Rediscovering Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

James Oliver

We take a look back at the (now-classic) film of Kubrick's prime

Stanley Kubrick was not a religious man, but if there is a filmmaker's Heaven and he's up there, he might permit himself a modest chuckle at how the reputation of his final film has evolved. Eyes Wide Shut is 20 years old, now, and it has celebrated by going back in to cinemas for an anniversary re-release last month.

Such releases are a badge of honour, usually reserved for classics: be in no doubt it will be greeted with glowing-if-not-actually-fawning reviews. Which would be a big reversal on how it was received originally, two full decades ago. Back then, reviews were decidedly mixed—a few raves, and not a few pans, but mostly bewilderment: most people were not at all sure what to make of it.

Let's not get all hindsight-y and crow about how foolish those original critics were, though. Given the context in which it arrived, such responses are only too understandable: Eyes Wide Shut was very nearly legendary even before anyone actually saw it.

"No one knew what it was actually about but once it was established it would be sexually explicit, the gossips went into overdrive"

For a start,  Kubrick was a legend (2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon... those were all his) and there was some excitement that he was actually making another movie. Never a fast worker, it would be his first film since Full Metal Jacket in 1986. 

Moreover, he seemed to be playing up to his reputation as a perfectionist: filming took over two and a half years (two and a half years in which the leads, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman—both huge stars, at the peak of their fame—couldn't make other films, basically unthinkable in Hollywood terms). 

Unsurprisingly, the rumours flowed thick and fast, especially on the internet. No one knew what it was actually about but once it was established it would be sexually explicit, the gossips went into overdrive. (There was an especially choice rumour about why actor Harvey Keitel was fired from his supporting role... But it was entirely erroneous so let us speak no more of it.) 

Nothing was ever going to live up to all that, and the film duly suffered on its original release. Now, though, it can be seen more clearly. Like almost all Kubrick's films, it is an adaptation, taken from a book called Traumnovelle by fin-de-siècle writer Arthur Schnitzler. Kubrick modernised it, and shifted it from Schnitzler's Vienna to New York but otherwise stuck surprisingly close to the original.

Its protagonist, played by “the Cruiser”, is Dr Bill Harford (a surname, incidentally, that's a deliberate contraction of “Harrison Ford”, an actor Kubrick once considered for the role). He is a smooth society physician who gets thoroughly discombobulated when his wife Alice (Kidman, then married to Cruise) pierces his self-satisfaction by telling him she has contemplated adultery. His little ego bruised, Dr Bill sets off into the night and—long story—winds up at an upscale orgy, where he realises just how much his fit of pique might cost him.

Kubrick had tackled many genres in his day (horror, sci-fi, war...). Eyes Wide Shut could be considered his attempt at the “erotic thriller”, that dismal form that clogged video stores in the wake of Basic Instinct. As ever with Kubrick, though, the genre conventions are a mask for something else. While there is undeniably a surfeit of nookie—too much for the prudish Americans, for whom discreet CGI veils were applied—it's far more about relationships than sex.

Specifically, it's about long-term relationships and the sometimes fragile dynamics that sustain them, the necessary accommodations and evasions that emerge once raw passion calms down. That's the reason why Kubrick sought a married couple to play the leads—he almost cast Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. We must be glad he settled on Mr and Mrs Cruise though: if Kidman earned most of the plaudits as the exasperated Alice, “the Cruiser” is ideal as this slightly shallow man struggling with his own manifest insecurities.

eyes wide shut

Kubrick died shortly after turning in what has since been described as his “final cut”. But it wasn't entirely done: some work, notably on the soundtrack, remained unfinished. Given Kubrick's legendary tampering (he hacked 20 minutes out of 2001: A Space Odyssey after it had opened, for goodness sake!) it's hardly contentious to say that he would have made other changes along the way, honing, planning and shaping the film into something other than what we have.

But unless we ever find ourselves in filmmaker heaven, we'll never know what those changes might be and we have to judge on what we have. And it's not like there's no shortage of viewers who are quite satisfied with Eyes Wide Shut as it is. According to his brother Jan Harlan, Kubrick said,  shortly before he died, that he reckoned it was his best film. More and more people agree with him.


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