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#21: Eyes Wide Shut
(USA/UK, 1999; dir. Stanley Kubrick; scr. Frederic Raphael and Stanley Kubrick; cin. Larry Smith; with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Julienne Davis, Todd Field, Marie Richardson, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Serbedzija, Alan Cumming)
IMDb // My Full Review // Leave a Comment

I'm pretty sure I saw Eyes Wide Shut lickety-split at an opening-day matinée, so I can't remember how aware I was of the burgeoning critical divide between "Kubrick's Last Masterpiece" and "WTF Was That?" I've always been in the former camp, but both reactions make sense, and their blurring makes even more sense. Even the best parts of Eyes Wide Shut require some benefit of the doubt; even its most divisive aspects could only be conceived by a prodigiously strange and talented filmmaker attempting a high-wire act. I wouldn't argue that Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick's "best" movie (hence its migration from the Top 100 to this roster), but it's the only one that takes up important real estate in my mind. I tend to seek out 2001 when it rolls around for big-screen revivals but as much as it floors me, I'm happy to wait a decade at a time. I've never seen The Killing, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, or Barry Lyndon after the first date with each. Two trips through Paths of Glory only reinforced that it just doesn't resonate for me. I brought more to The Shining and got more out of it at 34 than at 14, but I think I'm good there, too. One day I'll be ready for another tour through Full Metal Jacket, compulsory viewing when growing up on military bases ("Hey, guess what we're watching at Mark's sleepover," etc.), but for the time being, Eyes Wide Shut is the only one of Kubrick's Gesamtkunstwerks that regularly docks on my home screen.

Good thing, too, because I have a bad habit of misremembering it. For years I told students that if you don't clock how that pre-credits shot of Alice disrobing is later reframed as her husband's POV, you'll miss that the whole movie is a subjective immersion in Bill's perspective. That's sort of true, but there's no actual follow-up shot that contextualizes the image this way, and anyway, Eyes Wide Shut is more free-indirect than first-person. During my first screening, I could not keep straight which redhead was which (zonked at the party, happily hooking, warning Bill away, turning up dead), though this barely seems ambiguous to me now. Then again, feed me enough opium and I bet I'd forget my own name, which is to say, Eyes Wide Shut is so sensuously intoxicating (a very different thing from sexually stimulating) and is so wedded to dream logic that absorbing everything while being so narcotized by beauty is a tall order. This is most true on the big screen. Even the Warner Brothers Blu-ray fails to capture the particular, crepuscular graininess of the light when Eyes Wide Shut is projected on film. The movie looks like someone has zested the screen with opal dust, so much so that Bill and Alice Harford simply striding through their own hallways, dolled up for a holiday banquet, makes for irresistibly sublime spectacle. The script could easily have started at the party, but you need those opening minutes to acclimate to the otherworldly look, which softens the light in the movie while hardening the glare around discrete sources, and doesn't slake at all the aggressive vibrancy of key colors, like velvet red and neon-sign blue.

Indeed, Eyes is so arresting and idiosyncratic in its visuals that, particularly once its plot takes shape as a mystery, I assumed for a long time that clues in montage and in mise-en-scène would help me solve it. This was all before I'd gotten the memo—a memo, in fact, that Eyes Wide Shut crucially helped me to get—that the crafting of a singular milieu or the maintenance of unusual, unsettling tones can be a movie's central task, superseding the narrative payoffs. Sydney Pollack's scarlet pool table, for example, is a walloping sight, landing almost violently on the eye. While one could trace a retrospective path through the film's earlier deployments of that color, which might reveal something about conspiratorial chains or associated thematics, the impact in the moment is enough. I've contemplated takes on the movie that endow marijuana, mortality, HIV, misogyny, Fidelio, and FAO Schwartz with primary importance, and if I ever taught the movie, I'd be curious where students might arrive with any of these tropes as interpretive engines. But each time I revisit Eyes Wide Shut, even amidst intervals I find less than gripping (the house call with Marie Richardson, the creepy visit to Rade Serbedzija's costume shop), what I can't shake is the feeling of never having been held in this specific envelope of baroque disquiet. Making the film cohere as a statement already seemed less important by the end of the movie than it had during the middle. The occult ambience had itself been a statement, and especially for a movie with so much narrative incident and bravura soliloquizing, that was a new idea to me at the time.

