Kubrick: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Samuel Delany once suggested that the healthiest and happiest state of affairs was to be in a loving long-term relationship with a rotation of anonymous sexual encounters on the side. That may not be everybody’s truth, but it’s a possibility that haunts the two leads of Stanley Kubrick’s final film. Kubrick died six days after delivering the final cut of Eyes Wide Shut to the studios, which makes this adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle even more enigmatic, since he never had a chance to discuss his process after the film was released. The film was even more notorious for featuring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, at the height of their relationship, in a sexually charged narrative, but the two never actually have sex here, even though Kubrick’s style and approach often seems to foreshadow the art porn movement of the early 2000s. Instead, their inability to have sex, or their incapacity to satisfy themselves through mere monogamy, provides the film with its main propulsive drive. 

The entire story takes place over twenty-four hours, during the Christmas season in New York, and starts with a party at the home of Victor Ziegler, a wealthy socialite played by Sydney Pollack. Cruise plays Bill Harford, a doctor, and Kidman plays Alice, his wife, an ex-gallery curator who temporarily gave up her career to raise their daughter Helena, played by Madison Eginton. While Full Metal Jacket was Kubrick’s final film for many years, Eyes Wide Shut reaches back to The Shining for its cues, continuing the genteel style of the Overlook Hotel by drawing on the classical music popular when Schnitzler was writing his novella, and intensifying The Shining’s Steadicam approach to the point where nearly every scene here takes place in motion. Like The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut is also a horror film at heart, but goes for emergent eeriness rather than overt scares, like a latter-day Hitchcockian psychodrama.

Kubrick’s last few films before Eyes Wide Shut really crystallised the two major concerns of his cinema as a whole. On the one hand, he was always fixated with control spaces – think the war room in Strangelove, HAL in 2001, the (aptly named) Overlook in The Shining, and the training camp in Full Metal Jacket. On the other hand, he was obsessed with situations where sight and action came apart – specifically situations where men were faced with their inability to adequately act in the face of debilitating spectacles. Time and again, Kubrick used his control spaces to both redress and enact this growing dissociation between sight and action, even as his protagonists became ever more extreme in their efforts to regain proper control.

This process reached a logical conclusion in both The Shining and Full Metal Jacket but is taken even further here, eventually crystallising around the greatest set piece in Kubrick’s entire career. On the face of it, however, Bill Harford initially seems to have achieved the control that Kubrick’s latter-day characters crave, which is to say that he starts off as the most naturalistic character in Kubrick’s later body of work. When we first meet him, he’s a successful doctor, with a loving wife, an adoring daughter, a beautiful home, and a wealthy and appreciative clientele. Cruise’s background in action cinema, his reputation as a Hollywood heartthrob, and his real-life relationship with Kidman, further cement this opening impression that he’s more unassailable than Kubrick’s typically emasculated main character.

Yet this naturalism quickly gives way to a tipsy irrealism once Bill and Alice arrive at the Zieglers’ party. After some perfunctory small talk with the hosts, they both retreat to two heightened exchanges, which immediately introduce a new strangeness to the film’s world. First, Alice accepts a dance from an older gentleman, who very nearly convinces her to come home with him, as she swoons in such a queasy, hypnotic manner that she seems drugged. At the same time, Bill finds himself propositioned by a pair of young women, who caress him with the same weird abandon that Alice is displaying to the older gentleman. In the space of a few minutes, it seems like this normal bourgeois couple might peel off for the evening, but the spell is momentarily broken when Ziegler calls Bill upstairs to attend to a prostitute who has overdosed on heroin. Even here, however, the same queasy sexual energy remains, seeming to transmit itself back downstairs to Alice, as she continues to flirt with her partner.

This scene marks the first appearance of the ambient sexuality that is the film’s main signature – a cruisey taste for fleeting encounters, devoid of any social utility or specific goal. When Bill and Alice arrive home, she makes the first of two disclosures that cement this ambience into the main trajectory of the film. In response to Bill’s offhand comment that men care about gratification, and women care about futurity, Alice relates an anecdote about a sailor she glimpsed at a hotel early in their relationship. While she only shared a glance with this sailor, she confesses that she would have sacrificed her future and all her long-term goals with Bill for one night with this man – and continued to think about him for many years when planning out their future together. Later in the film, this figure of futureless sex drifts into one of Alice’s dreams, which she also recounts to Bill. In this dream, she does indeed have sex with the sailor, only for him to lead her to hundreds of other men, all of whom have their way with her, while she laughs in the face of Bill, who is watching, as he does in real life, with horror.

