Eyes Wide Shut, 20 years on: How does Stanley Kubrick’s last testament stand up?

Of all Stanley Kubrick’s films, his swansong remains the most divisive. After a production shrouded in secrecy, the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman erotic drama Eyes Wide Shut opened to mixed reviews. Was Kubrick ahead of the times, or behind them?

Paul O’Callaghan

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

As 1999 approached, what little was known about Eyes Wide Shut was almost indecently tantalising. Here was Stanley Kubrick, for many the world’s greatest living filmmaker, returning with his first finished project in 12 years – a sexually provocative adult drama, utterly shrouded in secrecy, starring pre-eminent Hollywood power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kubrick’s sudden death in March 1999, six days after delivering his final cut to Warner Bros, only served to intensify anticipation for what would now, alas, be the master’s final gift to cinema.

But while the pre-release marketing campaign, which Warner Bros claimed was executed in accordance with Kubrick’s wishes, teased a steamy, erotic thriller, the final film was a complex, confounding, intimate epic. Relocating the events of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 psychosexual novella, Dream Story, from early 20th-century Vienna to eve-of-the-millennium Manhattan, it depicts an extraordinary chapter in the life of Dr Bill Harford (Cruise), who embarks on a dreamlike nocturnal odyssey after his wife, Alice (Kidman), confesses, while intoxicated, to having had intense fantasies about another man. Bill’s wanderings offer him an enticing glimpse of a murky, sexual underworld, and ultimately lead him to a ritualistic masked orgy in an opulent mansion. But despite encountering a wealth of potential partners, Bill finds his opportunities to taste forbidden fruit thwarted at every turn.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

Come to the film expecting a salacious romp, then, and you may find it to be a profoundly frustrating viewing experience, all foreplay and no penetration. Indeed, some early detractors were annoyed to have been so flagrantly misled by the titillating trailer. “Eyes Wide Shut turns out to be the dirtiest movie of 1958,” quipped the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter.

But while it’s often talked of as a critical flop, the film had its fair share of early champions. Roger Ebert called it a “mesmerizing daydream of sexual fantasy”, Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune proclaimed it a “masterpiece”, and, perhaps predictably, it was widely praised by French cinephile journalists. It was also far from a commercial disaster, ultimately grossing over $162m worldwide: underwhelming for a Tom Cruise star vehicle, but really rather respectable for a near-three-hour existential art film about sexual dysfunction.

Come to terms with the lack of thrusting and you’ll discover a film of myriad other perverse pleasures. It’s more wryly amusing than many of its detractors would have you believe – though your mileage may vary depending on how tickled you are by the notion of one of Hollywood’s most handsome movie stars roaming the streets of America’s most densely populated city with the express purpose of cheating on his wife, and still somehow failing to get laid.

Stanley Kubrick with producer Jan Harlan, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during production of Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Stanley Kubrick with producer Jan Harlan, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman during production of Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

Kubrick seems to take immense delight in subverting Cruise’s virile man-of-action image – Bill is almost pathologically passive, unable to acknowledge, let alone explore, his sexuality. He’s also cringe-inducingly bourgeois, introducing himself as a doctor to everyone he meets, as if this automatically grants him moral authority in any situation. And the film is punctuated by moments of unexpected absurdity: a grieving daughter confesses her undying love for Bill, despite barely knowing him; the orgy sequence, entrancingly sinister at first, collapses into florid melodrama as soon as the menacing masked figures begin to speak. Appearing on the Charlie Rose show in 2000, Steve Martin revealed that Kubrick approached him for the lead role in a Dream Story adaptation back in 1980, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Eyes Wide Shut as a full-blown sex farce.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

But that’s not to suggest a lack of serious intent on Kubrick’s part. The film excels as an unflinching examination of a long-term relationship unravelling at the seams as a result of mutual suppressed desire and emotional dishonesty. Pivotal scenes in which Alice confesses her contempt for Bill and her interest in other men are given an extra jolt of authenticity by the fact that the actors were a married couple. These sequences are even more compellingly uncomfortable today, now that we know that Cruise abruptly filed for divorce from Kidman in 2001. In a 2014 Vanity Fair article, Amy Nicholson explains: “Kubrick decided to find his story through psychoanalyzing his stars, prodding Cruise and Kidman to confess their fears about marriage and commitment to their director in conversations that the three vowed to keep secret.”

There’s also a sense of art mirroring reality in the way that Bill’s sexuality is repeatedly called into question – explicitly in one scene by a group of homophobic frat boys, implicitly by the character’s general reticence around women. Persistent rumours about Cruise’s orientation are an integral part of the star’s biography, and Kubrick seems keen for viewers to keep these in mind throughout Eyes Wide Shut.

