Published on February 18th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Eyes Wide Shut 
Summary: Stanley Kubrick's final film is as haunting and striking as anything in his canon, with ballsy lead performances from Cruise and Kidman. This is the work of an intense perfectionist who's finally let loose the reigns a bit, making a film that feels loose but in reality, every narrative piece is essential. The infamous orgy scene is one of the best sequences in cinema history.
R | 159 min.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick & Frederic Raphael (based on Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Traumnovelle)
Distribution: Warner Bros.
U.S. Box Office: $55,691,208 (#42 of 1999)
In cinema history, few — if any — directors left their fingerprint on the frame like Stanley Kubrick. It’s why I feel he’s the perfect auteur to start with for people who want to take their movie watching to the next level by familiarizing themselves with certain directors and their styles. A Kubrick movie is as instantly identifiable as a Miles Davis trumpet solo; you only need a few seconds and there’s no question the artist who’s responsible.
Skip to virtually any random scene from 1980’s The Shining, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket (especially the first half) or most unmistakably, 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, and you know you’re watching a Kubrick picture. Symmetrical composition, psychologically-shaken characters staring menacingly into camera, one-point perspective and a musical score that chills. You’re often looking at an image that is beautifully formed yet gives you a feeling that something sinister is in the details. You’re always a little uneasy when you watch a Kubrick picture.
The director’s final film — and his only of the 1990s — is signature Kubrick in every way but nothing about it feels passé. In fact, Eyes Wide Shut offers a fresh take on the erotic thriller, a genre that hadn’t really been done with this level of finesse since 1992’s Basic Instinct. It’s the kind of piece every artist wishes they could leave behind before their death.
Eyes Wide Shut is a masterpiece.
This film follows Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) as each tests the bond of their relationship through manipulation and isolation over the course of a couple long days before Christmas. The couple runs in a circle of New York elites that includes Bill’s wealthy patient Victor (Sydney Pollack) — a character who provides several of the best scenes in the movie. Cruise’s Bill is the main character of Eyes Wide Shut but really doesn’t move the plot along himself, instead this film has an episodic quality that sees Bill pushed from one potentially dangerous situation to the next, often benefiting from the kindness of strangers.
The world of Eyes Wide Shut is one of seedy sex. Lust is palpable — sometimes comically, such as a slimy Casanova who unashamedly hits on Alice in an early scene — in nearly every scene of the film. Interestingly though, for a film that is so infamously packed with fornication, we don’t see either of its main characters having any real (read: unimagined) sex during nearly 3 hours of runtime. Bill touches a lot of naked women and witnesses a lot of hedonistic screwing and Alice has dreams of passionate sex with many partners, but neither get any real action during the movie’s timeline.
Kubrick, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frederic Raphael (Oscar-winning writer of 1965’s Darling), wants the audience to see Bill & Alice as a couple still devoted to their marriage but one that might be too comfortable after nine years of matrimony. We see good and bad aspects of the Harfords’ union — while both genuinely love their daughter and trust each other enough to split up at massive parties, they may also take each other for granted. Alice gets off on pushing her husband to the edge in one of the most memorable scenes of Eyes Wide Shut, as she picks a fight with him after the pair have smoked a joint in bed.
“Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women… it is just about security and commitment and whatever the fuck else?,” Alice asks Bill, incredulously.
“A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that,” Bill replies.
“If you men only knew…”
This scene is evidence of Kubrick’s tireless directing efforts and his legendary pursuit of the perfect take. It starts as a friendly, playful moment in bed between two lovers before building naturally into a long, intense argument that will ignite the rest of the film’s plot. Alice is sinister as she wages a war on Bill’s psyche, telling him the kind of story that would make steam erupt from any husband’s ears. At one point in the conversation, her goal becomes to incite jealousy inside him — which she successfully does, truly setting the film into action.
