“Eyes Wide Shut” is the last Stanley Kubrick’s movie, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman who, while filming it, we’re still a married couple in real life. Kubrick died only six days after showing the final cut to Warner Bros. Nevertheless, they decided to work further on some of the scenes, especially the ones regarding the orgy, which in their original take were the reason for making the movie available only for an adult audience. “Eyes Wide Shut” was presented at the Venice Film Festival in 1999 as an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novel “Traumnovelle”, in English known as “Dream Story”. It was written at the beginning of the last century and, therefore, one might say it offers a key understanding of the behavior of men and women and their morals in times when human relationships were different.
Given its multiple layers of perception and tangled complexity, “Eyes Wide Shut”, like most of Kubrick’s works, received mixed reactions from viewers and critics. In order for one to have a personal interpretation of the director’s view, it usually needs to be watched more than once. Yet, almost everybody, who has watched the film, can offer a different explanation and interpret it in their own way, through their perspective. It is a thriller, an erotic movie, a drama, or a mix of different genres? Or did the director intentionally choose to wrap it in vagueness, leaving the spectator with one option only – to “feel” the movie? Otherwise, every analysis would inevitably suffer from the limitations of one’s personal experience.
The first scene is set at a Christmas party where the two main characters, Doctor Bill Harford and his wife Alice, are the focus of blunt sexual advances on behalf of the other people at the party. Both are clearly pleased with the strangers’ attempts of seducing them, but then, for different reasons, both decide not to go any further.
The following night, while going over the events of the party, Alice confesses before her husband that a year ago, during a holiday, she happened to be so fascinated by a navy officer encountered in their hotel, that she started fantasizing about leaving Bill and their daughter for that man. This scene is probably the most important in the movie.
From that moment on, Bill, shocked by the revelation that Alice was not impersonating that middle-class ideal of a faithful and submissive wife, starts to wander in a dream-like sequence of scenes through the streets of New York. (The movie was shot in London and it took quite an effort for the producers to make the streets of London look like a New York setting.) It is a journey during which and maybe for the first time, he sees that the reality around him is not as simple and assuring as his bourgeois morals have made him inclined to believe. This is also the part of the movie which has received mostly negative reviews: for many Bill’s reactions towards Alice’s fantasies are outdated. Rod Dreher of the New York Post wrote that the movie seems to have been made by “someone who hasn’t left the house in 30 years.” According to him, relationships between men and women had, in fact, changed a lot.
What is seen by many as outdated, for others is timeless. In my view, Bill’s naivety is mainly due to his refusal to address the sexual needs of his partner. Like many middle-class men, he chooses to remain ignorant and conservative.
For me, it is from this moment on those elements of Kubrick’s vision of western society step in. That vision revolves around one word: contradiction, as we can deduct from the title of the movie: “Eyes Wide Shut”. The idiomatic expression comes into play here with its dual meaning – on the one hand, keeping one’s eyes shut to something they refuse to accept, and on the other hand – the deep relation of the idiom to dreams.
In my view, it is a movie about contradictions.
In the continuation of the film, the spectator witnesses the contradiction between the grief of a daughter at the death of her father and her declaration of love for Doctor Bill.
Then, there is the contradiction between the offering of sexual services by a prostitute and the impossibility to act on it due to AIDS.
The contradiction in the actions of a father who, after finding his young daughter in an intimate relationship with two strangers, first condemns her, but then makes an agreement with the two by selling the sexual services of the girl.
And finally, the contradiction at the orgy which, instead of being a true exaltation of human senses, becomes a place full of fear and danger.
For others, in “Eyes Wide Shut” Kubrick examines the opposing notions between a free and open sexual life and the ways of experiencing it in everyday life. At the Christmas party, Alice refuses the advances of a man towards who she feels a genuine attraction, and then, throughout the rest of the movie we realize that sex in our society is often reduced to the status of a bargain – with everything you offer, you expect something in return.
Yet, in the final part of the movie, it seems that Kubrick turns things around again, leaving the spectator with a sense of disorientation. Here, Bill and Alice discuss how they could go on living together, once they know that they are different from what they have believed they were.
At his remarks, Alice first answers that they should be grateful for what they have, for what they have gone through, for the adventures whether real or just dreamt, that “the reality of one night can never be the whole truth”. Yet, as Bill points out, “A dream is never just a dream”. In mу opinion, in the end they have nothing more than a domestic partnership built on her husband’s lack of knowledge of her desires, ignorance that she chooses to ignore because her marriage depends on it. And that is, to me, probably one of the most significant of Kubrick’s points. As long as men choose incomprehension and women accept it, the dynamic of the connection between them will never change.
In other words, Alice, who in the last scene suggests that the most important thing they must do right now is to fuck, was actually saying that in order to start a new relationship, they have to live now with eyes wide open, accepting the reality for what it is – a cold place barren of idealism and illusions.
– Daniel De Luise
More on Kubrick and “Eyes Wide shut” in Diamonds Production magazine