This Distracted Globe random header image

Reimagining the Softcore Cable Porn Movie

January 24th, 2010 · 8 Comments

Eyes Wide Shut 1999 poster Eyes Wide Shut DVD

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, inspired by the novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Produced by Stanley Kubrick
Running time: 159 minutes

Should I Care?
Even with its question marks, the thirteenth and final film from Stanley Kubrick — director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket — is a declaration of what movies for grownups can and should aspire to, in a perfect universe. It’s the return of the intelligent dirty movie, a genre that Showgirls forced into hiding in 1995. It’s a visual marvel. It’s has the power of both restraint and of shock. These qualities are abundant throughout Eyes Wide Shut, which may be one of the purest cinematic taste tests available to the general public, separating moviegoers of all strides into a Coke camp or Pepsi camp with brutal efficiency. You may not be able to express why you like or dislike this unique brand of erotic thriller, but you’ll know which group you belong to. One of the most dry, least entertaining films Kubrick made, it’s also one to savor and resample, with the effects of time illuminating the film’s strange currencies much better.

It’s debatable whether Kubrick — a committed perfectionist who yanked The Shining out of limited release to tinker with it in 1980 — would have made alterations to this 159-minute cut had he not passed away four months before its release. After wrestling with the source material for 25 years before taking a year and a half to get it all on film, expectations got the better of Eyes Wide Shut and continue to. Instead of generating sexual titillation, the film emits an ominous, low voltage discontent that begs to be regarded less as a sexual escapade and more like a dream. Nothing about the artificial staging or pacing suggests the waking world, giving each kinky nuance a deeper interpretation. Lighting cameraman Larry Smith collaborated with Kubrick on the film’s jewelry box look, while Austrian composer György Ligeti’s piano cycle “Musica ricercata” is used to maximum effect, a nod to how brilliantly Kubrick utilized classical music to score his pioneering films.

Eyes Wide Shut 1999 Leslie Lowe Sydney Pollack Tom Cruise Nicole Kidman

So, What’s This About?
Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his unemployed art curator wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) get dressed in their West Central Park apartment. They leave their young daughter with a sitter and head out for the annual Christmas party of one of Bill’s patients: Victor Zeigler (Sydney Pollack). Working the lavish soiree is a piano player Bill attended medical school with named Nick Nightingale (Todd Field). While Bill is summoned by Zeigler to attend to a hooker (Julienne Davis) overdosed in his bathroom, Alice has too much champagne and dances with a suave Hungarian. His efforts to get Alice upstairs go unrewarded when she maintains that she’s married. The lack of jealously Bill displays over the solicitation spurs a fight between the couple the following evening. Feeling that her fidelity has been taken for granted, Alice reveals she entertained the fantasy of running off with a naval officer they met while on vacation in Cape Cod.

Troubled by his wife’s confession, Bill puts in a visit to the jazz club in Greenwich Village where Nick is wrapping up a gig. The piano man reveals that he’s on his way to another gig, one whose location changes every time, requires a password to gain entry and a blindfold while he performs. Nick has taken enough of a peek to report that the women at these parties are not to be believed. Equipped with the address, Bill procures the necessary attire — tux, cape with hood, mask — from a rental shop whose nutty owner (Rade Serbedzija) pimps his underaged daughter (Leelee Sobieski) out of the back. Arriving at a mansion in the countryside, the password “Fidelio” opens doors Bill has only dreamed of: a ritualistic orgy with gorgeous masked women serving as party favors for the masked guests. One of these ladies of the night warns Bill that he’s in great danger. Ignoring her, Bill is confronted with the mystery of how much of what he saw that night was actually real.

