Eyes Wide Shut: style wins over substance

Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut”, (1999)

I saw this movie ten years ago as there’d been a lot of hype about it featuring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman who were the Brangelina hit couple in the late 1990’s. From what I can remember, there’d been numerous hitches and delays in filming and post-production and then Kubrick died suddenly so it became his swansong in a small legacy of 13 films, each very different from the others and many of them quite significant at the time of their original release to the extent that people still remember them, though the ideas and themes expressed may no longer be relevant in popular culture at large. Myself, I’ve only seen “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” and in their own way they can be disturbing as well as entertaining, mixing comedy and serious issues together.

Compared to these films at least, not to mention other Kubrick efforts I’ve heard about but have never seen, “Eyes Wide Shut” seems an insubstantial effort. Kubrick may have been aiming for something akin to the films that the Spanish director Luis Bunuel made in the 1950’s and 1960’s about the foibles and hypocrisies of upper middle class people who have more money than they know what to do with: films like “The Exterminating Angel” in which a group of dinner guests find they are unable to go home and have to stay at their host’s place in conditions that become ever more filthy; and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, a series of dream sketches about seven people who try to organise a dinner occasion several times but always fail. There are scenes in “Eyes …” that are very surreal and dream-like with often very lurid shades of red, and the line between reality and fantasy, comedy and drama is deliberately blurred. Into many of these scenes blunders main character Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) who as the movie progresses takes on the air of a stunned tourist in a Locus Solus amusement park. There may be no complicated machines creating mosaic artworks with coloured teeth or dioramas of animated corpses performing the same actions over and over but many of the sexual activities Bill observes have a similar mechanical or ritualistic aspect and turn out as either comical or asexual. Bunuel himself might have approved of “Eyes Wide Shut” as a worthy movie project but not necessarily of the way Kubrick has done it.

Initially we meet Bill Harford and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) as a middle class couple, married for some years now and living in a plush apartment in a wealthy neighbourhood with a young daughter on whom they perhaps lavish piano and horse-riding lessons, and a private school education. Bill is a medical practitioner with a wealthy clientele while Alice is a stay-at-home mum, though she used to have a busy and creative job, and maybe there are times when she feels being a wife and mother just isn’t enough fulfilment. In other words, they’re comfortable, too comfortable, and their marriage has got a bit stodgy. Bill and Alice go to a party hosted by a businessman, Ziegler (Sidney Pollack), where Bill drifts off with a couple of female guests and Alice starts guzzling champagne. During the party, Bill is called to attend to a female guest who has overdosed on cocaine and passed out; an elderly stranger finds Alice, alone and drunk, and chats her up. Next evening when Bill and Alice are both at home, they quarrel over their flirtations at the party and Alice boasts about making eyes at a sailor she saw a year or so ago. At that moment Bill is called out to another medical emergency; while he tends to the sick man, the man’s daughter blurts out her love for him. King-hit by his wife’s apparent willingness to be unfaithful to him and the woman’s confessions, Bill leaves for home but is side-tracked by a prostitute and this encounter is the start of his bizarre adventures in a sexual underworld where everything and everyone he thinks he knows and understands is turned on its head. The apparent climax occurs when Bill gatecrashes a bizarre Hellfire Club sex party at a mansion with hints of conspiracy and danger: he is exposed as an intruder and is about to be punished but a masked woman he has met earlier offers to sacrifice herself instead. Next day when Bill is back home safely, he discovers this particular woman – the guest he treated at Ziegler’s party – has died.

The whole movie plays out like a comedy of manners: the sex party and the supposed conspiratorial elements circling it turn out to be unconnected to the woman’s banal death, and Alice’s confessions of sexual infidelity turn out to be fantasies on her part. Bill gives little indication that he learns anything much about himself, his sexual needs or those of his wife during his journey, and though he and Alice reconcile, I have the feeling that they’ll be going through their sexual jealousy routine again and again throughout their marriage. If Bill has learnt anything at all from his odyssey, it’s likely to be the lesson that no matter how hard he works, how much money he makes or how good his reputation is, he and Alice will never be accepted as equals by the wealthy people who come to them for medical advice and help: Ziegler makes that quite clear to Bill while explaining the events of the sex party and warns him not to investigate it further. Now that’s a worthwhile lesson both Bill and Alice could take to heart: they will always only be seen as providing support to the elite society they aspire to be part of and nothing more.

I remember “Eyes …” being rather insular and sterile with unattractive, selfish and hollow characters. Kidman does rather better acting work than Cruise but one has to remember they’re playing recognisable stock characters: the husband absorbed in his work, not given to thinking or reflecting on other matters, and assuming all the world is in order; the wife with all she wants and desires yet lacking excitement and an outlet for her energy. Both have lived sheltered lives and so far have seen no reason to break out and live otherwise. If Cruise seems unable to muster anything more than a shell-shocked reaction to the things happening around him, to me that’s being in character for Bill. Having seen other films by Kubrick, I don’t think he was a great director of actors, he was more concerned about the technical aspects of the film – lighting, sets, production – and though “Eyes …” looks good, it turns out in its own way to privilege style over substance.

If there’s irony at all, it is that while Alice fantasises about having a sexual adventure, the real sexual adventures Bill encounters are as bland and stodgy as what Alice might imagine their life currently is. A bigger irony is the couple is in a rut because they aspired to have the kind of ultimately self-absorbed and morally empty lifestyle personified by Ziegler and in a way, already achieved it.

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