Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

This article is an excerpt from “The Final Features”, Part 5 of our video series on Stanley Kubrick

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After his permanent relocation to England in the mid-1960’s, director Stanley Kubrick began accumulating a reputation in the media as an eccentric recluse. He valued his privacy as well as time it took to perfect his vision on a given work, which the newspapers regularly embellished as the controlling nature of a megalomaniacal artist. Because Kubrick didn’t do anything to dispel these rumors, this false reputation only grew until it attained the power of myth. It would take Kubrick twelve years to realize another project after 1987’s FULL METAL JACKET, and the long period of silence from the maverick auteur led the film world to wonder just what exactly he was up to all this time. The hype machine kicked into overdrive when Kubrick announced his next project (and unbeknownst to him, his last) would be EYES WIDE SHUT, a cautionary tale about infidelity and sexuality set among the strata of the New York City’s elite.

Kubrick based the film on a novel by Arthur Schnitzler titled “Traumnovelle”, or “Dream Story”, which he had optioned way back in the 1960’s. Collaborating with writer Frederic Raphael and his producing partner/brother-in-law Jan Harlan, Kubrick began rolling film on his fourteenth and final feature in 1996. EYES WIDE SHUT, starring Hollywood’s superstar couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, found its high production profile both a blessing and a curse. Kubrick’s shoots had a reputation for going absurdly overlong, but when the production of EYES WIDE SHUT broke Day 400 (and a new Guinness World Record for longest continuous shoot), many wondered whether Kubrick had finally gone too far. In 1999, three years after he had commenced principal photography, Kubrick handed in his final cut of EYES WIDE SHUT to Warner Brothers. Before he could reap the fruits of his labor, he died of a massive heart attack in his sleep only a week later. With the successful release of EYES WIDE SHUT in cinemas, Kubrick left us with a complete set of masterworks and ensured his legacy as one of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived.

EYES WIDE SHUT is set in contemporary New York City during the Christmas season. Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), are a wealthy couple living in an expansive New York penthouse with their young daughter and running in the social circles of Gotham’s elite class. We catch up to them as they attend a glamorous Christmas ball hosted by Harford’s colleague Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Kubrick shows us that Bill and Alice are comfortable with each other, yet boredom is beginning to creep into their lives. Alice entertains an extended flirtation with the human equivalent of Pepe Le Pew, while Bill is called upstairs to help rejuvenate a nude hooker who has overdosed in Ziegler’s private bathroom. Back in the comfort of their own boudoir, Bill and Alice get high and have a truthful reckoning with each other. Alice admits that while she has never cheated on him, she’s had unbearably strong fantasies about a young army man who she had only seen once in real life. Bill is unexpectedly called out to attend to a patient whose father has died, but Alice’s revelation has spooked him so much that afterwards he wanders Greenwich Village in a daze. He meets an old medical school buddy for a drink, where he learns about an intriguing costume party that night at a mansion out in the country. Bill finds a costume and sneaks into the mansion (note that it is the same mansion that Kubrick acolyte Christopher Nolan used as Wayne Manor in 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS), but what Bill finds there is something he could never have predicted: a costumed orgy. After Bill’s presence at the exclusive affair is made known, he is mercifully let go with a warning. However, Bill can’t quite let go of what he saw that night, and as he makes inquiries around town in an attempt to figure out just what happened, he becomes embroiled in a deepening mystery with far-reaching consequences. However, because this is a Kubrick film, nothing is quite what it seems and Bill begins to question his grasp on reality and wonder whether what he saw really happened, or if it was all just a terrible dream.

Kubrick had a habit throughout his career of picking leading men there were just left of center, in terms of popularity or stardom. The two biggest stars he had worked with up to that point had been Kirk Douglas and Jack Nicholson, and even then both men paled in comparison to the blinding luster of Cruise’s celebrity. Cruise was already a superstar before he was cast in EYES WIDE SHUT, but he would lay down any affectations of vanity in full service to Kubrick’s harrowing vision. As wealthy Gothamite Dr. Bill Harford, Cruise explores the darker side of his charismatic psyche—his iconic toothy grin now becoming a hollow façade for the tortured soul behind it. Kubrick’s canny harnessing of Cruise’s manic intensity and dedication results in one of the finest performances of Cruise’s career. The same can be said of Cruise’s then-wife, Nicole Kidman, who plays Alice Harford. The role of Alice is a particularly vulnerable one, as it requires her to be completely nude throughout a good deal of the film, but Kidman shuns any sense of modesty and flaunts her stuff confidently. She’s perfectly believable as the glamorous wife of a wealthy doctor, but Kubrick has the good sense to give her a nuanced role all her own. Her pragmatic sensuality exerts an unspeakable power over Bill, and while Cruise and Kidman would not pan out as a couple in the long run, their charged chemistry in EYES WIDE SHUT is captivating.

