Review: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Director: Stanley Kubrick


If there is one subject that Stanley Kubrick’s work was never afraid to deal with, it’s sex. Whether it was Humphrey’s forbidden lust in Lolita or the violent rape in A Clockwork Orange, sexuality is a subject Kubrick confronted and in which he proved himself well versed. It’s such a pity then that what would turn out to be his final film, and one which dealt so specifically with sex, is so cold, cerebral and boring, exactly the opposite of what sex should be. Arguably, that was Kubrick’s point, but when you have the most famous and attractive celebrity couple of that time in your film, is a little sexual tension too much to ask?

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman separated not long after spending a year shooting with Kubrick and, watching the early scenes in Eyes Wide Shut, it’s not really surprising. In the roles of Dr. Bill and Alice Harford, a well-to-do pair of Manhattan socialites, Cruise and Kidman are put through the emotional wringer. They attend a classy Christmas party being hosted by their friend Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Amongst the dancing and champagne, they are both flirted with by members of the opposite sex. Once they get home, whilst undressing for bed, they have a marijuana-fuelled and frank conversation about their own sexual desires. In this one voyeuristic scene we get to the core of the film’s point: marriage, for all its pleasures, can be a hindrance to our true desires. Fidelity can both crush and be a crutch. So, after some great scenes and our lesson learned, can we go home now? Tragically, there’s another two hours to go. In these two hours, Bill goes on a psychosexual odyssey encompassing prostitutes, gay slurs, an unnecessary murder-mystery plotline and a now-infamous orgy scene that veers between funereal boredom and unintentional hilarity. Eyes Wide Shut may be trying to make an argument about the coldness of modern sexual mores, but Kubrick’s eye is far too distant and clinical for material that requires more emotional investment. Adapating Arthur Schnitzler’s novel ‘Traumnovelle’, Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael emphasize the cerebral in the sexual, foregetting/foregoing the emotional. There is a certain queasy unease throughout Eyes Wide Shut on a par with a bad bout of indigestion, reflecting the heaving gasbag of sexual knowledge the film purports to be. Any explanations of the the scenes involving the costume-seller (Rade Serbedziga), his daughter (Leelee Sobieski) and those Japanese businessmen are welcome.

Kidman is a wonderfully heady tease, though Cruise has the bigger job here. He does fine, though his performance here lacks the gumption of his (ironically) unrepressed sex guru in Magnolia. Since these two are the definite focus of the film, it means reducing fine actors like Todd Field and Sydney Pollack to explanatory cyphers (a final conversation between Cruise and Pollack’s characters is unforgivably protracted). Since he produced, co-wrote and directed it, most of the blame must rest with the late lamented Kubrick. It’s painful to say, but his last film was a bad one. He attempted to make a probing dissertation on the gap between eroticism and fidelity, and ended up with a damp squib. It should get the blood pumping, but Eyes Wide Shut is flaccid. Like many of the perky breasts on display in the film, it looks great, but seems artificial once you try to get a feel of it.