Review: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Editor’s Note: This review of Eyes Wide Shut is a part of Matthew Blevins’s Stanley Kubrick Spotlight.
Tight Manhattan upper-class environments squeeze in characters and bare their misdeeds for the entire world to see. They’re all living in a Fitzgerald novel, but they are oblivious to the emptiness that creates distances between them in these too-close-for-comfort environments. This is an empty world of high-class promiscuity and bourgeoisie excess. This is a world of people that are supposed to be too erudite for the fatalistic trappings of human desire, but despite their outward appearances, they are driven by the same primal desires and irrational fears as anyone else. They try to mask their human qualities, but the stifling nature of their environments drives their desire to explode in secret closed-door expressions of carnality and hedonism. They all wear masks to shield their darkest desires, but the most effective masks are the ones they wear in public, whether it is the mask of doctor, upstanding citizen, or upper-class socialite.
These are fatally flawed narcissists; unable to dislodge themselves from their own egos long enough to even make love. Narcissistic lovers stand before baroque mirrors, more interested in their own visage than that of their lover. The great irony is that despite their close Manhattan living quarters, they are disconnected from one another. The only time they are able to establish meaningful moments of communication are when they use drugs to drop the pretenses of their societal position and escape their humdrum aristocratic existence. It is only then that they are able to bare their souls to one another, unafraid of exposing weaknesses in their character and talking through their insecurities. They are only able to do this through confrontation, but the feelings that are exposed are the most real when they have dropped all socially-prescribed pretenses and engage in heated arguments. Kubrick’s camera work gets in close in the stifling bedroom environment, exposing truths about the relationship between Cruise and Kidman as naturalistic handheld camera movements bring us in to a very private and soul-baring argument fueled by real-world marital conflict.
Narcissistic lovers stand before baroque mirrors, more interested in their own visage than that of their lover. The great irony is that despite their close Manhattan living quarters, they are disconnected from one another.
It is through Cruise’s insecurities that most of the plot unfurls. He is insecure about his small stature, his wife’s beauty and the attention that it gives her, his sexual prowess, and his position within the New York aristocracy. It is this insecurity that drives his noirish curiosity, and his bruised ego sends him to the dark neon streets of New York midnights, looking for cheap salve to heal his emasculated soul. He finds danger and intrigue on the streets, and is further emasculated when a group of young thugs assert their power over him. Cruise’s short stature is exaggerated in this sequence, and the thugs loom over him and add insult to injury as he had already been preoccupied with nagging thoughts of his wife’s possible infidelity.
He finds refuge from this confrontation in the apartment of a high-priced prostitute in a short morality play that mirrors Rohmer’s Chloe in the Afternoon. The beauty of the jazz playing in the background and intimate framing that drips with raw sexuality makes us feel that he would be completely justified in betraying his marriage for a fleeting tryst with another woman. The phone rings at just the right moment, and the camera pulls back to show us the whole sordid environment. Both Cruise’s Dr. Harford and the audience are immediately brought back to the reality of the sordid surroundings, and the heated passion of the moment wanes to bring us back to the sad reality of an exploited woman and her unglamorous apartment. It is in that well-timed reality check that he passes the Rohmeresque morality test and sets back out in to the dark mysteries of New York nights, more driven than before to unlock its hedonistic secrets.
Setting Eyes Wide Shut around Christmas-time was a brilliant move by Kubrick, and the wet neon nights of Manhattan sidewalks are mirrored by Christmas lights as jazz clubs explode in bursts of expressionistic color amidst the smoky secretive night. The Christmas lights are omnipresent throughout the film and lend each background kaleidoscopic beauty and a gentle false nostalgia for nonexistent times of uncomplicated morality. Kubrick is a master of visual film-making, and in Eyes Wide Shut he gives each night sequence enough false light to illuminate the hedonism and erotic intrigue. These characters are confined to tight quarters lit by multicolored false lighting for most of the film, with the exception of the final shot when the married couple can no longer hide their darkness from one another and the masks have been permanently removed.
Setting Eyes Wide Shut around Christmas-time was a brilliant move by Kubrick, and the wet neon nights of Manhattan sidewalks are mirrored by Christmas lights as jazz clubs explode in bursts of expressionistic color amidst the smoky secretive night. The Christmas lights are omnipresent throughout the film and lend each background kaleidoscopic beauty and a gentle false nostalgia for nonexistent times of uncomplicated morality.
This is a film that both audiences and critics would misunderstand for years. Audiences went in to the film under the false pretense that they were seeing an erotic thriller, steaming with incendiary scenes of Hollywood’s hottest married couple at the time. Misleading marketing and unfulfilled expectations would plague this film for years, and somehow distance it from Kubrick’s canon. My contention is that Eyes Wide Shut is one of the more “Kubrickian” films in his oeuvre, cleverly using the real world couple to bare the emotional soul of the film with uncompromising honesty about these two behemoths of narcissism and insecurities. Those that set out to deify stars may be incapable of allowing themselves to see the raw undercurrent of this film, and the very real alienation that this couple experiences in front of the entire world. Perhaps if they could look beyond the masks that we impose upon ourselves they would see that we all share the same instincts and urges, and we all carry insecurities about ourselves. Even if they are incapable of doing that for the sake of Kubrick’s final film, perhaps they can engage with the midnight journey of Manhattan aristocracy and the dark worlds that they suspect are lurking behind closed mansion doors.