A work of genius? Or, a tedious exercise in Freudian psychobabble?
People will be debating the merits (and meaning) of the late Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, the controversial EYES WIDE SHUT, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, for years to come. While Kubrick’s technical brilliance cannot be denied, his movies since 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY have been burdened with ever-stronger R-rated material. Also, except perhaps for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, they have had a less-than-impressive artistic success. EYES WIDE SHUT, regrettably, continues that trend, even though some mainstream critics (and filmmakers) are still struggling to shower Kubrick with undeserved kudos. Much of the movie is a Playboy-inspired, demonic circus of smut that exploits the bodies of women, while hypocritically keeping male modesty intact.
Kubrick based EYES WIDE SHUT on a novella titled “Traumnovelle” or “Dream Story” by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), a Viennese author, playwright and friend of Sigmund Freud, the “father” of modern psychology. Director Max Ophuls made a famous, well-respected French film in 1950 of Schnitzler’s play, LA RONDE, about sexual affairs (and sexual disease). Other than that, Schnitzler’s works have remained mired in Freudian obscurity. Taking a cue from his friend Freud, Schnitzler’s works are primarily known as witty, stylistic explorations of the pathological and the problems of love and sexual faithfulness; and, that’s exactly what the modernized EYES WIDE SHUT offers the audience thematically, albeit couched in Kubrick’s own singular vision.
In the updated story, Tom Cruise plays Dr. William Harford. Cruise’s real-life wife, Nicole Kidman, plays Harford’s wife Alice. With haunting circus music playing on the soundtrack that sounds like something featured on an ominous merry-go-round, Bill and Alice get ready for a fancy dinner party thrown by Bill’s rich patient, Victor Ziegler, and Ziegler’s wife. (Contrary to Internet rumors, Alice is an out-of-work art gallery director who seems to spend most of her days caring for the Harford’s cute 7-year-old daughter, Helena, whom both parents seem to love dearly.)
At Ziegler’s party, Bill flirts heavily with two models while Alice flirts heavily and dances with a gray-haired Hungarian lothario named Sandor (played by Sky Dumont in a marvelous performance). Eventually, Alice refuses Sandor’s sexual entreaties, but Bill is interrupted by his host Ziegler, who wants him to come upstairs to tend to a nude hooker who’s overdosed on a mixture of heroin and cocaine, the deadly combination that killed John Belushi. Bill revives the nude woman, who later turns out to be a prostitute whom Ziegler knows and hires.
After the party that night, Bill and Alice smoke a marijuana cigarette. Her inhibitions loosened, Alice starts a fight with Bill over the issue of who’s more inclined to be unfaithful, a husband or a wife. Bill doesn’t believe Alice would ever cheat on him and says he won’t cheat on her because he loves her (a statement that wasn’t really proven earlier because Bill, unlike Alice, was interrupted). To win the argument, Alice tells Bill that a naval officer she spied during their family vacation a year ago could have had his way with her completely. She says she would have had no qualms ruining their marriage just to let that man ravish her.
Haunted by fantasy images of the affair that never happened and roused to a fever pitch of jealousy, Bill spends the next evening searching for sexual liaisons. (He lies to Alice about having to stay for one housecall.) Bill’s search keeps getting interrupted, however, until an old acquaintance of his turns him on to a secret orgy held by the cloaked and masked members of a secret society of powerful rich men (and perhaps a few women). After waking the owner of a costume shop and renting his own outfit, Bill crashes the secret party, which is filled with demonic images, chants and music. The bodies of more completely nude masked women assail Bill’s voyeuristic eyes (and those of the audience). Many of the nude women begin pairing up with the fully-clothed men, and the orgy begins in nearly full view.
When Bill thinks he’s just about to score his own sexual liaison, his charade is exposed. The red-cloaked leader of the demonic group threatens the unmasked Bill with dire consequences, perhaps even death, when one of the nude but masked women who earlier had warned Bill to leave, offers to “redeem” Bill by taking his place. The leader agrees, tells Bill to keep quiet about what he’s seen or his whole family will be hurt, and dismisses Bill’s question about what’s to become of the woman taking Bill’s place.
At this point, EYES WIDE SHUT becomes a kind of psychological thriller where Bill starts investigating the secret cabal and gets more threats, both written and visual. Bill eventually survives, though he doesn’t really learn much more about the secret group. For those who don’t mind knowing the ending, Bill never does fully cheat on Alice. He learns that he barely missed getting the AIDS virus from one prostitute and finally confesses to Alice in a tearful scene that deeply affects them both. The movie ends with Alice telling Bill that at least they’ve learned about each other’s secret fantasy lives. They indirectly agree not to keep any more secret sexual fantasies from one another.
