"Eyes Wide Shut" **** (out of ****)
Dreams. Fantasies. Sex. Jealousy. Temptation. Kubrick.
That about sums up Stanley Kubrick's misunderstood and sadly neglected masterpiece, "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), which unfortunately turned out to be the director's final film.
The first time I saw "Eyes Wide Shut" I was 16 years old. The movie was still playing in theatres. Like many people at the time I was aware of the controversies surrounding the picture. Some suggested starring in this movie is what lead Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman to get divorced. Others mentioned the film's initial NC-17 rating and edits which were made to secure a R rating. The movie holds the honor of having the longest continuous film shoot, 400 days and finally, Kubrick died prior to the film's release.
At it's time of release the sheep (movie critics) and the public could do little but talk about the erotic nature of the movie. They could do little but speculate on the effects the movie may have had on Cruise's and Kidman's marriage and people couldn't help but talk about the movie's initial NC-17 rating and the un-cut version which was going to be released in Europe. But, notice how no one paid attention to the movie itself. Few people tried to meet the movie half-way and attempt to interpret it, to understand what was Mr. Kubrick trying to tell us. What was the message being conveyed?
As a result, at best, "Eyes Wide Shut" has a mixed reputation. The 15 years which have followed after the film's release have not done much, in the circles I travel, to ease the movie's stigma as a cheap, vulgar, pornographic film.
"Eyes Wide Shut" was my first brush with Stanley Kubrick. As I sat in the movie theatre I was amazed. The music, the camera movements, the subject matter. At the time I said it was the best movie of 1999. I hadn't seen the movie again until recently, for this review. A total of 15 years passed and all I had to judge the movie on were my memories, which were still vivid and enthusiastic. I remembered my reaction to various scenes in the movie. I remembered the overall mood in the theatre. It was a fresh experience for me and afterwards I made sure I would see every movie Mr. Kubrick directed.
Watching "Eyes Wide Shut" again I was not filled the wide eye fascination I once was. Perhaps that's to be expected. But, I believe I understand deeper into the movie than I did at first viewing. "Eyes Wide Shut" now strikes me as a battle between the sexes. The fragility of marriage or relationships. The mind games genders play against each other.
The very first image we see in "Eyes Wide Shut" is as the opening credits play. The credits cut to an image of Nicole Kidman's backside. She takes off a dress and we see her standing naked in her bedroom. Then the credits continue. From this first image the viewer knows the movie is going to be about sex. However, I want to make it clear, this is not a pornographic film. Characters talk about sex, think about sex, fantasize about sex but no one actually has sex. Yes, there is the famous secret society orgy sequence, but, even there the camera is moving. We are seeing various acts. We aren't focuses on any one in particular except Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), who does not belong there.
The movie is about sex. Yes, that is true. But, it is not about the physical act of sex. It is about how we use sex to our advantage or disadvantage.
My main thrust of the movie concerns Bill and his wife Alice (Kidman) smoking marijuana discussing a Christmas party they have attended the night before. While at the party the two were separated most of the night conversing with other guest. Soon their conversation turns to the subject of fidelity, jealousy and the nature of men and women.
During the conversation Bill admits he is not the jealous type. He trust his wife because he believes in the false stereotype society has perpetuated on us that women are more faithful. They want security and commitment, whereas men, by their nature have a desire to sleep with as many women as possible.
Alice is offended by Bill's remark, because, as she points out, that would mean the only reason Bill would not cheat on his wife is out of consideration for her not because he wouldn't want to.
As the conversation becomes more and more heated, Alice makes a revelation. The prior year, when on a Summer vacation, Alice fantasied about a navy officer she saw at a hotel they stood at. With this, Bill becomes racked with jealousy. He is obsessed with the idea his wife would actually cheat on him. He has a constant image in his head of his wife with another man, while his hands are all over her body.
In retaliation for this confession, Bill decides he too will succumb to temptation. If his wife thought about sleeping with another man, Bill will actually take that next step and will sleep with another woman. This, in his mind, will even the score. And so he sets out on a sexual odyssey, walking the streets of New York, finding temptation all around him.
What is interesting however about Alice's confession is why does she say what she does? A year has passed. She has kept this secret to herself all this time. The reason, one can assume, she finally confesses this secret fantasy is because she is mad at Bill. She deliberately wants to make Bill jealous. She wants a reaction out of him. And, thus, I feel we are exploring the fragility of marriage and relationships. One word, one action, one moment can change everything. It is that fine a line we are walking on when we are with someone. Alice wanted to hurt Bill and she succeeded. That is the power people close to us can have on us. There is the old, asinine saying "words can never hurt us". I don't know what numb skull came up with this saying, but, words can have a devastating effect on our mood and behavior.
