I was at a dinner party recently, and the conversation turned to movies. Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) came up, accompanied by the usual groans of disapproval and boredom. I felt obligated to say what I usually say in such situations, to say something that results in shock and disbelief: that Eyes Wide Shut is the best movie I've seen since I have been a professional movie critic.
The initial responses to Eyes Wide Shut revolved around the following: 1) The MPAA, their threat of an NC-17 rating and Warner Bros' decision to alter the offending scene by censoring it with "digital figures." 2) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's marriage and how it was affected by the filming. 3) Kubrick's death in March of 1999 and whether or not the released film was as he intended. 4) The fact that the film was set, but not shot in New York City and didn't look at all like the real thing; that Kubrick was an exile who hadn't actually been to New York for more than three decades. There were other rumors, and specific complaints about certain scenes that colored nearly everyone's opinion, but none of these had anything to do with the movie itself, as it actually exists.
When I originally reviewed the movie I praised it, and lumped it in as a genre film, an erotic thriller addition to Kubrick's sci-fi (2001: A Space Odyssey), horror (The Shining), noir (The Killing), and war films. But I've gradually come to see it as his greatest achievement, the closest he has come to peering into the fragile human soul. Like 2001, it's an odyssey, but a sexual one. Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) attends a swanky Christmas party with his wife Alice (Kidman). Two sexy girls flirt with him, and he helps a patient, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), revive an overdosed, naked girl in his bathroom. Upon arriving home, Alice admits to Bill that she once almost had an affair. Bill receives a house call and another woman throws herself at him. Sexually overwhelmed and frustrated, Bill opts to go out on the town.
He gets picked up by a prostitute, Domino (Vinessa Shaw), and goes back to her apartment before deciding to move on. Some frat boys taunt him, believing him to be gay ("Go back to San Francisco," one says). He meets an old friend, a former med student and current pianist, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field). Nick tells him about an ultra-secret party, a kind of high-class orgy. Bill obtains the secret password, a mask, and a costume and enters. The party is a sinister, mesmerizing affair, filled with soulless, pounding sex and accompanied by a maddeningly rhythmic chanting on the soundtrack. One naked, masked girl warns him to leave. His identity is discovered, and it's inferred that he has endangered himself and others. The next day, he tries to find out what really happened, but to no avail. (Ziegler speaks with him, but more or less encourages ambiguity rather than finality.)
Meanwhile, Alice finds Bill's costume, and the two of them have their first real conversation in some time, while walking through a toy store at Christmas. The film's final word, "fuck," suggests that Alice and Bill try to bring sexual passion back into their home -- the opposite of the routine, naked bathroom scene that opens the film. (The screenplay was co-written by Frederic Raphael, who had also written one of the cinema's other masterpieces about a marriage, Stanley Donen's 1967 Two for the Road.)
One easy way to explain all this is that it's based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella Traumnovelle, the title of which translates into "Dream Novel." (Schnitzler's work was also adapted by Max Ophuls into the great 1950 film La Ronde.) Hence, everything is either a dream, or dreamlike, and has no business being interpreted through reality. Bill experiences everything in a sexual way, and almost every character reacts to him similarly; even the costume shop man's daughter (Leelee Sobieski) flirts with him. He's looking for some kind of outlet, but has no idea what it could be.
The film's detractors have said that Kubrick's slow, deliberate filming has little to do with the raw, animal energy of sex. And indeed, the famous orgy sequence is fairly chilling, but it's meant to be (even in the uncensored version, which I've seen on a British import DVD). After all, the participants are wearing masks, and without identity, there can be no intimacy. All of Bill's outside searching for sex turns out sour; even the lovely, cozy Domino discovers the next day that she has contracted HIV. And, of course, Bill's secret password for the party was "fidelio," or "fidelity," which indicates that he should have just stayed home.
The film's slowness is meant as a purposeful exploration, savoring the journey, the learning experience, rather than the payoff. The scene in Domino's apartment has a powerful, erotic charge as the pair awkwardly tries to discuss what comes next in their business transaction. The film has a preoccupation with mouths; Bill and Domino get closer and closer to a kiss without actually following through, leaving an unfulfilled burning buildup. Earlier at the party, a lothario flirts with Alice, and their dialogue spills out with excruciating slowness as each gazes at the other's lips.
Not to mention that no one lights and glides a camera through a room quite like Kubrick (except perhaps Ophuls), which is why he was able to take on a wide variety of genres and retain his singular touch. His previous forays into sex were sniggering and boyish (Barry Lyndon), or perverted (Lolita) or even violent (A Clockwork Orange), and so Eyes Wide Shut represents a giant leap forward in maturity, not only for the artist, but also for the American cinema in general.
For most of his career, Kubrick has been misunderstood; it takes years for one of his movies to earn its stripes and become accepted into the public canon. 2001 was a head-trip movie, but not necessarily a masterpiece. Barry Lyndon was a flop and only recently has come to be regarded as one of Kubrick's greatest films. The Shining was disregarded as not much more than a lowly horror film, and Full Metal Jacket is just now picking up a cult following. It may take a few more years before Eyes Wide Shut gets its due, mainly because of Tom Cruise's recent odd behavior and Nicole Kidman's recent string of flops. But I'll just say this: Charlton Heston starred in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, and it's still a great film.Note: I recently received word that, on October 23, 2007, Warner Home Video is finally releasing the unrated, letterboxed version of Eyes Wide Shut on a two-disc, Region 1 DVD.