The last bit of dialogue between Bill and Alice is important in fully analyzing the content of EYES WIDE SHUT. Bill asks Alice what she thinks about their whole experience. “Maybe I think we should be grateful,” Alice says, “grateful that we managed to survive through all of our adventures….No dream is ever just a dream. The important thing is we’re awake now and hopefully for awhile to come.”
What about forever? he asks.
“Let’s not use that word,” Alice replies. “It frightens me, but I do love you. One thing we need to do as soon as possible ( F—.”
Interspersed among the immoral and sometimes demonic sights and sounds of EYES WIDE SHUT is an interesting drama about sexual fantasies, the differences between men and women, death, deception, obsession, and marital fidelity. One of the things which Schnitzler’s (and Kubrick’s) humanist buddy, Freud, apparently taught was that adults at some point must deal openly and honestly with their desires and fears so that they can learn how to live “better” lives and how to get along with relatives, friends and other people. EYES WIDE SHUT appears to accept this kind of Freudian analysis. Like Freud, Kubrick in EYES WIDE SHUT concentrates on sexual desires and fears, as well as on desires and fears of death – in Kubrick’s case, the image of a dead prostitute who may or may not have accidentally overdosed on heroin and cocaine.
However, Kubrick also shows that sexual sin has deadly consequences (another prostitute gets the AIDS virus, and Bill’s illicit desires lead to death threats on he and his family). Kubrick also ends the movie with the hope that Bill and Alice’s experience has left their marriage stronger. This is a Freudian humanist’s hope, however. Kubrick, like the good little atheist he appears to have been, offers no divine solutions to Bill and Alice’s problems. Their commitment is only to one another, not to God. Thus, there are no guarantees whatsoever that Bill and Alice will remain faithful to each another. Like most atheists, especially Freudian ones, Kubrick probably mistakenly thought that the Christian answer is always repression and never justification and purification through Jesus Christ. (Even Hugh Hefner, the Playboy maven who seems to be the inspiration behind Kubrick’s images of nude women, said recently on a radio station in Los Angeles that he has always tried to “thumb my nose” at the “repressive,” “Puritanical” society of Christian America, especially that of the Eisenhower 50s and the Reagan 80s.)
Ultimately, Kubrick does not seem to be as smart as he and other admirers of EYES WIDE SHUT may think he is. Freud’s theory of repression has never been scientifically confirmed. It’s also rather one dimensional because it relies so heavily on controversial ideas about sex and death. Furthermore, pornography dressed up with smooth tracking shots, mesmerizing music and talented Hollywood stars is still pornography, even if the moral at the end of the story contains some merit.
Speaking of the two stars, Cruise and Kidman, some people may want to know how good do they perform. Well, Kidman seems to come off a little better than Cruise, who appears to overact in a couple important scenes. Both provide some intense dramatic moments, however.
Finally, for those interested in what Kubrick’s career might have been, you need only to look at the last scene in his World War I drama, PATHS OF GLORY. In that scene, French soldiers raucously begin to listen to a young German girl sing a song. As the girl’s song reminds the soldiers of all the things in life that the war has taken from them, the soldiers grow tearfully silent. This is one of the most powerful, uplifting scenes in all of cinematic history. Would that Kubrick had made more of them.
Freudian humanist worldview with strong pagan elements of voyeurism in the beginning & middle & moderately strong moral elements near the end, plus depictions/references to homosexuality (especially male fantasies about nude lesbians kissing during orgy) & occult, demonic sex cabal of powerful people haunts confused protagonist; 36 mostly strong obscenities & 5 mild exclamatory profanities like "Oh, God!"; mild violence such as young men knock down man, threats of violence to man & his family, & image of nude dead corpse in morgue; secret masked cabal of powerful people meets to hold orgy, depicted fornication during extended orgy sequence, obscured & implied oral sex during orgy scenes, depicted nude lesbian kissing, depicted nude heterosexual kissing & fondling (marital & extramarital), homosexual nude dancing during orgy, briefly depicted female masturbation during orgy, hint of desired necrophilia during scene with nude corpse, man solicits prostitutes, & minor character decides to use teenage daughter as prostitute; frequent total female & upper female nudity (especially during orgy meeting) but brief upper & rear male nudity, even during orgy scenes; alcohol use & drunkenness; smoking & marijuana use depicted & implied drug abuse; and, strong miscellaneous immorality, including adulterous fantasies confessed & followed, jealousy, man deliberately & often looks for adulterous sex, voyeurism of protagonist with many depictions of female nudity to arouse audience members & attack biblical values (like something from Playboy magazine or Marxist diatribes against "traditional" morality), & threats of violence to keep man quiet about secret demonic cabal.