Eyes Wide Shut

Year of Release: 1999     Directed Stanley Kubrick.  Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Madison Eginton, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Julienne Davis, Vinessa Shaw, Sky Dumont, Rade Sherbedgia, and Leelee Sobieski.

I realize Eyes Wide Shut is a controversial film among not only Christians but moviegoers of any belief.  Stanley Kubrick’s final film is known for its graphic sexual content, and it is understandable that many viewers, especially Christians, would wish to steer clear of it.  Kubrick’s final cut of the film even received an NC-17 rating, which the producers changed to an R after his death by digitally altering several sequences.  However, when released on DVD, Kubrick’s initial cut of the film was restored as he had intended.  Therefore, wouldn’t it have been safe to assume that this film, regardless of whatever artistic merits it had, crossed the line into pornography and off-limits to any discerning viewer?

I have admitted this before: I am a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick as a director, and I trust his artistic decisions.  In his twelve previous films, he never degenerated into gratuitous content, and even the most raw and explicit content in those films served a purpose to the story and challenged the viewer to consider his preconceptions and reactions to the material.

While Eyes Wide Shut certainly contains content that would make many viewers uncomfortable, and would earn it accusations of being pornography from casual viewers, the context in which the sexuality is portrayed causes it to serve the exact opposite purpose of pornography.  While it might be possible for a porn addict to use the sexual scenes for pornographic intent, by doing so he would be doing the very thing the film strongly condemns. Does it bother me that a porn addict could use the sex scenes in the opposite way of how they are intended?  No, a drug addict could find a scene criticizing drug abuse to be a source of temptation.  Everyone suffers from different temptations triggered in different ways.  What each viewer is capable of watching is up to that viewer to determine.  Eyes Wide Shut does not encourage any temptations, and it depicts unbridled lust as degrading and dehumanizing, which gives it a pass in my book.  Kubrick also films the scenes in a creepy, surreal style that makes them anything but alluring.

If one substituted sex for violence and nudity for gore, Eyes Wide Shut could easily be analyzed as a horror film.  And I think Kubrick’s final film is, in many ways, a horror film every bit as creepy and disturbing as his conventional horror film, The Shining, with the main difference being that instead of the protagonist becoming isolated and his family threatened due to a violent nightmare, the protagonist here becomes isolated and his family threatened due to a sexual nightmare.

The groundwork for Dr. Bill Harford’s (Tom Cruise) dangerous sexual odyssey is laid at the beginning of the movie when he and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) attend the Christmas party of their friend Victor (Sydney Pollack).   While there, Bill is asked to give medical assistance to a naked prostitute who overdosed on cocaine.  While he is occupied, a sleazy Hungarian (Sky du Mont) heavily hits on Alice asking her, “Why a beautiful woman who could have any man in the world would want to be married.”  He expounds on his question, saying that marriage as an institution only exists because in former times women were afraid they would never have sex unless they tied the knot; now, such formalities are thankfully no longer required.

The Hungarian functions very similarly to the creepy old man who gives the unheeded warning and then disappears in a regular horror film.  He is knowledgeable about a world of which the protagonists are unaware, but there is a disconcerting atmosphere about him, which should give the protagonists enough warning not to explore that world of his, but of course they do.

When Alice questions Bill about where he disappeared to at the party (he had last been seen flirting with two young, attractive women), she gleefully mentions her flirting with the Hungarian.  Bill is not perturbed, because “women are faithful, but men are just like that (fantasizing about adultery, but never committing it), but he was not like that with those two girls.”  Alice finds this rationale less than comforting, and as revenge proceeds to tell Bill about an affair she wished she had had a year ago.  The news shocks him, and after completing a house call, Bill begins traveling down an increasingly twisted and sinister sexual nightmare of observation.  Neither one of them ever consummates their lust, but their observations and fantasies have consequences every bit as dangerous as if they had.  Standing in the midst of fire observing it is just as dangerous as playing with it.

Bill’s nighttime journey, which begins with solicitation from a prostitute, proceeds to underage prostitution, and it culminates with a bizarre, sinister orgy where all the participants are masked.  The orgy is a total expression of sex divorced from marriage or any relationship, about which the Hungarian rhapsodized at the film’s beginning.  Kubrick films the sequence with distant tracking shots, exaggerated angles, and interrupted zooms to highlight disturbing nature of the demonic ritual, which is every bit as unnerving as anything in Blue Velvet or The Silence of the Lambs.  (Additionally, the final line of Eyes Wide Shut contains the same type of horrific yet darkly comic undertones as Lecter’s final line in The Silence of the Lambs.)

The color red plays a prominent role in Eyes Wide Shut, underscoring the danger of unrestrained desire and fantasy allowed to run amok.  Bill’s first connection to the dangerous nighttime orgy is formed at the Christmas party when he helps the redheaded prostitute.  That same prostitute later warns Bill of the serious danger he is in when he observes the orgy, which begins in a room with a vibrant red carpet, organized by a man in a bright red cloak.  The marijuana induced argument about marital fidelity between Bill and Alice is framed against their mahogany bedpost.  Bill first hears of the nighttime ritual from his friend Nick (Todd Field) after walking through a red hallway with red lights to enter a bar.  When Bill is solicited by a prostitute, the red door to her apartment complex stands out against the drab building.  When he arrives home, deeply perturbed, Alice wakes up from a nightmare in which she participated in an orgy as Bill observed.  As she relates the dream, the camera focuses on the dark red bed sheets.  To emphasize that Bill’s sexual adventures leave no one in his family safe, his and Alice’s daughter Helena (Madison Eginton) has red hair.

The red is inescapable, and it bleeds over into both fantasy and reality in almost every shot.  The final explanation, which takes place next to a bright red pool table, only further mystifies the dark proceedings, causing the viewer to question what is real and what isn’t.  The blurring of nightmare and reality is introduced in the opening scene as  “Waltz 2” from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite underscores the opening titles and then segues into source music as Bill and Alice prepare to leave for the Christmas party.

The entire film is deliberately paced like a surreal nightmare.  When Bill and Alice realize that they need to wake up, they have recognized the horror, but the fantasy has saturated their lives, and consequently their proposed solution is a different facet of the same problem.  If that doesn’t make Eyes Wide Shut a horror film, I don’t know what does.

At the very beginning before her parents leave, Helena asks if she can stay up until they come home.  Alice tells her that would be too late.  Once they leave, perhaps it already is.


Content Advisory: Many explicit sexual scenes, full-frontal nudity, child prostitution, some drug use, occasional profanity and obscenity.  Unrated; was NC-17

Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+


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