Eyes Wide Shut 1999 Tom Cruise Julienne Davis

Who Made It?
After the completion of Full Metal Jacket in 1987, Stanley Kubrick spent years deliberating where his next project would come from. He’d acquired the film rights to Patrick Susskind’s novel Perfume, about a serial murdering perfumer in 18th century France, before deciding he didn’t want to direct it next. Several screenwriters labored with the director over an adaptation of a Brian Aldiss short story titled Super Toys Last All Summer Long, about an artificial boy who yearns to be real. In April 1993, Warner Bros. announced that Kubrick’s next film would be an adaptation of the Louis Begley novel Wartime Lies. The story concerned a Jewish boy orphaned during the German invasion of Poland who escapes an Auschwitz bound train with his young aunt; they evade recapture by assuming Catholic identities. Shooting was scheduled to begin in February 1994. Kubrick got as far as location scouting before his interest waned in the groundswell to Steven Spielberg’s definitive Holocaust tale Schindler’s List (1993).

Kubrick turned to a property he’d acquired over twenty years previous: Traumnovelle (Dream Novella), published in 1926 from Austrian physician turned author Arthur Schnitzler. In the summer of 1994, Kubrick contacted screenwriter Frederic Raphael, who’d won an Oscar for his original screenplay Darling (1965) and written Two For the Road (1967). Updating the tale of jealousy and sexual obsession from turn of the century Vienna to modern day New York, Raphael was instructed to keep Schnitzler’s century old narrative. Kubrick arrived on the title Eyes Wide Shut and in December 1995, Warner Bros. announced that the husband and wife tandem of Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman would star. Filmed under a veil of secrecy in the London area where Kubrick lived, the $65 million production would stretch on for 17 months, so long that two cast members were replaced for reshoots. In March 1999, a mere week after screening his cut to his studio and his stars, Kubrick passed away suddenly. Released that summer, his final film would polarize critics, befuddle American audiences and go ignored during awards season.

Eyes Wide Shut 1999 Nicole Kidman Tom Cruise

How’d They Do It?
Stanley Kubrick may have been mulling over a screen adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle — also published under the title Rhapsody — since reading it in 1968, the year the South Bronx native made the decision to permanently relocate to England with his family. Interviewed by Gene Siskel in 1987, Kubrick attempted to shed some light on his dramatic change of address. “There have been all sorts of stories about why I live in London, but it’s really very simple: In order to be at home some of the time, I have to live in a production center, and there are only three places in the world that fulfill this requirement in a practical sense. If you want to make English-language movies, it has to be done in Los Angeles, New York, or London. I love New York City, though my wife doesn’t. But it would rank third in the list of cities with the best production facilities, London being second. Hollywood of course has the best facilities, but I have never enjoyed living there. I found the sense of insecurity and the whiff of malevolence that surrounds you there unsettling.”

Kubrick obtained the film rights to Traumnovelle through his brother-in-law and associate producer Jan Harlan in 1972. That same year, he met Frederic Raphael at the home of director Stanley Donen. In 1994, Kubrick would telephone the author and screenwriter — who lives in France — to inquire whether Raphael would be available to collaborate on a project. Clearing his schedule, Raphael received a package from FedEx containing a photocopied novella. The title and the author’s name had been removed, though Raphael claims to have guessed that either Arthur Schnitzler or Stefan Zweig had written it. He found much of the work silly and pretentious, with overwrought dream sequences. Nonetheless, there was something compelling about it. “As I waited for Kubrick to call, I went back over the text and marked the key elements. I could imagine a movie somewhat like Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, which calmly juxtaposed the plausible and the extravagant, the dated and the modern.”

Eyes Wide Shut 1999 Madison Eginton Nicole Kidman

From November 1994 to March 1995, Raphael worked on a first draft adaptation of Traumnovelle for Kubrick. The director was explicit about not wanting to make a feature length dream, which prompted Raphael to lobby for greater cohesion to the story. “I began to fear that Kubrick might make another movie like Full Metal Jacket, in which the brilliant elements failed to bond into unity. Was he going to be so determined to confound routine expectations that that was all he did? The denial of conclusive satisfaction to the audience would be a twist without savor. Obedient dissidence was my only available response. In the days that followed, I wrote, and rewrote, and reverted tactfully to my point that the movie could not end as mysteriously as it began without leaving a sense of frustration. Kubrick listened, but he did not yet change his point of view.” In May 1995, Raphael faxed Kubrick a title for their project, which had been referred to merely as “Schnitzler”. Raphael proposed The Female Subject. Kubrick never acknowledged it and a few days later, suggested his own title.

