What the critics failed to see in Kubrick's last film

By Lee Siegel

Eyes Wide Shut is one of the most moving, playful, and complex movies I

have ever seen.  I love the way Stanley Kubrick expresses the film's

theme of social and psychological doubleness through a double entendre

in the film's very title--"I's Wide Shut"--and through his choice, for

the title song, of a waltz by Dmitry Shostakovich, a guileful composer

famous for writing music whose subtle motifs seemed to celebrate Stalin

but actually undermined him. I love the film's spare, almost allegorical

portrait of the tension and complexity at the heart of a marriage. So

imagine my alarm when, picking up one magazine and newspaper after

another, I read reviews calling Kubrick's film a disaster and a titanic

error, trite and self-important, one of the worst movies the critics had

ever seen.

"I can state unequivocally that the late Stanley Kubrick, in his final

film, 'Eyes Wide Shut,' has staged the most pompous orgy in the history

of the movies." -David Denby in The New Yorker

"Ridiculously though intellectually overhyped for the very marginal

entertainment, edification and titillation it provides over its somewhat

turgid 159-minute running time." -Andrew Sarris in The New York Observer

"This two hour and 39 minute gloss on Arthur Schnitzler's fantasmagoric

novella feels like a rough draft at best." -J. Hoberman in The Village


"In Eyes Wide Shut nothing works." -Louis Menand in The New York Review

of Books

"An unfortunate misstep." -Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times

I soon began to discover something even more startling. Not a single

critic, not even those few who claimed to like Eyes Wide Shut, made any

attempt to understand the film on its own artistic terms. Instead, the

critics denounced the film for not living up to the claims its

publicists had made for it, reduced it to a question of its director's

personality, measured it by how much information it conveyed about the

familiar world around us. And I realized that something that had been

stirring around in the depths of the culture had risen to the surface.

After years of vindictive, leveling memoirs of artistic figures; after

countless novels, plays, films, paintings, and installations constructed

to address one social issue or another; after dozens of books have been

published proclaiming the importance of the "great books" and "humanist

ideas" to such a point of inflation that the effect was to bun' the

specificity of great books and of original ideas-after the storm of all

this self-indulgence had passed, a new cultural reality had taken shape.

Our official arbiters of culture have lost the gift of being able to

comprehend a work of art that does not reflect their immediate

experience; they have become afraid of genuine art. Art-phobia is now

the dominant sensibility of the official culture, and art-phobia

annihilated Stanley Kubrick's autumnal work. Much talk--some of it real,

a lot of it fake--has been in the air over the last decade about empathy

for the "other," for people different from us. But no one has dwelled on

the essential otherness of a work of art. There is, after all, that

hackneyed but profound notion of a willing suspension of disbelief.

Genuine art makes you stake your credulity on the patently counterfeit.

It takes you by surprise. And for art to take you by surprise, you have

to put yourself in the power of another world--the work of art--and in

the power of another person--the artist. Yet everything in our society,

so saturated with economic imperatives, tells us not to surrender our

interests even for a moment, tells us that the only forms of cultural

expression we can trust are those that give us instant gratification,

useful information, or a reflected image of ourselves. So we are flooded

with the kind of art that deprecates attentiveness, tells us about the

issues of the day, and corresponds to our own personalities. And if a

genuine work of art appears that has none of these qualities, critics

impose them anyway, for they fear that if they surrender themselves to

the work's strangeness, they will seem vulnerable and naive and

intellectually unreliable. Eyes Wide Shut is the story of an affluent

Manhattan doctor named Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Alice

(Nicole Kidman). One night during Christmas season, Bill and Alice go to

a lavish holiday ball thrown by one of Bill's patients, the shady and

superwealthy Victor Ziegler. Alice dances with a dashing Hungarian

stranger, who tries to seduce her, and Bill is almost lured from the

party by a pair of stunning models. Arriving home, Bill and Alice make

love. The next night Alice smokes a joint and tells Bill about the

Hungarian's advances; he chuckles and shrugs it off. Annoyed by her

husband's indifference to the power of her sexuality, Alice, in revenge,

reveals that during the previous summer she found herself so attracted

to a naval officer who was staying in their hotel that she would have

given up Bill and their seven-year-old daughter, Helena, to be with him.

