Friday, March 15, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.13: Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Next to Terrence Malick, no director became more known for his lack of prolificacy than Stanley Kubrick. Twelve long years passed between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, but the director worked on a number of fascinating potential masterpieces in between. He first planned Aryan Papers, a Holocaust film that would be cancelled after Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List beat him to the punch and the subject matter became too depressing for Kubrick. He next moved on to A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, a passion project that saw Kubrick proposing an inspired team-up between Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, with Kubrick producing and Spielberg directing. Spielberg would go on to finish the project (one of his best films), but Kubrick would delay the film, deciding to wait until special effects were up to his impossible standards.

Kubrick would turn his attention to a story he had worked on since the 1960s: Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, a story of a Jewish man in Germany and his strange odyssey after his wife confesses of fantasizing about another man. Kubrick considered a number of stars- Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Harrison Ford- before casting real life couple of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in the central roles. Three years after filming had begun in 1996, Kubrick finished the film only to die of a heart attack days after presenting his cut.

Eyes Wide Shut was released in the middle of summer 1999, but it was hardly a fit for blockbuster season. The star power of Cruise and Kidman, not to mention its status as the final film of one of cinema’s greatest directors, ensured that the film made its money back, but the film’s audience petered out as they realized that the film was not the erotic thriller they had been led to believe. Critics were mixed as well, with some calling it slow, ponderous, and decidedly not erotic. The film, like many other Kubrick masterpieces, has had a revived reputation in recent years, but plenty of Kubrick die-hards still insist that it’s one of his worst. They couldn’t be more wrong: Eyes Wide Shut is one of Kubrick’s finest works, a brilliant exploration of sexuality, fidelity, and power that sees Kubrick making new strides as an artist. It should have been the start of a new run of masterworks. Instead, it’s a glorious swan song.

Bill Harford (Cruise) is a successful doctor in New York City. He and his wife, Alice (Kidman), attend a party held by their friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), where they both flirt with other people. The next night, Alice and Bill argue over whether women are more faithful than men, and Alice confesses a sexual fantasy she had about a naval officer. Bill is stunned, but he has little time to respond after a he’s asked to make a house call for a deceased patient. Bill goes off into the night, where he has a number of strange sexual encounters.

As with most late-period Kubrick films, Eyes Wide Shut can be split into a handful of non-submersible units, which I’ll break up as follows:

1.    The Party- Bill and Alice attend Victor’s party, where the leeriest Hungarian in the world tries to pick up Alice. Bill, meanwhile, is nearly picked up by a couple of models until Victor calls him upstairs to help him with a prostitute that has just overdosed.

2.    The Confession/Misadventures- Bill and Alice get into a pot-fueled argument, at which point Alice confesses to her imagined affair. Bill goes off into the night, where he has a couple of near trysts with a patient’s daughter and a prostitute.

3.    Fidelio- Bill’s old friend Nick Nightingale (Todd Field, later director of In the Bedroom and Little Children) tells him about a strange job where he’s asked to play blindfolded. Bill convinces Nick to tell him where the party is, and after a strange interlude at a costume shop, Bill arrives at an orgy at a mansion. When he’s found out, one of the women volunteers to sacrifice herself in order to save him.

4.    The Dream/Inquiries- Bill comes home to a frightened Alice, who confesses to a strange dream about an orgy of her own, done as a way to mock her husband. Bill tries to find Nick, only to learn that he has been checked out of his hotel by a pair of dangerous looking men. He also finds that the mask to his costume for the party is missing. He returns to the mansion, where he is told not to further inquire.

5.    Second Night Out- Bill tries to find the two women he nearly spent the night with, to no avail. He begins to suspect he’s being followed, and he learns that the woman he had saved from an overdose the other night has died- and he suspects it is the same woman who saved him at the orgy.

6.    Truth- Bill arrives at Victor’s, who admits he was at the party and insists that most of the strange occurrences were either staged or coincidence. Bill returns home, where the missing mask lays on his pillow next to his sleeping wife. He confesses to Alice, and the two repair their marriage.

