Written by: Stanley Kubrick & Frederic Raphael
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Marie Richardson, Todd Field, Sky du Mont
Sex, desire, and love dominate so much of the average person’s life as it taps into both our primal and emotional cravings. Whether we lay it out for everyone to see or keep it hidden within the layers of our consciousness. Regardless, make no mistake, it very much exists for everyone as Eyes Wide Shut gloriously displays with the meticulous detail everyone should expect from a Kubrick film. In his final gift to the world of filmmaking, he creates a layered dive into sexual depravity and how it remains interwoven with money.
Following a Christmas party, married couple Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) have a frank conversation about their sex life and what fidelity means to each of them. After Alice mentions an instance where she would have thrown away her marriage and life for a night with another man, Bill sets out for a twilight of sexual deviance where he finds more than he can handle.
As with any Stanley Kubrick, everything seen on screen comes with a layer of detail to examine, which at times gives me a headache because I want to absorb every frame, piece of lighting, or prop to interpret how it plays into the narrative. It’s what makes his films worth revisiting time and time again. Eyes Wide Shut, no differently, does the same where at every turn something alludes to another larger concept embedded in the film to piece together an equally harrowing and elusive story.
At the center of it all, we have a married couple living an upper-class lifestyle within New York City. Just one look into their extravagant apartment would make you wonder what exorbitant price tag arrives in the mail in the form of rent. Bill works as a doctor, a very successful one at that, while Alice stays at home caring for their young daughter. They have a seemingly normal relationship from the onset, as marriages go, but a new layer gets revealed with each new conversation they have. It begins right away with the film opening with them heading out to a Christmas party of one of Bill’s patients. A very elite gathering where neither of them knows anyone else. As soon as they get separated for a second they are immediately confronted with sex as an older man approaches Alice and two young women begin flirting with Bill. Their conversations carry a level of regular societal decorum but the sexual innuendos make themselves very clear. Despite strong attempts by the strangers, both of them resist these alluring temptations. These encounters prompt the inciting conversation that will eventually set off the plot.
Back at home, they enjoy some marijuana together and discuss how they saw each other getting quite comfortable with strangers. This conversation becomes telling about what they have discussed as a couple in regard to fidelity. As seen through their conversations at the party, the excuses as to why they could not sexually engage with strangers come purely through stating they’re married. It comes up again in this discussion as they try to hash out what attracts a man to a woman and vice versa. In this talk is where the story of potential infidelity comes across in the desires of Alice, which sets off Bill down this downward spiral. The illusion of purity within a marriage shatters in his mind and he needs to do something about it.
Through different confrontations and discussions with folks, the film eventually gets to what has remained the lasting image, which includes the sex cult of robe and mask-wearing individuals. Bill finds himself in a secretive place of discreet individuals engaging in strange chants and participating in sexual acts. The way it contrasts with the initial party says plenty about the underlying desire hidden right before our eyes. At the Christmas party, it comes with the purview of being wholesome with all individuals dressed very nicely but the sexual energy jumps right out of the screen. Everyone wants something from another person but they can only say so much under societal expectations. Then at the party, nudity runs galore where all of these desires become reality but the individuals involved remain with a mask where identities remain hidden. Bill wanders through both of these situations with a sense of awe but only one is deemed acceptable.
Additionally, money plays an integral part in how sex gets facilitated and how it runs the cycle of depravity. Bill and Alice’s upper-class status puts them in high levels of their community but the distinct line of being elite hits them right in the face when they go to the Christmas party and they do not recognize a single person other than the hosts who invited them. They’re playing in a different league here and it only gets more revealing when Bill heads to the mansion where the sex cult resides. He heads there in a cab with a rented costume and mask while everyone else arrives in limousines representing an old-money establishment of individuals willing to do what it takes to ensure no one can recount their involvement in these activities. With the costume renter’s daughter, the sex worker in her apartment, or the gathering of information, exchanging money and power occurs and each time it distinctly surrounds the idea of sexual engagement from the most innocent to the downright heinous.
Color plays a large part in this story in the way it depicts lust and love. Through the context of the story, red represents lustful desire and how it clashes with the blues of love. Bill has this blue all around him when at home but with love comes monotony and the restrictions of being a good family man. Red brings this excitement in life, which is why he forces his way into what he thinks is a wild party but eventually reveals to be a sex cult. At times during the film, Bill walks towards or away from the red all aided by where his mind lays within the story. At times the red and blue mesh together to demonstrate how Bill can have it all, but as rampant as infidelity remains in marriages, the protagonist exemplifies why many continuously run towards the red.
Interpretations can run wild about the true meaning of this Kubrick masterwork with different people part of the production having conflicting ideas. It serves as a credit to the script he co-wrote with Frederic Raphael based on a novel written by Arthur Schnitzler. Just as Alice describes her sexual fantasy and a horrifying dream she has, it remains possible that aspects of Bill’s night of seeking sexual gratification ties into some of it being stuff he dreamt. The film allows for multiple readings into this idea, which alone deserves its own analysis.
Casting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in this feature together came with plenty of intentionality and even feels meta with them being together at the time. While Kubrick’s tactics can be rightfully derided for being unnecessary, he utilized their real relationship to create jealousy for the actors when on set. Whether it really assisted in Kidman and Cruise upping their game with the performances can be its own conversation but nevertheless, they both strike gold here. Cruise wonderfully captures this sexual frustration of a man trying to reclaim his sexuality and how he just keeps digging until he finds something beyond terrifying. Similarly, Kidman carries the aloofness of her character as a woman living with a specific purpose and mounting desires sitting right under the surface ready to explode whenever ready.
Eyes Wide Shut provides plenty to talk about, which makes for a great film and while Kubrick dies before its release, he made yet another masterwork here. So much to parse through but with reliable themes running through showing the level of depravity people are willing to participate in just to get some sexual satisfaction. Genuinely terrifying on a literal and subtextual lens, pulling apart the layers comes with its own fun or you can view this film on its bare text where a man tries to have sex to reclaim his manhood and seemingly cannot get it off.