Eyes Wide Shut

So yes, I went to see Eyes Wide Shut last night. In a nutshell, it’s

an incredible film. One of the best films by one of the best directors

ever. Now it’s not everyone’s cup of tea — David Plotz, in Slate, called

it “a somnolent load of wank” — although I suspect that was more to get

himself noticed than it was a considered opinion.

Kubrick’s last film, Full Metal Jacket, grossed barely twice in its

total run what Eyes Wide shut made in its first weekend. But EWS is a

much more difficult film. It’s probably closer to Greenaway’s The Cook,

The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover than it is to FMJ. The Kubrick film

it most closely resembles is 2001. Both of them have extremely long-duration

shots filmed indoors with very unnatural light; the initial party scene

nods its head a couple of times to that weird star-child bit at the end

of 2001.

Lighting is artificial throughout, both in terms of light-source (the

only outdoors scenes take place at night) and in terms of filmic artifice

— think, once again, The Cook The Thief. There are stunning shots bathed

in red, or in blue; multi-coloured christmas trees glow throughout. The

dialogue, too, especially that of Nicole Kidman, is hyperreal — certainly

not naturalistic, but closer to David Mamet, say, than Quentin Tarantino.

Which is probably as good a point as any to say that Nicole Kidman not

only gives what is undoubtedly the best performance of her career (that’s

not saying very much, even though she was excellent in To Die For) but

what I’d say is one of the greatest pieces of acting ever. Pretty much

the entire film rests on a tour-de-force monologue of hers, delivered

slumped up against a radiator in panties and a see-through slip, wherein

the effect of a joint is to make her confess to her husband that she had

fantasies about a naval officer once when they were on hoiday. It’s incredible

— I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any scene in cinema which

approaches it for quality of acting.

And Kidman is not the only person giving the performance of her life.

Fay Masterson (no, I’d never heard of her either) gives an equally good

performance in a relatively small role as the distraught daughter of one

of Cruise’s dead patients. And the supporting acting from Syndney Pollack,

Todd Field and Alan Cumming is excellent.

But Kidman excepted, all the women in this film are little more than

sex objects — objects of Cruise’s (Kubrick’s?) desire — even the teenage

daughter of a man from whom Cruise rents a costume for the film’s centerpiece,

the masked ball.

The ball itself has come in for a lot of criticism. It takes to new

lengths the artifice of the whole film. EWS is based on a book set in

fin-de-siecle Vienna, and retains that city’s vibe; there’s really nothing

New York about it. I mean, when have you ever seen groups of homophobic

street thugs and street-corner prostitutes in Greenwich Village? The only

really NY thing about the film is Cruise’s umbilical attachment to his


The ball is set in a large manor house in Long Island, and is straight

out of Edgar Allan Poe. (The film resonates with literary touches; there’s

certainly a resemblace of the central couple to the stoned holidaymakers

in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.) The women are naked, the men

all in tuxes — stop me if you’ve heard this before — and there’s a lot

of fucking going on. (But never fear; our delicate sensibilities have

been saved by the MPAA, who’ve inserted various motionless figures in

the foreground so that we don’t see anything too risque.)

The key thing about the ball is that it is so far removed from reality

that it approaches a dreamlike state — just as Kidman’s dream (wherein

she fucks numerous men and laughs at her husband) is real enough to send

Cruise off onto his nocturnal adventure in the first place. (Think Scorsese’s

After Hours — incidentally, my least favourite Scorsese film.)

And structurally, the ball is central to the film. Literally, as well

— it is the film’s climax, but it appears slap-bang in the center of

the film (you don’t realise this at first viewing, because it’s a long

film) with all the other scenes arranged symmetrically around it: every

scene before is mirrored on the other side. The structure is really quite

complicated, and I’m going to have to see the film again to really understand

how it’s put together. Because as we revisit all the places Cruise went

before the ball, they’re all subtly changed — the big artificially-lit

house at the beginning now has natural light; the playfully sexual teenage

daughter is now a prostitute; the prostitute has been replaced with her

friend (in a very erotic scene); the piano player has disappeared; the

woman who survives a drug overdose has died of another drug overdose.

The arch-like structure of the film (and NB a couple of references within

it to rainbows) is extremely uncommon in cinema, although it’s perfectly

usual in music. It’ll take a bit of getting used to, but we can do that

for Stanley.

This is definitely not an instant-gratification film; it’s one which

requires multiple viewings. The camerawork is stunning, of course, as

it is in every Kubrick film; and everything else — every thing in every

frame — is placed there, for a reason. The film is very good at creating

tension in the audience, but that’s not the *point*, like it might have

been in The Shining. The lighting, the camerawork, the dialogue, the music

(once again, a Kubrick strong point — a Ligeti piano piece echoes through

the second half to devastating effect) — these are all great in themselves,

but also add up to a greater whole which I must admit eludes me after

just one viewing.

As with any innovative work of art of whatever quality, it’s easy to

laugh at this film if you’re so inclined. And some of the sold-out-an-hour-in-advance-despite-the-fact-that-it-was-a-late-show-on-a-Monday-night

audience with whom I saw it certainly had difficulty coping with some

of the rawer moments — there was quite a bit of nervous giggling going

on, to break up the tension. Yes, the film is over the top in many ways

and it certainly doesn’t reflect real life, real domseticity, real New

York or anything like that. I’m not sure whether it really reflects sexual

jealousy, never having been there myself. What I am sure of is that this

is a great film. It’s going to be one of those films, like Goodfellas

or Pulp Fiction or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which are watched over and

over again by people who love them and who love cinema. I don’t know what

they’ll get out of it — I’m not sure what I got out of it, and I’m sure

I’ll get a lot more once I’ve seen it again — but I do know that there’s

definitely something there.

A final word about Tom Cruise — he’s not a great actor, and he’s not

ideal for the part, and he does have a huge role, appearing in nearly

every scene. I think it’s a testament to Kubrick that the film is so great

despite the fact that Cruise is in many ways not believable — when he

drinks Budweiser out of the can, when he feels up a prostitute, when he

throws hundred-dollar bills in all directions in an attempt to get into

the ball.

So right now I’m going to have to reserve final judgement — this is

not a film I think you can really judge after just one viewing. But I

would be suspicious of anyone who comes out saying with certainty that

it’s bad. It might be bad, but that’s not something that many people could

justifiably be sure of.

I can’t wait to hear what you thought.

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2 Responses to Eyes Wide Shut

  1. Michelle says:

    OK slugger, it’s been almost 4 years since I’ve watched this despicable film. I’m ready to give it another go and then post my comment here. I’d like to see if you have changed your mind after all this time. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t…

  2. Hewlett says:

    I have not heard of this film yet. And to be honest I only read like a part of your post since I don’t want to ruin my goal of watching and judging it myself. I have to watch it first then would come back for my own convict on it.

    Hewlett from Capricorne insecte 

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