Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thoughts on Eyes Wide Shut (1999) by Stanley Kubrick

I've avoided Eyes Wide Shut for years because I didn't care for the two lead actors. I didn't think even Kubrick could get me interested in these two. I've only ever liked Cruise in two roles and Kidman in one. But their performances in this film were flipping fantastic.

I've read that Kubrick, Kidman, and Cruise had a great chemistry together, and although many people found this gifted but rather obsessive, temperamental director a nightmare to work with, Tom and Nicole loved him. Maybe that chemistry was part of what made this movie -- even the slow parts -- so compelling.

I don't know whether I can fairly review this movie, since I don't completely understand it -- I'm not even sure I'm supposed to. As I was watching it, in the wee hours of the morning, I had several different thoughts about this:
  1. WTF? WTF?? WTF???
  2. Perhaps if I were more more seasoned film buff, I'd "get" this movie. :-P 
  3. Maybe this is a movie you're supposed to watch stoned. Seriously. If I had a little stash, in the medicine cabinet, at the bottom of a Band-Aid box ...
Yup. Anyhoosie ... I still have a surreal cinema hangover from this experience. Sometimes that can be harder to recover from than the traditional alcohol-induced hangover. Although since I haven't pulled a full-on drunk since around 1991, I may not be in a position to make a fair comparison. 

On a serious note, it might help to let this one germinate for a few days and read a few interpretations and reviews. But before I absorb anyone else's ideas about the film, I want to get down my own raw initial thoughts. Because that's how I ponder and sort out things -- y'know -- by writing about them.

Let the fun begin ...

The Part With No Major Spoilers:

Bill (Tom Cruise), a compassionate New York City physician, and Alice (Nicole Kidman), an art curator, are a successful couple with a beautiful seven-year-old daughter. As the film opens, they're attending a lavish party, and each of them enjoys a relatively harmless extramarital flirtation.

Later they get stoned and start laughing about their antics at the party. Bill piques Alice's ire with his one-dimensional perspective on men, women, and sex. You know the tired old cliche as well as I do. Women make love because we want love and security. Guys just like to Do It ... as often as possible ... preferably with lots of women. Because ... you know ... dudes are like that. (*Snort*)  Alice decides to school her husband on a more nuanced view of gender and sexuality. Good for her! But alas, she goes a bit too far.

Alice shares a private sexual fantasy that she should've kept to herself. (No more cannabis for you, sweetie.) I've never liked Tom Cruise, but the expression on Bill's face as he's listening to her confession is ... just ... wow. Phenomenal. He immediately has to leave to help a patient's family. But this image of his wife's imaginary indiscretion torments him, and we realize he's been irrevocably changed in some way.

This establishes a major theme of the movie -- a strange, surreal, and thought-provoking one. We know there is a clear line between the real and imaginary. Our actions carry moral culpability. Our thoughts, dreams, and fantasies are just that ... they leave us innocent and untouched. Or do they? Maybe when we step through the looking glass, our ideas and dreams are real. Perhaps they matter as much as what we call "reality" because they have the power to shape our identity, our lives, and ultimately, the fate of others.

After leaving his patient's family, Bill wanders the streets of the city and roams the streets of The Village. Let's face it, in that venue you could just stand on any street corner with a movie camera and produce enough material for a surreal movie, right? But I digress. Pretty soon Bill finds himself tumbling down a rabbit hole. And that concludes the spoiler-free part of this review.

According to Wikipedia, this strange, surreal film is based on a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler titled Dream Story. I'd really like to read this, and seriously, how cool is this book cover?

Rambly Thoughts & Questions (Spoilers):  

  1. Eyes Wide Shut is one of only three Kubrick films I've seen, and I was struck by the visual parallels to The Shining. This was reflected in shots of elevators, hallways, and -- of course -- the masquerade party. And by "party," of course, I mean wild, ritualistic orgy with lunatics in creepy masks.

