Eyes Wide Shut (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Several years ago, I recall reading an interview with British novelist P.D. James (the author of the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series) in which she was asked why it took her an average of three to four years to write a new book when other writers working in her genre typically released something every six to twelve months. James' response was illuminating. She indicated that it wasn't the writing that consumed her time, but the effort of doing background research and preparation. The late director Stanley Kubrick (who died on March 7, 1999) would have understood and agreed with that assessment. Kubrick, the craftsman of more than a half-dozen genuine classics (including Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket), was known for taking his time shepherding projects to the screen. Especially with his later films, he would not allow himself to be hurried. The gap between The Shining and Full Metal Jacket was seven years. That widened to an even dozen between Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.

Because Kubrick was a living legend during the time when he was making Eyes Wide Shut, the project was placed under an inordinate amount of public scrutiny through every phase of its development - pre-production, filming, re-shoots, editing, etc. Kubrick's insistence upon secrecy deepened the mystery surrounding the film. From time-to-time, tantalizing bits of information leaked out. Some of these rumors have since been disproved, while others (such as the dismissal and replacement of actors Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh) are a matter of the factual record. As a result of all the pre-release interest and speculation, no 1999 motion picture except The Phantom Menace has been greeted with this degree of anticipation.

Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick through and through, from the frequent long, unbroken takes to the camera's refusal to remain static. Kubrick's style, which became increasingly personalized with every new project, is one of Eyes Wide Shut's most recognizable traits. Every shot and camera angle was selected with great care. There were no happy accidents - each moment of screen time was meticulously plotted, with many scenes being re-done at a later date when the initial version did not meet with the director's approval. (The time allotted for re-shoots allegedly equaled the period most movies demand for primary filming).

The story, which deals with the various faces of sex and love, is adult in nature. The curtain rises on Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), as they prepare for a glamorous Christmas party given by one of Bill's friends, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Alice isn't happy about attending, and, when her husband abandons her so he can chat with an old medical school buddy-turned-pianist (Todd Field) and flirt with a pair of models, she imbibes a few too many glasses of champagne. This makes her susceptible to the suave advances of a debonair party guest who suggests, "Don't you think that one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties." Alice eventually fends off this seduction, but it causes her to consider fidelity in marriage - both hers and her husband's.

The next night, following a heated argument, Alice admits to Bill that she almost cheated on him once, and, had the circumstances been slightly different, she would have thrown her entire life away for one night with the man she had lusted after. This revelation shatters the stability of Bill's world; he had been confident that, no matter what, he could be sure of his wife's faithfulness. He leaves their home to visit a patient, but, instead of coming straight back, he wanders the streets of New York. A series of chance encounters leads him on an unexpected path of discovery into a sexual underworld where he finds not only perversion and pleasure, but death and danger. Soon, he is being followed and has reason to fear for his safety as well as that of his wife and his young daughter.

Much has been written about the sexual content of Eyes Wide Shut, which is extreme but not excessive or pornographic in nature. Kubrick presents sex and nudity in a manner that is more disturbing than erotic. The underlying current of uncertainty and danger lends an unsettled aura to the most explicit scenes. The first time we see a nude woman, she is lying sprawled in a chair, having overdosed on drugs. Later, when Bill and Alice are engaging in foreplay, she is clearly abstracted. And, during the soon-to-be infamous orgy sequence, all of the participants are masked and many are wearing sinister costumes that consist of hooded, black capes and tuxedos. This entire portion of the film has a gothic feel to it.

It's impossible to mention the orgy without discussing the digital manipulation demanded by the MPAA for Eyes Wide Shut to have its classification reduced from the box-office killing NC-17 to an R. Although Kubrick tentatively approved the concept of using digital figures to block out 65 seconds of certain sex acts, he might have balked at the final result. While the computer generated images look adequate from a realism point-of-view, their placement is awkward, and it becomes obvious that they were inserted to hide screen images. In calling the altered North American edition the "Austin Powers version" of Eyes Wide Shut (referring to the strategic placement of foreground images), film critic Roger Ebert hit the proverbial nail on the head. [My dissatisfaction with this approach is reflected in my rating for the film. In many ways, Eyes Wide Shut is a four-star movie, but, with this glaring flaw intact, I cannot justify giving the version I saw my highest rating.]

