Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, based on the novel TRAUMNOVELLE by Arthur Schnitzler

With Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field and Rade Serbedzija


Warning: spoilers ahead.

EYES WIDE SHUT uses only one rock song - a typically brooding, atmospheric Chris Isaak tune - prominently, but I can't help thinking that Television's 1978 song "The Dream's Dream" would have made a great piece of exit music. Even after two viewings, I'm still not sure just whose eyes are wide shut or telling its cautionary tale. Kubrick himself was undoubtedly complicit in his film's marketing as a softcore porn Cruise/Kidman vehicle, but the many scornful reviews and Usenet postings it's received show that this hard sell sure hasn't paid off in the long term. If Kubrick took on the war film in PATHS OF GLORY and FULL METAL JACKET, science-fiction in 2001:A SPACE ODYSSEY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and horror in THE SHINING, he's now made a European art film, only 25 or 30 years too late to connect with a large audience. Rather than a contemporary multiplex, its spiritual home lies in the vicinity of such 60s puzzlers as Michaelangelo Antonioni's BLOW-UP and Luis Buñuel's BELLE DE JOUR. In these conservative times, critics and ordinary spectators often respond to difficult films by judging them according to a pre-conceived set of rules about "proper" filmmaking, thus dismissing ambiguity as a mere "plot hole." The times aren't right for a big-budget studio release as mysterious as EYES WIDE SHUT, but Kubrick, a maverick to the end, made one anyway.

Tension between Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) first raises its ugly head at a party held by his friend Ziegler (Sydney Pollack): Alice dances with a handsome Hungarian man while Bill flirts with two gorgeous young women. He also runs into pianist Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), an old college friend who dropped out of medical school to work as a musician. After the couple arrives home, they get into an intense argument, during which she confesses to a fantasy about a one-night stand with a sailor. Bill is called out to see a patient shortly thereafter, and goes to a Greenwich Village café where Nick works. After finishing his set, Nick reveals that he's also been hired to play blind-folded at a mysterious party and agrees to give Bill the password and location. A series of bizarre night-long adventures follow from here.

Mike D'Angelo has described EYES WIDE SHUT as "a moralistic cautionary tale, a treatise on the dangers of marital infidelity that comes across like an elegant variation on REEFER MADNESS", but it's also a profoundly agoraphobic film. Although Greenwich Village may be the gateway to a sexual underworld, even Bill's job is fraught with sexual landmines. (Alice accuses him of lustful thoughts towards his female patients.) The couple's argument only brings their tensions out into the open. In Bill's world, extra-marital sex is intertwined with class and - perhaps a consequence - with prostitution and "perversion." Despite all the temptations he faces, he never actually cheats on Alice. The film goes out of its way to congratulate him for this decision: he picks up a copy of THE NEW YORK POST with the headline "lucky to be alive" shortly before discovering that a prostitute whom he visited (and paid but didn't fuck) is HIV-positive.

Frankly, many of the sexual shenanigans in EYES WIDE SHUT ring so oddly that I often suspected the film to be an extremely dry camp joke. In particular, the scene in which costume shop owner Milic (Rade Serbedzija) discovers his daughter rolling around on the floor with an Asian cross-dresser sent my jaw crashing through the floor. (Although I found this hilarious, hardly anyone else in the theater laughed, which made me feel like one of those smug "hipsters" who giggle at Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk melodramas.) Taken straight, this is simply another example of "decadence," tinged with racism as well as prudishness, but its high strangeness may be a sign that it's Bill's fantasy. I'm still not sure exactly what it means but there's plenty of evidence elsewhere of Kubrick's delight in toying with audience expectations. His lighting is often so bright and harsh that one can't fully make out the actors' faces; virtually every visible light source casts an intense glare. He teases our erotic expectations by showing Kidman undressing in the very first shot and on the toilet in the next one. By including a scene in which a gang of kids taunt Bill as a "faggot", he even refers slyly to the rumors about Cruise's own sexual orientation.

The orgy that Bill visits is staged so solemnly that it winds up looking as ridiculous as the scene at the costume shop. (Kubrick sure isn't the director I'd choose to shoot a Dionysian bacchanal.) Even given the impressive sets and production design, its Gothic atmosphere backfires; despite all the nudity, the party looks like the backdrop fora particularly risque Madonna or Prince video. However, it does offer one genuine chill. By cloaking all the actors behind masks (and almost all the men behind cloaks), these scenes reduce them to voices and bodies, which means that almost all the women come across as interchangeable sex objects. (Perhaps the MPAA has spared America's tender eyes the sight of a penis or two.) Given the 20:1 ratio of voyeurs to participants, Bill, for all his awkward reticence, fits right in, yet he's quickly "outed" as an intruder onto this milieu of upper-class privilege.

It would easy to write off EYES WIDE SHUT as misogynist, but I'm still left wondering whether it's a simple male fantasy or a fantasy about a particularly screwed-up, repressed man's fantasies. (The stylized lighting, which fills the frame with pools of yellow and blue, and soft, grainy cinematography contribute to its oneiric aura.) Bill's path to the orgy is filled with those vexing "plot holes." Why would Nick jeopardize a well-paying job - if not his life, given the sinister nature of his mysterious employers - by revealing it to a friend whom he hasn't seen in 10 years? Why does Bill passively let a prostitute pick him up off the street? How likely is it that Bill could find a costume shop owner who'd be willing and able to open the shop so that he could rent a costume well after midnight? These adventures moves with the logic of a dream, not a "well-made" narrative, with plenty of hints that not all is as it seems. (Kubrick also toys with the now-fashionable logic of conspiracy theories.) Quite possibly, its sexual terrors are merely a reflection of Bill's own fears.

At its most interesting, EYES WIDE SHUT is also a film about female fantasy. Kidman's excellent performance - especially during her two lacerating showcases - manages to flesh out at a character with surprisingly little screen time. When Bill first returns home, he wakes up Alice, who tells him about a troubling dream in which she abandoned him and had sex with other men at an orgy. The mask that he wore there and subsequently lost turns up next to Alice in their bed. These "coincidences" raise two intriguing possibilities: both may have attended the same real orgy, or they may somehow be able to tune into each other's fantasy lives.

For the first 140 minutes of EYES WIDE SHUT, Bill comes across as an inexpressive, passive - if not dazed - pretty boy. (Kubrick puts Cruise's handsome blandness to good use.) Therefore, his first real show of romantic vulnerability becomes quite moving. The final scene, set just before Christmas, does offer a facile return to "family values," but it also suggests a new beginning to which the couple's secret lives, whether real or fantastic, have been leading. (Kidman's final line makes the word "fuck" sound quite affirmative.) I'd never expected to find such haunting warmth and optimism in a Kubrick film. EYES WIDE SHUT may not be a "final masterpiece," but its formal imagination and staying power still mark it as the work of a great director.