Kubrick’s swan song is, at heart, a vicious extrapolation of sexual and personal tensions that can fester in long-term relationships.
When Albert Brooks’s ruthless relationship comedy, Modern Romance, premiered in 1981, the filmmaker got an enthusiastic phone call from an unexpected source, Stanley Kubrick. Bowled over by Brooks’s withering assessment of the discontent that may be unavoidable in post-sexual revolution relationships, Kubrick purportedly told the comedian he’d always wanted to make a film on the subject. Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s final feature, makes good on that wish. Released to a cavalcade of press related to its copious nudity and supposedly inscrutable plot, Kubrick’s swan song is, at heart, a vicious extrapolation of sexual and personal tensions that can fester in long-term relationships. Familiarity breeds contempt, as the saying goes, and there is no greater guarantee of familiarity than marriage.
Not unlike director’s treatment of The Shining, the Kubrick film to which this most similar, Eyes Wide Shut begins with its chief characters already unbalanced and headed for some sort of explosive catharsis. Doctor Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) are a rich couple who dwell at the outskirts of New York’s old-money elites. At the start of the film, they attend a party hosted by their friend, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), where both are quickly seduced by others and prove readily interested in those who approach them. An older Hungarian smoothly comes on to Alice while Bill is approached by two young models who take his arms in theirs. Both Bill and Alice offer only the most perfunctory resistance to these flirtations, and in Bill’s case only the intervention of a servant who calls upon him to see to Ziegler’s overdosing young lover (Julienne Davis) breaks his momentary enchantment.
Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation notoriously dispensed with the slow escalation of the novel, replacing an allegory for addict relapse for a more pointed, lacerating view of sobriety as the smokescreen of the addict, the desperately maintain illusion of normalcy beneath a figure whose default state had permanently shifted. A similar approach defines Bill and Alice. Their marital strife exists right at the surface and blows up right after they get home from the party, both of them barely able to casually ask about the others’ flirtations before a fight ensues. Bill, the more defensive of the two, is bitterly called out by Alice for his insipid double standards, particularly when it comes to his retrograde belief that women simply do not sexually fantasize the way that men do. In response, Alice has a cruelly exaggerated laughing fit before calmly relating the story of her vivid fantasies about running off with a total stranger she so much as glimpsed while the couple were on vacation, her exquisite, agonizing detail rending open a marriage already fraying from boredom and lost passion.
Shaken by the revelation that his domestic security is precariously maintained, Bill roams New York City in a daze, regularly imagining visions of his wife with this other man as he seeks distraction. Much like how the Overlook Hotel manifested the extremity of Jack’s rage and creative stagnation, New York is largely seen as an extension of Bill’s shellshocked numbness. Hardly anyone appears on the streets, and the Steadicam shots that curve around Bill as he turns corners give the unreal surroundings a labyrinthine feeling, as if he were circling a locked system in a world of his own making. Kubrick’s films are all comedic to some extent, and watching Bill wander around in a daze after being called out for his fatuous notions of female virtue and looking for any excuse to have an affair is mirthlessly funny. As a commentary on the prison of masculinity, these scenes rank with some of Kubrick’s most scabrous work.
Of course, things do not end there, and in Bill’s quest to find some outlet for his wounded pride he stumbles across an even greater maze, that of the ritualistic meetings of a secretive cabal who gather for masked orgies. Bill cons his way into one of these events, though his obsession with attending is not immediately clear. Given only vague details about a soirée with beautiful women, Bill immediately sets about sneaking in, a strange development in a film that already drifts from scene to scene. Yet the logic of his fixation gradually becomes clear; the orgy itself makes clear what is implied by the clues leading to it, that it is an arcane meeting of the rich and powerful, who have crafted some eldritch entertainment just to amuse themselves. Bill’s sexual anxiety is thus refracted and magnified through his class anxiety, his tacit frustrations at being merely adjacent to the upper crust but not quite within it.
Bill’s intrusion into a world beyond his own is met with instant suspicion, and despite having the correct password for entry and a mask, his transfixed and gawping body language as he traverses the rooms of the orgy gives him away as someone who does not belong. Singled out for humiliation, Bill can only stand terrified before an assembly of masked elites, compounding Alice’s emasculation of him with a brutal assessment of his powerlessness. Kubrick traces that specific commingling of sexual and authoritative impotence in odd, unnerving subplots, none more disturbing than the case of the costume shop owner (Rade Šerbedžija) who rents Bill his outfit for the orgy. When we meet him, he discovers his daughter (Leelee Sobieski) with two older men and explodes at them. But when Bill returns to give back his costume, the two men are there again with the girl and the shopkeep beams at them warmly, telling Bill that they came to an “arrangement.” The implication that the man has been coerced or bribed into letting these men have their way with his child is made all the more abhorrent by the cheerfulness of his tone, not abased or intimidated but gladly participant.
The nonlinear movement of Eyes Wide Shut is so unpredictable that when things come full circle, what otherwise would be standard screenplay structure feels surprising. At the start of the film, the older gentleman who woos Alice notes “Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” But Bill and Alice only come together when Bill becomes so abased by his experiences that he comes clean to his wife, finally stripped of his defenses, that their relationship can begin to repair. The coda suggests some possibility of happiness, though even in this moment of reconciliation there are uncomfortable details, like the reappearance of the two men from the costume shop in the vicinity of Bill and Alice’s daughter, that suggest that even if the couple can solve their personal issues, larger forces still monitor and shape them.