ReFramed No. 8: Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut'

Jordan Cronk and Calum Marsh

This week's edition of ReFramed tackles yet another legendary director with a masterful but deeply misunderstood final film... in this case Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, an incredibly dense and sophisticated work that's been widely and unfairly panned since its release.

Eyes Wide Shut

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman
Distributor: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 1999-07-16

Calum Marsh: Well, Jordan, here we are again: we've found yet another legendary director with a masterful but deeply misunderstood final film. Like Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme and John Cassavetes' Love Streams, both of which we've celebrated in these pages before, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut is an incredibly dense and sophisticated work that's been widely and unfairly panned since its release. The film does have its vocal defenders, of course, and its reputation has improved marginally since 1999, but the pervading critical sentiment seems even now to be one of confusion and disappointment. This attitude of dismissiveness persuaded me to avoid Eyes Wide Shut for years, in fact, because I'd been so thoroughly prepared for something incoherent or half-baked -- and I'm sure I'm not the only person who approached under a similar assumption. When I finally gave the film a chance, at the behest of some very trustworthy cinephile friends, it was downright revelatory: here was a rich, beautiful film that had so much to say about guilt, obsession, love, commitment, and, of course, about sexuality, and not only was it not a complete mess, it was pretty much pitch-perfect in every way. I literally do not understand why this isn't universally adored.

Jordan Cronk: I actually feel like the film's reputation has grown quite a bit since its release. Of course, that could just be amongst film fans that I correspond with, but there is no denying that the film still carries with it an air confusion. I think that partly comes down to subject matter, but also expectations for a filmmaker who was at the time returning to the medium for the first time in a dozen years. To me, however, that's one of the more interesting aspects of the film: I've always been intrigued about why Kubrick wanted to make this film. Thematically it fits within his oeuvre to a much more appropriate degree than most give it credit for, but judging by the results, this was an extremely personal film for Kubrick to make. Its austere veneer -- something that Kubrick detractors always single out with little regard for his motivation -- can be off-putting, but it's a such a soulful, honest film about relationships that I get the distinct feeling we'll be talking about this film as one of Kubrick's finest achievements for years to come. Films such as these don't age -- if anything, they grow far richer with prolonged exposure. I've seen Eyes Wide Shut literally a couple dozen times, and it continues to change shape and speak to me in different ways with each subsequent viewing. That's a special, rare effect in modern American filmmaking.

Marsh: It's interesting that you mention austerity -- it's true that it's considered somewhat plain-looking compared to something like, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I've always found Eyes Wide Shut gorgeous in its own way. People always complain about those highly artificial-looking sets, particular the ones he created to resemble a few New York City streets, because they're obvious and lack authenticity -- but the off-putting quality is completely deliberate, and they lend the early sequences a dream-like atmosphere that's really affecting. And this film is all about atmosphere: Kubrick's going for a very specific tone here, and he sustains it so vividly across two and a half hours that when you're done you really feel like you've lived in the world of this film. So while it's in many ways his most "naturalistic" film, in so far as it isn't about space or the future or haunted hotels, it's also maybe his most fantastic, and certainly his most surreal.

Cronk: I have no doubt that everything on screen was totally deliberate -- a 400 day (!) shoot speaks to Kubrick's perfectionism about as intimidating-ly as anything he ever embarked upon. And it is certainly a surreal and beautiful film, and intimate in a way that not many associate with the man's style. It's at once unique and of a piece with his filmography, and probably the greatest end result of the themes he was wrestling with across his final few films. It's easy to get caught up in Kubrick's style and remarkable mise-en-scène, but I'd like to point out how great the performances in this film are. Kubrick's reputation as a cold and cerebral filmmaker nonetheless yielded many great performances across his career, and the three main actors in Eyes Wide Shut -- Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Sydney Pollack -- arguably all turn in their best work to date.

Kidman in particular is devastating -- her confessional monologue that sets the film's main plot in motion is outstanding by any measure, as is Cruise's barely contained anger, insecurity, and confusion at her accusations and admittances. In fact, this may have been what initially grabbed me about the film. I, like you, originally came to the film with a set of expectations based on reputation, but the natural humanness and openness of these performances have always really spoken to me. And this is all heightened by the fact that Cruise and Kidman were in fact married at this point. Some of the dialogue is so raw and the reactions so pure, that one can't help but think some truth may have leaked into the process. Then again, these could just be great actors, both of whom ironically get little credit for the amount of great work they've done. How do feel about their work here and by extension the performances that Kubrick was able to facilitate over the years?

Marsh: Yeah, well, I've never really bought into this idea of Kubrick as cold or emotionally remote. His films were always grand, and his technical accomplishments often eclipsed the more nuanced aspects of his work. But his films were always ultimately about people, and Kubrick was just as capable of eliciting strong performances from his actors as he was of controlling any of the more technical elements of a film. As far as Eyes Wide Shut goes, I agree that the principal cast are uniformly excellent, though I think Cruise deserves extra credit for embracing a role like this at the height of his popularity, and while he was still considered a leading sex symbol -- his performance mostly revolves around him being cut down and stopped short at every opportunity, and he pulls off impotence (psychological, emotional or otherwise) with surprising conviction given his stardom.

