Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1999)

13. Eyes Wide Shut

Following “Full Metal Jacket,” Stanley Kubrick developed the reputation of a recluse. Though relatively prolific throughout the early years of his career, his output had slowed during the seventies and eighties. By the dawn of the nineties, Kubrick would take an extended hiatus from directing. His reputation would grown in his absence. By the time “Eyes Wide Shut” rolled into production, it was his first film in twelve years. It would also be his last, as the director died six days after delivering his final cut to the studio. Kubrick would generate controversy even after his death. There was debate over whether the theatrical version of “Eyes Wide Shut” truly represented the director's vision. The sexual content spurned discussion. The film would attract a lot of tabloid gossip, due to starring the then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. All of this, combined with the mysterious advertising campaign, would make “Eyes Wide Shut” the most talked about film of the year.

Dr. Bill Harford thinks he has a happy life. He's been married for nine years to this faithful wife, Alice, and they have a seven year old daughter together, Helena. While at the party of a mutual friend, a man propositions Alice. Bill, meanwhile, is nearly seduced by two young women. The next night, Alice tells Bill about a time she nearly cheated on him. The conversation unnerves him and he immediately decides to seek out anonymous sex. After several failed attempts, Bill winds up at a secluded mansion in upstate New York. Inside, a secret sect organizes strange sexual rituals. After Bill is caught, he becomes increasingly concerned about the apparent cult's involvement in his life.

“Eyes Wide Shut” is an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's novel, “Dream Story,” the location switched from 1920s Vienna to turn-of-the-millennium Manhattan. Kubrick had been considering adapting the book since the sixties. It's unlikely that the censorship laws of that time would've allowed Kubrick to make the film he envisioned: a serious motion picture about sex, desire, and commitment. The married couple at the center of “Eyes Wide Shut” naively believe themselves to be happy. After Bill realizes his wife isn't sexually satisfied with him, his world shatters apart. Yet both Bill and Alice are pulled back and forth throughout the story, by their need for sexual satisfaction and the vow of fidelity that took to each other. When Bill is about to have sex with a prostitute, a phone call from his wife disturbs his mood. By the end, the two reaffirm their love for each other by deciding to have sex. Yet the actual act of love making is always kept off-screen, the story's structure mirroring the character's inability to find carnal release.

Fantasy plays a key role throughout the film. Alice's desire for the handsome naval officer is experienced solely through fantasy. After hearing this, Bill is haunted by images of his wife and this stranger having sex. Fittingly, “Eyes Wide Shut” captures the tone of a dream. Kubrick employs his trademark deliberate pacing and still direction to create a somewhat surreal atmosphere. Throughout the film, the characters often enter altered states of mind. Alice drinks too much wine. At the same party, a model nearly O.D.'s on a speedball. Later, Alice smokes some pot. Similarly, the film lulls the viewer into a hypnotized state. Bill's misadventures take place over the course of one night, also much like a dream. Surreal events – like an Asian man in a speedo suddenly appearing or the strange outfit a street walker wears – peppers the film. Through these efforts and more, the film grasp the feeling of a dreaming state.

At least, the first half does. The second half reveals the harsh light of day. The erotic rituals give way to accusations of murder and abduction. The prostitute he nearly slept with is revealed as HIV-positive. The sexually charged, nearly comical episode in the costume shop becomes a prelude to a father selling his daughter into prostitution. Bill finds the dead body of another woman he desired. In the waking hours, orgasmic fantasies give way to harsh truths. Lastly, all of Bill's fears about the secret society are flatly dismissed with simple exposition. Because, in real life, there are no omniscient secret orders, no sex magicks, no Illuminati. The dream is over and Bill must face the non-whimsical facts of reality. Appropriately, Kubrick's direction is more stately, more focused in the film's second half.

Throughout his career, Stanley Kubrick's films explored themes of toxic masculinity. An obsession apparent even in “Fear and Desire” reaches its conclusion in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Bill Harford is stymied by the revelation his wife sexually desires other men. He immediately uses this as an excuse to pursue an extra-martial affair, notably after a group of fratboys question his masculinity. After his night of near encounters, he attempts numerous anonymous hook-ups. Each time, he assumes the woman is entirely willing, including one he just met. Instead of being consumed by his macho need for conquest, like Redmond Barry or General Ripper, Bill matures. He tearfully admits his indiscretions to his wife, exposing his vulnerability. He gets over his insecurity about his wife's fantasies. In some ways, it's fitting that “Eyes Wide Shut” would be Kubrick's final film. It shows the natural destination of themes the director had been working with for decades.

“The Shining” would prove to be Kubrick's only true horror film but he flirted with the genre throughout his career. “Eyes Wide Shut,” undoubtedly, has an unnerving atmosphere similar to Kubrick's horror masterpiece. This is most clear in the masked ritual, the film's key sequence. Kubrick captures a sense of decadence and unease in this scene. Strange music, vaguely resembling religious chants, fill the soundtrack. Catholic ceremonies are mimicked and perhaps mocked, in the service of an elaborate sex party. A couple copulate atop a man's back, still, masked people watching, unmoving. Kubrick often assumes a first person perspective in these scenes, making us observers to these strange erotic games. This emphasizes the dream-like element but also makes us feel like intruders on something forbidden, something we shouldn't be seeing. (Which happens to also describe Cruise's character.) Following these arcane acts, a sense of paranoia often occupies the film, such as when Bill believes he's being followed, making “Eyes Wide Shut” feel as much like a nightmare as a dream.

