Eyes Wide Shut
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159 min.
Release Date
Eyes Wide Shut

Save for his earliest projects through Spartacus, a Stanley Kubrick film has never struck audiences or critics with its full dimension, at least not instantly. Every film from Lolita to Full Metal Jacket was misunderstood upon its initial release, whereas after a decade or so of pondering and consideration, the films were later declared masterful and placed among the most celebrated examples of cinematic art. Eyes Wide Shut remains the final exception from Kubrick’s body of work and, with more than ten years since the filmmaker’s posthumously released last film (he died in March of 1999, just a few months before the film’s theatrical release), it’s due time that even devoted Kubrick followers, who initially considered it a disappointment or dreary finale to a monumental career, begin to reassess what proves to be the director’s most emotionally confronting picture.

In the period between 1997, when Warner Bros. announced production would finally get underway on a new Kubrick film (his first since Full Metal Jacket in 1987), through pre-production and filming, and after his death until the film’s debut, the project was subject to unreasonable scrutiny. Kubrick’s reclusiveness and demand for secrecy during production escalated public curiosity, resulting in wild plot speculation and exaggerated stories in place of hard facts. Rumors that the film’s stars, then husband-and-wife duo Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, were finding Kubrick impossible to work with were spun out of control after the long shoot forced supporting castmembers Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh to leave the production. Reshoots lengthened actual filming to around 400 days, long for even Kubrick’s typically protracted shoots, and post-production took a year as well, all the while pitiless reports of a troubled production failed to consider Kubrick’s painstaking method.

When Eyes Wide Shut opened in July of 1999, audiences left the theater baffled or altogether shocked by its displays of sexuality and confronting ruminations on infidelity. Critics wrote positive to lukewarm reviews, but few declared the film a landmark, the majority citing their aversion to Warner Bros. release of an R-rated version into theaters that digitally blocked sexually graphic material cited as problematic by the MPAA—an artistic violation of Kubrick’s final film. Rather than accept box-office death with an NC-17 rating, Warner Bros. made the controversial decision for these digital alterations (an alternative considered by Kubrick himself to earn his contractually obligated R-rating) that placed digital figures in front of sex acts during the film’s pivotal orgy sequence. (The studio later acknowledged their fault and released Kubrick’s uncut version on home video.) As always, there were a number of complete dissenters, including Andrew Sarris’ assessment for the New York Observer which described the film as “control-freak unreality” or Entertainment Weekly’s review which thought the film’s revelations unaffecting. Other critics complained about Kubrick’s intentionally slow pace or deliberately unnatural dialogue delivery by his actors, citing the director’s longstanding detached quality as an encumbrance.

What such responses failed to recognize is very little of Eyes Wide Shut takes place in what these critics would call “reality.” Kubrick and Frederic Raphael’s screenplay never intended realism, just to closely follow Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 source novella Traumnovelle (also renamed Rhapsody: A Dream Novel or Dream Story). Schnitzler’s book follows a Jewish couple in turn of the century Vienna who, after a Carnival ball, are obliged to discuss their marital contentment. The wife confesses to having fantasies about other men; in a jealous response, the husband embarks on a sexual odyssey, which comes to a frightful end when he nearly loses his life at an orgy of copulating masked figures. Whether or not his adventures are merely dreamt or real remains unclear, but he returns home and confesses what happened, and the couple finds strength in their new appreciation for the difference between dreams and waking life.

As far back as the 1970s, the project had gestated in Kubrick’s imagination, at first as a lurid sex comedy starring Steve Martin (you wouldn’t think it, but Kubrick was a fan of The Jerk), then later developed into its current state as a more enigmatic piece starring real-life couple Cruise and Kidman—the former in the prime of his career, and the latter just earning a name for herself as an actress with range. Set in modern-day New York City, the first image Kubrick shows us is brief and, at first, without context. Opening titles read Cruise, Kidman, and Kubrick’s names. And then, as if our eyes are opened for a momentary peep, we see a woman (Kidman) from behind loosen her dress and let it fall to the floor. She stands completely, unabashedly naked as she lifts her feet out of her fallen dress and kicks it aside. The screen grows black again and reveals the film’s title. In this single shot, the camera’s lids open to the image and shut again, acting almost on reflex, to expose us to temptation and then deny us its enticement. Holding on any longer would be self-indulgent and potentially dangerous. Such themes prevail throughout Eyes Wide Shut, whose very title indicates the waking dream state of a film lingering between reality and reverie.

