he turned over A.I. to Steven Spielberg, who bring the sentimentality needed to make the film's metatextual climax even more chilling).
On the side of the narrative though, Eyes Wide Shut pulls us into its world through its narrative structure, which heads in and out through the rabbit's hole. . As I mentioned before, the film’s theme is metaphysical infidelity, and can be boiled down into one essential question—who has cheated worse, Bill or Alice?
“But neither has cheated, and Alice did not even leave the home!” you may protest. The film begins at the party, with both Bill and Alice flirts with members of the opposite sex: Bill with the two women, and Alice with the Hungarian. Both are propositioned, but both turn it down, turning to each other at the end of the night. However, when Bill confronts her while the two are high, Alice begins her story about the sailor. One of the simple visual tricks that Kubrick does here is to separate the two actors, never using them in the same frame. In earlier sequences, we often see them together within the frame—close, standing side by side. During Alice’s monologue, she literally pulls away from Bill.
This is where the fun begins. Alice’s infidelity is based on a thought she had, and one she did not act on. However, as Kubrick brings the camera closer and closer into Bill, the anger on his face slowly registers (very slowly). As the next night continues, and Bill comes closer and closer to his own infidelity, Kubrick intensifies Bill’s vision of Alice and the sailor. He makes it worse in his own mind in order to justify his own actions.
In similar way, we have to track Bill’s own adventures as a series of more intensified infidelities, even if he rejects them. We start with the widow who wants to cheat on her boyfriend, the prostitute looking for a customer, the daughter of the costume shop owner who hints at a chance at pedophilia, and of course, the secret society that uses sex as a religious catharsis. Much has been tackled about the last of those stops, but it is not possible without seeing each one that precedes it as trying to “top” the situation. Bill needs to assert himself by taking revenge—his manhood is literally put at stake, and the small scene in which the street kids call him a fagot only reinforces the possibilities.
If Bill fails physically, he does not fail metaphysically. Eyes Wide Shut is all about the thought of doing something, and because the film has us identify with Bill, our thoughts are no less different than his, meaning anything we consider, he certainly considers. So he does commit metaphysical infidelity through the thoughts of the audience. This is Kubrick at his most complex, using the audience as a surrogate for his character. Bill’s own infidelity rest on our shoulders to have thought that he should have sex with one or all of these women, even just for a moment (this is of course is created by the shots and editing that Kubrick so slyly creates).
There is the side of the reality to Bill’s adventure, which is, even if he see some quite strange stuff, quite tame compared to the dreams of Alice, especially her second dream, in which she has sex with multiple men while Bill watches. Alice’s dream is that most vile infidelity one could imagine, but again, it is only a dream. Bill has created a reality for himself, which is what the second half of the film is about—dealing with the physical repercussions of his attempts at infidelity. Even when he has not actually done anything, Bill is forced to see the actions of what little he has done, or could have done.
The irony of it all is in the title Eyes Wide Shut. It’s a contradiction. So is the metaphysical aspects of physical lust. Yet Kubrick’s final film has taken on the bold subject, and brought it together in a strange and mysterious way. I have just started to crack open the themes on this film, and there is so much more that I have to understand (to be honest, the entire religious sexual cult is a mystery to me, but I am fascinated by it every time, not for the frank sex, but for the production design and how specific it looks, making me feel that each piece has a specific meaning). We don’t know if there was more to what the film could have been, that may have made it more accepted by those who despise the film. Again, Rossenbaum: “Kubrick recut both 2001 and The Shining after they opened commercially…Undoubtedly, he would have made a few slight adjustments in Eyes Wide Shut had he lived longer” (269-270).
However, I think Kubrick went out on a film that for him was in a way one that he would have been most proud of, because of the debate. The director’s films are impenetrable by nature, forcing us to dive deep into our own conscious and consider our own morals to understand his view. The film’s eerie lighting throughout feels like a Lynchian nightmare, and which everything is either a little to bright or a little too dark. Kubrick refused to see the world in a straightforward manner—and when the lights finally going off, whether in space, the battlefield, or as in Eyes Wide Shut, the bedroom, that’s when our true emotions are revealed.
A good deal of research for this essay is in debt to the amazing website “Film Studies for Free,” which provided me with not only a copy of the original script but four highly critical examinations of the film, which I read in preparation for writing this. Here are links to the essays here:
Ingram, Susan “Schnitzler as a Space of Central European Cultural Identity: David Hare’s The Blue Room and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut”