Review: Eyes Wide Shut (20th anniversary)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Stars: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack

If being a cinephile is a form of addiction (and it often feels like it is) then the films of Stanley Kubrick are its gateway drugs. Not Kubrick alone, granted, but there are a clutch of ‘great’ directors whose work is easily available, who open up the doors. Years down the road my favourite auteurs have changed, and I find I have greater admiration for subtlety, but for signature boldness, exacting aesthetics and career-spanning technical prowess, Kubrick is one hell of a bong hit.

Eyes Wide Shut dizzied me on first approach all those years ago, watched on DVD (those dreadful WB cardboard clip-cases…) because I was just a little too young to actually see it on initial release. I remember being struck by its altogether different approach to the subject of sex, which Hollywood had mostly presented to me as a kind of steamy M&S advert, or the tipping point at which melodrama slid down into entropy. But I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that made it special.

I may have watched that DVD of Eyes Wide Shut upwards of 10 times over the years, but seeing it on a cinema screen after all this time – in a space where I’ve seen so many contemporary films – made it feel bigger, not just in terms of the literal dimensions of the space.

Even having never seen it in the theatre before, I felt nostalgic for something I’d never really been a part of; a vision of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and finally 90’s when a film as gigantic as one of Kubrick’s would be thrust into cinemas, daring you to decide what to do with it. Eyes Wide Shut received something of a perplexed reception from critics, most still reeling from the director’s then-recent demise. It was as though the expectations that came with the film – high already – had been loaded. That it now had to fulfil some career-capping mandate that its maker had never intended. In truth, most Kubrick films received rocky reviews on release (there’s just so much to chisel out of them) but EWS has taken perhaps the longest to earn its place in his canon.

Maybe its the subject matter. Sex and fidelity have always been approached by Hollywood with either a blush or – at the other end of the spectrum – a rush to sensationalise. EWS is a strange creature. It discusses these things from a more intellectual vantage, poking into what constitutes infidelity, what drives jealousy and how monogamous couples sustain themselves (through shared truths and shared deceptions). So far, so clinical – as to be expected from Kubrick.

But that other side of him is here too; the side that gave us that shot of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange reaching up toward a pair of melon-like boobs with giddy abandon. The Benny Hill loving Kubrick. In EWS its there in the near-comic enthusiasm for female nudity, the OTT orgy sequences, and his rather stiff and bumbling approach to homosexuality; something he clearly wanted to include but still seems to snigger at.

Over the years I’ve heard a theory that none of the things Dr William Harford (Tom Cruise) experiences on his odysseys through New York are actually happening. That, like the fantasies his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) has of the once-glimpsed navy officer, his near-infidelities are all just imaginings. I’d kind of discredited it but, on this viewing, it suddenly bloomed into an interesting and quite viable ‘take’. But for the fact of the mask on the pillow, it works. Most of Dr. Bill’s near-miss discretions end with a sharp cut back to him either walking the streets or sitting in a taxi as though, quickly done with the fantasy, he snaps back to his dull reality. If you allow for his two excursions to Rainbow Fashions to be real, then its a credible way to view the film.

It even speaks to a level of reticence or impotence in Bill juxtaposed with Alice. His fantasies amount to an elaborate series of close calls. Or, read another way, a problem with finishing too quickly… Hers, meanwhile, ruthlessly provide gratification.

Kubrick crams the film with a whole host of different sexual desires and obsessions for Bill to ponder. Sex with prostitutes, underage girls (paedophilia!)… even corpses (that morgue scene…). Getting all of these and more into one film is a logistical nightmare that could’ve exploded in his face… but he gets away with it all.

This read also places the dalliances of Bill and Alice in greater balance. Although Bill suddenly seems quite mad – hiring a costume for no reason – the only real inequality left is how much screen time Cruise gets over Kidman. The gaze is skewed to masculine – that’s Kubrick’s own perspective and reference point – but there’s something wryly funny in how Kidman still outclasses a near career-best Cruise in every scene they share together.

This viewing also reminded me of something I usually forget about EWS which always makes me smile when its presented to me again… It is Christmassy as fuck. But not without reason… It underscores what’s at threat for Bill and Alice. Family. Solidarity. Security. This is my first Christmas film of the season. I’m including it. Festive as hell.

Kubrick led me to Tarkovsky led me to Kieslowski led me to… you get the idea. He’s one of the first. One of the biggies. His boldness is something we rarely see in cinemas these days. That’s neither good or bad (like I say, there’s something to be said for subtlety), but it does make these anniversary re-releases a treat. (Re)experience it.


10 of 10


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