For the supporting roles of Nick Nightingale and Victor Ziegler, Kubrick turned to two fellow directors: Todd Field and Sydney Pollack. Field, a Portland native, wasn’t exactly a director himself during the making of EYES WIDE SHUT, but he would prove his bona fides with his later award-winning works, IN THE BEDROOM (2001) and LITTLE CHILDREN(2006). In EYES WIDE SHUT, Field plays Nick Nightingale, a med school buddy of Bill’s who dropped out to become a jazz piano player. Field doesn’t have much to do in the way of characterization, but the role is instrumental in pushing Bill headlong into his dark adventure. By contrast, Pollack was already an Oscar-winning director at the time, having helmed 1985’s OUT OF AFRICA and 1982’s TOOTSIE, and had previously directed Cruise himself in THE FIRM (1993). As Victor Ziegler, Pollack proves that he’s equally adept in front of the camera, channeling a mild-mannered kind of antagonism towards Cruise as the good doctor threatens to expose his participation in the secret sex cult. Furthermore, cult character actor Alan Cumming appears in a brief cameo as a hotel concierge.

The visual style of EYES WIDE SHUT, besides being inherently Kubrick-ian in conception and execution, reads like a baroque, old world nightmare. In selecting his director of photography, Kubrick continues his tradition of pulling from John Alcott’s camera crew. Just as he promoted focus puller Douglas Milsome to lens FULL METAL JACKET, Kubrick calls up Larry Smith, who served as the gaffer on BARRY LYNDON (1975) and THE SHINING (1980). After twelve years away from a film set, Kubrick manages to retain all the visual conceits he has made into his signature: alluring one point perspective compositions, the frequent use of Steadicam rigs, zooms (both slow and fast), extended tracking shots and elegant dolly work. The camera floats dispassionately as it observes the action, creating the distinct impression of an omniscient observer. Indeed, the floating nature of the camera echoes the floating nature of dreams themselves, and Kubrick’s kinetic perfection here— when combined with a sumptuous blend of oranges, reds, purples, soft focus setups, and Christmas lights everywhere—generates a hazy, ethereal patina.

Kubrick’s production designer on THE SHINING, Roy Walker, returns to provide his exceptional set-building talents in collaboration with Leslie Tomkins. The director’s preference for controlling every single aspect of his shoots often meant that soundstages were the only option. The deception of theatricality is a major theme of EYES WIDE SHUT, which is reflected in the fact that the film was made entirely on soundstages—even the streets of New York City were recreated in painstaking detail. At the same time, Kubrick doesn’t bother to hide the artifice of the process—instead he embraces it as an aesthetic conceit. The streets of New York in EYES WIDE SHUT feel like less of an actual place and more like someone’s memory of the city, recalled in a daydream. That same dreamlike approach extends to the intense, unnaturally blue moonlight that filters through windows, or the blatantly-fake taxicab sequences (or even that one very-noticeable walking shot) that employ rear projection to give the illusion of movement. By 1996, rear project was already an obsolete technology, but Kubrick’s inspired use of it subtly reinforces our suspicions that all may quite not be what it appears.

Contemporary classical composer Jocelyn Pook is credited for the film’s music, but Kubrick once again uses a variety of pre-existing classical works. Some are appropriations of Pook’s existing work, like the creepy piano chord plunks that symbolize the ominous watch of the secretive sex cult. The orgy sequence itself is scored with a recording of an Orthodox Mass in Romanian played backwards, lending a spooky, Satanic vibe to the ritualistic nature of the party. Kubrick also uses a piece by Dmiti Shostakovich—“Jazz Suite Waltz 2” as the de facto theme of the film, continuing his streak of forever linking underappreciated classical music with his indelible images. Quite simply, no one ever has (and perhaps ever will) use classical music as effectively as Kubrick. Finally, Chris Isaak’s brooding rock track “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing” is used during a brief sex scene between Cruise and Kidman, adding an edgy modernism to EYES WIDE SHUT’s musical landscape.