Both Cruise and Kidman play this scene perfectly and cinematographer Larry Smith shoots it brilliantly, bathing Kidman in blue light as she stands in the doorway of the master bathroom and juxtaposing that cool, controlled hue with a blood-red background that fills the closeup reaction shots we get of Cruise, whose eyes seem to be boring holes into her flesh. This particular scene is Kidman’s best of the film — and possibly my favorite of her long career. In it, she’s got manic energy but maintains calculated control over the entire scene. Alice knows exactly what she’s doing and her husband underestimates her maliciousness to his own dismay.
Something that makes Eyes Wide Shut both a compelling and slightly uncomfortable watch is the real-life marriage of Cruise and Kidman, which would end in divorce less than two years after the movie’s premiere. Watching a couple who had parented children and by this point had spent about a decade together, makes confrontational scenes more personal than between onscreen couples who are strictly professional. The scenes of intimacy between the couple are less fiery than similar scenes they shared in 1990’s Days of Thunder, released the year they were married; instead, in Eyes Wide Shut, there is an air of familiarity between them as Kidman is nude, being kissed and caressed by her husband in one early scene. The making of this film undoubtedly forced the couple to examine real issues in their own marriage — as they spent three years producing it with Kubrick — and leaves the audience to wonder if the story’s hard looks at jealousy and trust issues had any affect on their offscreen union.
Despite what you might have heard about this movie, Eyes Wide Shut is not about sex. A more accurate description of its themes would be to say it’s about the ravaging effect sex can have on a person’s mind. We follow Cruise’s character Bill on a series of evenings which can only be described as a long, strange trip. He’s more naive than the worldly men we’ve typically seen Cruise play in his career, but does exude the confidence we’re used to despite being shoved around and publicly embarrassed on a couple of occasions in the film.
If I were to compare Bill Harford to another Kubrick character, it would be Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. Like Humbert, Bill is blinded by lust, often unaware of the dangerous situations into which his desires are leading him. This represents a calmer performance for Cruise, who avoids using his go-to acting move of sudden violent eruptions. Bill is a likable guy and I’d call him a good husband who lets his repressed jealousy get the best of him.
The piéce de résistance of this film comes about halfway through as Bill, desperate for some risky excitement, gains access to a secret orgy being held in a countryside mansion. This roughly 22-minute progression is a magnum opus and I’d put it alongside any single sequence of Kubrick — or any director’s — best work. The orgy scene is the most talked-about and infamous section of Eyes Wide Shut, and for good reason. The more I watch this sequence, the more I fall under its trance. In sight and sound, the sequence represents a perfect vision that will excite, entice and frighten you in equal parts, while turning the audience — and Bill — into voyeurs. You know you shouldn’t be there and that only adds to the allure.
The orgy scene’s imagery is striking, highlighted by sparse costumes that consist of dark cloaks and Venetian masks that serve to keep the partygoers anonymous and also to give the gathering an Illuminati-esque quality. I’ll never understand how costume designer Marit Allen wasn’t nominated for any mainstream awards. In total, Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award and only its musical score got a Golden Globe award nod. That soundtrack, which includes pieces from composer Jocelyn Pook, sets the haunting tone that pervades nearly every scene of Eyes Wide Shut. Its music is a final example of Kubrick’s gift for selecting music that wasn’t written for a movie but matches the frames as if it were, a talent he used brilliantly in A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mysterious atmosphere Kubrick creates in this film is consistent from start to finish.
While Eyes Wide Shut largely consists of personal, one-on-one conversations between its characters, I’d call this movie an example of filmmaking on a grand scale. Kubrick uses light, sound, set decoration, music and acting to craft one of the most arresting pictures of the 1990s. It represents a fitting but sad finish to one of the most outstanding careers in cinema history. I’m glad the director was at least able to see a final cut of the film less than a week before his death. Conflicting accounts have described Kubrick’s thoughts on the film: some saying he was disappointed with it and others saying he felt it was his best work.
If you ask me, he left us a perfect swan song.