Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut tells a story of three consecutive nights in New York City, and of the exchanges between wife and husband that punctuate them. In the wake of the first two nights, the wife reveals dreams of sexual desire, which humiliate and enrage her husband. After the third night, it’s his turn to confess. Appalled at what he’s discovered on the trail of his own desires, he breaks open at last, at dawn.
These events take place in late December, when nocturnal fantasies of horniness and guilt can be played out in festive surroundings. Even the low-rent den of a prostitute has its Christmas tree, radiating color in the background. Yet there’s more to the film’s glow of make-believe than a few holiday trimmings. New York’s downtown streets have grown slightly wider. The rows of storefronts are strangely tidy; the apartment interiors (except for the prostitute’s) all seem to belong on Park Avenue. Fabricated by Kubrick in England, this is a dream Manhattan, which comes close to the real thing without actually touching it. When Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) walks these streets, visiting a patient’s home or prowling the Village, he is not so much inhabiting a physical place as moving through a set of thoughts–thoughts that take shape in reaction to the unwelcome suggestions of his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman).
Such rigor of structure, wed to such clarity of purpose, was characteristic of the work of Kubrick, about whom I still find it hard to write in the past tense. His sudden death in March converted Eyes Wide Shut into a last testament–a nasty trick for fate to have played on him, since unintended, superabundant meanings were foreign to his art. The degree to which the release version itself might have seemed foreign to Kubrick will remain a subject for debate. Although he completed a cut of the film before he died, reports have circulated that the sound mix had to be finished by other hands. And then there’s the issue of the alterations (defacements, rather) that were made in the US version to secure an R rating, instead of NC-17. I’ll have more to say on that subject. For now, it’s enough to remark that as Kubrick’s Christmas fable comes before us, it is weighed down as heavily as Marley’s ghost.
During the two hours and forty minutes that I spent watching Eyes Wide Shut, I kept longing to unburden the film, to lift the portentousness that had settled on it. And at times the weight seemed to lift on its own. In the scene of Alice’s second revelation, the emotional ground shifts so quickly that gravity loses its grip. (Bill awakens her on the pretense that she was having a nightmare–an odd excuse, since she was laughing in her sleep. Yet, once awake, she agrees with him. The dream was terrible, she says, and then reveals an explanation Bill doesn’t want to hear.) In other scenes, characters such as a scheming merchant (Rade Sherbedgia) and a flirtatious hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) recall the comic grotesques who have animated so many of Kubrick’s films. But these moments prove to be rare. Some of the heaviness of Eyes Wide Shut was imposed on the film; but most of it, like Marley’s chains, turns out to have been self-forged.
Proceeding at a pace that is not so much hypnotic as soporific, Eyes Wide Shut devotes the great majority of its running time to Bill’s fantasies: his vengeful search for erotic adventure and the anxieties that ensue. Bill becomes irresistible to a grief-stricken woman (Marie Richardson), falls in with an improbably wholesome streetwalker (Vinessa Shaw) and then (in the movie’s extended set piece) bluffs his way into a Long Island mansion, where men in masks and hooded capes ritualistically debauch a team of women who recall nothing so much as Vegas showgirls. In brief, Bill has a head full of clichés. Throughout his somnambulistic excursions, he treats them all with leaden solemnity–and so too, unaccountably, does Kubrick.