Stanley Kubrick’s last project Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which features Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise as a well-to-do Manhattan couple whose marriage is in trouble, is a cult work. It had a mixed critical reception on its first release, but since then its reputation as one of the director’s finest works has grown. The film is controversial for many reasons — as much to do with its production and reception as for its supposedly sensational sexual content, heavily hyped by Warner Bros. Like so many Kubrick films, Eyes Wide Shut confounds expectations and tests viewers to the limit. The director was a perfectionist and his attention to detail is legendary; one of the fascinations of his work is the pleasure of unpicking every nuance of image and sound in search of a definitive meaning — a quest destined to be frustrated. This is cinema for obsessive compulsives.

The film is a costume extravaganza that plays on identity and sexuality. Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford is on the surface a devoted husband and father who inadvertently gets involved in a ritualistic orgy at a masked ball. He’s drawn into a series of unfulfilled sexual encounters that strip away the veneer of his respectability and masculinity. The trigger for his descent into the depths is an argument with his wife Alice (Kidman) in which, after accusing him of not understanding women’s needs, she reveals an erotic fantasy in which she has sex with a young naval officer she once glimpsed in a hotel lobby. Bill is provoked into seeking extramarital excitement himself, and the film stages his fantasy scenarios, which are fraught with anxiety. His misadventures are rooted in disguise and deception, and the fragile underpinning of his life gradually disintegrates. Finally, after the mask is dropped and the couple reconciles, Alice is very much in charge. Many critics saw Eyes Wide Shut as a portrait of the ‘real’ Kidman-Cruise relationship, which fell apart soon after the film was released. This, of course, intensifies the frisson.

The opening has been much discussed. In it, Alice is briefly seen naked from behind as she steps out of a black gown in her bedroom. She and Bill are getting ready to go to a party, and we see the couple in the bathroom together, with Alice sitting on the toilet. When they’re ready to go, Bill turns off the radio and the light in their bedroom as they both leave. This short sequence is complex and has been interpreted in different ways. Here I want to focus on the contribution of costume to the layers of meaning. Eyes Wide Shut is about the multiple implications of dressing and undressing, a theme set up in the first few moments. 

As the stark black and white credits appear on screen, Shostakovich’s ‘Waltz No. 2’ plays on the soundtrack. The first shot is of Alice, who is wearing no underwear, dropping her black dress and stepping out of it in high court shoes, giving two little kicks to get free. The shot is deliberately voyeuristic: the dressing area, framed by pillars, is brightly lit, while the viewer is placed outside the space in the shadows at the front. There’s a clear boundary between viewer and spectacle, similar to that experienced in the theatre or cinema.

There’s another boundary too, a cinematic device that puts the shot in parentheses, or quotation marks. The shot, which lasts about six seconds, is sandwiched between the director’s name and the film’s title. It’s a fetish object, cut out from the rest of the film and designed to be replayed and pored over.  It exists in an imaginary dream space, accompanied only by Shostakovich — narrative sound is heard for the first time with the next shot of the city streets.  

The dream ambience is appropriate: Eyes Wide Shut is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story). Who are the dreamers here? Stanley Kubrick, for one — he’s stamped the shot with his mark of ownership. Viewers, too, as they linger in the half-light watching Alice’s private moment. And Bill. In the next interior shot we see him, a shadowy figure in the darkness of the dressing area, emerge into the well-lit space of the couple’s bedroom and bathroom. In contrast to the tableau shot and framing of Alice, the camera is now mobile, moving through ‘real’ space as though we are there with the characters, as the Shostakovich waltz plays on the bedroom radio. Even more intimately, we are invited into their bathroom to see Alice in non-erotic mode taking a pee, wiping herself and pulling up her panties. Now she’s wearing underwear, and she has on a different dress than the one she discarded in the opening shot.

Because of the way the opening shot is positioned, it looks as though it’s out of sync with the scene of Bill and Alice getting ready to go out. Is the darkened dressing area the same space in which we saw Alice undress, and is the time frame the same? The tennis rackets in the corner are no longer visible, and there are bookshelves we couldn’t see before. There’s not necessarily a break in continuity: the rackets could be covered by Alice’s discarded black gown, and the bookshelves may be there because the camera is in a different position. But the disconnected quality of the first shot makes the apparently familiar space of the bedroom seem strange. The dream appears real and reality appears dreamlike.

Throughout the film, Alice is depicted as a figure, even a figment in the film’s dream narrative, which is presented from Bill’s point of view. It gets complicated when Alice’s dream enters the story. Suddenly she’s the subject of her own fantasy (if it is hers) at the same time as being a character/object in Bill’s. This is the key to Bill’s identity crisis: in his psyche a battle for dominance is played out in which gender roles are confirmed, tested and overturned. 

