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Eyes Wide Shut: Kubrick at IFC Midnights

With IFC showing Kubrick masterworks through July 4, Tribeca takes a look back at his (unfairly?) overlooked final film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring a still-married Cruise and Kidman.

Few films are as worthy of a second viewing than Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. For those who only saw Kubrick's last film upon its initial release right after his death in 1999, the IFC Center is offering another (rare) chance to see it on the big screen May 22-24 during their Kubrick retrospective.
Ten years ago, Eyes Wide Shut was met with great anticipation and even greater disappointment from fans and critics alike. The casting of then-real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in a plot based on the novel Traumnovelle (Dream Story) by Arthur Schnitzler was deemed to be, in the words of Entertainment Weekly, "The Sexiest Movie Ever." Except the film, which came out shortly after Kubrick’s death, didn’t invite easy thrills; it was steeped in sex, but it wasn’t exactly sexy.
It’s uncomfortable to watch an actual couple fondle each other and talk about love and sex on film. And so the decade of Cruise-and-Kidman-generated tabloid headlines since the film's release has been kind to Eyes Wide Shut. We know that their performances, which initially seem a bit restrained, aren’t due to the actors' own lack of range—by now, we’ve all seen Cruise dancing in prosthetics in Tropic Thunder and jumping on Oprah’s couch, and Kidman’s Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours—but are instead appropriate to the movie’s tone.
EWS revolves around Bill and Alice Harford, a doctor and his wife, who live in a massive apartment on Central Park West. Some of the fin de siècle flavor from Traumnovelle, which is set in Vienna, lives on in EWS—in the first scene, the Harfords are dressing for a black tie Christmas party at the town home of a wealthy client, Victor Ziegler (a playfully diabolical Sydney Pollack). At the party, while Alice dances with a flirtatious stranger who bears a passing resemblance to The Nutcracker’s Uncle Drosselmeyer, Bill is rushed off to an upstairs bathroom the size of a studio apartment to tend to a naked friend of Ziegler’s who’s overdosed on drugs.

From there, the film becomes increasingly dreamlike and episodic, one scene flowing into the next. There’s a stoned confession, a dead patient, a piano-playing former med student, a prostitute, a teenage nymphet, and a secret, masked orgy hosted by some kind of nebulous and nefarious secret society at a Long Island mansion. It’s the orgy scene that got the most attention when EWS first came out, both because the film was altered with additional figures to block out some of the graphic sex and because a masked orgy scene, by its very nature, is going to garner a lot of attention. In The New Yorker, David Denby called it “the most pompous orgy in the history of the movies.”

Admittedly, the orgy scene is overwrought: there are ominous chanting, baroque interiors, and long-legged white women writhing in G-strings. But it’s also a stand-in for what the movie is really about: status and money, gender and ambition.
Alice, once a gallerist in SoHo, is now unemployed and seeking a new job. But instead of showing her make any effort to look for work, we see her preening in the mirror or tending to house and home. She spends the movie grappling with her worth—not on the job market, but in the eyes of men. During one of her monologues, she asks, “Because I’m a beautiful woman, the only reason a man would ever want to talk to me is to fuck me?”
Her husband, on the other hand, spends the entire movie navigating the advances of women, which isn’t to say that Dr. Bill is a despicable character (although all those house calls he makes do seem potentially suspect) or a particularly bad husband. He’s just on a different journey. (It’s one that resembles Carl Jung’s theory of the heroic journey, and the film has been taught as such in criticism classes.) While Alice is rarely shot outside the confines of their apartment, Bill is shown traversing New York City (another point of controversy in 1999, as the city was a set built on an English soundstage, which only adds to the off-kilter reality of the movie), catching glimpses of both opulence and grime. In his essay on EWS for Film Quarterly, Tim Kreider writes, “For all his flaunting of money and professional rank, and all his efforts to penetrate the inner circle of the elite, Bill Harford is ultimately put back in his place as a member of the serving class.”
In his final film, Kubrick was aiming to shock with the crassness and overindulgence of moneyed Manhattan society, not its sexual mores. It’s just a shame that the film’s real message wasn’t taken to heart. The ten years since EWS’s release were an even greater pinnacle of excess wealth and status consciousness. We're left only to dream of how Kubrick would have commented on our recent fall.

Eyes Wide Shut is only one of the films being showcased in the IFC Center's Kubrick retrospective. In the coming weeks, you can also see Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Killer's Kiss, The Killing, and A Clockwork Orange.

Marisa Meltzer is coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Elle, and many other publications. Her next book Girl Power will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February. Meltzer will participate in a talk at the New Museum on Friday, May 15: The '90s vs. The '90s.


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