Stanley Kubrick’s esoteric last hurrah finds the audience absorbing the public and private lives of Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman). The couple have been together for several years now and consider themselves to be very happy, but at the NYC cocktail party of a wealthy patient of Bill’s, some potential cracks begin to show themselves in the marriage.
Bill reunites with Nick, an old medical school colleague who has since decided to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. Bill is also later occupied by a medical emergency upstairs, where his host’s girlfriend nearly overdoses on a speedball. Throughout the night, both Bill and Alice are approached when they’re alone – Alice by a middle-aged Hungarian man, and Bill by two young models. Both resist their respective advances.
The evening after the party, Alice asks Bill if he had sex with the two models, to which Bill reassures her that he didn’t. However, he is disturbed when Alice subsequently reveals that years earlier, she had come dangerously close to having an affair and willingly fantasized about such an encounter.
Bill wanders around the streets of New York, distressed and disillusioned. He has an exchange with a prostitute, but eventually refuses to cheat after becoming ashamed and embarrassed. He then runs into Nick again at a local jazz club and discovers that Nick has a special engagement planned for the rest of the evening in which he must play piano blindfolded. Curious, Bill wants to see for himself, but Nick becomes terse and objects to Bill getting involved. Eventually, he relents and gives Bill the information that, in order to attend the event, he has to wear a costume, a mask, and must also have a verbal password to give when he arrives.
Bill’s web of intrigue eventually becoming a mysterious and harrowing journey into the underbelly of New York, potentially discovering disturbing truths about himself in the process and endangering both his marriage and his life.
Eyes Wide Shut is a film by the legend himself, Stanley Kubrick. He’s long been a personal favorite of mine, but I had long resisted watching Eyes Wide Shut based on its reputation as an impenetrable, long-winded, bizarre film, as well as my general distaste for Tom Cruise’s filmography. Nonetheless, I gave in and gave it a watch about a month ago, and I genuinely enjoyed it.
The film’s unusually laborious production process rivaled even that of The Shining, Kubrick’s 1980 epic horror film. Eyes Wide Shut holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot (nearly 15 straight months), with two supporting cast members – Harvey Keitel and Jennifer Jason Leigh – eventually leaving the production due to other acting commitments. Another actress, Vinessa Shaw, was initially contracted for two weeks of filming, but ended up working for three times that. Kubrick’s notorious perfectionism led to numerous script changes and an acute attention to production design and cinematography.
Speculation swirled about Kubrick’s film, which was adapted by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael from the novel Traumnovelle by the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler. Kubrick had first considered adapting Schnitzler’s work as far back as the early 70s, when he was searching for a novel to make into a film in a relatively short timeframe and on a tight budget (he made A Clockwork Orange instead). Still, this pet project of Kubrick’s had long fascinated him as an exploration of both fears and sexual desires.
By the time Eyes Wide Shut‘s production finally got off the ground, the elusive, enigmatic Kubrick hadn’t made a film in a decade (1987’s Full Metal Jacket) and many assumed that he had retired from filmmaking altogether.
Tabloids buzzed when it was revealed that then-real-life husband-and-wife Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would be starring in the film, with some speculating that it would be “the sexiest movie ever.” Kubrick, therefore, was smart about marketing the film, revealing very little, even in press kits and production notes.
(Side note: It’s worth mentioning that despite the potential titillation of seeing a real life celebrity couple nude on film, and large amounts of plot devoted to sexual issues, Cruise and Kidman never have sex onscreen. “No one familiar with the cold precision of Kubrick’s work will be surprised that this isn’t the steamy erotic thriller a synopsis (or the ads) might suggest,” remarked TV Guide at the time of the film’s release.)
Once filming was finally completed, the lengthy post-production process began on Eyes Wide Shut, with Kubrick as involved as he had been an any of his previous films. On March 1, 1999, Kubrick screened a cut of the finished film to Kidman, Cruise, and a group of Warner Brothers executives, all of whom were very happy with the result. Six days later, the 70-year-old Kubrick died suddenly of a heart attack while in his sleep at his home in England. The film was released 151 days later.
