Eyes Wide Shut: Kubrick’s most misunderstood work
Mike Williams | On 07, May 2019Reading time: 4 mins
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman
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Eyes Wide Shut may not necessarily be the title that springs to mind when it comes to Stanley Kubrick masterpieces. It’s certainly one of the more divisive, provoking much discussion about its themes, reception and how it’s aged. Not only is this Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman vehicle now 20 years old, it also marks the auteur’s final ever cinema accomplishment, after his sudden passing not a week after handing over his final cut of the erotic drama.
Triggered by his wife Alice’s (Kidman) admittance of a sexual fantasy with another man after a dream, Bill’s (Cruise) perception of his perfect life comes crashing down in dramatic fashion, as he begins to question the solidity of his nine-year marriage and own sexual repressions. This seemingly innocuous revelation removes a lock on his own inhibitions to explore himself, building towards a devilishly dreamlike dalliance at a secret event that involves strict compliance with a stern set of rules, only to learn the hard way he snuck into a cult-like orgy he shouldn’t have.
Eyes Wide Shut is a misunderstood masterpiece because despite these scenes of nudity, that’s not what Kubrick’s last film is strictly about. Even when dealing with the subject matter of sex, Kubrick never submits to smut for smut’s sake. As with all his films, there’s purpose and meticulous craftsmanship to every frame; every shot is purposeful, each inclusion there for a very specific, meaningful reason. Look beyond the physical aesthetic of flesh and sexual liberation and voyeurism, and Eyes Wide Shut will reward you with much more, as we peek into the lives of its married couple. It’s rich in its filmic tapestry, with plenty to admire: New York City recreated in grimy London (Kubrick’s long-term home after moving from the US, where he made England his home for some 40 years until his death), and the unravelling of a story through secretly liberal characters in an otherwise conservative world.
But it also feels relevant in 2019, with a protagonist existing in a world dominated by men, who, in turn, control sex and claim sole ownership of women, sexual conquest, and their own gratification. Male dominance and men talking to other men on-screen may not stand any chance of passing the Bechdel test but it serves as a commentary that men try to control the sexual narrative – and can and do so to oppress women at their desired instruction. It also portrays Bill’s fragility as a man and delves into the toxicity of his own masculinity, in so much as he seeks sexual gratification elsewhere to get back at his wife sharing her erotic fantasy.
We are invited to explore a string of emotions and temptations all humans possess: fear, guilt, jealousy, desire, lust, revenge, spite, remorse, and the age-old idea of ‘forbidden fruit’. It’s all carefully crafted to form a complex psychological drama that, despite an opening shot of a naked Nicole Kidman’s derriere, the painstaking climax to the film’s second act, and the final “fuck” line of dialogue, tries to shatter the enigma of the human psyche, rather than being about a real-life couple of known movie stars having sex on-screen.
In some ways, Eyes Wide Shut is about prudish attitudes towards sex: Bill’s shame and guilt about wanting to explore his own buried fantasies and seek ‘revenge’ on his wife’s lustful dreams, and the way the cult-like party reacts to his appearance at the orgy, implies there’s a deep shame over expressing sexuality and physical desire. It also explores a man’s personal boundaries and vices and insecurities about his own self, his masculinity, and own marital woes, while living in high society NYC. The movie is one man’s personal nightmare; a frivolous exploration of human sexuality that morphs into a paranoid, potentially dangerous thriller. His own angst and shame in a much bigger world seems dwarfed by the insular life he leads, and with almost the click of a finger, he’s so badly traumatised by his own actions that he ultimately cracks by the end of a very strange 24 hours.
Sensuality is the film’s method of communication, whether overt or subvert. The mask Bill wears, a literal and figurative one, hides himself from both the party’s guests and his own wife – a crutch he bestows until finally exposed and all is revealed. The film is intended to be provocative, with an intimate narrative that’s often (notably upon release) largely misunderstood; a film about sexual and existential dysfunction more than a gratuitous skin flick.
Eyes Wide Shut is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.