Festive Films 8 – Eyes Wide Shut

My mind was on other things in 1983 and I missed Nicole Kidman’s breakout performance as Judy in BMX Bandits. I’m sure it was very good. Her subsequent body of work has certainly been diverse enough to impress. She’s often fabulously accessible, but there is occasionally a glassy impenetrability to her that is utterly alienating.


Tom Cruise however has always been a bit enigmatic for me. There’s a surface plausibility in a lot of his work, but the more I see of his real life persona the more convinced I become that he is nothing but surfaces. The complex three-dimensional stuff of personality seems completely absent from him. Check out his hard-eyed stare. Listen to that bizarre pulsing honk that passes for laughter. It’s like his sinister Thetan overlords described laughter to him verbally, but never actually got around to playing him a recording. I get the impression every time I see him interviewed that he might crack at any minute, his human-form disintegrating into a mass of thrashing scientological tentacles.


How odd then it seemed for the cultured, aesthetically minded Stanley Kubrick to cast them in what would be his final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).



Cruise plays Dr. Harford (not to be confused with Steve Martin’s character Dr. Hfuhruhurr in The Man With Two Brains, tempting though it may be), a secure NYC doctor with a beautiful wife, winsome child and apartment of vast Kubrickian space. He and the missus (Kidman) attend a Christmas party thrown by one of his patients. During the party Harford is called discreetly upstairs to attend to a naked woman who has overdosed on drugs. Whilst he is dealing with the practicalities of this and being sworn to absolute secrecy his wife is downstairs being wooed by an exotic stranger.


Later at home she talks to him about this and about an earlier sexual fantasy involving infidelity. This sets off a train of thoughts in Harford which leads to him seeing things he has been previously blind to and experimenting with things he has never even considered before. One of the set pieces is an eerie masked orgy at a country house, the password for entry being Fidelio. Geddit?



This is all closely based (in a script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael) on Arthur Schnitzler’s story Traumnovelle, or Dream Story and, though I am surprised to see myself type this, it is exceptionally good.


Kubrick was a hard-working director (the shoot for Eyes Wide Shut was a record-breaking 400 days), but his insistence on having everything just so, this meticulous attention to detail which, to the outsider looking in, resembled nothing so much as an Ahab-like monomania, was in fact a mighty artistic strength. Whatever you think of any of Kubrick’s oeuvre you have to admire the constancy of vision. There is no happenstance or compromise in his movies. Just Kubrick.


Stephen King was not impressed with Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining. Unsurprisingly. King’s original, and excellent, book is all about confinement whereas the Kubrickian interpretation of it is as much an exploration of physical and temporal space as 2001 was. It’s a complete inversion of the story. Jack Nicholson’s character Torrance doesn’t slowly go mad. He’s mad from the outset, but the four-dimensional sepulchral volume of The Overlook Hotel gives him the means, finally, of expressing it.


That wasn’t what King was exploring in his novel at all. He loves narratives where the physical constraints are tight (Cujo, Gerald’s Game, Misery). But when you (and by “you”, I mean “I”) look at the King-sanctioned mini-series remake of The Shining directed by Mick Garris you realise that Kubrick had apprehended the deeper truth in the story.


Kubrick died after completing the edit on Eyes Wide Shut, but before its release. The perception at the time was that the film, regarded as an atypical folly in an otherwise estimable body of art, had killed him. The few supporters the film had said that this was untrue. That Kubrick had willed himself to live until the film was finished to his satisfaction.


It took time, a decade at least for me, for the film to find its place.


We, the consuming hoard, were not helped at the time of its initial release by the way the film was sold to us. An erotic thriller? Je crois que non.


Erotic thrillers are called things like Lethal Instinct 3 and Basic Obsession 4. They feature hemispherically-chested ladies called Misty or Amber being investigated by Captain Detective Police Lootenant Brick Pistol (almost always played by Randy Spears). That is emphatically not what this is.


This is the work of a man at the end of his career (and not in a borderline senile way like the ghastly boob-fixated late novels of Robert A. Heinlein). It is the work of a man who knows by now that people in relationships are strangers to each other ninety percent of the time (which, incidentally, is why Cruise and Kidman comprise such a casting coup). It is also, in a similar way to Scorsese’s neglected gem After Hours, a celebration of just how much detail there is in life that we miss just because we are not looking for it. A world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour and all that.


The things that seem at first viewing like handicaps (the glacial pacing, the stilted repetitive dialogue, Cruise and Kidman’s brittleness) are all strengths once you buy in to the film’s oneiric lack of rhythm and to the theme that we are, each of us, sleep-walking through life with only brief moments of wakefulness.


After Kubrick’s death Steven Spielberg assembled A.I. from various notes and drafts of scripts that Kubrick had left behind. I’m quite fond of A.I. but Eyes Wide Shut is a far more fitting epitaph.