Bill becomes obsessed with Alice's story, and he plays over and over in

his mind the image--one in black-and-white tones by Kubrick--of Alice

making furious love with the officer. The rest of the movie follows Bill

as he moves through a world whose hidden erotic nature his obsession has

uncovered: his adventures include encounters with a prostitute and with

a nymphet in a costume shop and end with a masked orgy in a Long Island

mansion at which Bill is discovered, exposed as an intruder, and nearly

punished, until a mysterious woman offers herself up as a sacrifice in

order to save his life. He escapes, and the film ends with Bill and

Alice and Helena searching for Christmas presents in a toy store. Now,

it is perfectly possible not to like this film; I know more than a few

sensitive and intelligent people who felt they could have lived without

it. The film has its longueurs; it is full of puzzles, riddles, and

games;  it is highly orchestrated and stylized, like a cross between

Krzysztof Kieslowski and No drama. Iris perfectly possible not to like

Kieslowski or No drama either; for that matter, it is possible to

dislike Ezra Pound's Cantos or Henrik Ibsen's plays or Andrea del

Sarto's paintings. But one cannot simply dismiss them. One must make

one's negative judgment of them also a mode of understanding them. There

is pleasure as a form of diversion, and there is pleasure as a form of

attention. South Park is in the former category; I can say that I

dislike it, and no one is going to ask me for an interpretation that

will support my dislike, for the simple reason that if I interpreted it,

I would be ignoring the movie's simple, diverting nature. I would get

laughed at. But I cannot just dismiss Hedda Gabler without interpreting

it. If I did, I would be ignoring the play's purpose of laying claim to

the attention. I would be in no position to judge its worthiness.  The

critics were in no position to judge the worthiness of Eyes Wide Shut;

they took the wrong tack. Since the film's producers had mounted such an

immensely noisy publicity campaign--Kubrick's last film; one of the

world's greatest directors tackles the subject of sex, sex, sex by

staging the most erotic orgy scene ever filmed; see Nicole Kidman nude;

see Tom Cruise nude; see the couple married in real life make love on

the screen--the critics had to show that they were not going to allow

bullying commerce to determine their experience of the film. So they

decided not to respond to the film. They decided to respond to the hype.

And the result was that the hype totally determined their experience of

the film. They wrote about it as if it were a work of diversion and not

a work of attention. Consider this admission from Andrew Sarris, writing

in The New York Observer. "Perhaps if Eyes Wide Shut just popped out of

the blue without all the infernal hype and infomercials I might have

appreciated it more for its uncommon virtues..." This is a truly

astounding thing to say, since no one was stopping Sarris from ignoring

the hype and appreciating the virtues. Such weariness toward the

commercial world was flaunted by most of the critics. J. Hoberman began

his review by disclosing the information that Warner Bros. produced the

film and that Time-Warner Bros.'s "corporate sibling"--"shamelessly"