    Oddly enough the creepiest part of The Shining, for me, wasn't Jack Torrence's descent into homicidal madness ... that aspect of the film makes me laugh my ass off. (Don't judge me.) It was that fucking masquerade party with the weird dude dressed as a dog ... or was it a bear? I always found that creepy as hell.

  2. The title of this movie fascinates me. I got into this film having no idea what it was about. For some reason I thought it was a story about a spouse being caught engaging in adultery. So I thought the title "Eyes Wide Shut" might refer to being in denial about a loved one's infidelity. Something along the lines of "you believe your eyes are wide open, because you know this person so well, but you see nothing."

    Now I think it's a play on the blurred line between reality ("being awake") and the realm of dreams and fantasy. Hell, this movie doesn't just blur the line, it obliterates it. Actually, I think the title works on both levels. Thoughts???

  3. The mask lying beside Alice on the bed as she slept. How creepy was that? My first thought was that the thugs guarding the secrets of the orgy club had left it there as another warning to Bill. But no, that didn't seem quite right, somehow. Given the film's themes, I assume it was meant to blur the line between dreams and reality. Did Alice just have a nightmare about fucking other men, or was she actually at that party? Neither interpretation feels wholly satisfying to me.

  4. What I found brilliant about this movie was the many levels on which it played with the ways reality is filtered through our own perceptions. It starts on a relatively simple level. Bill's perception of his wife, himself, and everything about sexuality were shifted by Alice's confession about the naval officer. Suddenly the world we see -- through his eyes -- looks different. Everywhere he looks, on the street, people make out in dark corners, guys talk about lap dances, and intermingled sex and danger abounds. As his perception of reality becomes increasingly skewed, we see the world, through his eyes, as increasingly frightening, surreal, and depraved. I didn't articulate this last point very well, but it's something I'd like to keep pondering.


  1. Really, really weird movie but one that benefits largely from the talent involved. Great post Stephanie! Wish Kubrick was alive to do more movies like this, even if he didn't think it was a total piece of crap.

    1. Thanks, Dan. :-) I completely agree ... both about the weirdness and its benefiting tremendously from the talent.

  2. Okay you make me totally want to see this movie right now.

    1. Well, it's definitely not for everybody. :-) But if you do watch it, Jenners, I hope you enjoy it.

  3. Interesting post, Stephanie! This is not the kind of movie I'd enjoy though, and I'm not sure I'd 'get' it either. I'm not a huge fan of Cruise nor Kidman but I think given the right material both can be quite compelling.

    1. This is certainly a unique movie ... definitely not for everybody. :-)

      Even though it's a Kubrick film, I'm actually surprised I liked it as much as I did. The performances were surprisingly good, it was exceptionally well crafted, and obviously the themes and surreal nature of the movie really got me thinking. :-)

  4. So glad you loved their performances! I love the atmosphere of this film, and their chemistry just adds to that. Not to mention the brilliant cinematography and great use of previously existing music. Now I want to watch this again. :)

    1. Well said, Josh! Your enthusiasm for this film gave me the final push to watch it, keeping a wide open mind. ;-) All two hours and 39 minutes. Thanks for the great recommendation.

      To add to my list of autodidactic projects for the new year ... watch the rest of Kubrick's filmography. I've only seen three so far, as I mentioned: EWS, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. FMJ was another that went against my expectations (definitely not your typical war movie) and left me surprised by how much I liked it.

  5. Schnitzler was a friend of Freud. That's a clue to what's going on, the ultimate taboo, sex! Funny how Bill's "trip" happens outside the confine of his marriage into a world of mystery and danger. Every close encounter he has is a grave risk to his person. He almost has a thing with a young hooker. Turns out she's dying of Aids. His friend the piano player mysteriously disappears. And the prostitute who's life he saved, may or may not have been slain by his wealthy clients ritualistic sex club. Much goes on here. I loved it all. Incredibly thought provoking. The best scene for me was the bedroom of the dying man as his daughter confesses her love for Bill, that she would leave her fiance, anything to be with Bill. To me one of the most powerful scenes in cinema! Kubrick has always been misunderstood, perhaps that was his plan. Here we are years later still talking about him.