The key theme in Eyes Wide Shut is one near and dear to Kubrick's heart: the dehumanization of society. This is a concept he has returned to repeatedly during his career (most obviously in 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket). Here, Kubrick has something to say about the causes and effects of depersonalized sex. The orgy scene is the fulcrum of Eyes Wide Shut, and, during its course, all of the copulating couples are masked and costumed. They cannot kiss, see each others' faces, and, for the most part, they do not speak. Sex is normally the most intimate means of human interaction, yet here it is reduced to a ritualistic, almost creepy form of gratification. The men and women involved in this tableau must hide their faces because being recognized could cause them untold damage in the current social and political climate. There is freedom in anonymity, but also isolation and a complete dearth of emotion.

Throughout the entire film, Bill struggles with sexual issues. During the orgy, he is invited by more than one woman to participate. Before and afterwards, he has opportunities to abandon his marriage vows when propositioned by acquaintances and hookers. The way he reacts in each of these circumstances, and the manner in which he interacts sexually with his wife, displays a growing awareness concerning the ease of having meaningless sex with someone who is regarded as an object, and the difficulty of having meaningless sex with someone who is seen as a person. In the end, depersonalization wins out (carefully consider the wording of Alice's final statement and the context in which it is made).

There are really only two performances that matter in Eyes Wide Shut: Cruise's and Kidman's. While other actors - Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Marie Richardson, Vinessa Shaw, and Leelee Sobieski (to name a few) - make appearances, their screen time is insignificant compared to that of the two leads. For his part, Cruise is solid but uneven. There are several scenes in which he turns in powerful work, but there are other instances when he seems to be forcing the performance (on one or two occasions, I thought I was watching him re-enact his work from Jerry Maguire, which was fine for that movie, but is out of place in this one). Kidman, on the other hand, is consistently excellent. This is the most powerful role she has taken on throughout a varied career.

The music in Eyes Wide Shut is singularly effective. In fact, this may represent the best use of a soundtrack in any of Kubrick's films. Jocelyn Pook's compositions re-enforce the tone of every scene in which they are employed. And, while several of the pieces used here are lush, orchestral numbers (such as the one by Pook used during the orgy), those that create the strongest impression are the simple, discordant ones designed for the piano (credited to composer Gy├Ârgy Ligeti). As John Carpenter proved in Halloween, complexity is not always necessary to set the proper mood (and, strange as it may seem, elements of this score reminded me of Halloween's).

As is almost always true in a Kubrick film, the director transports us into an alternate reality. Kubrick's productions are never grounded in our reality - his characters always fall into a skewed place and time. In Dr. Strangelove, it was a world where the Cold War had gone mad. In 2001, it was HAL's domain. In A Clockwork Orange, it was an Orwellian future. In Full Metal Jacket, it was Vietnam. Here, it's an underground realm of sex parties and orgies. The movie begins and ends in a familiar New York, but, in between, the director uses all of the tools at his disposal to warp our accustomed world into something bizarre and surreal.

If Eyes Wide Shut was to be placed into a genre, the label would be "psychological thriller" (although such pigeonholing does a great disservice to the movie). The second half is characterized by building tension, and the suspense isn't completely dissipated when "the truth" is revealed. (This is in part because Kubrick cleverly allows a kernel of doubt to remain about what really is going on. He presents two possibilities, and, although the facts favor one resolution, it's never clear-cut.) As usual, there are a series of unforgettable sequences. In addition to the orgy, there's Bill's strange and comical late-night trip to a costume store run by a suspicious fellow (played by Rade Serbedzija) - this involves cross-dressing and a hint of pedophilia. Another memorable moment occurs when Bill and Alice begin making love in front of a mirror. From a set design perspective, it's impossible to ignore the opulence of Victor's Christmas party. And there's a scene when Bill is being stalked through the silent, empty streets of New York.

For those who view cinema as something more substantive than an evening's diversion, the release of Eyes Wide Shut is an event - one more momentous than the unveiling of The Phantom Menace. However, while George Lucas' latest venture into a galaxy far, far away left some fans feeling disappointed and betrayed, Stanley Kubrick's final directorial effort will reward a majority of his loyalists with a sense of satisfaction. In terms of power and effect, Eyes Wide Shut approaches (but does not surpass) Kubrick's vintage work - it is thought-provoking and unsettling. Impressions and images linger long after the projector has finished weaving its peculiar magic, making Eyes Wide Shut one of 1999's best offerings to date.

Eyes Wide Shut (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:40
U.S. Release Date: 1999-07-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1