(warning: contains very mild spoilers)
If one were to read the basic plot of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ it would be hard to envisage why it was so widely anticipated when released in 1999. Its story of the sexual and personal problems upper middle-class married couple Bill (a successful doctor) and Alice (a former art curator and now stay-at-home mother) go through over the course of 24 hours was territory regularly covered in films and TV. Even the fact that it had strong sexual content or that then married superstar couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were starring in it could not explain the hype.
The anticipation was all centred around the film’s director and co-writer, Stanley Kubrick. Not only was he one of the most revered directors of the 20th century, but this was his first film in over a decade. The expectation was raised even more when Kubrick died before the film’s release, giving the film extra significance. Perhaps inevitably, despite decent reviews the film was perceived as somewhat of a disappointment and ignored by the Academy Awards. But for anyone who’s followed Kubrick’s career this shouldn’t be a surprise as his films were largely ignored at the Oscars and several of his films have grown in reputation in the years following their release .
So now seems a good time to assess EWS in that context over a decade after its release. Is it up there with Kubrick’s best films or a lesser work?
The early section is highly promising as with great precision the film analyses the problems and conflicts set to explode in Bill and Alice’s marriage. In an early scene at an extravagant Christmas party we see that they have sexual desires for others – Alice with an elegant older man and Cruise with a couple of models – but it’s how they react to it that the film is most interested in. Alice is clearly more self-aware of her attraction to other men while Bill is all self-assuredness and cockiness, seemingly oblivious to the situation he was in and his subconscious attraction to the women.
This contrast and contradiction in their relationship is brought out into the open in their bedroom afterwards where Alice reveals her sexual desires for other men. In conventional films the sympathy would be with Bill but the film turns everything on its head by sympathising with Alice because she’s more honest than him. As a result the things Bill says to Alice that conventionally seem right (e.g. how he loves her and trusts her never to cheat on him) in fact only further antagonise her because they expose how he’s taken her for granted. It is an excellent and perceptive scene.
The first 40 minutes of EWS are virtually flawless as Kubrick in peak form in his own distinctive style. But alas, the film then loses its way as it goes down largely uninteresting paths and wastes its potential. Why is this?
I think the main reason is that it diverts its attention away from the relationship between Bill and Alice, instead focussing on Bill and the increasingly bizarre sexual odyssey he goes through. This is a shame as the scenes between Bill and Alice are intense and fascinating and there was great potential from more sustained interaction between them. Alice’s character is compelling (well played by Kidman) and would’ve been the more interesting to focus on of the two but she’s ignored for large chunks of the film and is somewhat wasted.
As it is, Bill is not a terribly captivating character to follow; only at the very end when his smooth veneer breaks down and shows raw emotion do we feel fully engaged in his plight (Cruise is probably miscast for the role). As well, the experiences he goes through the night grow increasingly silly, culminating in a lavish sexual orgy scene. Presumably aimed as the centrepiece of the film, it’s in fact the low point as it doesn’t hold up on any level. Kubrick is unable to convince that such an event should occur as he gives no context into any of its bizarre aspects and why the rich and powerful would take part in something so archaic. Due to the lack of context or logic, the whole scene comes across as pretentious and silly and severely weakens the film as a whole.
The film has received many criticisms with some deserved, others less so. Firstly there’s the view that it’s not an accurate reflection of this section of New York society at the very end of the 20th century but I’m not really sure this is the case. At times it is a very truthful and insightful work and I think it says more about the critics themselves who are probably used to the conventions and clichés of how people like this are perceived in films, and indeed even the way films in New York tend to be shot.
But in aspects of his filmmaking, Kubrick does show some sloppiness. A brief scene where Cruise is hassled by a group of young men feels phony. The constant showing of Bill’s imagining of Alice’s sexual fantasy with another man feels heavy-handed and amateurish. The way Bill finds out about a key event through stumbling across it in a newspaper is unconvincing and lazy. Also, the regular use of obvious back projection makes the film feel at times like it was made in 1949, not 1999.
Overall, after promising to be a classic work, EWS falls short of what it could’ve been. But like so many of Kubrick’s films it’s full of interest and things you want to discuss with others; whatever its flaws, it’s not a film that you forget about immediately afterwards. There are scenes littered throughout that linger in the mind ranging from when the daughter of a dead patient Bill is visiting is unable to control her desire for him or when Bill is told the truth (or is he?) by Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) of what occurred at the orgy and begins to break down emotionally.
Even while clearly a lesser work of Kubrick’s, there is much to savour in EWS and is recommended viewing. And in a funny way, it was probably the perfect way for Kubrick’s film career to end; that even his weaker efforts are far more interesting than competent works by most directors.