Alice’s sailor haunts Eyes Wide Shut as a figure of the patriarchal institutions that are supposed to regulate and contain female sexuality. No surprise that this ruptures Bill’s fantasy of masculinity, since it speaks to his own failure to occupy this fantasy. In another kind of film, Bill might set out to remasculate himself with all the genres that Hollywood has up its sleeve – the slasher film, the vigilante film, the action film. Yet Cruise is a master at depicting characters trying to repress, process, or contain their emasculation, and was in a particularly daring streak at the turn of the millennium, culminating with his iconic performance in Magnolia. In his hands, and Kubrick’s hands, Bill goes from mere cuckdom to a more profound curiosity – albeit a disturbed curiosity – at what Alice’s confessions might mean for him.  That’s not to say that Bill isn’t miffed by realising he isn’t the marital partner exhibiting the most marital restraint, but that the originality of the film is that he never completely leaves the marriage either, since this isn’t a film about infidelity in the regular or conventional sense.

Instead, for the rest of the film, Bill and Alice pivot between each other and other people, trying to avoid making their marriage too central in either its presence or its absence. Beyond a certain point, we don’t quite have a man and a woman here, but a man’s paranoid fantasy of a woman, and a woman’s paranoid fantasy of a man, with the film unfolding between those two shifting poles. This situation propels Bill into a Cruise-y trajectory that lasts all night, and plays like a single tracking-shot, largely devoid of Kubrick’s regular zooms, and almost entirely filmed on Steadicam. Perpetually framed with long, linear planes of space stretching away from him, Bill feels like he’s in a Steadicam shot even when he’s stationary, as New York coalesces into a sensual vortex, pulling him towards a more polymorphous sexual sensibility.

In the process, however, sexuality is itself detached from any one act or institiution, and unleashed as an enigmatic, elliptical force that can’t be known properly in advance. From hereon out, every single person brims with an alien sexual potency, directing it at Bill in ways that occasionally look like flirtation but never promise consummation in the regular sense. Every encounter is sexualised – or rather no encounters are desexualised – as Kubrick restores the patina of sexuality that convention removes from the public everyday. Once unleashed, this sexual desire like kismet, overwhelming people with a will of its own, and proliferating through the film in fatalistic and mysterious ways – an arcane force that untethers Bill from the apotropaic structure of the nuclear family, and propels him into a series of one-off encounters with characters who never appear again, and seem half-dreamed to begin with.  

This process starts with Bill making a house call after he returns from the Zieglers’ party, which he then uses as a pretext to spend the entire night out, in an effort to process Alice’s confession. As he sinks into the rhythm of the city, he has a number of sexual encounters that might once have prompted him to consult the police, doctors, or even the military, but which silence him now, as if newly aware that all these patriarchal institutions are powerless against this mystical sexual force, suddenly synonymous with the Manhattan he thought he knew. Space itself is sexualised, especially during the cavernous establishing shots, which nearly always occur at intersections, and are always accompanied by swathes of wintry white noise, as if the physical spaces of the film are themselves pulling Bill in some inexorable sensual direction. Hence the film’s distinct score, which consists of a series of piano notes played up loud, evoking the uncanny reverberation of space rather than anything resembling a melody.

The result is a kind of hyperspatial vision of New York that takes all of Kubrick’s previous spatial conceits to their aesthetic conclusion. Hitchcock was renowned for filling his films with “objects that looked back” – objects whose very presence contained secrets, or came alive at key moments with an unexpected agency. While Brian De Palma is usually celebrated as the great heir to Hitchcock, Eyes Wide Shut is perhaps the most Hitchcockian film since Hitchcock, since Kubrick abstracts this depiction of objects into a principle of space itself. Every space in the film seems to stare back at Bill, cruising him with a blithe assumption that he is as full of polymorphous desires as the spaces he is traversing. Later in the film, when he starts to realise he is being followed, his pursuers appear more as extensions of Kubrick’s spaces, rather than disruptions to them. Kubrick’s decision to shoot the street scenes on sound stages also continues the hypothetical spatiality of The Shining, imbuing every outdoor space with a slightly artificial edge, as if even the physical coordinates of Bill’s world can’t be relied upon.  

This unanny spatial style crystallises around the perennial Christmas backdrops, transforming Eyes Wide Shut into one of the most original Christmas films ever made – a deconstruction of the privileged role that Christmas films play in the regulation of American desire. Virtually every scene is lit by multi-coloured Christmas lights, evoking the sensory continuum that pulls Bill into its force field. Yet these Christmas lights also produce an intensified normality that’s quite uncanny as the backdrop for Bill’s explorations, visualising the all-night, low-level hum of a metropolis whose sensuous economy has suddenly been thrown into eerie relief. Most of the Christmas-lit scenes take place in the transitional spaces of bourgeois life – spaces around family, but not family spaces – with a particular focus on lobbies, foyers, elevators, corridors and empty living rooms. Whenever we’re at big gatherings or in large houses, Kubrick quickly removes us to private rooms tucked away from the action, while Bill’s own Christmas tree mainly glitters when his family is in bed or otherwise absent from the house.  

