Eyes Wide Shut was Stanley Kubrick’s final completed feature film, and fittingly for a director who did more to redefine and test narrative cinema than arguably any other director of the 20th century, it feels like the summation of his decades-long quest to test how Machiavellian cinema could be. It feels like the completion of his life quest, but it also feels pointedly incomplete, like a work that remains alive and growing to this day. A work that refuses to be batted down or defined. A work that always has something to say to us, that invites discontent and disagreement, and a work that shows a talent still learning new tricks right up until his final moments. Kubrick was a director who always seemed both wise beyond his years and too young, too reckless, and too much of a social provocateur to fit in with the supposedly mature, normative adult world of cinema. Eyes Wide Shut, inviting both the age of wither of a great old-school fable and the heedless, impulsive, devil-may-care gravitas of an unformed New Hollywood bad-boy, is the culmination of all the contrasts that made Kubrick himself.
Eyes Wide Shut is loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 book “Dream Story” and follows Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) on a nightlong triste with romance, death, the otherworldly, the arcane underbelly of the modern upper-class, and the nebulous fantastique of a bourgeoisie that would rather make play in a baroque orgy of themselves than actually interact with the mundane everyday world of daytime human society. When his wife Alice, high on marijuana, informs him that she had briefly contemplated an affair with a husky navy-type, Bill grows angry and his mind festers with dubious malcontent and feelings of social anomie that manifest externally in a city that suddenly seems forever out to tempt him, to dabble in taking him up on his latent sexual proclivities and to test his faithfulness. He walks around the city, his mind stewing, and Kubrick follows him wherever he ends up. Follows, or leads him?
Kubrick’s film more closely resembles stream-of-consciousness anti-narrative than story proper, intentionally minimizing the linking narrative for an alternative focus on specific sequences of unfettered sexual nebulousness and an icy, deliberately European mood-scape (it may be the most Europrean film by the most European English-language director in human history). We don’t get a sense of narrative beginning, building, climaxing, resting, concluding, and smoking a cigarette afterward. One of Kubrick’s many jokes is that – for a film that is so much about Bill wandering around a city looking for sex and adventure – the film takes the narrative structure not of steamy, building sex but formless, static voyeurism. It feels like someone waiting around watching sex, or thinking they want sex, and not like someone actually engaging with it actively and carnally. Because this shift strikes right to the heart of most narrative cinema – which focuses on action and reaction rather than waiting and passivity – Kubrick is already playing around with human expectations for narrative from the very beginning.
Kubrick plays with contrasts. His film feels at once carnal and studious, innocent and guilty, in the way the camera investigates the nether realms and the little sexual nooks and crannies of New York, both pulsing with sinister, sexual purposes and nonchalantly gliding and abstracting the material away from its direct sexual qualities. The camera feels like it is fighting between holding back at a distance and rushing into the action, between being an insidious voyeur and an active participant. Larry Smith’s cinematography feels at once tasteful and vicious in its high-contrast giallo-influenced focus on primary colors that, on one hand, symbolize a new awakening for Bill, a new hyper-reality. But they also reveal the way this awakening is forever false, forever a dream or a nightmare that feels too real, too colorful and too lively, to actually be real. Jocelyn Pook’s harsh, sensuously naughty score is both regularly ordered and anarchically entropic, at once cackling with precise, regular form and elusive in the way it bursts forth and invades our nightmares with deliberately improvisational, anti-formed hard angles that seem more like evil laughs than notes. The score seems at once a bestial animal and a coldly unliving corpse or a machine.
The end result is a work that feels violently sedate, so abstracted and detached in its frosty, necrotic fixation on the conceptual and the theoretical that it doubles back and can’t but approach us all the more physically and corporeally. It is the rare film that feels both concrete/immediate and abstract/distant, and at this nexus of the real and the fake, the dream and the nightmare, Kubrick invites us to tease out Bill’s inner psychosis and tackle his inability to find connection with the world around him.
