Eyes Wide Shut is a film only Stanley Kubrick could have made: uncompromising, enigmatically threatening, and ravishingly crafted. On a technical level, it is a masterpiece, presenting itself with high contrast photography, a precociously perverse score, and design of optimum artifice on which you can’t quite put your finger. It has a lubricious way of burrowing deep under our skin, goosebumps materializing regularly for reasons we are never much able to express.
But it is an auteur-driven exploration that keeps us at a distance, its stylistic and story-based fundamentals riveting to watch but never to feel. At almost three hours in length, it oftentimes sags, the crawling pace meant to evoke a malevolent mood but instead puts us in a slumber that may result in more exciting of a dream than the nightmare the film’s plot has to offer us. It is beautifully formulated, and clearly is the result of an artist who cares intensely about his work (the film took 400 days to shoot, the longest in history, and its release coincided with Kubrick’s death).
But who was it made for? It is too murky for the popcorn crowd, and too turgid for cinephiles. Maybe it’s made for no one, more a chance for Kubrick to tauten his cinematic muscles than it is made to entertain. Yet there comes a point where we cease to be viewers, transformed into fatigued students touring an initially intriguing art gallery that steadily becomes tedious, our feet dragging as we contemplate moving forward.
But one thing remains fascinating throughout Eyes Wide Shut, and that is the acting, leading stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (married at the time) diving deep into roles that require them to be much more than machines of emotion.
Here, they play Dr. William and Alice Harford, a wealthy young couple living in upper class New York with an elementary age daughter. Their relationship is solid, but is evidently nearing toward what we suspect to be a seven-year itch. This impression is crystalized when, one night, in a pot-scented siesta, Alice admits to contemplating having an affair with a naval officer during a Cape Cod vacation. A fight ensues, Bill taking to the streets to blow off steam.
So begins a journey into an erotic labyrinth, where Bill is confronted by infidelity with fantastical know-how. The night climaxes with a terrifically shot sequence during which he spontaneously discovers a secret sexual society that acts upon their desires in a secluded manor, masks covering their true identities. But for the duration of his bewildering odyssey, he remains an observer, not a party to duplicity, and is thus existentially questioned — is he the man he thinks he is, and is his marriage as strong as he once thought it was? The end of the night will tell.
Eyes Wide Shut is a movie that seems to comprise several independent scenes that don’t necessarily link, solidarity and somewhat cloudy but reinforcing of Kubrick’s objective to create what I believe to be a hallucinatory world of lust. Some scenes work much better than others — the central orgy, in particular, radiates heart-thumping malice rather than provocation — but I never felt able to clasp the film as a complete entity, like an apparition floating through a candlelit hallway, passing through its inhabitants as if they don’t exist themselves. It isn’t a failure, more a breathtaking painting whose distinction lies in the eye of the beholder.
But Kubrick’s direction is something to cherish, everything feeling so enormous and lush that even a close-up of Kidman smoking, with her eyes all cried out, works as a torrent of magnificent filmmaking control; the actors, courageous, accost his vision with performances that stand as among their best. So while I may not be associated with the handful of those who believe Eyes Wide Shut is a misconceived masterpiece, don’t come to the conclusion that I don’t admire its craftsmanship. C+