Now that the dust has settled and Kubrick’s “ten year rule” has been proven once again can we all take a moment to acknowledge just how silly much of the initial critical reaction to Eyes Wide Shut was. All that howling over what a supposedly “unsexy” film Kubrick made, as if the critics were appalled and disappointed that the film wasn’t two hours and twenty minutes of Cruise and Kidman fucking. I know it’s tough to believe that a lot of critics at the time were disappointed that the last film by a great director wasn’t porn starring famous people, but go back, check the tape. They were.
Make no mistake Eyes Wide Shut may be an “unsexy” film but it’s profoundly erotic one. Not erotic in the sense of simple titillation, but in the deeper darker sense. Bill Hartford is a man who steps through the floor of his own mind and gets caught in the riptide that lies beneath it.
After being somewhat horrified by the thetan flopping in Vanilla Sky, a performance I’d previously found moving, it’s kind of amazing how well Cruise’s performance holds up in Eyes Wide Shut. How much of Cruise’s impenetrable surface Kubrick penetrates. It’s maybe the first time that Cruise has ever played someone small, someone completely overwhelmed by the things going on around him. Whether it be the demands of his patients, a marijuana buzz, his wives fetish for sailors, or a masked orgy. The twin slight repeating jokes, that everyone from the hotel concierge to the drunken Brooklyn kids making their way home from the bar, in the movie reacts sexually to Cruise and that Cruise is continuously, almost compulsively self identifying as a doctor take on an almost tragic light in this dimension. He keeps claiming himself as a doctor so he can claim that he is something. It’s as if he’s attending a party where everyone is having a good time but himself, and every time he makes a move to join in the consequences promise to be dire.
Kubrick famously considered shooting the story as a straight farce staring Steve Martin. The shocking thing about that isn’t that the idea is absurd but that it’s very plausible (You can still see it peeking through in the costume shop sequence which even goes so far as to feature wacky Japanese businessmen. The essential ingredient of dated 80’s comedy). The escalating episodic structure is exactly the same as a farce, and one can easily imagine Martin’s ever growing sense of frustration as he desperately tries to have sex with someone.
Of course that’s not the film we get and that’s the thing that makes Eyes Wide Shut such a rewarding and maddening film to revisit, it’s that the film that we did get is so elusive. Shifting tones like a prism. It’s an episodic film almost every scene could function independently, the scene between Cruise and the Hooker, plays like a first rate short story by Andre Dubus, The opening party scene with Sydney Pollack at it’s center a figure of desperate masculinity in shirtsleeves and of course the masked orgy centerpiece. Which features in the albino Birdman who leads the woman away one of the most striking death figures in modern art and in the infamous digitally imposed figures block out all the sex at the orgy scene is still one of the stupidest cases of censorship in recent memory. One whose gracelessness is only truly hammered home by the act of watching it (“But if they see sex in a movie about sex they might go mad!”)
The film isn’t perfect. One rather sizable flaw being the scene which sends Cruise out on his odyssey, aided by the most magically potent marijuana in the universe, is one of the most tone deaf in Kubrick’s career (Despite Kidman's best efforts). There is also no denying that the film feels a bit spent (if you’ll forgive the pun) after the climatic orgy. While it’s crucial to the film there’s no denying that Cruise’s half hearted attempts at penetrating the mystery are only so much aftermath further lacking urgency by the film’s very Kubrickian insistence that perhaps there is no mystery at all.
Still for all it’s flaws Eyes Wide Shut remains a masterpiece, and a fitting coda to the great filmmaker’s career (I for one find it his warmest film this side of Spartacus). It has the inconsistencies of a dream, but like the best of dreams it follows you out into the daylight and haunts your steps.