The internet being what it is, “Eyes Wide Shut” has been accused by the tin foil hat crowd of being Kubrick's expose on the Illuminati. Supposedly, the proverbial THEY had him killed for revealing too much. These dingbats are right about one thing: “Eyes Wide Shut” is rift with symbols. The film is set around Christmas. The warmth of Christmas lights glow in nearly every scene... Save for the sequence inside the secret society's mansion. This marks the mansion as a place without the familial glow of both the real world, a world closer to Bill's respectable “waking” life. Rainbows are another repeatedly referenced symbol. The girls in the beginning promise to take Bill where the rainbow ends. Later, Bill visits a costume shop named the Rainbow. The Christmas lights are often in a rainbow pattern as well, making the secret mansion the fabled place where the rainbow ends. As in, a fairy tale place without light or connection to the rest of the world. This ties in with Bill's wife being named Alice, as in “Alice in Wonderland.” Suitably, she is rarely far away from a mirror or reflective surface. Looking glasses, if you will. They even put one on the poster.

The most relevant symbol in “Eyes Wide Shut” are masks. Everyone at the mysterious orgy wear masks, protecting their identity and allowing them to commit any debauched act, free of scrutiny. Bill wears a mask of sorts too, projecting the face of a happily married man, satisfied with his life. The costume shop scene is fraught with uneasy energy, Bill becoming nervous as he acquires a literal mask above his metaphorical one. When the same masks he wore at the mansion appears in his apartment, he breaks down, realizing he can no longer masks his secret life from his family life. Masks are potent omens in other ways. When the same model Bill helped save earlier offers to take his place at the mansion, she's led away by a man in a plague doctor mask, a vision associated with death.

Kubrick was encouraged to cast a major star “Eyes Wide Shut,” which is why it stars Tom Cruise. This was an interesting time in his career. Before refocusing himself entirely on his crowd-pleasing franchise roles, he made several films that experimented with his public image. Such as this one, “Magnolia,” “Vanilla Skies,” and “Collateral.” Though unlikely on the surface, Cruise is actually perfect for “Eyes Wide Shut.” Cruise's movie star smile and perfectly crafted public persona seems to be a mask of sorts too. His action hero pedigree is also fitting for a film about a man tackling with the fallout of his macho ways. Cruise's performance captures a man barely containing his emotional turmoil, led down some very strange paths by his sexual desire. His breakdown at the film's end feels earned, Cruise letting his movie star mask crack a little.

If I remember correctly, it seems like “Eyes Wide Shut” was often overshadowed by the tabloid obsession with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. That the actual married couple would play a married couple in the film made that, perhaps, unavoidable. Kidman's performance is even more emotional wrought than Cruise's. From the opening minutes, she projects vulnerability, appearing nude in the first scene and using a toilet soon afterwards. The scene where she gets high and confronts Bill makes it clear that her accusations are born of hurt feelings. Her outpour of emotion when discussing her feelings for the naval officer, or a dream that mirrors Bill's time at the mansion, are raw and touching. Kidman's performance is honest and thorny, a powerful display of her abilities.

Part of the reason why “Eyes Wide Shut” is such an effectively eerie experience is the music. Jocelyn Pook's score is primarily punctuated by singular, pounding piano keys, stressing the unease the characters feel. This sinister quality is most on display during the masked ball, during a piece of music composed of thumping drums, death-rattling strings, and actual religious chants played in reverse. The same scene features an India-inspired piece of music, adding an exotic, otherworldly feeling to this place. The throbbing bass to that music never lets the audience forget how foreboding this location is. Often, a longing series of strings are incorporated, pointing towards the film's theme of unsatisfied desire. Kubrick also, naturally, utilizes many classical cues. He also throws a surprising pop song into the film, Chris Isaak's “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing” plays under an early scene, setting up the film's horny atmosphere. The song is then abruptly cut off, giving the audience metaphorical blue balls before things even really get rolling.

Upon release, some wondered if “Eyes Wide Shut” could be called a true Stanley Kubrick film. Considering Kubrick was known to edit and reedit his films, even after their initial releases, it does seem likely that he would've tinkered with “Eyes Wide Shut” more if he had lived longer. In this sense, “Eyes Wide Shut” could be called an unfinished film. Still, if “Eyes Wide Shut” is unfinished film, it's a brilliant unfinished film. Kubrick would conclude his career with a deeply beguiling film, as mysterious and immersive as anything else he made, a powerful and unnerving experience worthy of study and consideration. There couldn't be a more fitting closing note on his legendary career. [Grade: A]

Stanley Kubrick's career has had an interesting afterlife. It's well known that what was meant to be Kubrick's next film, a science-fiction children's movie, would be completed by Steven Spielberg as "A.I." More recently, it was announced that Kubrick's unrealized script about Napoleon is being re-imagine as a mini-series for HBO. Other unfilmed scripts of Kubrick's have been optioned but have yet to surface. It's clear that the precise, beguiling, multifaceted films of Stanley Kubrick will remain a point of discussion and fascination for years to come.

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