The production design, costume design, and cinematography of Eyes Wide Shut are all outstanding. The cinematography captures a genuinely eerie atmosphere a lot of the time and builds mystery and suspense very methodically in a way that few films do. Kubrick pioneered the use of controlled natural lighting in Barry Lyndon and does the same in Eyes Wide Shut. Most obviously, there’s the glow of a Christmas tree in almost every room (the movie takes place during Christmastime in New York, not Vienna during Mardi Gras, as depicted in Schnitzler’s novel).
While the slow pace of Eyes Wide Shut may alienate some viewers, I felt like it wouldn’t have worked any other way. There are some occasions, especially early on, where the deliberate actions of the characters aren’t always believable and sometimes feel unnatural. However, I found Cruise’s character to be generally relatable and sympathetic, and the terror that he experiences at various points in the movie does feel well-crafted and creepy in the best ways.
There remains a debate about whether Eyes Wide Shut was completed the way Kubrick had intended. The director was known for making both major and minor changes to his films up until the last minute, so whether Eyes Wide Shut was released 100% according to his vision is unknown.
Here’s what we do know:
- Former Kubrick collaborator Michael Herr (co-writer of Full Metal Jacket‘s screenplay) said he received a phone call from Kubrick four days before his death, where he said that he had some misgivings about technical issues, particularly with color, sound, and music, but that the studio was happy with the result.
- Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s executive producer and brother-in-law, said that Kubrick was very happy with Eyes Wide Shut, as did one of the film’s supporting actors, Todd Field, and Kubrick’s daughter Katharina.
- Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam and worked with Kubrick on The Shining, said he considered Eyes Wide Shut to be an unfinished product: “I think it was snatched up by the studio when Stanley died…it was three months before the movie was due to be released. I don’t think there’s a chance that was the movie he had in mind. It’s a great shame, because you know it’s out there, but it doesn’t feel to me as if it’s really his film.”
For what it’s worth, Warner Brothers insisted several times that Kubrick had turned in the final cut of the film before his death, and agreed to collaborate with Kubrick’s estate on actual completion of the film based on Kubrick’s production notes (although they did alter some sexually-explicit scenes to ensure an R rating). It’s generally believed that any further changes that Kubrick wanted to make were purely technical in nature, mostly centered around sound mixing, color correction, and other things that would not have necessarily needed his immediate input.
Certified “fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes at 74%, Eyes Wide Shut was generally regarded as one of the best films of the year and was particularly acclaimed by Roger Ebert, who dubbed it “a worthy final chapter to a great director’s career.” The film performed averagely at the US box office, but did very well in Europe.
As I’ve mentioned already, Eyes Wide Shut is slow-paced – building mystery and suspense in a deliberate, sometimes plodding manner. However, this film very much rewards the patient viewer and even earlier scenes that don’t seem important end up coming full-circle later on. If you’re in for the ride, Eyes Wide Shut is chilling, compelling, and bizarre in all the ways that you expect a Kubrick film to be.
Combining the visual spectacle of Barry Lyndon, the slow-building tension of The Shining, and the abstract, open-ended storytelling of 2001, Eyes Wide Shut is a terrific achievement and a suitable enough ending to Kubrick’s sterling career.
“Provocatively conceived, gorgeously shot and masterfully executed.” —The Chicago Tribune
“A dead-serious film about sexual yearnings, one that flirts with ridicule yet sustains its fundamental eeriness and gravity throughout. The dreamlike intensity of previous Kubrick visions is in full force here.” –The New York Times
“Finally a film that is better at mood than substance, that has its strongest hold on you when its making the least amount of sense.” –The Los Angeles Times
“As rich and strange and riveting as any journey Kubrick has taken us on.” –The Seattle Times
“Thought-provoking and unsettling.” –James Berardinelli
- Directed and produced by Stanley Kubrick
- Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael
- Inspired by Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler
- Executive Producer – Jan Harlan
- Director of Photography – Larry Smith
- Editor – Nigel Galt
- Music – Jocelyn Pook
- Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Todd Field, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Rade Šerbedžija, Vinessa Shaw, Sky du Mont, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming, Leon Vitali
- Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug-related material