Eyes Wide Shut
scowl. A scintilla of tension, held or released. A rifle report. A kiss. Cinema is composed of privileged moments, born of pulp and transfigured as art. In Scenes, a writer will study one of these moments. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, or find personal correspondences. Enjoy.
So, here’s the question: How often does a full-fledged art film actually qualify as an honest-to-goodness popcult event movie? How many times, before or since the release of Stanley Kubrick’s swansong, has a chilly domestic chamber piece cum ostensible softcore creep-out been so relentlessly hyped by the mainstream (and tabloid) entertainment media? Granted, Eyes Wide Shut is a singular case—Cruise! Kidman! Kubrick!—and yet, in a summer dominated by relatively unconventional thrillers (The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense), audiences seemed, at best, befuddled and mildly irritated by the film.
This partly explains why Kubrick’s movie suffered that massive, much-noted drop in box-office receipts from its opening weekend in theatres to its second. But if the general word of mouth was negative, the critics didn’t help matters either. A small constituency of reviewers championed the film as a worthy final chapter to Kubrick’s oeuvre, but most—in the regrettable spirit of snap judgment verdicts (e.g., timeliness)—regarded it as a failure, with their caveats running the gamut.
Some took issue with the film’s gaps in narrative logic, others with its stars’ “cold” performances or the “stilted” dialogue they were made to deliver. A handful of (mostly East Coast-based) critics dismissed the film outright on the basis that the reclusive ex-pat’s New York bore little resemblance to the present-day Big Apple, a city he (presumably) hadn’t visited in decades. A few horny little devils simply lamented that Eyes wasn’t as salacious as the press hype had led them to anticipate. The most resonant reservation, however, was that the film was incomplete and/or tampered with by the studio following Kubrick’s death. To some degree, this is true, of course (see: the Austin Powers-esque pixel people strategically inserted to salvage the film’s “hard” R rating during the upscale orgy sequence), as it is of, say, Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons, a damaged masterpiece increasingly recognized as equal or superior to its flashier predecessor.
No, the real trouble with Eyes Wide Shut is that it’s not really about what it seems to be about. It’s a slyly assembled series of red herrings; “clues” are seemingly littered throughout, and have been dissected exhaustively in other quarters. But Kubrick’s film is finally less a mystery per se than, more expansively, mysterious. The ultimate lack of clarity here inevitably lends credence to the view that the film was unfinished or butchered, but it also contributes inestimably to its singularly dreamlike tone. The moment at the orgy, where the scarlet-clad man asks Cruise’s Bill for the door password, is key. Bill answers that he must have forgotten it. But, Scarlet Man ominously informs him, there wasn’t a password for the door. It’s a trick; which is to say, maybe there’s actually less going on than we’ve come to suspect.
More significant yet, I’d argue, is the film’s closing scene, set in, of all places, an FAO Schwartz. “I do love you,” Kidman’s Alice tells her on-screen (and then-real life) husband, with more than a hint of shrewd qualification, “and you know,” she continues, her voice quivering ever so slightly yet unmistakably serious, “there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible.” “What’s that?” Bill responds, less genuinely inquisitive than frustrated, exhausted from his long night’s journey into day, while discerning from his wife’s tone that things aren’t peachy keen. A beat of silence passes—this is, hands-down, the film’s most suspenseful moment. Alice answers with just one word: “Fuck.”
And it’s over, the credits roll, and when “Directed by Stanley Kubrick” flashes across the screen, you can almost hear the late auteur laughing faintly over the soundtrack. Right, this is a movie about fidelity. You knew that. But we’re so successfully side-tracked by Bill’s misadventures in the “New York” night that it’s easy to forget the password at the gate isn’t just the title of Beethoven’s lone opera.
It’s no coincidence that Kubrick chose an actual married couple for the lead roles here. To what degree we’re watching Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, as opposed to Bill and Alice Harford, is left purposefully ambiguous—not unlike the film’s vaguely surreal vision of Manhattan. It’s ironic, in retrospect, that some reviews at the time bemoaned the leads’ lack of on-screen chemistry. Flash forward a couple years, and the pair is split. Jump ahead another few, and Tom’s freaking out on Oprah while his Oscar-winning ex stars opposite Will Ferrell in a movie version of Bewitched.
Still, it’s hard not to leave with the impression that you’ve just watched the dissolution of a relationship, something with implications extending beyond what’s up on screen. (Call it Kubrick’s Scenes from a Marriage.) The final scene manages to recast what’s preceded in a fresh light, without resorting to cheaply manipulative, dispose-after-two-viewings Shyamalantics. The couple’s frank exchange, while Christmas shopping with their daughter, is, in a sense, the perfect denouement, offering surface resolution—it doesn’t matter who the guy in the red cloak was or what the deal was with the weirdo costume shop owner and his daughter—while opening a whole new, considerably more troublesome can of worms. How crucial a role does physical passion play in a healthy marriage? Is fidelity vital to a functional monogamous relationship? What happens when our fantasies drift outside the bedroom we share with our spouse? Will they buy that huge teddy bear?
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2006-09-25