Mystique and contradictory impulses abound in Eyes Wide Shut, the final film from cinematic master Stanley Kubrick. Is everything we are witnessing but a strange dream, a stroll through the subterranean sexual lives of Manhattanites both rich and poor, or is this happening in real time? Does it really matter what the literal truth of the story is?
I would argue that it does not, as the film’s style is like a self-reflexive poem in which the first half plays out as titillation and flirtation then once more as the horrific morning after. A wealthy couple live in a staid domestic life, with the husband (Tom Cruise) convinced they’re happy and stable while the wife (Nicole Kidman) withholds vital information. One night while high on pot, they begin to talk about gender politics, fidelity, and marriage, and reveals that she once considered throwing it all away for a handsome stranger. This piece of information unlocks something within the husband, who begins trolling the underground for adventures and sex.
Then the story repeats, but this time with horrific twists and new revelations about many of the players he meets along the way. A surprisingly sweet hooker (Vinessa Shaw) spends some night nearly working her charms on him, only for him to return to her apartment the next day and learn that she’s just tested positive for HIV. Another character he meets along his sojourn of fevered jealous and torpid imagination mentions that he’s willing to whore his teenage daughter out for wealthy men in a cursory manner when the night before he was ready to punish her when catching her engaged in sexual activities.
Then there’s the central set piece of the film, the infamous orgy sequence which does not play out as a prolonged erotic cinema but a hammering home of the dream-like intensity of his central obsessions. Everyone wears ornate Venetian masks, and the orgy plays out as both bacchanal and religious observance as the grand master of ceremonies treats the entire thing with the solemnity of an orthodox sermon. There’s also a masked woman who hints that our hero is in danger, and continually tries to usher him away from this glimpse into the Marquis de Sade’s idle musings.
This masked woman is the symbolic turning point. Everything before this contained a more flirty, if emotionally cool, air, with every character we meet along this odyssey happy and eager to jump into bed with Cruise’s doctor. This masked woman introduces the element of personal danger in chasing these acts and scenarios, and the film detours into darker territory soon after. What’s shocking about this is just how smooth a transition Kubrick manages it.
When this debuted, the studio marketed it as a sexual thriller, and the basic framework of that genre is in place but not the execution. Eyes Wide Shut is not a carnal, erotic thriller, but a musing of marriage, fidelity and infidelity (both real and imagined), and emotional intimacy between partners. The ideas haunt you in their hallucinatory scrawling.
Their marriage was presented as placid, a comfortable sense of familiarity that many long-term couples can experience and witness, then slowly reveals the inner lives and yearnings of its two main characters. The wife’s shocking information dump gets the plot going, and she gets the last word on it all too. In an odd scene, one that doesn’t entirely work, she states that they should be glad to survive his adventures after he’s confessed it all. She looks him over and says that they should go back home and have sex as soon as possible. Is this Kubrick making a subtle jab about the way lovers will lie to each other in order to survive? Maybe, but it can also feel like a tidy cleaning up of a messy plot.
Thankfully, Cruise and Kidman are up the herculean task of acting this stuff out. Cruise never gets the big moments that Kidman does, having to spend much of the time merely reacting to the visions and exposition dumps around him. But he’s a major movie star, not entirely convincing as a regular human but that seems the point, and he knows how to carefully modulate himself in front of the camera for impact without dialog.
Kidman though, that’s the real meaty performance in this piece. Her prolonged diatribe about gender roles and outdated thinking, effectively saying her husband doesn’t know shit about women if he thinks they’ve never toyed with affairs and casual sex as much as men, gives the actress one of her strongest scenes in her entire career. She’s nearly feral here in her rage and emotional whippings, then strangely muted when she decides to hit him with the truth of her fantasy. Kidman remains still, her voice going scratchy and soft, as she peels back layers of emotional withholding and carefully withheld intimacy from her husband.
In the end, domestic order may be restored, but at what price? Eyes Wide Shut provides no answers with its erratic, fervid musings and wanderings. But there’s a richness of text here to unpack, like many of Kubrick’s best films. Many great directors go out in a whimper, but not Kubrick. He went out on a mysterious, controversial, artistically daring final note, a film that landed with a question mark in 1999 but now grows in esteem, securing a comfortable place in his legacy.