Cronk: Yeah, I agree, it's a brave performance. I suppose we should talk at least briefly about the film's most contentious sequence: the secret society orgy. Now I find these scenes remarkable: vivid, erotic, shocking, and even disquieting. A portion of the film deals with the dissection of the idle upper class, and while I've never seen anything like these scenes in my day-to-day life, I'm also not naive enough to think something of this sort isn't going on in different affluent parts of the world. This sequence comes straight from Arthur Schnitzler's source material, "Rhapsody: A Dream Novel," but Kubrick sees it through with a conviction and visual articulation that is literally unlike anything I've seen in film, American or otherwise. This is also usually the point in the film where people who are already on the fence about its plot completely abandon it. To me, however, the whole mystery subplot is key to the film. Cruise's character is on a journey through discouragement, enlightenment, and eventually a kind of reconciliation, but without these scenes -- which were originally digitally altered to secure an R-rating -- his character has no arc, no moral conundrum through which to work. I'm interested in hearing your take on this sequence, and its effect on people's assumptions about the film.

Marsh: I think that scene works fine, but, frankly, I also think it's the least interesting sequence of the film. Perhaps it's because it almost feels... well, not perfunctory, exactly, because it certainly doesn't feel routine or banal, but because it's so obviously the central narrative event it seems somehow less striking or mysterious or emotionally charged as everything which surrounds it. I mean, don't get me wrong -- I think it's an extremely well-executed sequence, and it's done with an appropriate degree of seriousness and tact. But in a film that's steeped in mystery, where every ordinary moment and quotidian gesture seems disquieting and surreal, the party itself seems like too much of a spectacle. Which isn't an issue -- in fact I think you could argue that explicating some of these anxieties in the middle of the film is what lends everything else its sense of gravity. But even though it's clearly the film's most salient, memorable feature, it's far from its best.

Cronk: It's true that it's the obvious centerpiece sequence and spectacle-like, which makes it even more curious that people were up in arms about the content, like it could/should have been executed differently. To me, the scene has such an involving and uneasy atmosphere that it begs to be deconstructed and weighed in relation to the events which precede it and which are shaped by it later on. It's too easy to say, like a lot of people do, that Eyes Wide Shut is a film about sex. The film does end with one of the frankest, most memorable lines in any recent film, but it's such a loaded statement that it kind of throws the whole experience off its axis. The whole film feels like this to me, as it works on multiple levels while still maintaining what can be (and has been) construed as a hedonistic or just flat unrealistic depiction of emotional turmoil.

Marsh: Yes, and that's sort of the brilliance of the film: it's both a seemingly simplistic film enriched by deeper meaning and, in a way, a very complex and arguably difficult film simplified by the frankness of its ending. I think you can read the outlying story of romance and betrayal as a base-level pretense later superseded by the more "serious" mystery plot, so that it becomes a film about a sinister underworld thriving in secret beneath a veneer of upper-class respectability, or you can read the surreal mystery stuff as a nightmarish materialization of Cruise's intense jealousy and what he perceives as the deterioration of his marriage. Or it's about the Illuminati. Or it was all a dream. Or whatever resonates most strongly with you personally, because it's a film that's rich enough to allow for varying, or even contradictory, interpretations.

Cronk: The filmmaker it probably most reminds me of Antonioni (and I'm not usually taken with comparing Kubrick to anyone, so unique is his presentation), but the depth of emotion and the distinct humanism really sets this apart from other rather -- to go ahead and use this word again -- austere works. It's a balancing act that Kubrick walked pretty consistently his entire career, or at least from when he largely established his most recognizable style with Paths of Glory onward. And like you say, more than most films, Eyes Wide Shut is a film that reaps very personal rewards. As such, it's kind of an easy choice for ReFramed: we both adore the film -- if I'm not mistaken, you feel it's Kubrick best? -- but there are an equal amount of vocal detractors, some of which I hold in high esteem. At this point, however, I can't imagine Kubrick's career ending on any other note. He was constantly upending expectations and setting new obstacles for himself, which is one reason why each film he made is so different from the last. In many ways, then, Eyes Wide Shut is the perfect encapsulation of everything I love about Kubrick. It's a bit of a shame, then, that not everyone can experience the emotions and genuine intrigue that we feel as we watch a film such as this.

Marsh: Perhaps its reputation will continue to improve over time, and that eventually it will take its rightful place in the canon, much like 2001 has, despite being just as divisive when it was released. But you're right: it's hard to think of a more fitting ending to the man's career. In fact in many ways it's appropriate that his final film should prove to be so contentious and disliked -- his vision was uncompromising and, as you've said, he was always seeking new ways to challenge himself, and to challenge his admirers, with each new project. A more accessible or immediately likable film just wouldn't have been the same.





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