The opening shot of Kidman is a time-bomb. It teases the viewer into believing they are in control and then explodes their expectations. The intimation that all is not as it seems intensifies the desire to return to it over and over again. The brief glimpse of Kidman naked recalls her 1998 appearance in The Blue Room, David Hare’s adaptation of Schnitzler’s play Der Reigen, filmed by Max Ophüls as La Ronde (1950), in which she and Iain Glen played different characters involved in a series of sexual encounters. In one scene, Kidman appeared naked in back view for a few moments as Glen slowly dressed her — this caused a sensation and contributed to the play’s critical and box-office success

There are clear resonances between The Blue Room and Eyes Wide Shut. Apart from the preoccupation with costume, identity and sexuality common to both, the emphasis on performance (a Kubrick motif) is elaborately worked through in the film. There are striking similarities between the poster for The Blue Room and the image of Alice looking elsewhere as Bill kisses her, widely used in promotion for the film. 

The reference to The Blue Room in the film’s opening shot signals its aspiration to the play’s headline-grabbing notoriety. In both cases, there was little explicit sex or nudity on view — it was exactly this that proved so titillating. Warner Bros’ promotional campaigns exploited the film’s sensational sexual content, but many reviewers found Eyes Wide Shut distinctly unsexy. Kubrick’s joke was to entice viewers with the promise of arousal, only to break his promise by confronting them with a treatise on the impossibility of sexual fulfilment. The shot of Kidman undressing encapsulates this irony. Its endless replaying in different media forms underlines its elusive quality; it embodies the fruitless search for satisfaction at the heart of sexual desire (à la Kubrick).

Kidman is seen in various stages of undress and erotic scenarios during Eyes Wide Shut, while Cruise appears in masquerade costumes and masks; by the end, Bill is unmasked and emasculated, something that appears to excite Alice as she utters the film’s final line: ‘Fuck’. Is her power over Bill real, or is it a feature of his fantasy? Whatever the case, in Eyes Wide Shut female desire is shown to be capable of stripping away the façade of male (hetero)sexuality and destabilising the illusion of masculine power. The deceptive promise of the  opening shot (Kubrick’s master stroke) lures viewers into a state of false security, ensuring that this will be a moment to return to in a film that pivots on sexual anxiety.

© Pam Cook


More on Eyes Wide Shut …

Dennis Bingham, ‘Kidman, Cruise, and Kubrick: A Brechtian Pastiche’, in Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson and Frank P. Tomasulo (eds),  More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004).

Michel Chion, Eyes Wide Shut (London: BFI Modern Classics, 2002).

Pam Cook, Nicole Kidman (London: BFI/Palgrave, 2012).

Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael, Eyes Wide Shut: A Screenplay (London: Penguin Books, 1999). Includes Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story.

James Naremore, On Kubrick (London: British Film Institute, 2007).

It’s also worth checking out the mountain of online appreciation of the film.

House of Iona

Sydney journal part two

Wednesday 15 June 2005

The next morning I decide that the outfit I wore yesterday (black cropped trousers, black T-shirt, snakeskin jacket and blue sneakers) was a bit too casual, so I wear the Indian embroidered jacket bought on Monday at a local boutique. I have coffee in the morning at the Paradiso, and go over my notes to decide which areas I need to follow up with Baz at the second interview at 3pm today. Although we covered a lot of ground yesterday, there are still a few questions that need answering. I take a taxi and get there a bit before 2.30pm, so take some movie footage of the House from Darley Street. As I do so, a woman comes out in a black car, and looks at me suspiciously. I go into the House for the third time, still experiencing it as entering a magical environment.

Sky shows me to the Red Room, where there are people having a meeting. He asks me to wait, and goes to check with Amanda. He returns eventually to say they will find another room for the meeting, and asks me to wait again. A little later, the meeting is moved, and Sky ushers me in to the Red Room. It has a high ceiling with even more elaborate coving than Baz’s office. The walls are painted red, and there is a large brass modern chandelier in the centre of the ceiling. Sky leaves me alone to look around. I ask if I’m allowed to take photographs, but he says I should check with Amanda. I decide it would be too intrusive and take detailed notes instead.