Those expecting a conventional erotic thriller from Kubrick were either unfamiliar with his work or otherwise should have known better. Just as he redefined what horror could be with The Shining or what science fiction could be with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick brought a whole new way of looking at sexuality on film. Most of the complaints directed at the film- that it isn’t erotic, that the New York sets look nothing like New York, that the film is too slow- can be written off just by looking at the title and at the title of the original novella. Kubrick isn’t interested in realism, but in the stuff of very strange, very disturbing dreams.

Even those who objected to the content of the film ought to be able to appreciate Kubrick’s distinctive touch- the film retains his signature elegant tracking shots, the hypnotic hum of his style of filmmaking, his brilliant use of music (ironic use of standards and covers, a creepy Ligeti piano piece for some of the tensest scenes, a moody score from Jocelyn Pook), and his wonderful use of natural light- Christmas lights in some of the warmer scenes, more sinister looking bright lights in uneasy scenes (Bill’s café meeting with Nick). But more attention should be paid to some of the new strides in Kubrick’s filmmaking, namely his bold use of color and perhaps the most brilliant casting coup of his career.

There are a number of terrific performances in Eyes Wide Shut (Pollack is especially good as the warm but morally dubious Victor), but Kidman got the bulk of the acclaim when the film came out. She’s absolutely fantastic in what’s close to her finest performance (only Dogville tops it): she’s highly flirtatious, but she knows when to hold back from fulfilling any foolish fantasies. Her real standout moments come with her two monologues about her forbidden sexual fantasies, casting a spell with her deliberate cadences. She’s a woman who doesn’t regret her choice but can’t stop thinking about what might have been, someone who loves her husband but can’t help but feel insulted over his presumed control over her.

Cruise got far less attention for his central role, especially compared to his fiery, career-best performance in Magnolia that same year. But Eyes Wide Shut may be his next best performance, and it’s certainly a great piece of casting on Kubrick’s part. The real relationship between Cruise and Kidman might have seemed like a gimmick at the time, but the difference in the characters speaks to something about their personalities. Where Kidman is confident and sexy, there’s something more hesitant about Cruise. That’s not to suggest something about his sexuality (please don’t sue me, Tom, I’m really a big fan), but he’s both A. just as bored in his marriage as Alice (the real life divorce between Cruise and Kidman would come a few years later), yet B. uncomfortable when given the opportunity to cheat.

The way Kubrick marginalizes Cruise within the frame is perfect- he’s dominated by the women who pursue him, frequently powerless until he’s rescued. The unmasking sequence at the orgy would rank among Cruise’s finest moments- Kubrick has already made him seem tiny and overwhelmed (not hard, just show how short he really is), and the look of pure terror in his eyes and on his face as he’s unmasked is absolute perfection. The director turns the world’s biggest superstar and one of the screen’s biggest personalities and cuts him down to size, revealing a vulnerable, frightened human being under the handsome face.

Kubrick acknowledged the influence of David Lynch’s Eraserhead on The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut bears the mark of a master filmmaker who saw Lynch’s Blue Velvet, completely took it apart, and turned it into something new. Like Lynch, Kubrick uses colors to inform the mood of certain scenes- yellow for betrayal, red for lust, blue for fear. In the film’s first section, the bright yellow ballroom suggests that Bill and Alice could cheat on each other at any moment, and that they’re far more thrilled by the promise of new sexual partners than with each other; that color will come in handy later as Victor lies to Bill about the truth of the orgy. Kubrick’s use of vivid reds in the “Fidelio” segment- when Cruise meets Nightingale at the café, at the orgy- makes a color often associated with brazen sexuality feel sinister and frightening. And his use of blue, particularly in Alice’s confession scenes, is expressive and gorgeous, functioning as a perfect backdrop as the cracks in their marriage widen.

Some have complained that Eyes Wide Shut takes the inherent European-ness out of the story, not to mention that a goy like Cruise robs the story of the implications that the central character is toyed with because of his Jewishness. These complaints are understandable, to some degree, but the material is still compelling without these elements. Bill is instead a successful man who hasn’t yet paid his dues in order to join society’s highest ranks. Kubrick’s films are largely about dehumanization, and the director subtly sets up a power play in the film’s first scene as Bill is brought in to cover Victor’s ass after his latest conquest OD’s. Victor mentions that this should be kept between the two of them, but he’s not really asking Bill- he’s telling him.