From here, Kubrick takes us into the elegant Central Park West apartment of Dr. Bill Harford and his wife Alice, whose characters are defined through their marital intimacy seemingly void of secrets—their openness apparent as one uses the toilet while the other checks himself over in the bathroom mirror. Kubrick’s wide-angle lens captures their posh dwelling, decorated with paintings by Kubrick’s wife Christiane and her daughter Katharina Hobbs, and follows as these two well-dressed, attractive people leave their daughter with the babysitter for a high-class party on Fifth Avenue. Production designers Les Tomkins and Roy Walker stage a ball shimmering with interior lights for Christmastime, another surreal time of year where everything seems exaggerated and exhilarated. Here, Bill runs into old medical-school-chum-turned-pianist Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) and later helps his millionaire host, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), save an overdosed hooker from death. As the evening progresses, and both husband and wife engage in separate flirtations at the party, they return home and can barely contain their arousal before making love. The next evening, another escape from reality: Bill and Alice smoke pot and, clearly influenced, move from verbal foreplay into the film’s most powerful scene, a dizzying and aptly illogical discussion about their flirtations from the night before. All at once, Alice’s tone becomes accusatory—she wants to know why she shouldn’t be jealous of Bill’s flirtation, and why Bill isn’t jealous of hers. When Bill responds that he knows Alice would never be unfaithful, to one-up his claim she recalls, with devastating detail, a memory of a naval officer she once saw and fantasized over during their vacation to Cape Cod.

Bill’s jealousy overcomes him when that evening he’s obligated to make a late-night appearance for the family of a deceased patient, and afterward, he wanders the city (constructed via immaculately detailed but wholly unreal sets in England’s Pinewood Studios, all radiant with deep underlighting from the Christmastime setting, which enhance the intended artificiality of Kubrick’s dreamy mise-en-scène) on a series of sexual misadventures not without compare to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. Kubrick’s dark humor emerges in these scenes, as almost everyone Bill encounters, male or female, makes a sexual pass at him, including Marie Richardson’s character who attempts to embrace Bill mere feet away from the corpse of her deceased father. But, out of his depth, none of his (imagined?) chance trysts work out to allow Bill to eliminate his jealousy. In fact, he’s not even sure how to be unfaithful. A prostitute asks him what kind of “fun” he wants; uncertain, he asks “What would you recommend?” And then his morality calls when his cell phone buzzes and it’s Alice on the other end. Instead of following through, he imagines his wife and the naval officer together in black-and-white photography, another extension of unreality. While sprawling through the night, emasculated (when a group of college goons bully him and proceed to call him a “faggot”) and unfulfilled by his sexual temptations, Bill finds Nightingale performing at a jazz club.

Nightingale confesses another late-night gig, this one hush-hush and location unknown, where he plays blindfolded. Once, Nightingale laughs with amazement, the blindfold wasn’t on so well, and he caught a glimpse of naked women everywhere. Bill insists on crashing this party, rents the required costume of cloak and mask (and has himself another offering from the rental store owner’s underage daughter, an all-but-silent Leelee Sobieski), and takes a cab to a Gothic mansion in upstate New York. He enters and gives the password from Nightingale (“Fidelio,” taken from Beethoven’s opera, and a word closely associated with “fidelity”). Standing on the margins, he bears witness to a ritualized, depersonalized orgy where figures donning frightening Venetian masks engage in sinister, impersonal sado-sexual acts, the participants oddly play-kissing through their masks even at the height of their undulations. He’s warned to leave by one of the naked, masked women who somehow recognizes him behind his disguise, but, identified as an interloper, Bill is captured by the ominous cloaked men behind this proceeding, exposed, and nearly punished, then at the last moment “redeemed” by the self-sacrificing woman concerned for his safety. Bill later learns he treated the same girl at Ziegler’s party when she overdosed. Released and told never to inquire about the evening again, Bill goes home feeling lucky to be alive. He wakes his wife, who appears to be having a nightmare, and asks her to tell him about what she was dreaming. She weeps as she confesses to a salacious dream about her own orgy, which began with the dreaded naval officer and escalated into countless men.

The next day, Bill attempts to follow-up with Nightingale but discovers, during a hilarious scene involving a flirtatious hotel clerk (Alan Cumming), that Nightingale was taken away by men early in the morning. Flashing his doctor’s license like a detective’s badge, Bill makes more inquiries and uncovers a reported “drug overdose” of a beauty queen, and in the morgue learns she was the same woman who saved him at the orgy. As his imagination runs wild, he believes he’s being followed. Meanwhile, Ziegler soon calls Bill on the pretense of a checkup but then reveals he too was at the orgy, and attempts to convince Bill that the night’s theatrics were just that: a show designed to frighten him. Ziegler assures Bill that the hooker’s death was an accidental overdose and that Nightingale is on a plane to his Seattle home. Once again, Bill returns home relieved, only to see Alice has found his misplaced Venetian mask from the orgy on his pillow. With this, Bill weeps in a scene mirroring Alice’s earlier dream confession, and says he’ll tell her everything. After talking it through, their mutual nature’s exposed, they agree it’s best if they shut their eyes to some outward dreams, as fantasies can be just as dangerous as reality. And as for their shared cravings for emotionally detached sexuality, Alice offers her four-letter-word solution to reinvigorate their marriage.

