Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999): A satirical comedy about an affluent middle-class professional trying unsuccessfully to enter the elite

Kubrick swipes at Tom Cruise's lily-white screen persona

A Potpourri of Vestiges Feature

By M K Raghavendra

Eyes Wide Shut , Movie Poster, Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) which was released after his death has perplexed film critics across the world, many of whom have even delved into the esoteric culture of the past – like the myths/literature of ancient Greece – to cope with the plethora of allusions discovered in it. The film is not ‘mass entertainment’ but has nonetheless been made for a large international audience and this has us wondering; can something made for such a large audience be as esoteric as the film has been made out to be? Kubrick was widely celebrated as an auteur at the end of his career and he could have taken liberties, assumed that there was a ready audience for his films regardless of whether his intent was fully grasped or not. 

There is a sumptuousness about Kubrick’s film-making which cannot but entrance, even when the films are slight in terms of what they have to say, and one finds oneself so enveloped by a mood – as in Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Shining (1980) – that one does not ask the questions which would have been immediately asked of something less consummately mounted. Stanley Kubrick has never been a difficult film-maker – unlike, say, David Lynch – and his films depend on linear narratives, but so overwhelming are the visual effects he obtains that one feels satiated even when the loose ends in the plot have not been tied up. Eyes Wide Shut is one of his most perfect films but if the explanations offered for it were plausible, there would be a number of unanswered questions – which are not asked. The film has been marketed as an erotic thriller but – notwithstanding the nudity and the sex – there is a studied coldness about it which suggests that its intent is far from erotic. What follows is a comprehensive reading of Eyes Wide Shut but as satirical comedy, which may not find favour with Kubrick’s fans since it suggests that the director is aiming much lower than they imagine he is.

Eyes Wide Shut, Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Bill and Alice
Eyes Wide Shut: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Bill and Alice
Eyes Wide Shut, which is set in New York, begins with Dr Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) preparing to leave for a party thrown by a wealthy patient Victor Ziegler. They leave their darling little daughter Helena in the care of a babysitter on their way out. Dr Harford is evidently a successful professional but their host is much richer and Alice wonders why they keep getting invited each year to Ziegler’s party where they know no one else. Harford however discovers that he knows the pianist Nick Nightingale who dropped out of medical school when they were studying together, to pursue music. In the course of the evening an aristocratic Hungarian named Sandor Szavost dances with Alice, attempts to seduce her when she is under the influence of champagne, while her husband is similarly accosted by two young women – though he is led away by an attendant to a private room in which their host is having a crisis. A young woman with whom Ziegler was having sex has overdosed on a combination of heroin and coke. Bill Harford revives her and gets Ziegler’s gratitude.

Alice dances with a Hungarian gentleman in the party, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Alice dances with a Hungarian gentleman in the party
Back in their apartment the couple discusses their respective sexual experiences that evening over marijuana. Alice wonders if her husband would have gone along with the two young women if he had not been interrupted, and his remonstrations that he has only eyes for Alice – because he loves her – gets him deep into trouble. We are familiar with Tom Cruise’s screen persona and Bill declines to admit even imagining himself with other women, because of his deep love for his wife. Alice is acidic and the scene concludes when she admits to having been so infatuated with a naval officer the previous summer that if only the man had wanted her, she might have given up everything. Unlike Bill’s love for Alice, hers for him does not preclude sexual fantasies about other men. It is at this point that Bill receives a call telling him of the death of a patient and he is required to proceed to the man’s house post-haste.

A patient's daughter expresses her love to Bill, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
A patient's daughter expresses her love to Bill
When Bill is led to his dead patient he finds the man’s daughter Marion alone with her father’s corpse. Her boyfriend Carl, whom she is due to marry the next year, is not present, and Marion makes use of the opportunity to kiss Bill fervently and declare her love for him (‘I love you; I love you; I love you!’). Like other, similar sequences in the film, Kubrick stages it acerbically. What is to be revealed is held back while the person voicing it hesitates, seems embarrassed at the inappropriateness of the utterance before abruptly plunging ahead. In many of these sequences a woman makes sexual overtures to Bill, who is plainly ill-equipped to deal with them because of his moral baggage. I venture to add that if these sequences are wicked in their comic appeal it is not only because Bill’s prudishness is being mocked; the star’s lily-white screen persona is itself being made to look foolish. Tom Cruise plays each scene in his customary way which, given the altered context, is incongruous to say the least. But Kubrick deliberately enlists this discomfort to illuminate his protagonist’s naiveté, and there is little evidence that the star understood this aspect of his role/performance.

