Friday 15 November 2019

Kubism, Part 13:
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick might not have released any films between 1987 and 1999, but it wasn't for the want of trying. Holocaust movie The Aryan Papers, a long-gestating project (is there any other kind with Kubrick?), was abandoned partly because it was depressing the shit out of him and partly because Steven Spielberg beat him to it, knocking out Schindler's List in roughly the time it took Kubrick to make a sandwich. And after a frustrating experience with unsatisfying screenplay drafts and crap special effects tests, Kubo also gave up on the futuristic robo-Pinocchio fairytale that would become A.I. Artificial Intelligence, handing it over to Spielberg in order to stop him pinching any more of his ideas.

But languishing at the back of the Kubemind since the late '60s was an idea for an adaptation of 1926 Austrian novella Traumnovelle: a weird and mildly horny parable about jealousy, faithfulness and - to quote Alan Partridge's PA Lynn Benfield - "sex festivals". With half an eye on the success of films like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, Kubrick decided it was time for his own take on the erotic thriller, so he grabbed the sexiest Hollywood couple he could get his hands on, hid all their clothes and made them stand around in the nip for over a year. The result, surprisingly, was his most mature film, and one which - were it not for the matter of his subsequent and really quite irritating death - should have heralded the beginning of Kubrick's late period.
Eyes Wide Shut begins with a full length shot of Nicole Kidman getting her bum out, and fap-happy cinemagoers the world over must have been overjoyed - and possibly a little daunted - at the thought of 165 more minutes of this kind of thing. But the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was luring you into a film with the promise of nearly three hours of uninterrupted clunge-plunging betwixt Kidman and her then-husband Tom Cruise, only to deliver a long and almost comically slow study of marital stamina and the nature of temptation. This is almost certainly the reason for Eyes Wide Shut's general reputation as a weird, unsexy disappointment, but the film benefits enormously from the recalibrated expectations of repeat viewings. I've only seen it three times, but it's a much more satisfying experience now than when I first saw it twenty years ago. Being married probably helps, but being older is the key.

Cruise and Kidman play the wealthy, beautiful and crushingly dull Bill and Alice Harford, a couple sleepwalking towards the end of their first decade of marriage. Bill is a doctor, and they're off to a Christmas party thrown by one of his obscenely super-rich patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Separated during the course of the party, an increasingly tipsy Alice is the amused recipient of a silky smooth come-on from a Hungarian lothario, while Bill receives the flirty attentions of two models who seem entirely undeterred by his cringingly awful small talk, his insistence at laughing at his own shit lines ("That is the kind of hero I can be sometimes") and his freaky central upper incisor. It's our first hint that there are exterior forces threatening the Harfords' marriage, but while Alice declines to discover exactly how well Hungarian her admirer is, Bill seems quite happy to see how far his own morals will let him go.
He never finds out though, because the adulterous Ziegler needs help with Mandy, the nearly-dead, stark-naked prostitute he's been thrusting his ugly old self into in his bathroom while she - quite understandably - ingests massive amounts of narcotics. Ziegler and Mandy's affair, and her surprisingly matter-of-fact nudity, are early indicators of a secret, permissive society that exists outside Bill and Alice's (and, in the majority, the audience's) contained, rule-driven world. While Bill appears to take it in his professional stride, Pandora's box has been opened and his interest piqued. Kubrick's gallery of flawed male protagonists has acquired its final exhibit.