Despite the presence of sexuality throughout the film, Eyes Wide Shut rarely attempts to be “sexy” where Bill’s unfaithful escapades are involved, and instead links his illicit sexuality with death: Bill learns Vinessa Shaw’s prostitute character, whose temptations are thwarted by Alice’s telephone call, is HIV positive; the costume renter’s daughter becomes an exploited victim of her father who attempts to sell her willing services to Bill; the orgy scene carries a stigma of nightmarish dread followed by a menacing threat. These moments are more about linking unfaithful sexuality with death and apprehension than arousal, thus creating a save haven in Alice. Moreover, the film’s sexual scenes away from Alice are not meant to be erotic or real, rather distanced and trancelike, the intimacy removed by their participants’ lack of real human connectivity, while Cruise’s scenes with Kidman feel all the more realistic and meaningful by comparison. Eyes Wide Shut recognizes conscious and unconscious desires for raw, unemotional fantasy, yet reinforces our deep-rooted need and appreciation for such acts when there’s an emotional purpose behind them. Themes of masks, eyes open and shut, states of awareness and dreaming—these all have a place within the film. Perhaps Kubrick, long happily married to his wife Christiane, sought to complete a sort of testimony to the pleasures of conjugal companionship—how a strong enough bond can eliminate the need for detached fantasy, and in fact, can manage such basic human desire within the marriage. Certainly, the final, moralizing coda on the film engrains the filmmaker’s good intentions.

These intentions may have influenced Kubrick’s choice to cast a real-life couple in the film, and his choice couldn’t have been more correct. Wearing down their superstar gloss with his proclivity toward repeated takes, Kubrick draws profound performances out of his stars, particularly Kidman and her staggering delivery of several long, upsetting monologues in Kubrick’s multitude of extended shots. With the pairing of these stars in their roles, there’s an undeniable onscreen-offscreen intrigue for the viewer, as we suspect, in some way, the filming has penetrated in their actual married lives to give us some voyeuristic insight (even more so now, after their divorce). Cruise places his ego aside to become Dr. Bill, whose humorous, antiseptic bedside manner and reliance on professionalism revs up even in awkward situations (such as when he saves the ODing hooker at Ziegler’s party), subsiding only for weighty moments of vulnerability rarely shown by this performer. By the end of the film, Cruise’s Dr. Bill has become a defeated man, pathetic even, whose over-sexed imagination and petty jealousy have gotten him into trouble. Kidman’s peak moment comes the night after Bill’s confession, where she’s shown smoking, her makeup gone, her eyes bloodshot from crying all night—an unprecedented transformation has taken place: Kidman appears not like a movie star, nor even like her Central Park West elite character but like a human being stripped of all her veneers to reveal the bare, crushed humanity underneath. Despite rumors to the contrary, these actors gave everything to their director and sacrificed much over two years for what ultimately became an art film, something with which neither performer was familiar.

Warner Bros. marketed the film largely as a showcase for Cruise and Kidman. Of course, defining (or not) Schnitzler’s story and Kubrick’s film through basic advertisements was another matter altogether. The studio filled trailers with all the signs of an “erotic thriller”, dwelling on dramatic images without dialogue, but confidence in the “Cruise Kidman Kubrick” names and reputations, all the while setting up audiences to misinterpret the film. Without doubt intended for mature adults, Eyes Wide Shut does not belong in the thriller genre. With a thriller we would not doubt the reality of Bill’s sexual adventures, all distorted from his enraged, jealous point of view; the thriller elements would instead be vindicated when Bill uncovers that the orgy was just as dangerous as he suspected, a revelation he never makes. The pigeonholed advertising also forgets the production’s comic origins and Kubrick’s onetime desire to make Schnitzler’s tale a full-fledged comedy, as streams of dark humor throughout the nightmarish surreality of Bill’s adventures reveal Kubrick’s indefinable, gloriously unique tone of the film.

As with each of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest pictures, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Barry Lyndon to A Clockwork Orange, this film cannot be defined by a single genre or sole interpretation. Viewers must dissect and interpret and consider the definition of a series of seemingly self-contained scenes and encounters against the larger whole. If Kubrick has one fault, it’s that he trusts his audience to search for meaning when moviegoers are more accustomed to having The Big Picture spelled out for them. But Kubrick’s faith in his audience’s willingness to investigate themselves for meaning in film is also his greatest quality as an artist and master of the cinematic medium. In Eyes Wide Shut, not knowing where the line between dream and reality—the unconscious and conscious, the closed and receiving retina—was crossed becomes the viewer’s crucial task to discover. That journey of breaking through can be confronting, repulsive, shocking, hilarious, and unsettling, but never short of engaging. With his posthumous release, accusations of Kubrick’s emotional coldness as a filmmaker have never had a stronger counterargument.


Chion, Michel. Kubrick’s Cinema Odyssey. British Film Institute, 2001.

LoBrutto, Vincent. Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. D.I. Fine Books, 1997.

Nelson, Thomas Allen. Kubrick, Inside a Film Artist’s Maze. New and expanded ed. Indiana University Press, 2000.

Sperb, Jason. The Kubrick Facade: Faces and Voices in the Films of Stanley Kubrick. Scarecrow Press, 2006.

Philips, Gene D., editor. Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Walker, Alexander, et al. Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis. Rev. and expanded. Norton, 1999.

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