promoted it. So what? Pope Julius shamelessly promoted the ceiling of

the Sistine Chapel. In The New York Review of Books, Louis Menand went

farthest of all. Asserting that Kubrick hadn't finished the film, he

concluded that even if he had, it wouldn't have mattered anyway, because

the people who made the film "became inflated by their own hype." And

what if the people who made the film actually did not become inflated by

their own hype? How would Menand know either way? But the critics would

not be restrained. They had to prove that they were not about to have

the wool pulled over their eyes by commercial culture--even if they had

to trample on a work of art to prove it.  It just so happens that right

around the time Eyes Wide Shut opened in the theaters, a book came Out

about Kubrick and the film that gave the critics exactly what they were

looking for. Eyes Wide Open, by Frederic Raphael, is a memoir of the

director by a screenwriter who shares with Kubrick a writing credit on

the film. The book is an act of revenge. Raphael is convinced that

Kubrick stifled his talent and commandeered the script. As payback for

Kubrick's indifference to his genius, Raphael paints a devastatingly

corrosive picture of the director as an obsessive tyrant who squeezes

the life out of scripts, scriptwriters, and actors. And since this

portrait of Kubrick corresponded in fact, if not in tone, to some other

recent accounts of him, the critics seized on Raphael's memoir as a

guide to the film. In truth, they had no choice, even if they knew that

Raphael's memoir was "self-promoting," as Menand put it. Raphael's image

of Kubrick as a tyrant went to the core of the general artist-phobia.

And once this picture of Kubrick--the mean, controlling ge-nius, the

maniacal director who shot scenes forty or fifty times-was in the air,

no one could write about the movie without taking this information into

account. Those who did would look like they were out of the loop. They

would give the embarrassing appearance of people who, in 1999, did not

know how to assimilate information. I have never before read reviews in

which the issue was the working habits of the director rather than the

qualities of the film itself.  Menand, on one of Kidman's scenes: "She

really gives it, in what was plainly the ninety-ninth take, an earnest

effort." How could Menand possibly know that this was the ninety-ninth

take? He is substituting information that he has gotten about how the

director operates for what he, as a critic, should be doing, which is to

make sense of how the scene works. Andrew Sarris solemnly dwelled a bit

on Andrew Sarris ("I am booking [Full Metal Jacket] this term for my

Columbia genre class on the War Film..."), and then he pronounced

judgment on Eyes Wide Shut using Raphael's framework: "more

control-freak unreality than visual genius." David Denby also responded

to Raphael's picture of Kubrick as a figure of oppressive authority who

instills fear: "Even, however, if you let your imagination run wild, the

atmosphere--sombre, trance-like, unimpassioned-should hold you in check.

The orgy is frozen in ritual, and devoted not to pleasure but to

authority and fear." Yet this formidable and reliable critic never

bothered to ask himself whether Kubrick deliberately made the orgy seem

devoted to authority and fear. According to Raphael, Kubrick insisted

that he stick faithfully to Schnitzler's novel. Here, too, the critics

swallowed Raphael whole:

Menand: "Schnitzler's story is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna and

Kubrick's movie is set in contemporary New York City, but otherwise the

adaptation is pretty faithful."

Hoberman: "The script...is...surprisingly faithful to the 1926

Schnitzler original."

Kakutani: "The movie was faithfully adapted from a 1926 novella called

'Rhapsody: A Dream Novel' by the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler."

The fact is that the screenplay follows only the skeleton of the novel.

(Was everybody able to get a copy of the Schnitzler in time to meet

their deadlines? It's been out of print for years, and I spent days

finding mine.) In the novel, the Bill character answers Alice's

confession of an adulterous desire with his own tale of adulterous

desire. In the movie, he doesn't. In the novel, the Bill character says

he remembers having seen the man Alice desires. In the movie, Bill does

not. In the novel, the Bill character leaves the prostitute because he

is revolted by her. In the movie, Bill is interrupted by a call from his

wife on his cell phone. In the novel, there is no Ziegler character. In

the novel, the password Bill uses to gain entrance to the orgy is

"Denmark." In the movie, it is "Fidelio." Remarkably no critic I've

quoted even brought up the password. This is a pretty bad lapse for

reviews that called Kubrick's meditation on marriage an empty aesthetic

exercise, since the opera Fidelio is Beethoven's hymn to conjugal love.

Indeed, Kubrick structures his film with gorgeously subtle references to

Fidelio and Christmas and Ovid and Home though none of the critics here

interpreted any of these allusions either. Nothing of the sort exists in

Schnitzler's tale. The critics may have gotten the relationship between

the film and its source material all wrong, but that didn't stop them

from taking Raphael's cue and lambasting the movie for not getting the

relationship between its setting and contemporary New York right.