So that's one way of refuting the question of "What is Eyes Wide Shut about?": redirecting to a paradigm where affect supersedes interpretation, and the experience of the movie overwhelms anything you might extract from it. But another answer might be, "What, honestly, is there to solve?" The movie could hardly be clearer about the psychic, sexual, and status-based precarities of the wealthy, as against the super-wealthy, and the particular feeling of vulnerability that can overtake the upwardly, upwardly, upwardly mobile even when, to more objective eyes, they look pretty ensconced in their comforts and privilege. The whole movie is about Tom Cruise's increasingly exposed underbelly, the panicked need for affirmation just underneath that wolfish grin and overbearing handshake, the tension between having finally arrived and the free-fall sensation that you are still a disposable servant, the keen hunger for immortality even for a doctor who guides others all the time through the implacable fact of death. So much goes haywire for Bill, but even as the film musters some guarded compassion for him, it also seems as unimpressed as Pollack's power-broker does. What did you expect, Bill? Who is meant to grieve for the hardships (sic) of the last 48 hours? Eyes Wide Shut is bitter medicine for the healer, a sinister tragedy and an even more sinister comedy about the top guns of Central Park West who find out that not everyone in the world defers automatically to the phrase "I'm a doctor" (or, even more absurdly, "Once a doctor, always a doctor"), and that you neither own nor fully know your spouse, and that yes, even you are susceptible to the feeling of nearly losing everything, even if it's not at all clear that Bill Harford has lost all that much. Like an unprosecuted inside-trader or a politician tainted by quickly-forgotten scandal, you can sympathize with Bill's nausea while noticing how little actual price he pays. The wound is tremendous and largely internal. I expect its primary effect will be to make him play things even safer from here on out. He'll probably become more conservative, the appetite for kink more forcefully (and dangerously) suppressed. I expect Alice might think even more about that naval officer. And who wouldn't?

This parable was a potent thing to watch one month after graduating from college—from the college, in fact, that rhymes closely with Bill Harford's moniker, and whose name fellow graduates sometimes quote with the off-putting air of "Once a doctor, always a doctor," or marshal as an open-sesame password, like "Fidelio." I like to think I'm not one of these Harvard jerks, but who am I to say? I imagine the relative comforts of my current life are the fruits of hard work, not just social privilege, but the truth is so plainly in the middle. Eyes Wide Shut never read to me as the hysterically anti-sex manifesto some viewers have discerned. It felt like a portentous warning against confusing privilege with power, comfort with safety, even as the story insists how often we all act on impulse, how seducible we are (even by things that don't look all that seductive in the moment, much less the next day), and how easy we can make it for our lives to come undone. Sex is danger, and leads to unhappiness is not what I heard the film say, any more than I heard it claim, This is sexy, or This is New York. What I did hear from Eyes Wide Shut was Beware of overconfidence, despite its being one swaggering movie, whose director was no dormouse. Assume your partner is as mysterious as you are, I heard. Don't be an ass, I heard, or you'll wind up weeping for yourself, even if nobody else weeps for you. We're all billiard balls on somebody's crimson, cigar-scented table. You can have a rich, interesting life without taking it for granted or flamboyantly tempting fate.

So yes, I relished Eyes Wide Shut, then as now, as a voluptuous stylistic exercise, replete with enigmatic dissolves, devising its own rules, looking like no movie before or since. But amid this feast for the eyes, it's not a bad idea to prick up your ears a bit, too. A close friend often, unironically names it as her favorite Christmas movie, but let me tell you, it resonates on Thanksgiving, too.

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