Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, is fucked up. This is altogether appropriate as it’s about being fucked up about fucking. And even fucking weirder? It’s stars Tom Cruise in the role he was born not to play.
So what up, Stanley? Is Eyes Wide Shut a serious tale of sexual infidelity or is it a comedy — about how we place too much importance on intercourse? Or, to say it another way, about how we ogle, and fantasize, and lust for others’ bodies with our eyes wide shut, seeing everything with zero clarity.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. I’m old enough to remember Kubrick casting them in this film and thinking, “Shit.” Cruise has his place, and his talents; true. He’s also — it seems logical to conclude — of unconvincing sexual tastes. That’s his business. His being gay or his being anything else isn’t really interesting to me, unless the South Park guys are making fun of him — but his preferences and his suspected repression of them might be pertinent if they factored into his casting.
Am I reaching? Maybe. But I just watched Eyes Wide Shut again and it’s fucked up. It’s a kamikaze run to bizarro land seeing Cruise as Dr. Bill Harford, a straight-seeming guy getting gay-bashed on the New York streets. It is as if Kubrick took the man and placed him in his worst nightmare: his secrets revealed, humiliation publicly applied. And, on top of this, his role — in a production that lasted a record-setting 400 straight days — was to pretend to be married to Nicole Kidman, his actual wife at the time.
It’s meta, intentionally or not. Cruise plays Cruise playing Bill who plays Bill. In all those incarnations, like any of us, he just wants to be loved, if only he can figure out how.
Kidman, naturally, is a better actor than Cruise, as are many other people, including Clint Howard and Evangeline Lilly wearing elf ears. Kidman also, to my eye, looks far better with her kit off. This is fortuitous (for me) as she has her kit off throughout much of Eyes Wide Shut. But for Cruise, ostensibly her loving husband, playing her loving husband who is — in the film at least — consumed with sexual jealousy, here he again gets placed in his worst nightmare: having his wife displayed lasciviously, and frequently, while he stands by powerless.
I’m not even sure I can peel back all the layers to successfully reach my head and then scratch it.
It is fucked up. And maybe it is also hysterical? I am not sure. Is Kubrick deliberately taunting Cruise? Pushing him to his edge to see if anyone can spot the cracks?
I sure hope so. Otherwise, Eyes Wide Shut is one of the least sexy sex films I’ve ever seen.
The film, in case you haven’t seen it, follows Bill and Alice Harford over a couple of days around Christmas in New York. The first act sees them attend a party at the house of a wealthy patient of Bill’s. Each of them faces sexual allure, but neither succumbs. The evening ends with Alice maliciously confessing to Bill that far from being without temptation, she was so sexually bewitched with one naval officer that she was willing to abandon Bill and their daughter forever if it meant consummation.
This fantasy and its confession is the most compelling part of the film. Kidman, playing Alice with a headful of weed, is both malevolent and childish. She is burning with honesty, as might be an arsonist.
From there, Eyes Wide Shut leads Bill out on sexual adventures. A patient throws herself at him. He nearly lays with a prostitute. He learns of a mysterious sex party and — encountering an underage temptress along the way — sneaks in.
It is this completely implausible orgy that most people recall when they think of Eyes Wide Shut. The party is a masked ball in which mysterious oligarchs ceremoniously and decorously fuck supermodels with a surfeit of enthusiasm. Bill is caught, unmasked, and only saved from threatened punishment by a woman — one he’d earlier saved — who steps into his place. She takes the place of the unmasked Bill who stands in for the masked Bill who covers the real Bill who is played by Tom Cruise who might be a fabrication in his own way as well.
And all just to have the sex we’re not supposed to have.
But let’s look at this scene. It is a sex scene that undulates with flesh, but which holds no passion. There is no celebration in skin. There is no joy. It is fucking for the voyeur, if the voyeur has a heart condition and can’t handle excitement. The women presented (and that’s the right word) are faceless, mostly naked, and well-formed in the same way a piece of fruit might be. They are sex without interest or attachment.
They are blank slates upon which one need write their own desire. To whom you must drop your metaphoric and literal pants if you’re to get behind their ceramic facades. And partake in some of that forbidden fucking.
In this setting quietly stands Tom Cruise as Bill, fascinated but notably not moved to partake. He’s called out and revealed as an interloper. Is that fucked up, or hysterical?
Eyes Wide Shut rolls towards its conclusion — still another hour away — as Bill tries to uncover the mystery of what he has glimsped and its import. He discovers that much of what he saw in the film’s ascent was not at all as it appeared. His loyal wife harbors venom. His willing prostitute harbors disease. His innocent fawn could, would, and does. Even his mysterious savior and her seeming assailants — they are something other, something less meaningful and important. They are just bodies in animation. It is all just sex and he can’t have any of it.
Bewildered and abused, Bill returns home to his wife to find his symbolic mask set upon his pillow. He breaks down and confesses all.
But this mask, it is not the real Bill. It is the Bill that Bill was pretending to be. It is the face he wore when he thought only of sex. It is the mask that Tom Cruise wore when as Bill he tried to access a world that was not really his; nor one he really even wanted. His wife — in the film and in the real world — is the impressive Nicole Kidman. And her husband is the singular Tom Cruise.
Yet neither of them are satisfied with what they’ve got access to (in bed, says the fortune cookie).
They confess their actual and imagined transgressions to each other. Then they must continue on in the only way they can.
Eyes Wide Shut says sex is just sex. So let’s fuck and then get on with our lives.
I can’t help but think that that’s a little fucked up. And maybe also hysterical.