Although the movie wears its expressionistic and symbolic style on its

sleeve right from the start--the Shostakovich waltz playing over the

titles stops when Alice turns off her radio--the critics wrote as if

Kubrick had aimed and failed to make a Frontline documentary about life

in present-day New York. Denby even accused Schnitzler of anachronism.

("Writing in Vienna in the mid-twenties, Schnitzler may have sensed that

his material, in terms of consciousness of sex, was already dated, so he

set the book earlier, before the First World War.") Now, why would

Schnitzler write a novel about themes that he thought were already

dated? He was Arthur Schnitzler, friend of Freud and Klimt and

Schoenberg, not some idiot. And it's not even clear that his novel takes

place at the turn of the century. Raphael is the one who says that; the

time period is never stated in the novel.  The whole question is, of

course, moot. Novelists and filmmakers set their work in the past when

they want to avoid the distracting immediate particulars of their own

time and place, when they want to strip their stories down to essences

and ultimates. That's what Kubrick does in Eyes Wide Shut, but the

critics did not consider that. That would have been unfamiliar and

demanding and respectful of the viewer's desire to imaginatively inhabit

other worlds.  Calculating the proximity of Kubrick's New York City to

life in the real New York City, on the other hand, assures viewers that

they never have to venture away from their own experience. Attacking a

work of art on the grounds that it doesn't reflect contemporary

appearances and conventions was bad enough, but the critics really c did

themselves on the subject of sex. The portrayal of an orgy, after all,

had been the centerpiece of the film's publicity campaign. Therefore,

the publicists had to be thoroughly debunked. Yet in debunking all the

hype about the sex, the critics never got beyond the hype about the sex.

They seemed intent on proving how sexy they were, and how sophisticated

they were about sexiness, because when sexiness is marketed as

vigorously as it is in America today, one had better appear to have

mastered the market. Never mind that Eyes Wide Shut is not about

sexiness but about sex. I've already quoted Denby on the "pompous" and

"unimpassioned" nature of the orgy ("I found myself bored" with the

film, he sighs near the end of his review).

Menand: "[A] ring of kneeling super-models (identical proud firm

breasts, straight hair, no hips) wearing only masks and black thongs and

looking extremely chilly...It is a very tacky orgy..."

Hoberman [after alerting Voice readers to the fact that the orgy takes

place "somewhere in the richest, most Republican districts of Long

Island"]: "Hardly the sexual heart of darkness, this decorous gavotte is

more studied than a fashion shoot and rather less explicit. The final

shock: Two men dancing ... together!"

Sarris: "It can be revealed at last that there are acres and acres of

female pubic hair on display, but no male members ... [in] the otherwise

boring free-for-all orgy sequence."

Kakutani: "The masked orgy, much hyped in advance publicity for the

movie, feels more ludicrous than provocative, more voyeuristic than

scary...it is curiously devoid of sexual energy...the entire orgy

sequence feels deliberate and contrived."

These are the terms, set by the film's promoters and determined by the

enveloping dynamics of commercial culture, in which the critics judged

Stanley Kubrick's last film.

Eyes Wide Shut is a descendant of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in

Paris. Both films examine the relationship of fucking to fraternity, of

sex to society, and both reach the same conclusion: for the social order

to survive, the instincts have to be recognized for what they are and

then restored to their hiding place behind society's curtains. This is a

sturdy old theme, but that is not the same thing as a dated theme. The

trick is in inflecting the old theme with idiosyncracy and fresh

insight, and in honestly refracting it through the colors of one's time,

without miring it in mere documentary particulars. In Last Tango in

Paris, Marlon Brando plays the down-on-his-luck owner of a cheap hotel

in Paris. Crushed by his wife's suicide, enraged by her infidelity, he

begins an affair with a young woman from a bourgeois family. He insists

on anonymity. Pure sex is all he wants, with an emphasis on anal sex,

for anal eroticism represents a total reversal of conventional romantic

love, and Brando is in a rage against what he now considers the

fraudulence of romantic ideas. Although she is engaged tobe married, the

young woman, played by Maria Schneider, submerges herself in the affair.

