Stanley Kubrick?s Eyes Wide Shut is a classic example of a film whose reputation precedes it so much that the finished product will always be a disappointment. It wasn?t just the unusual marketing, which confused the audience into thinking they were going to see one kind of film and then presenting them with another. The effect of Kubrick?s death, the lengthy production and the level of secrecy surrounding the film, all ensured that audience expectations would be high, and that as a result, many people would come out of screenings feeling confused, misled, or possibly betrayed.
But in a way, all of this is strangely appropriate. Regardless of their central themes ? be it war, progress, or in this case jealousy ? all of Kubrick?s films have been about taking the audience?s expectations and then exceeding or subverting them. In his best films he manages both, creating a visual world which is overwhelmingly brilliant and technically stunning, and then playing out a series of events which surprise and challenge the audience, to the extent that, in the case of 2001 and The Shining, the genre is completely changed.
Eyes Wide Shut may not exceed audience expectations, but it certainly subverts them. Consider the orgy sequences at the Somerton Mansion. Any other director ? with the possible exception of Ken Russell ? would have used these scenes to titillate the audience, to reward their perseverance with a sexual smorgasbord which would appeal to some kind of base instinct. But in Eyes Wide Shut, you?re not turned on by the sex scenes; you?re disgusted by them. They are comparable to those in Ken Russell?s The Devils, but whereas in The Devils the orgy scenes are an indicator of demonic possession, in Eyes Wide Shut they demonstrate a secret, animalistic corruption at the core of polite society. Kubrick takes sex, one of the most celebrated and glamorised acts of human interaction, and turns it into an emblem of all that is excessive and shameful.
In many ways, this is Kubrick?s most moralistic film. But like all of his films, there is never a moment at which any character will suggest that what they are doing is wrong. Nor is there anything in either the direction or the screenplay which forces an audience to lean one way or the other. One of the charms of Kubrick?s work, right back to A Clockwork Orange, is that the audience is never quite sure whose side they should be on (or whether, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, it is pointless to choose). Much like David Fincher?s Se7en, it deals with the idea that certain human practices have become so commonplace that they have become accepted by default, on the basis that nothing can be done to fight them. But where Fincher had to juggle with seven sins, Kubrick takes on one, narrows the focus and uses it to deeply challenge an audience.
The film?s use of dream logic (in which events and images can repeat themselves in distorted or corrupted forms) is successfully underpinned by the dreamlike fashion of shooting. With the exception of the last half hour, there are very few sequences in Eyes Wide Shut that are genuinely boring, since everything always seems too stately and too idealised for everything to be hunky-dory. Just as in The Shining, the blandness of the encounters Tom Cruise has is not a measure of reassurance but a seed of paranoia which is planted in the viewer?s mind. We feel like we are in a dream which slowly but surely turns into a nightmare until eventually, in the final scenes, our world comes crashing down and we awake. The increasing surrealism of his encounters, ranging from the meeting with the prostitute Domino to his arrival at the orgy, really create the sense that this entire sexual odyssey is one long act of jealousy playing out inside Tom Cruise?s head ? which further bolsters the message of the film as a warning against the corrupting power of hedonism.
Of the central performances, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are very good, playing the archetypal middle-class husband and wife, wrestling between their ambitions and their responsibilities. Considering Cruise?s subsequent controversies, and their respective choice of roles, it is reassuring that at some point in their careers, both Cruise and Kidman were capable of delivering performances which were both authentic and immersive. Sydney Pollack does very well in his supporting role of Victor Ziegler, delivering a powerful final speech during the scene in the billiard room. And on the cameos front, there are some fine appearances by Alan Cumming and Vinessa Shaw, who is far more convincing here than in 40 Days and 40 Nights.
Eyes Wide Shut is not a masterpiece, nor is it a contender for Kubrick?s best film. Even if the device of the slow story is accepted, the final half hour could have been substantially trimmed or sped up, to give a better indication of the unravelling of Cruise?s aborted fantasies. Certainly there is a lot of tying up of loose ends ? rare in a Kubrick film ? which does not suit its slow pace. Nevertheless, like all of Kubrick?s work, Eyes Wide Shut draws the audience in with its unusual style and vivid imagination, only to completely shake our preconceptions to the core. It holds a mirror up to the faults we take for granted, and without preaching, lets us see ourselves with eyes wide open.