    1. Hi Ray, Thank you for stopping by and leaving such a terrific, thoughtful comment. When I read that "Dream Story" was set in turn of the century Vienna, I wondered whether the author knew Freud. That does explain a lot, doesn't it? :-)

      It's interesting to me that a lot of the power of Freud's psychosexual ideas was garnered from the repressive climate of Victorian Europe. Yet when Kubrick transplants this to contemporary New York (MUCH less repressed, I assume. *Laughing*) it still works. I'm not completely sure why, but it's fun to ponder.

      I've also been thinking about the original setting of the story in terms of the gender issues raised. (Going back to Alice's argument with Bill about the differences between men and women.) In the patriarchal culture of Victorian Europe, upper-class women were seen as asexual, in contrast to men. Flash forward to contemporary America. Apparently enough vestiges of that mindset linger that this still *works.*

      Back to the movie itself, I touched on that pervasive sense of everything being charged with a sense of sexuality and danger in my review. Thanks for *greatly* expanding on that point. You've helped me understand this film better.

      And that scene with his dead patient's daughter was really powerful, wasn't it?! I couldn't agree more.

      I can't wait to read this novella. Turn of the century Vienna. Surrealism. Gender issues. Sexuality. Danger. Guilt. So much great stuff! :-)

      And yes, Kubrick definitely left us with plenty to puzzle over and discuss. ;-)

      I'll stop now. Holy shiz ... I wasn't kidding when I said I was in the mood to discuss this movie. :-D

    2. Do yourself a favor and see more Kubrick. The one film that's with me always, especially when I read or see anything about war, is "Paths of Glory". Have a good sense of outrage and box of tissues handy! Oh, and here's an inducement. The one and only woman in the film, becomes Mrs. Kubrick! Bon Appetit!

    3. Thanks, Ray -- I definitely need to see more Kubrick. I'll make a point of seeing Paths of Glory, though it sounds like it won't be an easy ride. War films are difficult for me anyway.

  6. Excellent post Stephanie. I'm a massive fan of this movie and I believe it to be Kubrick's most misunderstood. It's also one of his best and that's saying something. At first, I didn't really care for it much but on a repeat viewing I realised that if taken on a subconscious level it's powerful and thought provoking stuff.

    1. Thank you, Mark! In what way is this film widely misunderstood? I'm in the dark about that, because I haven't read any reviews or discussions of this movie yet. I was deliberately waiting until I'd seen it and formed my own opinions. It really paid off -- this film benefited tremendously from my going into it having virtually no idea what to expect. :-)

      There have been many movies I needed a second viewing to appreciate. And I like what you said about it really working on a subconscious level. I couldn't agree more.

  7. Glad to read you liked the movie, it's such a surreal, disturbing film. I love this shot of Alice with mask next to her. I always assumed she was on the party, but your other observations make as much sense.

    Here is a brilliant article about the dogman in The Shining btw :) http://unspeakablehorror.com/journal/2006/10/28/the-shinings-dogman.html

    1. Your interpretation of the mask on the bed beside Alice makes sense. I think the line between her having attended the party in her dream and her having actually been there was meant to be blurred, in keeping with this whole "dreams can be more real than reality" theme Kubrick seemed to have going.

      I'd say it's definitely up for grabs in terms of interpretation. In any case, it's an unforgettable image. And a disturbing and rather fucked up but altogether awesome film. :-)

      Thanks for the dog man article! I can't wait to read it.

  8. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one Stephanie. I watched this one a while ago and I remember not knowing what the heck was going on. Isn't Cameron Diaz in it?
    Yes, her sleeping with that mask beside her is very creepy!

  9. You make some really valid good points in this review. I like your comparisons to this and "The Shining" Great job.


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