Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #581


Number of Views: Three
Release Date: July 16, 1999
Sub-Genre: Drama/Character Study
Budget: $65,000,000
Box Office: $162,100,000
Country of Origin: United Kingdom, United States
Running Time: 159 minutes
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Frederic Raphael
Based on Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler
Cinematography: Larry Smith
Score: Jocelyn Pook
Editing: Nigel Galt
Studios: Pole Star, Hobby Films
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Stars: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Todd Field, Sky du Mont, Rade Šerbedžija, Vinessa Shaw, Fay Masterson, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming, Leon Vitali, Julienne Davis, Thomas Gibson, Madison Eginton


Suggested Audio Jukebox

[1] Dmitri Shostakovich “Waltz No. 2”
[2] Chris Isaak “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”
[3] Jocelyn Pook “Migrations”
[4] Jocelyn Pook “Masked Ball”


Filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick come along once in a lifetime. Considered by many as one of the most influential directors of the twentieth century, his films were nothing if not divisive. Traditionally misunderstood by critics on their release, it wouldn’t be until years later that they were given the credit they deserved. Kubrick himself was one of life’s great eccentrics and an obsessive perfectionist, making him notoriously hard to work with as it was pretty much his way or the high way. Sleeping all day and working away feverishly all night, he resembled a bedraggled vampire and would think nothing of calling his friends at 3am just to ask them whether there is a God.


However, the results were rarely short of dizzyingly brilliant. One of the first to make use of Steadicam for The Shining, you could always bank on masterful photography, exquisite set design and distinctive score from any Kubrick feature, in addition to a unique tone that effortlessly set him apart from his contemporaries. When he died in March 1999 aged seventy, modern cinema mourned one of their bona fide one-offs.


However, there was something typically Kubrick about his ultimate swan song. You see, he had just wrapped shooting his first motion picture for over a decade, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 fable Traumnovelle, which relocated the story from early 20th century Vienna to modern-day New York, and passed away just days after screening the final cut.


When you consider that the film took well over a year of consecutive shoot days to complete, a Guinness record to this very day, it would appear that sheer bloody-mindedness saw him through to the bitter end and there is an eerie quality about it that is almost impossible to place exactly. In keeping with most of his films, very few seemed to have the faintest idea what to make of it on its arrival, and general consensus was that it wasn’t one of his finest works. Interestingly, opinions have softened over the years, and it’s about sodding time as seldom have I been so utterly beguiled than with Eyes Wide Shut.


When you consider that the running time is over two and a half hours and precious little happens for long periods, it has absolutely no right to command one’s attention this way but therein lies its simple beauty. There’s a dreamlike quality to it, evocative of Jack Torrance’s time in The Gold Ballroom shooting the shit with bartender Lloyd, and it upholds this consistently from first frame to final. Indeed attempting to categorize it is pretty much futile and it was wrongly billed as an erotic thriller when it is, in fact, way more than that. It’s a tale all about grey areas, highlighting the frailties of human relationships, and the curiosity which exists in us all.


Meanwhile, the title Eyes Wide Shut is actually a code phrase; invented by the upper classes to denote the turning of blind eyes when they decide to embrace their perversions and act in a manner that society wouldn’t accept from those of such elevated public stature. It’s certainly relevant but still words alone fail to truly map out the film’s footprints. This is just one of those motion pictures that has to be experienced for yourself, which is no less than we had come to expect from Kubrick over the course of his career.

Unknown - Eyes Wide Shut - 2_2

“You know what they say, once a doctor always a doctor.”

Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) is a highly esteemed New York doctor and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) a similarly eminent art curator. The circles they frequent are of the silk-stocking variety where appearances are everything and must be upheld at all times. The Harfords appear to have social-climbing down to pat, are aware how to conduct themselves publicly, and portray both happy and successful through a unified front.


We observe them at a Christmas party for one of Bill’s well-to-do patients Victor (Sydney Pollack) and, despite both flirting outrageously, there appears to be an understanding of boundaries that allows them to circulate with blessing, albeit always sentient. There’s a playfulness between them which no doubt keeps things as fresh as a lily, but unbeknownst to Bill, this night Alice is feeling particularly scarlet and the dynamics are about to receive an unenviable brunt.


After a little recreational cannabis to loosen those lips some, Alice upgrades foreplay to six, as she is all overcome with the desire to get a little more naked than normal for her captive audience. Watching Bill die a little beneath his face of bravery as she shatters his sanctuary without laying a solitary finger on the letter of the law is our first sign that Cruise is in this way past the bitter middle.

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“If you men only knew…”

Meanwhile Kidman is so disconcertingly believable in her frank confession that any couples partaking in Eyes Wide Shut together are likely to make a quick dash for their spouses’ iPads and thoroughly inspect that search history. Take it from a man who has sat in the precise pillow for which Bill is permanently remolding the memory foam. It’s a tough pill for a rabbit in headlamps to swallow.