Of course, one has to also consider, what if Alice is making this all up? Out of anger. Out of a feeling of neglect. This could be because in a sequence prior to attending the Christmas party, Alice asks Bill, how does she look. Bill says fine. Alice asks how is her hair. Bill says fine. Then Alice tells him, you aren't even looking at me. Has Bill taken Alice for granted? Does he not notice her any longer? What bothers him most about Alice's confession? Is he feeling betrayed that he could have lost the love of his life or is his ego hurt?
And if Alice did make up the story to hurt Bill, doesn't that comment on the power struggle relationships truly are? Someone always has to be in the vulnerable position while the other is in control. From the moment two people meet until the end of their relationship, everything is about power. A man approaches a woman and introduces himself. He is in a vulnerable position. The woman has all the power in this moment. She may either accept or reject his invitation. Sex is all about power. Women can manipulate men with sex by denying them it or engaging in it. Sex is rarely just sex. We may not like to think about these things in such stark terms but isn't that just too bad? Sometimes we have to face the ugly nature of things.
Other sequences which elaborate on the movie's themes is the first opening Christmas party sequence being held by Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his wife Illona (Leslie Lowe). At the party we see well dressed, wealthy people talking among each other. There are three instances when the viewer is able to get a better understanding of what exactly these people are doing and saying to each other.
The first instance deals with Alice Harford. She is waiting for her husband at a bar, having a drink. A man standing next to her notices her and introduces himself. "My name is Sandor Szavost. I'm Hungarian" he says. From that moment Sandor (Sky du Mont) and Alice dance. And, as they dance, there is heavy flirtation. Sandor wants to sleep with Alice. She tells him she is married but that doesn't stop Sandor. They will continue this flirtation dance. And isn't that what flirtation is? A dance? Two people, generally mostly the man, moving around trying to verbally gauge if the woman in front of him is interested.
The second instance shows Bill with two young models. They too are engaged in a heavy flirtation. The two models want to take Bill where "the rainbow ends" and the viewer can only guess what that implies. Though we know if Alice finds out, she might kill the three of them.
The last instance at the Christmas party deals with Victor. He has been with a prostitute (Julienne Davis) in his bathroom. She has overdosed. Victor has secretly called Bill to help with the situation.
So, our nice little Christmas party with educated, well dressed, wealthy people, has now turned into something else. These people only think and talk about sex. Everyone is pretending to be something else. Their nice clothes are a facade. Their self-imposed intelligence is false. When it comes down to it all they are interested in is sex.
Now lets contrast this scene with the secret society orgy sequence. Here everyone is dressed in masks and wearing costumes. The few times we hear characters speak, they seem well-spoken. Could we perhaps be dealing with the same crowd as the Ziegler's Christmas party? The similarity is everyone is still hiding who they are. At the Christmas party the guest want to appear dignified so they wear nice clothes and are well-spoken but that does not represent their true self. They hide behind these things. Their nice clothes are in fact costumes. One person nearly died at the party and there was an attempt to sweep that under the rug. At the secret society party the people are still in disguise and they engage in the same activities they wanted to at the Christmas party.
I suppose the point behind both party scenes are, people and/or events are not what they seem. There is always a mask or a pretense in society. Bill meets an old medical school friend, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) who dropped out of medical school and is now a jazz pianist. A piano player that studied medicine. Things aren't what they seem. Bill meets a costume shop owner that pimps his daughter. Things aren't what they seem. At the orgy party, a woman makes a sacrifice to protect Bill. But was it real or staged? Things aren't what they seem.
Like other Kubrick films; "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), "The Shining" (1980) and "A Clockwork Orange" (1973), "Eyes Wide Shut" is a movie about the mind, about the effects extreme situations have on us mentality, whether it is a drill Sargent verbally berating us, an old hotel taking possession of our mind or how far jealousy can drive us.
The mind is delicate. Individuals can drive themselves to obsession. We can be our own worst enemies.
"Eyes Wide Shut" requires multiple viewings. It has a lot to say. More than I have written about. It has ideas and makes a commentary. It is not a "dirty" movie. I hope with time audiences come back to this movie. As the years have passed the sensationalism of the backstage controversies will also fade. Then audiences will just judge the movie not its surroundings. I hope that day comes soon.