When Victor spends his final scene making up a number of credible (but probably false) stories about the true nature of the girl’s death and Nick Nightingale’s disappearance, he exudes a fatherly, protective charm towards Bill. But while he may have some affection for Bill, he’s proven to be a master manipulator, and he’s definitely serving the higher ups, and the closer he gets to Bill, the more fearful we feel for Bill. “Life goes on until it doesn’t. But you know that, don’t you?”

Of course, the greatest example of dehumanization in the film comes from the most famous sequence: the orgy. The strange, dream-like, near-religious ceremony is horrifying, without a doubt, and that’s the point. Some might find something moralistic in Kubrick framing the film’s big sex scene as something dehumanizing, but it’s less about a bunch of people getting together in a hedonistic, sexual environment and more a clinical display of power over younger, poorer people. Here, Kubrick shows Cruise at his smallest and most impotent- he’s had several opportunities to get laid, and now he’s been thrown into a sexual hell.

One should stress how many opportunities Bill does have to cheat.. Being around the same person forever can certainly foster boredom- I love how desperately the two try to get away from each other at Ziegler’s party, or how distracted Kidman looks in their sex scene- and the new fantasy is always the sexiest one. But Bill doesn’t actually want to cheat on his wife- he just thinks he does. At every opportunity, he hesitates. When his patient’s daughter comes on to him, he rejects her, knowing that she’s come to him in a moment of desperation (notably, she and her fiancée look like less attractive versions of Cruise and Kidman). When the prostitute (a terrific Vinessa Shaw) takes him up to her apartment, he seems frightened and weak willed, and his wife’s phone call plays like a breath of relief.

In a sense, it’s a good thing that Kubrick waited so long to make the film, as the film has the knowledge and hindsight of an older director who’s had his own struggles in a (largely happy) marriage. The film stresses not new sexual experiences, but the importance of newer, deeper emotional honesty and intimacy as times goes by. Indeed, Eyes Wide Shut is perhaps Kubrick’s most emotional, most intimate, and most personal film. As the film reaches a close, Bill and Alice have gone through a rough time, but they’ve gotten through it, and they’re still standing. And while I would give my right arm for another Kubrick film, perhaps Eyes Wide Shut is the best possible final film for the director. After all, there’s something perfect and final about the simplicity of the film’s final exchange:

Alice: “I do love you, and there’s something very important we need to do as soon as possible.”
Bill: “What?”
Alice: “Fuck.”


1.     2001: A Space Odyssey (100/A)
2.     Dr. Strangelove (99/A)
3.     The Shining (98/A)
4.     A Clockwork Orange (97/A)
 5.     Eyes Wide Shut (96/A)
6.     Barry Lyndon (96/A)
7.     Paths of Glory (95/A)
8.     The Killing (94/A)
9.     Full Metal Jacket (88/A-)
10. Spartacus (74/B+)
11. Lolita (71/B)
12. Killer’s Kiss (56/B-)
13. Fear and Desire (45/C)

Also: Day of the Fight (A-), Flying Padre (C), The Seafarers (C)

Best Actor: Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange)
Runner-up: Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove)

Best Actress: Nicole Kidman (Eyes Wide Shut)
Runner-up: Shelly Duvall (The Shining)

Best Supporting Actor: George C. Scott (Dr. Strangelove)
Runner-up: Peter Sellers (Lolita)

Best Supporting Actress: Shelly Winters (Lolita)
Runner-up: Marie Windsor (The Killing)

Best Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George (Dr. Strangelove)
Runner-up: Stanley Kubrick, Frederic Raphael (Eyes Wide Shut)

Best Director: 2001
Runner-up: The Shining

Best Scene: “I’m Afraid, Dave” (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Runner-up: All Work and No Play (The Shining)

I’d like to thank everyone for their patience, as this edition of Director Spotlight has been Kubrick-like in how long it took me to finish the damn thing. Still, I’m happier taking my time and doing it right for a man who changed cinema more than anyone since Orson Welles. The next edition on Elia Kazan ought to go much quicker.

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