But swallow it he does. A simple twist of fate brings about something of a cooling off period and, while Alice is left to reflect on the potency of the mushroom bomb she just tossed into the family plot, Bill decides to take a nice moonlit stroll and clear his head. It soon becomes clear that she is only present to spark his fuse from afar as he stumbles from one half-baked hot spot to the next, feeling woefully melancholic. That said, crestfall is not the only electricity jolting Bill on this night.

Eyes-Wide-Shut-Dr. Harford is accosted by a hooker

While his subconscious is ensnared in the naked writhing limbs of his significant other and her no longer dormant flight of fancy, there is also a dash of empowerment, a light of the moon hall pass, and Alice’s unwitting endorsement to do whatever the hell he so wishes. Every step along the sidewalk, one inner taunt is on the incessant haunt: Why the jolly fuck should she be the one doing Wonderland? New York City has been the rabbit hole for many a bruised buck before him and the bracing midwinter air acts as the very morphine he craves without apology.


Through The Looking-Glass he steps and, lo-and-behold, there’s a curious White Rabbit on the other side. Freelance pianist and old friend Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) possesses both the waistcoat and pocket watch as he tantalizes Bill with a world that only exists after dark. Are the words EAT ME springing to mind?


Turns out there’s some kind of need-to-know soirée about to play out at an undisclosed location and Nick has been commissioned with supplying its ambiance blindfolded. Of course, Bill’s current attire would be highly inappropriate, so a Caucus Race ensues to acquire himself the correct garb to grant him access, alongside a password which he didn’t just spot Nick scribbling down. Being well-connected, he dashes to the nearest costume shop, only to discover that ownership has changed hands. It’s shamefully out-of-hours but Mad Hatter Russian Mr. Milich (Rade Serbedzija) likes the way dollar bills feel against his fur and promptly invites Bill inside for a Mad Tea-Party.


“Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn’t. “

Now all Bill needs is a Venetian mask and cloak but it would be positively rude not to christen the bone china while he’s here. Milich’s March Hare of a teenage daughter (Leelee Sobieski) appears to be the one on pouring duties and Bill’s not entirely sure whether teabagging is indeed on the menu.


“If the good doctor himself should ever want anything again… anything at all… it needn’t be a costume.”

Perhaps it is here that he should get the hint; tonight is evidently an odd little number and the next stop is The Queen’s Croquet Ground and a potential round of Who Stole The Tarts? should he fail to keep his head in the game. Little is Bill aware that said head is about to stick out like a sore thumb once he arrives at the secure location in a manner some way less than discreet and bowls on in for a look-see.

Abigail Good - Eyes Wide Shut - 1_3

Clearly there’s something unusual about this particular soirée and, if the quasi-religious sexual ritual kicking off in the lobby isn’t suggestion enough, then the fact that it is closely followed by one big fuck orgy directly afterwards pretty much screams out Swingers Masquerade. This is all well and good but the words Off With His Head right now would cast rather a different complexion on things and Bill is starting to rue not opting for the next neck size up beneath his vulnerable veneer.


Revealing any more would be pure theft as the rabbit hole leads where it leads and, with Eyes Wide Shut, it’s all about taking this leap of faith alongside our Alice. This is duck soup when we are provided with so many reasons to step into those polished dress shoes. Due to Kubrick’s illogical fear of being airborne (despite the fact he was a qualified pilot), Manhattan is a mere rear reflection, all smoke and mirrors from the sound stage, and this actually works to the film’s advantage. You see, it’s brimming with an ethereal buzz and this is further heightened by way of audio delectation. Each frame has played out a million times in his subconscious beforehand and it tells as we’re transported directly into this Winter Wonderland and continually toyed with.


“No dream is ever just a dream.”

Then on occasion he brings us in for a hug and Bill’s homeward return delivers us straight into the bedroom, that intimate chamber of enticing torment. Both Cruise and Kidman (who were themselves prenupped up at the time of filming) deliver from the most honest part of their souls, baring themselves in the process (the latter not a great deal less than freely).


It lends an additional layer of truth to the words of Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael and both deserve considerable kudos for embracing his vision so respectfully. Pollock is also excellent as Bill’s solemn faced voice of reason and all players are well-versed on precisely where to curtsy. As a result, Eyes Wide Shut washes over our senses of its own free will before informing us that we’ve been just as much under inspection the whole time. It poses a thousand uncomfortable questions before leaving them hanging in exquisite mist before us. Indeed the final word uttered in this film is “Fuck” and it seems like the only fitting way for this provocative master of ceremonies to utimately bow out. Now if that’s not a last dance, then I must have got the second password wrong.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

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