Bill accompanies a hooker to her cozy apartment, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Bill accompanies a hooker to her cozy apartment
Bill Harford leaves Marion when Carl comes in and in the next sequence finds himself accosted by a hooker and accompanying her to her apartment. The two discuss the price and the corresponding services offered and $150 is agreed upon circuitously, with the exact services left to be decided by Domino the hooker. But Harford gets a call from Alice at this moment and Domino decides that he wants to leave. The doctor nonetheless gives Domino the promised $150, much against the girl’s protests. A walk along the pavement outside and the crossing of a few intersections leads Bill to the cafe in which Nick Nightingale is playing and this turns out to be a most fateful event. Nick Nightingale reveals that he is due to perform elsewhere that night and it emerges that there is a secret gathering of masked and costumed people and Nick Nightingale is required to play there blindfolded. These meetings have happened many times before but it is always in a different place. One time the blindfold slipped and Nick saw things he had never seen before – especially the array of women on display. All this is revealed by Nick when a call comes to give him a password, which is ‘Fidelio’ this time. Bill knows the password now and he is insistent that he wants to come along. Nick finally consents on the condition that he gets there on his own, but Bill needs to get a costume and a mask.

Bill accompanies a hooker to her cozy apartment, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Milich catches his juvenile daughter red-handed
It is now very late but Bill Harford drives to a place which rents out costumes. The man he knew there has moved out but the shop is now owned by one Milich, who agrees to rent him a costume for the usual fee plus the $200 incentive offered by Bill. But just before the transaction is concluded Milich discovers his underage daughter half-naked with two middle-aged Japanese men in drag, hiding behind the furniture. Milich is now caught between concluding the transaction with Bill and notifying the police about the men but, when he is dealing with both issues together, his juvenile daughter nestles close to Bill, making her intentions apparent. Bill, of course, remains unmoved by this new turn and he gathers his costume and leaves – for the highpoint of the night. It is nearly 2 am and he is armed with the password ‘Fidelio’.

Nick Nightingale plays the piano blindefolded at a secret gathering, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Nick Nightingale plays the piano blindefolded at a secret gathering 
The gathering that Bill Harford wishes to infiltrate is being held in a mansion some distance away and he takes a cab to get there. The cab driver agrees to wait for an extra inducement of $100 and Bill is finally conducted into the exclusive masked gathering, suitably attired and disguised. What is underway in an enormous, dimly-lit space is an orgy of some sort. When Bill enters the master of ceremonies is chanting something in a strange language while Nick Nightingale plays bars of music blindfolded on an electric organ. The master of ceremonies is encircled by cloaked and masked women who soon shed their cloaks, revealing themselves to be naked except for g-strings. Bill tries to blend into the gathering but, in no time at all, finds he has been spotted as an intruder. A naked woman in a mask lets him know this first but there have also been other gazes fixed on him. Within a few minutes, he is summoned by the master of ceremonies and unceremoniously sent out, the only consolation being that he is not stripped naked because of the intervention of a masked woman, who takes responsibility for his future good behaviour.

The master of ceremonies confronts Bill, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The master of ceremonies confronts Bill
Back home Bill Harford finds his wife fast asleep but restless and giggling. When she is woken up roughly, Alice tells him of the ‘nightmare’ she has been having but there is a hint that she is not telling him the truth about the dream but concocting an elaborate one he might be more comfortable with. Bill returns the costume to Milich but he is now cheerfully transacting with the Japanese over his daughter. The rest of the film has to do with the threats made to Bill when he tries to investigate, his visiting Nick Nightingale at his hotel but finding that he has disappeared in the company of two men, Bill visiting the hooker Domino but being informed – with the now familiar circuitousness – by an equally solicitous roommate of Domino having tested positive for HIV. Bill also learns from a newspaper that a former beauty queen was found dead from a drug overdose. He suspects that this is the girl from the previous night and this is later confirmed. Just as he is beginning to have suspicions of a monstrous conspiracy closing in on him, Victor Ziegler calls him over and explains some things to him.

Ziegler drops the bomb, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Ziegler drops the bomb
What were you trying to do last night?” Ziegler asks him. Ziegler was present at the gathering and saw what happened. He also tells Bill that he was completely out of his depth and he would understand this if he knew the names of some of the others present. “You would lose sleep over it,” Ziegler lets him know. Also, Bill’s dramatic expulsion from the party, with the girl coming to his rescue, was a charade arranged to put some fear into him. Nick Nightingale did not ‘disappear’ but was put on a plane back to Seattle. As for the girl who overdosed, she was the same hooker that Bill saved earlier. Her death was unfortunate but she was an addict and Bill knew very well that it was inevitable. Bill is left speechless by Ziegler and the film ends with his returning to Alice and Helena and telling his wife everything. The two wonder if it was all a dream but there is still a promise of conjugality for the near future.

