Eyes Wide Shut

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene
Eyes Wide Shut
Year of Release: 1999
Rating: Originally intended to be NC-17 before Kubrick’s death, but just barely an R for lots of sexy sex. Again, not another “Family Fun Night” option.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: No, available on DVD.
Spoilers: Mild.

Back in high school, my girlfriends and I had what you might call “unconventional” sleepovers. While everyone else our age was crying into their burnt popcorn over The Notebook, we were renting…Red Dragon. Schindler’s List. Fight Club. American History X. (To be fair, we all had massive crushes on Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes, so that may have swayed our choices a bit.)

One of the things I’m having a lot of fun with on this blog is revisiting movies that I once enjoyed as a teenager but couldn’t fully appreciate, and Eyes Wide Shut is another such story. I know for a fact that sixteen-year-old me was leading the charge at the video store for little else beyond my obsession with Tom Cruise’s hair. After repeated viewings of what we colloquially referred to as “The Stanley” (so as not to let our parents know what we were watching), we had figured out two things: Stanley Kubrick was totally brilliant and we needed more exposure to his films, and sex, particularly among the rich and bored, is really, really complicated.

Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) Harford are two affluent New Yorkers attending a party thrown by one of Bill’s patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). During the party, the couple separates: Alice dances with an older Hungarian man who sips her drink and tries his best to coerce her upstairs, while Bill strolls arm-in-arm with two models who propose a threesome “where the rainbow ends” (Ziegler’s house is literally a rainbow of Christmas lights, which shine everywhere as the film progresses).

As you can imagine, Alice and Bill have a bit of a discussion once the party ends and their “normal” lives – Bill going through the day’s doctor’s appointments, Alice getting her daughter ready for school – resume. High on some very strong weed, Alice asks Bill about the two models he was flirting with, which leads into an almost at times unbearably tense discussion on jealousy in marriage. Bill assures Alice that sex is the furthest thing from his mind when seeing an attractive female patient, and much to his wife’s dismay, tells her that he has never been jealous about her simply because he “knows” that she would never cheat. Sex is physical for men and emotional for women. Done and done. Goodnight, Alice.

But Alice isn’t finished, and Bill’s oversimplified (repressed?) view of sexuality propels her to launch into one of my favorite monologues in any movie ever. Alice shares a story from their last Cape Cod vacation: exchanging nothing more than a glance with the handsome naval officer across the dining room and dissolving into a fever of desire. That afternoon Helena went to the movie with her friend. And you and I made love. And we made plans about our future, and we talked about Helena, and yet at no time was he ever…out of my mind. Nicole Kidman sits slumped against the wall, eyes rolled up to daringly meet those of her husband’s, drawing out each line in a primal growl. And afterward I, like Alice when she first saw the officer, could hardly move.

As you might imagine, Bill’s world shatters. He stalks the streets of New York City for two nights on a bizarre quest for…what, exactly? Revenge? Escape? Comfort? The answer, I think, is all and none of the above. The darkness unveils a world that is off limits to Bill during the day, and the further he journeys “to the rainbow’s end,” the more he discovers that he would be better off never having seen. There are many themes here worth analyzing – the hidden power of the social elite, marital struggles with monogamy, a “class” of disposable prostitutes – but at its heart, Eyes Wide Shut is a movie about how we react to what we see and feel: either writing it off as a dream or embracing it as a reality to build from. To borrow from Oscar Wilde, and more recently Frank Underwood, “everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.”

To rave about the style of Eyes Wide Shut for a minute: from start to finish, it is an aesthetic masterpiece. In typical Kubrick style, the pace creeps along, forcing us to note every deliberate detail from the constant twinkle of Christmas lights to the stuffed tiger that sits on prostitute Domino’s bed, which is later admired by Helena in a toy store. Close-ups are limited so as to intensify the few that do occur, colors are used brilliantly (the blue backlighting as Alice stands against the bathroom door recalls Kidman’s 1998 role in David Hare’s play The Blue Room) and Kubrick’s characteristic wide shots and enormous rooms gives the film a cold and distant feel to mimic Bill’s isolation. The opening few minutes might be the most beautiful as Alice and Bill hustle out the door for their party in one fluid take. The camera follows both characters in constant motion, a movement that grinds abruptly to a halt as the fantasy of the party gives way to an unpleasant and at times downright scary reality. For more on the detail and symbolism in Eyes Wide Shut, check out this comprehensive three-part review, because mine is creeping up on 1,000 words and I should probably stop gushing…now.

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