Eyes Wide Shut review – Kubrick’s swansong is a dreamy masterpiece

Tom Cruise's sexual odyssey through an erotically-charged New York is one of the best films of the '90s

Few films have proven as polarising as Eyes Wide Shut, which returns to cinemas this week in celebration of its 20th anniversary. Unveiled to a lukewarm critical response back in 1999 and considered a lesser effort from one of cinema’s greatest visionaries, its emergence was also marked by its maker’s unexpected death. Stanley Kubrick never got to find out how the public felt about Eyes Wide Shut; he passed away at age 70 in his sleep, mere days after screening the film for its lead stars. But maybe it was a good thing he never had the chance, since it’s taken years for this strange, complicated, and – yes – slyly funny study of sexual desire to be given its dues. What, you have to wonder, has changed?

The film had its fans even in ’99. Martin Scorsese declared it to be one of the best films of the ’90s, though most wrote it off as both pretentious and meaningless. Now it’s obvious that Eyes Wide Shut carries more weight than was initially thought, and rewatching it reaffirms there is a hell of a lot happening on almost every conceivable level. It is, perhaps more than any other Kubrick film, a fascinating work to deconstruct; a film that begs for personal interpretation. Part of the fun is trying to work out what Kubrick was trying to say. Though, as is the case with all dreams, there are no easy answers. Perhaps what’s taken so long is the acceptance of the film as an unsolvable enigma – and the need for us to gain some distance from Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s coupledom.

Cruise stars as Dr. Bill Harford, who lives a comfortable life in a massive New York apartment with his beautiful wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), and their young daughter. This seemingly perfect set-up hits a snag when Alice, tipsy and stoned one night after the two return from a lavish party, admits to her husband that she has had sexual thoughts about another man in the past. Bill, shaken by the revelation and intent, perhaps, on experiencing thoughts like this himself, embarks on an ambling nighttime odyssey through the streets of New York. Along the way he will encounter all manner of strange and sexually-charged situations – eventually leading him to an exclusive, password-protected orgy (its scale is unprecedented) in the suburbs.

It’s here that Bill, masked and cloaked, infiltrates a secret sex society in the much parodied centrepiece of Kubrick’s film; mesmerising not because it is particularly explicit, but because of the way Kubrick allows us to glide through the rooms and corridors of the mansion with the same woozy sense that he did with the Overlook in The Shining. We, like Bill, are silent spectators to this strange and impressively staged sequence, one that – in itself an indictment of the rich ruling class that seems all the more timely in 2019 – is somehow erotic and yet completely unsexy at the same time. Meanwhile, Jocelyn Pook’s disarming score likens the experience to stepping back in time and into some arcane ritual.

Cruise and Kidman, together here not only on screen but also in real life, are both at the top of their respective games. Their relationship was one that Kubrick was rumoured to have exploited to the benefit of his picture. And this is of course the sort of film in which the production process and the final product seem interchangeable. Cruise, especially, has always been more interesting in those films that toy with our perceptions of his screen persona; here he enters Kubrick’s realm and – perhaps unwillingly – becomes a pawn in the director’s game (Kubrick allegedly found ways to drive Cruise’s jealousy over Kidman). The sense of Cruise’s character being out of his depth in the movie surely carries over from his sense of feeling out of depth in real life. His performance has an antsy quality that can be felt in every frame. He is a man trapped in a movie he cannot quite fathom, hoping that eventually he will wake up.

Eyes Wide Shut never asks us to approach its scenario with a logical mind (Kidman’s character is called “Alice,” after all)  – a mistake that was maybe assumed in 1999. Its evasive, dream-like slipperiness is purposeful, as proven by Kubrick’s decision to build fake New York sets that are so very nearly convincing, but not quite; disorienting in the way that dreams are. Dense with subliminal uses of colour, it’s a film that titillates and teases, and Kubrick’s intent to deliver a “waking dream” matches any effort by filmmakers like Lynch or Tarkovsky. Through the careful and meticulous use of odd dialogue rhythms, measured pacing, and inventive cinematography, Eyes Wide Shut might even stand as cinema’s best attempt to capture the strangeness of dreaming on screen, as it constantly eludes your grasp and never reveals its true meaning. Yet it lingers for days afterwards. Suddenly this much-maligned film seems worthy of a thousand viewings.

★★★★★

By: Tom Barnard

Get Eyes Wide Shut showtimes in London.

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