These scenes when the Christmas lights flicker out across empty bourgeois spaces are amongst the eeriest in the film, evoking an autonomous and amorphous sexual potentiality as it haunts the hearths and homes of the city, while also suggesting a different kind of pleasure principle buried beneath them. Kubrick tends to dramatise the lighting at these moments too, throwing the Christmas colours in lurid relief as they guide Harford towards the “end of the rainbow” that he’s promised by his two young companions at the Zieglers’ Christmas party. As the film proceeds, Kubrick also imagines Bill’s polymorphous destination at the end of the rainbow, so it makes sense that he makes an emergency late night trip to the “Rainbow’s End” clothing store to buy a costume for a mysterious party he hears about from Nick Nightingale, an old friend played by Todd Field, who he met at the Zieglers’ party.

This event may well be the greatest set piece of Kubrick’s career, and the culmination to all the control spaces of his career. Taking a taxi to the address provided by Nightingale, Bill finds himself at a giant house in the country, where he provides a password and dons his mask. Once inside, he is confronted by what appears to be an arcane sexual ritual in the midst of a beautifully appointed foyer, which also takes the film’s various vestibular spaces to their logical conclusion. In the centre of the foyer, a masked man spreads incense and guides a series of masked women through a sequence of sexual postures, while a massive group of masked onlookers watch passively from all sides. This is perhaps the most dramatic dissociation of sight and action in Kubrick’s entire career, if only because the ceremony gains so much of its intensity and strangeness from precisely this distinction. Every movement made by the man and women is deliberate and theatrical in its strangeness, while the masks collapse sight and stasis, leaving eyes wide shut, as the only organs of the body that can freely move, but powerless to effect any movement of their own.

At the same time, this ceremony coincides with the greatest patriarchal crisis in Kubrick’s career, since not even the emasculations of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket can’t match  Alice’s disclosures to Bill. To try and remedy that situation, the ceremony is also the most arcane and remote of Kubrick’s control-spaces – the most difficult to parse or explain in retrospect, and the hardest to dissociate from the fantasies of its main characters. You might say that this control-space deconstructs those of Kubrick’s career, encacting their reflexive impotence rather than trying to extend or expand them. For the more this ceremony and the subsequent orgy try to restore the patriarchal regulation of sexuality, the more they draw out the paganistic and mysterious sexuality that has reigned over the film. The more they try to “civilise” sexuality, or use sexuality as a platform for the elite, the more mystical it becomes, and the more they insist on the pleasures of patriarchy, the more those pleasures move away from the family structure crystallised by Christmas. The result is a bit like watching right-wing pleasure formation, as this elite cabal of masked attendants polices polymorphous sexual desire as their own province in order to preserve the patriarchal structure of the nation state.

That impotence, and the impossibility of patriarchy fulfilling its own fantasies, finally brings Bill and Alice back together for an uneasy conclusion that takes place in the first real Christmas space we have seen, despite the plethora of Christmas lights, whose rainbow glow is conspicuously absent from this harshly-lit finale. As they accompany their daughter Helena through a toy store, they try to come to terms with their newfound estrangement from normality, and from heteronormativity, while trying to piece how much of the last twenty-four hours was fantasy, and how much was reality. Given that timeframe, Eyes Wide Shut could almost be about a night of inadequate sex followed by a frustrated morning, but however you read it, it’s clear that the American family structure isn’t sufficient to satisfy the yearnings of this particular married couple. For all its vulgar bravura, Alice’s final injunction – “let’s fuck” – is totally incommensuate with the sexual fantasy that has percolated across the film, as she attempts to sexuality to a matter-of-fact transaction that can be tamed in one act.

While Bill and Alice go to choose a birthday present for their daughter, then, she’s quickly displaced from their real decision, even as she’s the main rationale for it – namely, to sleep together again as soon as possible, and so return to monogamy, even though they both know that’s not nearly enough for them. Christmas films are nearly always validations of childhood – either celebrating the innocence of actual children or embracing your own inner child – but here everything incidental to Christmas takes the fore, even as Helena picks out a Barbie doll to signal her tacit adherence to the structures binding her parents. Eyes Wide Shut is thus that rare thing – a Christmas film without family values, or a Christmas film that devalues the family, or at least a Christmas film that treates family values an obligation, a generic necessity that doesn’t correlate with the rainbow promise that hangs over Kubrick’s lush mise-en-scenes. It’s a Christmas film that finally displaces children by displacing procreative, reproductive set – and perhaps it took a director at the very end of his career to puncture this most repronormative of American genres, producing his most dazzling work in the process.

About Billy Stevenson (892 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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