Just as FULL METAL JACKET devoted itself solely to the exploration of violence, so does EYES WIDE SHUT single-mindedly attack the other end of the totem pole: sex. Whereas previous films like LOLITA (1962) and DR. STRANGELOVE: OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964) danced around the subject of sexuality with winking innuendo, EYES WIDE SHUT confronts it head-on from the opening shot of Kidman’s nude backside and all the way up until the closing shot where she informs Cruise (in no uncertain terms) of their immediate need to make love. EYES WIDE SHUT defines its exploration of sexuality through the prism of marriage and the institutions built around it. Kubrick makes a stark contrast between the lurid, rampant promiscuity of the mansion sex party and the quiet, comfortable intimacy of Alice and Bill’s bedroom. In the mansion, secrets are created, and in the bedroom, secrets are divulged. The spectre of infidelity cleaves like a dagger through the Harfords’ marriage, setting them each off on a journey of self-exploration and discovery to ultimately arrive back at a stronger place than they were before. The nature of said journeys also reflects the differences in gender in terms of arousal—Alice’s fantasy dreams reflect the psychological, intangible aspects of attraction (a trait often described as feminine), while Tom’s close calls with the hooker played by Vinessa Shaw or his experience at the mansion party reflect impersonal, transactional attitudes towards sex that are often attributed to the masculine psyche. The placing of Alice and Bill among the social circles of New York’s elite can be read as a distinctly Kubrick-ian move that affords him the opportunity to indulge in gilded, baroque production design and images of dancing aristocrats.

Like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or THE SHINING before it, a supernatural mystique courses through EYES WIDE SHUT. The coded iconography of dreams allows Kubrick to cast a naturalistic eye on spooky images like the hedonistic ritualism of the mansion sex party or the ominous masks worn by its attendees. The masks themselves were based on those that one might see at the Carnival of Venice, which coincides quite nicely with the Old World supernaturalism that Kubrick is after here (along with the not-so-subtle allusions to the Illuminati). Indeed, masks play a key role in the story of EYES WIDE SHUT—the film is a commentary on the masks that we wear: that of the loving wife, or the devoted father, or the principled member of society’s upper crust. These masks give us our identity—without them, we are anonymous, and our anonymity reveals us as we really are: mere animals vulnerable to our primitive instincts and desires.

EYES WIDE SHUT takes place on the city streets and in the sky-high apartments of New York City, but Kubrick’s fascination with the myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth still informs the film on a fundamental level. It’s no coincidence that Bill Harford is beckoned to “where the rainbow ends” by two drunken, seductive models during the film’s opening at the Christmas Ball, only for him to later wind up buying his costume for the mansion orgy at a shop literally called “Rainbows”. He’s followed the rainbow to its end, only to find a rabbit hole that leads deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. As Harford meanders the cold city streets on his many head-clearing walks, Kubrick shows the streets themselves as something of a maze. Like the hedge mage in THE SHINING, Harford’s surroundings look the same at every turn, and he never quite understands that he’s walking in circles. As long as he allows himself to be consumed by the mystery, he will never escape this labyrinth. Only, he’s not on a confrontation course with the Minotaur—Bill’s internal battles with his jealousy and suspicion means that HE is the Minotaur. Whereas Kubrick’s prior films have been about his protagonists entering the labyrinth to slay their Minotaurs, his final film allows the Minotaur to free himself from the tyranny of the labyrinth entirely.

Kubrick was immensely proud of EYES WIDE SHUT—he allegedly considered it to be his best film. It was a homecoming of sorts for the director, taking place in his native New York City despite him never shooting a single frame outside England (not counting the second unit footage). Sadly, he would not live to see the success of EYES WIDE SHUT firsthand. On March 7th, 1999, Stanley Kubrick died of a massive heart attack in his sleep—only days after he had turned in his finished cut of the film to the studio. After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, EYES WIDE SHUT opened to strong box office receipts and a mixed critical reaction. Some saw a profoundly flawed film while others saw an unfinished masterpiece. The general perception at the time was that the infamous perfectionist had ultimately succumbed to that bittersweet brand of irony he spent his career exploring and closed out his life’s work with an incomplete, half-baked film. However, much like Kubrick’s other work, time and repeat viewings have eroded that notion and revealed a thoroughly considered and impeccably crafted work that ranks among the best of the director’s filmography. With EYES WIDE SHUT, Kubrick’s life work was complete, and for all the innovation and excellence he had given the art form, he was rewarded with perhaps the best parting gift a filmmaker could hope for: a pitch-perfect finish.

EYES WIDE SHUT is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.

Produced by: Stanley Kubrick
Executive Produced by: Jan Harlan
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Frederic Raphael
Director of Photography: Larry Smith
Production Designer: Roy Walker, Leslie Tomkins
Edited by: Nigel Galt
Music by: Jocelyn Pook