On December 31, 1995, it was announced that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would star in Eyes Wide Shut. Production was scheduled to touch off November 1996 in England, where Kubrick had shot all of his films dating back to Lolita (1962). Once cameras began rolling, they didn’t seem to stop. Nicole Kidman recalled, “The whole process of the film was a discovery. It was never about the result. It was never about, ‘Um, well, we have a week to shoot this scene, so quick quick quick, we have to do it. Let’s see, uh, we may not fully explore it, but we’ll get something good.’ Stanley wanted to explore every avenue and then make his decisions based on that. And Stanley was not restricted by time. He refused to be. And that is a great luxury that only somebody like he could afford, because of what he’d achieved through his career to be able to, say, ‘You wanna know what’s gold, with filmmaking? Time is gold.’ Not having to walk away from a scene before you feel like you really perfected it.”

Eyes Wide Shut 1999

Cast as the daughter of Dr. Harford’s recently deceased patient, Jennifer Jason Leigh filmed her scene opposite Cruise, but months later, not entirely satisfied with the results, Kubrick called for a reshoot. With Leigh busy filming eXistenZ for director David Cronenberg in Canada, Swedish actress Marie Richardson replaced her. Harvey Keitel was cast as Zeigler and got to participate in some filming, until it became apparent that Kubrick’s pace would overlap the actor’s commitment to Finding Graceland. Director/actor Sydney Pollack — a friend of Kubrick’s — agreed to take over the role. Pollack recalled, “He always would say when we would talk about it, ‘Isn’t it silly, you know, the cheapest part of all of this is do another take.’ Do another take. You’ve spent millions of dollars preparing and building sets, hiring people, doing costumes and months and months writing a script, years sometimes. And then you get there and you quit on take five. Or take six. Or take seven. Isn’t that silly. You don’t know what’s going to happen if you try three or four or five more.”

Frederic Raphael elaborated on Kubrick’s laborious work methods. “Some people claim that Stanley is very indecisive, but I think his attitude was much more professional than that. He had a tendency to put off making a decision until he had a clear understanding of the options available, very similar in this sense to a chess player, which he was. Very good chess players have far fewer options than bad players because the bad ones have to take into account a large number of moves, while good players know that 99.99 out of 100 moves are useless. With Stanley, it was ‘wait and see’ and I think when you’re working with someone as interesting and dedicated as Nicole, you don’t simply say, ‘Here’s the text, learn it.’ From this point of view I feel the screenplay, quite correctly, offered opportunities for improvisation. That’s the way Stanley liked to work, for there were two sides to him. One side was very careful about framing the shots, placing each element on the set with care, and the other was astonishingly ready to be surprised.”

Eyes Wide Shut 1999 Vinessa Shaw Tom Cruise

Eyes Wide Shut wrapped production March 1998, 17 months after filming was underway. Nicole Kidman maintained that with breaks for holidays, filming only took place for roughly 12 of those months. After a year of editing, Kubrick’s cut was screened in New York for Cruise, Kidman and Warner Bros. co-chairmen Terry Semel and Robert Daly. By all accounts, reception was positive. Jan Harlan would later recount, “When Eyes Wide Shut was finally shown for the very first time in New York on March 1, 1999 to Tom and Nicole and the heads of the studio, the response was very enthusiastic. Stanley was very, very happy and a great, heavy weight was lifted from his shoulders. I think this change of his being caused almost a physical change in his body, because he had lifted this enormous responsibility for a very expensive film which was long in the shooting for a long time, for two years. And suddenly it was all gone. And he died a week later.” Christiane Kubrick found her husband in their estate north of London. At the age of 70, Kubrick had died in his sleep.

