Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

03Jul10

Tom Cruise (Dr. Bill Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford). Screenplay by Frederic Raphael and Stanley Kubrick. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Rating: 18. Running time: 159 minutes.

Kubrick never did make another film with a plot quite as dense, gripping and intriguing as Eyes Wide Shut. It has that special quality of being fascinating from very early on, and not letting you go until long after it has finished. It’s over two and a half hours long, but just like Tarantino films, the scenes are so lengthy and driven by good dialogue that it doesn’t feel a minute longer than ninety.

The subject is marriage, fidelity and sexual desire. Bill and Alice Harford seem to be in a sufficiently stable relationship as they dance together at a New York party in the film’s opening scenes, but they soon split up for a good few hours and become flirtatious with other members of the opposite sex, provoking an argument the next night, as Alice, a little high on pot, asks whether Bill ended up fucking anybody.

Kidman, as Alice, is devilishly good looking, and yet as she fishes for an argument with Bill she also becomes ridiculously annoying as well. She demands the reasons Bill did not fuck anyone the night before, and, taken aback, when he naturally appeals to the fact he loves her and thus would not do that, Alice absurdly twists his explanation into an accusation that he only refrained from adultery out of some kind of polite courtesy to her, and not because he did not find the other women attractive. Finally, her destructive rampage culminates in a confession regarding a year previously, when she toyed with the idea of cheating on Bill and blowing her whole family apart for the sake of a one night stand, just because she wanted a man she spotted so badly.

Bill, understandably enraged, when called out on work when a patient passes away, uses the opportunity to embark on a trip downtown, walking reflectively down the streets of Greenwich. After being picked up by a prostitute, entertaining the idea, and even entering her bedroom, clearly out for mental revenge of some kind, Bill backs out without doing anything, and then stumbles across an old friend and piano player at a bar. He’s told of a private-invite, password-only, masked event that’s about to start in the early hours of the morning out of town, and Bill, still unsure how to react to his wife’s confession, teases the address and password out of his friend, and turns up at the event soon after.

This is where Eyes Wide Shut takes a turn towards absurdity, and Kubrick reveals himself at his most alienating best. Arriving at this mansion packed with gowned and masked men and topless women, Bill and the camera track through a sex fest, an orgy being conducted by an underground cult to the sound of haunting music, of the most frightening variety one will ever see. Bill is soon discerned to be the intruder he indeed is, and events from then on unfold to make Eyes Wide Shut a truly harrowing mystery. An anonymous woman apparently sacrifices her life, in return for the cult’s organisers letting Bill go; the piano player who tipped Bill off of the place in the first place checks out of his hotel, bruised and battered, at 5am the next morning; men seem to be following Bill as he tries to put the pieces together; his mask is misplaced, and shockingly reappears in a way that baffles and blows any straightforward explanation of the film out of the water.

It’s hard to explain just how incredible this plot line is, as we’re left feeling as clueless and as much as an outsider as Bill himself, having seen all of the night’s absurd events precisely and solely from his perspective. Ultimately, however, what is of equal interest is the contrast his actions draw with the actions, or perhaps the inaction, of his wife; for whilst Alice seems to cold-bloodedly have all the intent and malice of an unfaithful spouse, it seems her thoughts are where it ends, without any execution. Bill, on the other hand, had no more desire for extramarital sex than the mere entertaining of the idea in response to the infuriating confessions of Alice. He gets much closer to acting than Alice, but even when in a prostitute’s bedroom, he cannot bring himself to kiss her back. Alice even admits dreaming of herself screwing dozens of other men, and laughing as Bill watches, and this is as he in reality attends an orgy merely as an outside observer, whilst she is tucked up in bed at home.

The contrast is a strange one, and the film itself and the explanation for its events even stranger due to so much happening and being said off screen. Ultimately, however, it’s nothing short of fascinating. I’ve doubted Kubrick’s genius in the past, in films which many have praised as intelligent but which to me have seemed thoughtless. Not here, however, where Eyes Wide Shut is so clearly a masterpiece from an auteur in his final years that it’s almost untrue.

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