The following evening, Bill and Alice argue over the relative potential of husbands and wives to cheat on their spouses, which leads to Alice's confession that the previous year she came super close to leaving her husband and daughter for some random bloke in a sailor suit. Bill's pride is shattered, but before he can process what he's just heard the phone rings, precipitating the film's centrepiece: a nocturnal odyssey that sees him haul his wounded ego around New York (or at least a Pinewood-based, woozily unreal version of it), half-heartedly planning extramarital revenge on Alice for daring to think about another man.
This sequence takes in a bewildering array of events and emotions, shifting effortlessly from awkwardness in the presence of death, through uncomfortable will-he-or-won't-he with a prostitute, to outright farce as Bill attempts to stealthily procure an outfit from a costume shop while the proprietor catches his teenage daughter in flagrante delicto with two old Japanese transvestites. Its culmination, though - the centrepiece of the centrepiece - is the masked ball into which a curious Bill inveigles his way, and which sees Eyes Wide Shut taking a turn for the (literally) balls-out bonkers. Lynn: these are sex people.

Kubrick stages the orgy and its rituals with his maestro's ability to push absurdity to the very point just before it tips over into comedy. It helps that everybody in Eyes Wide Shut talks and moves at a glacial pace, as if they're wading through treacle, because if anybody got a shift on we'd be in Benny Hill territory by now. But Jocelyn Pook's ominous, backward-chanting score and Kubrick's stately command of the Steadicam imbue proceedings with deadly seriousness; it's probably why the sight of dozens of naked bodies (mostly women, it should be pointed out) and assorted organ-grinding feel about as sexy as a cup of cold tea. But it does feel dangerous, exciting and tempting, because we're in Bill's boots, not to mention his robe and mask. We've finally gained access to that secret world where anything goes, guilt doesn't exist, and the line between fantasy and reality is a murky, sexy blur. Kubrick taps into our basest, most dangerous desires, offering everything on a plate, and reels us in, helpless; he is truly a master baiter.
The orgy is so heightened and dreamlike that it could almost be a figment of Bill's imagination; a metaphor for temptation. It's certainly no coincidence that the password for entry is FIDELIO, Latin for 'fidelity' (although look closely when Bill's pianist pal writes the password on a napkin: Kubrick's penchant for multiple takes is evident in at least three different napkins intended to be the same one - the third of which actually says FEDILIO). But things come crashing back down to Earth when Bill is literally unmasked as an intruder and embarrassingly ejected, on the condition that a female guest takes his punishment. Bill seems uncharitably relaxed about this turn of events, but then that is the kind of hero he can be sometimes.

Bill's actions the following day are those of a man who doesn't seem to grasp how lucky he is to be alive (even though it's spelled out to him in a blaring headline on page one of the New York Times), but like all Kubrick's men, his notion that he's somehow in control of events is short-lived. Further attempts to get his end away are pathetic failures, death stalks him at every turn (a little over-dramatically, with that hammering piano following him around) and his old pal Victor reminds him exactly of his place, which is - as he's known all along - by his wife's side. The doors to Pandora's box are firmly shut in Bill's face and the poor bastard has to make do with his ludicrously fit missus offering to fuck him in Hamley's.
Stanley Kubrick died just a few days after finishing Eyes Wide Shut, thereby avoiding having to see it spectacularly misunderstood by audiences gagging for a glimpse of Cruisepeen and Kidmuff. True to form, every mystery his final film threw up remains resolutely unanswered at its climax, but the messages are clear and as perfect an epitaph to Kubrick's canon of visual essays on humanity as you could hope for. Never underestimate your own cosmic insignificance, never assume you're in control and never forget that man's eternal fate is self-destruction through hubris. But, in the words of Sydney Pollack's faux-wise old man: "Life goes on. It always does... until it doesn't. But you know that, don't you?"


  1. "he is truly a master baiter"
    I applaud you.

    Serious note - good to have an insight into this mis-judged film at release. Clearly worth a revisit.

  2. Saw it when it came out . Didn't like it. Saw it again recently and thought it was better than I remembered but nowhere near as great as his greatest which ended for me with Barry Lyndon. The centrepiece as you accurately called it is classic Kubrick. For me the weak piece is Kidman. She's either really great at portraying a total idiot or she is one. That said , she might be the most beautiful actress since Grace Kelly. But Grace wasn't much of an actress as well.