He depicts Bill as an endlessly passive figure, somewhere who events happen upon, and not one who coaxes forward events. He learns nothing in the film, nor does he grow, and Kubrick violently has his way with the cult of masculinity and modern individualism in the filmic landscape. Not only does Kubrick reconceptualize narrative, but he destroys character, asking us not to watch a person act or learn but to sit back and exist as the world happens around him. He throws into disarray the idea that we want to watch Bill engage in naughty sex to get back at his wife for thinking about sex; Kubrick mocks the idea that we sympathize with Bill, that he is somehow allowed to engage in extramarital sex because his wife merely thought about sex. We assume he as the modern masculine male will actually act on it, to fulfill his dreams, while his passive wife only thought about it. Kubrick ruthlessly chops him down to size, and follows suit with us as we endlessly wait for event to befall us and it never does. If his film is a hyper-saturated, lusty dream, Kubrick finds the nightmare of modern masculinity, and the modern middle-class, in their continual wish to do something and their inability to actually pursue it. Bill has safely manicured, curated, and policed himself to the point where he is unable to step outside of his comfort zone; even when he courts sex, he can’t actually commit to it.
Certainly, sex always seems to happen around Bill, but another of Kubrick’s witty ripostes to normative cinema is that Bill’s stoic, passive modern urbanity keeps him at a distance from the world around him, and at a distance from his dreams. It keeps him lingering and begging and wanting even when he knows he will never act on any of those wants. In the final analysis, in the way Bill seems a tired, formless shell of an individual forever trying to find sex and never actually once seeming any interested in it, he may not even care for his dreams. The greatest trick Kubrick pulls is making his film not Bill’s dream, as we might assume, but the dream he thinks he is supposed to have to get back at his wife. It isn’t a real desire for sex, but simply his desire to use sex to get back at her, and because he doesn’t really want it, because it is simply part of his attempts to pursue a masculine power-play, he can never have true love, or even a moment’s screw.
Kubrick also concludes his lengthy career experimentation with screen-acting and reconceptualizing and critiquing the very idea of an actor “becoming a character”. When he traipses Cruise out across the screen like a blasé, arbitrary bougie type, he doesn’t ever ask Cruise to be anything but a concrete slab, a wallpaper on the screen, a figure who is defined not by his emotions but by his ever-stifled inability to emote. It asks Cruise not to care and not to humanize Bill, but to stand around and let his paint chip off a little with age. Kubrick is having fun with his actor, and Cruise exhibits a remarkable lack of ego in playing along.
Ultimately, this sense of worrisome “fun” is where Kubrick separates himself from the pack. His films are elusive and difficult, sure. They are detached and intellectual, sure. And, yes, they are cold and calculating, sure. But for Kubrick coldness and calculation were means of defining modern society, of subsuming his filmmaking to the pulses – or lackthereof – of his characters, of the way he saw the world. He pursued that coldness, that calculation, as an avenue for being playfully, enticingly cold and calculating to the point where coldness and calculation were demented art forms, cinematic languages, all their own. Contrasted with, for instance, Christopher Nolan, another filmmaker who is often compared to Kubrick today. Nolan is cold and calculating by attrition – his films swallow up every other option. Kubrick is cold and calculating as an aesthetic choice because they are films about cold, calculating people, and he has the courage of his convictions to take his cold calculation to its logical extent and to mess around with that coldness and calculation to see where it takes him. For all his coldness, he always seems to be having fun as a director. Nolan is lazily cold, lazily calculating, while Kubrick’s films pulse with coolness and calculation and stew cold calculation into a monomaniacal, malevolent form of audience critique.
Most importantly, Kubrick’s calculation never drowns out raw, ruthless filmic feeling. His films are dense, intellectual, and weighty, but they never drown in their ideas; they are, first and foremost, exercises in how to develop cinematic languages to convey their ideas, and that is the key of Kubrick. A key that Nolan, and almost ever modern filmmaker like him to bask in Kubrick’s shadow, will never understand. Nolan lectures to us, couching all of his thoughts in endless diatribes and longueurs in the screenplay and drowning out the film itself so that those thoughts can take center stage. Kubrick, meanwhile, marries his thoughts to his film, allowing his film to take over his thoughts and express them in distinctly cinematic ways. Nolan’s films lecture about dreams and nightmares; Kubrick’s films – in their editing, this visual composition, their scores – are dreams and nightmares, and they play with dreams and nightmares. Nolan and the like always seem so stuffy and formally composed in their tuxedos to experiment, but Kubrick plays with the constricting nature of the tuxedo and the brutal, animalistic beast lying in wait within trying to get out. That, more than anything, is why he remains to this day one of the most important auteurs of cinema history, and it is why Eyes Wide Shut is arguably his greatest film.