But while this blurring of fiction and reality is enthralling to behold in the finished film, it would seem that the production process, and the media circus surrounding it, was personally damaging to Cruise in particular. Ahead of the film’s release, US magazine Star alleged that Kubrick hired sex therapists for the couple after they proved unable to act amorously with one another. This came hot on the heels of an Express article suggesting that their marriage was a business arrangement, perhaps conceived to cover up their homosexuality. In both cases, the pair successfully sued, but Cruise has never since managed to quash intense speculation about his private life.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

Eyes Wide Shut ultimately broke the star’s uninterrupted run of major box office hits since 1992’s A Few Good Men. To add insult to injury, Cruise was singled out by some early critics as the film’s weak link, his all-too-convincing performance as a haunted, repressed individual written off as merely wooden. It’s surely no coincidence that after the controversies and perceived failure of the film, the star became considerably more risk-averse in his choice of roles. Despite the widespread acclaim that he received later, in 1999, for his explosive turn as a monstrous sex guru in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, he swiftly retreated back into his comfort zone as an actor and continues to this day to mostly play wholesome, unwaveringly heterosexual heroes in bombastic action blockbusters. This might ultimately be the most lamentable aspect of Eyes Wide Shut’s legacy, as the vulnerability he displays under Kubrick’s tutelage is often thrilling to behold.

While the initial critical response was mixed rather than hostile, the tide has continued to turn in the film’s favour, with a steady stream of reappraisals positioning it as a misunderstood masterpiece. But it remains perhaps Kubrick’s most divisive major work. For me, it’s great but with a few significant shortcomings. The strange middle ground it occupies between reality and dreamscape is unquestionably a high barrier to entry. As a psychologically probing relationship drama, it often comes across as illogical and overwrought; as a surreal psychosexual thriller, it’s less transportive and transgressive than David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) or Mulholland Dr. (2001). Where the film really soars is in its assured handling of dramatic tonal shifts, but that’s far more of a niche proposition than the high-minded visceral horror of The Shining (1980) or the trippy sci-fi spectacle of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

The film suffers a little by sticking so closely to the narrative of Schnitzler’s Dream Story. The central notion of a man being shaken to his core by the revelation of his wife’s inner sexual life makes perfect sense in a story written when psychoanalysis was a nascent practice. But it’s much harder to buy into the idea that a modern urban sophisticate like Bill would be so taken aback by Alice’s confessions. Kubrick’s decision to lift dialogue straight from the book also backfires; the final scene sees the protagonists ruminate on the film’s themes in a disappointingly heavy-handed manner, with Alice questioning whether “the reality of one night… can ever be the whole truth”, and Bill postulating that “no dream is ever just a dream”.

It’s perhaps inevitable that some of the film’s musings on sex and sexuality would have aged poorly, but the way in which a prostitute’s HIV diagnosis is used as a cheap plot twist is inexcusably crass. The inference here seems to be that Bill has dodged a metaphorical bullet by not sleeping with the girl in question. As such, the film ends up propagating the harmful and offensive notion of HIV as a grave punishment for aberrant or immoral behaviour.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

And there are occasional moments that seem uncharacteristically clumsy for a perfectionist of Kubrick’s calibre. The use of voiceover to draw an explicit connection between an orgy attendee and a girl lying dead in a morgue feels particularly hokey. It’s tempting to imagine that, had the director lived longer, he would have continued to tinker with the film after delivering his final cut, as was his habit, and that such rough edges would have been smoothed out. But this question of authorship holds some admirers back from fully embracing the film as it stands. In an MSN chat with fans in 2001, David Lynch declared: “I really love Eyes Wide Shut. I just wonder if Stanley Kubrick really did finish it the way he wanted to before he died.” And in a 2017 interview on MTV’s Happy Sad Confused podcast, Christopher Nolan explained: “I started looking at the reality of how the film was finished – he died before the scoring sessions were complete. So, even though I think the studio appropriately put out the film as his version, knowing where that happens in my own process… it’s a little bit early… (the film) is an extraordinary achievement, but it is a little bit hampered by very, very small and superficial, almost technical flaws that I’m pretty sure he would have ironed out.”

And yet, as with Kubrick’s more widely adored films, Eyes Wide Shut has proven powerfully prescient, often in enjoyably unexpected ways. In its depiction of sex as a ritualistic power game presided over by the ultra wealthy, the film foreshadowed the most unlikely literary phenomenon of recent years, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy. Though the softcore screen adaptations, which chart the romantic adventures of Jamie Dornan’s BDSM-fixated billionaire and Dakota Johnson’s demure girl next door, are about as far from Kubrickian as you can imagine, director James Foley tips his hat to Eyes Wide Shut in Fifty Shades Darker’s most memorable set piece, a masked ball in a sprawling mansion that treads a fine line between sexy and sinister.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Credit: Warner Bros Pictures

The film has also exerted an influence on high-society hedonism beyond the realm of fiction. In 2010, Vogue celebrated its 90th anniversary with an Eyes Wide Shut-inspired party, while, thanks to sex-positive enterprises like Killing Kittens, upscale orgies are today a relatively mainstream nightlife option in cities like London and New York.

In its ominous references to decadent elites pulling society’s strings, the film also anticipates an obsession with secret societies and conspiracy theories that has become a defining trait of 21st-century popular culture – from the shadowy religious sects at the centre of Dan Brown’s unfathomably popular Robert Langdon novels, to the grotesque farce of the Pizzagate scandal in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Indeed, the internet is today rife with outlandish tales asserting that Eyes Wide Shut was inspired by the clandestine activity of a real-world Illuminati, and that Kubrick was murdered for attempting to expose their scandalous practices. This may not quite be how Kubrick aficionados would ideally want their idol to be remembered, but it’s testament to Eyes Wide Shut’s idiosyncratic, enigmatic brilliance that the film continues to inspire such unpredictable responses.

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