Bill returns to Alice and Helena, Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Bill returns to Alice and Helena
Eyes Wide Shut is nominally quite faithful to its literary source, the 1926 novella Traumnovelle (or ‘Dream Story’) by Arthur Schnitzler, but there are nonetheless elements in it which make its impact nasty in its comedy. The key element here is the casting of Tom Cruise in the central role, and making his image the covert target of ridicule. Apart from the segments I have already described, the circuitous way in which matters are explained to him, while he waits open-mouthed, leave the star at a distinct disadvantage. Kubrick also puts in more than one scene in which Bill Harford is taken to be gay and, considering that Tom Cruise has consistently played macho roles (Mission Impossible), this could be a deliberate slight on his masculinity. I am not certain that this is aesthetically legitimate but that the star is being mocked in the film has not gone unnoticed by other critics. Here is how the Slant Magazine review of the film begins: “Misunderstood as a psychosexual thriller, Stanley Kubrick’s final film is actually more of an acidic comedy about how Tom Cruise fails to get laid.” Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, is hardly the butt of humour; a reason may be that the film is a take on American society and Kidman is Australian. Moreover her persona is much more ambivalent (To Die For, 1995).

Bill enjoys his time with two beautiful guests at Ziegler's party,  Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Bill enjoys his time with two beautiful guests at Ziegler's party
But if making Tom Cruise’s image the target of humour is the focus of the film, a question is how such a film can pass for ‘art’; is it not reasonable to expect ‘art’ to have something of larger interest for us? The only way the project can make sense as art is to regard it in terms of what Tom Cruise represents. If one studies his oeuvre, one finds that the star has, generally speaking, been an emblem of middle class aspiration. Many of his biggest hits have focused on young people of integrity aspiring to top their professions/vocations like Top Gun (1986), about an air-force pilot, Cocktail (1988), about a business student working part time as a bartender, A Few Good Men (1992) and The Firm (1993), which are both set among lawyers and Jerry Maguire (1996), about an honest sports manager. In Eyes Wide Shut he plays a successful doctor with many of the same characteristics. To make his happiness complete, Bill’s little daughter is as adorable as Hollywood ever made children. Bill also has plenty of money; his affluence and ease with money are things that the film is always emphasizing. Yet, his exclusion from another realm is more important and the first inkling we get of this is when Alice asks him why Ziegler invites them to his parties every year although Ziegler’s circle is hardly their own. Bill’s answer is particularly instructive, “That is what you get for making house calls,” he says and it is not with any special irony. Later in the film Bill tries to break into the orgy but he is immediately spotted, despite his disguise. There is no way in which an affluent professional like Bill could belong in the elite and his expulsion is token of this fact. Kubrick conveys something about the elite here which is also deeply mordant. The only legitimate participants at the orgy apart from the elite guests are apparently hookers. One could also argue that Bill’s sexual squeamishness is being presented as characteristic of his class and it is this squeamishness that grates on Alice – when she is prepared to admit her own fantasies.

The Zeiglers welcome Bill and Alice to one of their elite social gatherings, , Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The Zeiglers welcome Bill and Alice to one of their elite social gatherings
Coming lastly to what the ‘elite’ means in Eyes Wide Shut, one could interpret it as the American plutocracy. It is common knowledge that there are powerful elites on behalf of which public decisions (including those pertaining to war) are taken; the way in which participants in the financial scandal of 2008 were let off and/or got key posts later only underscored this. But while the existence of this plutocracy is widely known or inferred, it still remains an elusive notion because how it operates can only be a matter of conjecture. The orgy in Eyes Wide Shut can hence be understood as representing a middle-class fantasy about the lives of this class. Kubrick uses a Romanian liturgy, even playing it backwards, for the music in the scene to be especially weird.

Bill, a middle-class American, gets exposed at an elite secret gathering , Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Bill, a middle-class American, gets exposed at an elite secret gathering 
To conclude, Kubrick’s film can be interpreted fruitfully as a satirical comedy about an affluent middle-class professional trying unsuccessfully to enter the elite, which has none of the moral niceties that he himself – as a middle-class American – has. A statement attributed to Scott Fitzgerald is the following one: “The rich are not like you and me; they are different.” Bill Harford is perhaps the kind of naive middle-class American who does not know that the rich are different.

About the Author:
M.K. Raghavendra, Film Critic, Nation Award Winner, Researcher, Author

M.K. Raghavendra is an eminent film critic and researcher and has been the recipient of the National Award for the Best Film Critic, the Swarna Kamal, in 1997. His most prominent publications include Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema (OUP 2008), Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation, and the Kannada Language Film (OUP 2011), and The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium: Bollywood and the Anglophone Indian Nation (OUP 2014).

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