Baz in the Red Room

Once again, I have the strange sensation of being in a dream. Here I am, at the heart of the Bazmark operation, thousands of miles away from home. The Red Room is full of memorabilia from the films and theatre productions, the walls are covered with photographs and objects, including the original Hawaiian shirt worn by Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, suspended behind glass. There are also black and white photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Bureaux and shelves along the walls display all the trophies and awards (apart from the Oscars), together with personal photographs of Baz and Amanda’s late father with his second wife, and their glamorous grandmother. There’s a nice photograph of Tristram Miall, the producer of Strictly Ballroom, and a soft-focus, black and white glamour photo of Nicole and Baz on the Chanel No. 5 shoot, signed ‘Karl’ [Lagerfeld]. A framed faded newspaper article reports the controversy caused by the 1981 television docudrama Kids of the Cross devised and co-directed by Baz (he obviously had attitude from an early age).  I like the fact that this is not just a trophy room, but has a personal memory dimension. I notice four BAFTAs displayed prominently at the front, and five fake bottles of Chanel No. 5, from small to large. I’m just writing this down, when Amanda comes in and talks me through the items and the function of the room. She points out the shield from early work on Alexander the Great hung on an unused door, and a piece of signage from Romeo + Juliet — black-on-yellow ‘Add fuel to your fire’ from the petrol station scene. She also describes how the Hawaiian shirt was bought at a Fox auction.

That shirt

She tells me the room is used for meetings, and for film screenings. There’s a projector in the room, and a drop down screen in the bay window at the opposite end, which also houses video and DVD equipment. The bay window is covered by blue and red striped silk curtains, which are pulled to, presumably to hide the room and its contents from intruders in the back garden. The room is lit by electric light. In the centre is a red velvet couch and an armchair facing one another. There is another small red velvet couch against the wall, under some Strictly Ballroom posters and artwork. I ask about the room being used for rehearsals and recording. Amanda says that they do occasionally use it for sound and music recording (Moulin Rouge!), after taking everything out. She leaves me there, and I continue looking around until Sky comes to get me (it is by now 3.05pm).

He shows me in to Baz’s office, and Baz gives him some stuff to photocopy. After exchanging friendly and warm greetings, Baz asks me if a meeting with CM has been organised: ‘She’d love to talk to you’. I say I’m not sure, and we get down to the interview straight away. Baz is far more rumpled today, wearing a blue argyll sleeveless pullover over a long-sleeved shirt, and definitely unshaven. By contrast, I am a bit more dressed up in my new jacket. We go through my questions, and in the middle of the interview he gets up and goes across the room to get some of the concept books to show me. I’m worried that the recorder won’t be able to pick up his voice, but decide that he projects well enough. Baz brings over two leather-bound books, one very large, and sits on the arm of the couch to show me images from the pre-production and workshop period of Romeo + Juliet, including shots of Natalie Portman and Leonardo DiCaprio under water, and later images of Claire Danes and Leonardo together. I have seen copies of the book in the archive, but the real thing is amazing. Baz also shows me the larger book, relating to Alexander the Great.

During both interviews, Baz gets up a couple of times to act out what he is saying. In the second interview, I ask him about the ‘One day I’ll fly away’ film on the Special Edition DVD, where in some parts Nicole has a different hairstyle from the one in Moulin Rouge!, and Ewan has a moustache. Baz shows me the concept book for Moulin Rouge!, in which there are early pictures trying out different hairstyles for Nicole and a moustache for Ewan. He moves closer to me, to the arm of the couch where I’m sitting, and later he sits next to me to show me the early concept book for the next film, the Australian epic. Although I’m slightly disconcerted by this, I’m struck by the fact that he does not intrude on my personal space, and that I feel comfortable with his actions. I suspect this is the key to his good relationship as a director with actors.

'One Day I'll Fly Away'

As Baz shows me the concept book for his next film, it becomes clear that it will be a western, on an epic scale, dealing with the history of Australia’s indigenous people and the Chinese immigrants. He describes a more classical narrative structure, and the history of Australia’s own ‘Pearl Harbor’. The book includes images of landscape, and it has Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe appearing on several pages. Sky comes in at 5pm, and again Baz indicates that we can have a bit more time. I wind up the interview shortly afterwards, and Baz asks Sky if he has managed to set up an interview with CM. Sky says he has mentioned it to her, and Baz asks me whether I can do it now, or am I too tired. I say I am tired, I can do it now, but doesn’t CM have childcare responsibilities (thinking of their daughter Lillian). Baz looks quizzical, and asks about Thursday am. I say I have to be at the airport at 1.15pm, but if CM could spare me an hour in the morning, that would be great. Baz telephones CM then and there, and asks her if she can see me between 11am and 12pm tomorrow, and she agrees. Baz also asks Sky to give me anything I may need: the Red Curtain box set, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack etc. I thank him, and he says he recognises my commitment to the project, and the fact that I want to get it right. We say goodbye, he shakes my hand, saying ‘I enjoyed it’. I thank him for giving up his precious time and for his pearls of wisdom. As he goes up the staircase, he says that CM will probably question what he’s said, and ask whether he even understands the meaning of the words he used.

Designer Catherine Martin

Sky sees me out and helps me to get a taxi again. I get back to the hotel, unable to believe my luck. I’m actually going to talk to one of my all-time heroes.

© Pam Cook