Opening July 1999 in the United States, Canada and Japan, no two critics had the same reaction to Eyes Wide Shut. Marv Savlov, The Austin Chronicle: “Rarely, if ever, have I seen a film (and certainly not in this decade) that has been so visually compelling, from Kubrick’s choice of granular stock to the brilliant, burnished ambers and frosty blues that make up the film’s palette. If this film were a meal, I shudder to think of the damage it might do to one’s vitals.” Manohla Dargis, L.A. Weekly: “Kubrick doesn’t put out in Eyes Wide Shut, and it’s hard to know why. Although he was contracted to deliver a movie to Warner Bros. that could secure an R rating, there’s a restraint, almost a demureness to the sex that has nothing to do with the MPAA.” Desson Howe, The Washington Post: “Whether or not this is a masterpiece or a semi-masterpiece is hard to say. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the resolution, for instance. But after the titillation has died down — and whether or not America embraces this one-of-a-kind experience — time will eventually smile on this movie, I believe.”

Eyes Wide Shut 1999

On The Charlie Rose Show, critics raked over the pros and cons of Kubrick’s last movie. Janet Maslin, The New York Times: “It’s very subtle and hypnotic and it just drags you into this dream. And you don’t realize how powerful it is until after it’s over. I mean, it’s a Rorschach — I think — of a lot of things about relationships between men and women, and honesty and dishonesty and it’s very full in a way. I find it fascinating, I really do.” David Ansen, The New Yorker: “At this point I can only say that the guy stages the most pompous orgy in the history of movies. I think — I’m sorry, more in sorrow than anger — I think it’s a dud. I don’t think it works, on any level, really. I think it falls into some uneasy limbo between reality and fantasy and the style just doesn’t have the authority that he’s had on earlier occasions.” Premiere Magazine’s James Meigs credited Kubrick for rehabilitating B-movie genres, from sci-fi in 2001: A Space Odyssey to horror with The Shining. “And maybe this is his reimagining of the softcore cable porn movie, in a sense. I’m really not entirely kidding here. In many ways, if you look at those clips, there’s some really silly stuff in there.”

Eyes Wide Shut paced to box office of $55.6 million in the United States and $106.4 million overseas. Its only notable awards citation was a Golden Globe nomination for Jocelyn Pook’s musical score. But filmmaker Martin Scorsese was one of many who rose to the defense of Eyes Wide Shut. “Many people were put off by the film’s unreality — the New York streets were too big, the orgy scene was a total fantasy, the action was slow and deliberate. All of this is true, and if the movie were designed to be realistic, it would be absolutely reasonable to judge these as failings. But Eyes Wide Shut is based on a Schnitzler novella called Dream Story, the story of a rift in a marriage told with the logic of a dream. And as with all dreams, you never know precisely when you’ve entered it. Everything seems real and lifelike, but different, a little exaggerated, a little off.” Scorsese compared Eyes Wide Shut to Roberto Rossellini’s maligned 1954 romance Viaggio in Italia. “Both are films of terrifying self-exposure. They both ask the question: How much trust and faith can you really place in another human being? And they both end tentatively, yet hopefully. Honestly.”

Eyes Wide Shut 1999 Tom Cruise Nicole Kidman

Where’d You Get All of This?
“Mystery Movie” By Josh Young. Entertainment Weekly, 2 October 1998

The Last Movie: Stanley Kubrick & Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick. By Frederic Raphael. Ballantine Books (1999)

Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. Edited by Gene D. Phillips. University Press of Mississippi (2001)

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. Directed by Jan Harlan. Warner Bros. Home Video (2001)

Kubrick: The Definitive Edition. By Michel Ciment.  Macmillan (2003)

Tags: Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Drunk scene · Femme fatale · Forensic evidence · Interrogation · Paranoia · Prostitute · Rated X

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam Ross // Jan 24, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    One of my very favorite movies, and one that I’ll always remember for how it appealed to me during a strange point in my life. I always watch it on Christmas Eve. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of rewatching it, there’s so many mysterious corners of it that draw you in no matter what.

    I’m still dumbfounded at all the criticism the “orgy” scene gets. I wouldn’t call it an orgy myself because there doesn’t appear to be much sex going on. It’s a jawdropping sequence that just knocks you on your ass when we see the whole congregation staring at Bill.

    “Please … come forward!”

  • 2 AR // Jan 24, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    I haven’t seen this since it was in theatres. Saw it with my parents and my boyfriend, which was somewhat awkward. But I loved it. It has a haunting, dreamlike quality that is intoxicating.
    I’ve been meaning to re-watch it for years now.

  • 3 Pat Evans // Jan 25, 2010 at 2:06 am

    I know I prefer coke to pepsi and I also know that this film didn’t work for me. Kubrick was a perfectionist filmmaker and it shows, but the main problem falls squarely on his choice of leads who seem to be wandering through the proceedings in a trance — probably understandable after some 17 months. There is virtually no chemistry between them and no doubt their subsequent break-up can be traced to their fruitless British sojourn.

  • 4 Tommy Salami // Jan 26, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    This remains one of my favorites, just for how unsettling and dreamy it is. I picked up the International version on HD-DVD a while back, and it removes the childish CG imposed figures in front of the sex, which gives the scene a very different tone. Less Puritan. More like watching surgery.

    A dream is a dream, but the ‘orgy’ and its secret society evoke the mystery of your partner’s private life. For me, it recalled Julian Barnes’ novel ‘Before She Met Me,’ and Kidman’s rant reminded me of the internal monologue of Molly Bloom in ‘Ulysses.’ Unfortunately the movie got tainted by the tabloid interest in its leads, but it’s one of the few films I enjoy Cruise in.

  • 5 Roger // Jan 28, 2010 at 12:32 am

    A film I didn’t quite like the first time (like most Kubrick) yet remained in my head for weeks and would ultimately seduce me into watching it again and again. My biggest regret is that that aggressive film grain disappeared in the DVD release, robbing it of some otherworldly distancing affectation, no doubt intentional and now no longer part of the experience.

    The film doesn’t have much sex in it. It’s concerned with more serious things than that.

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Jan 28, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Adam: Maybe Eyes Wide Shut was one of those arthouse movies that really needed a campaign to prepare an audience for exactly what it was. Or maybe giving them time to figure that out on their what it was ended up being much more rewarding. At any rate, because of this movie I now know that whenever a high priest asks me for the password to the house, you always say there isn’t one.

    Amanda: I wonder what the conversation on the way home was like. If you dig Eyes Wide Shut, I recommend Two Lovers, which is not necessarily haunting or dreamlike, but does feature Vinessa Shaw giving a much fuller performance.

    Patricia: I think many shared your reaction. These roles would have been tough on almost any actor because they require so little action and so much thinking. Kidman’s monotone pot voice irritated a few people I know, while Cruise has no known supporters left on Planet Earth, it seems. But I think you might be judging the film too literally. How much chemistry do you have with people in dreams?

    Tommy: What’s ironic about the MPAA’s decision is that if anyone under the age of 17 had snuck into Eyes Wide Shut, by the time that sequence rolled around, they’d have either fallen asleep or gone next door to watch American Pie instead. Thanks as always for the cogent and literate comments!

    Roger: Wonderful observations. It took me years to realize how magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange truly were. I don’t know if I’m there yet with Lolita. I wonder if the two-disc Director’s Series DVD release of Eyes Wide Shut has the same issues in regards to grain. I thought those days were behind us.

  • 7 Karen // Jan 31, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    I tried watching this movie but didn’t get pass 15 minutes or so.

  • 8 Joe Valdez // Jan 31, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Karen: Thanks for dropping by and commenting! My advice with Eyes Wide Shut would be the same as with any Kubrick film: Try watching it again in a couple of years. The movie won’t have changed any, but you might find that your perception has.

Leave a Comment