She accepts and enjoys Brando's sexual demands and starts making her

own. One day, Schneider arrives at the apartment they have rented to

find it empty. She is distraught, and when Brando rushes up to her in

the street, she tells him that she never wants to see him again. But

Brando has fallen in love with her. He is the true romantic; only a

romantic could rebel so extravagantly against the shattering of romantic

illusions. He tells Schneider his name and describes his life to her. A

proper bourgeois girl, she is appalled by his lowly status (Schneider's

facial expressions are hilarious here), though she has pledged herself

to him. She is the true sexual nihilist, who would betray her fiancŽ

with Brando but will not marry a man whose social status is lower than

hers, even if she loves him. In the film's closing scene, Brando chases

Schneider through the streets and follows her upstairs to her family's

apartment. There he playfully puts on her late father's army cap-he was

a colonel in French North Africa-and then, removing it, tells Schneider

that he loves her. Horrified by his irreverence, cornered, afraid,

Schneider shoots him dead with her father's army pistol. Thus society

executes Brando for wanting to bring the instincts back into alignment

with emotional life. It is the bourgeoisie, represented by Schneider,

who pruriently wish to keep them apart. Our tame middle-class critics so

wanted Kubrick's orgy to be dark and dangerous and full of sexual

energy, but Kubrick wanted to show that sex without emotion is

ritualistic, contrived, and in thrall to authority and fear. He was too

wild for them. Everyone droned on about how unerotic Kubrick's orgy is,

but no one talked about how intensely erotic is Bill's fantasy. of Alice

making love with the naval officer. It is so erotic because Alice is the

object not only of Bill's desire but also of his love. No one tried to

fathom the film's purposes. Just about every critic also mocked what

they considered to be Cruise and Kidman's stilted performances. They

seemed to be acting like actors, everyone complained. At one point in

his review, Menand obliquely refers to rumors that the real-life Cruise

and Kidman have a sham marriage and that Cruise is actually gay. "Who

cares?" asks the impressively unimpressible Menand. "It doesn't matter,

because they have no chemistry in the movie, either." Well, Kubrick must

have been pretty stupid to spend three years filming actors who couldn't

act. But Kubrick wasn't stupid. In a film about life's essential

doubleness, Kubrick presents Cruise and Kidman with double lives. They

are actors in a film, and they are people we think we know something

about. Their real marriage exists beneath the rumors of trouble, just as

the troubles of their film-marriage exist beneath its apparent success.

They act with dreamy formality because they exist between dream and

reality. Kubrick wants us to watch Cruise and Kidman and think about

what people appear to be and who they really are. Kubrick's genius in

Eyes Wide Shut is to make us look at the film the way the film looks at

life. The title announces the film's perspective: we stare life in the

face and miss what is truly going on right under our noses. Bill is a

doctor; his job is to defy the corruptions of time and repair injured

bodies. Thus he is willfully blind to the way the demands of bodies

hasten the ravages of time. Physical desire ruins friendships. destroys

marriages, discombobulates thoughts and feelings. Underneath Bill's

sober medical optimism lies the hazardous dynamism of sexual fantasy and

sexual desire. That is why Alice hides her pot in a Band-Aid tin. And

because desire is an agent of metamorphosis, Ovid, the author of

Metamorphoses, becomes one of the film's presiding presences. The danger

Bill and Alice face is that either domestic emotions will stifle sex or

that unbridled sexual indulgence will kill off the individuality that

nourishes emotional attachment. This is a dated theme? (That's like

telling Hamlet to lighten up--everyone's father dies, for goodness

sake.) Such a dilemma is why the movie begins with a shot of Kidman's

back and her unforgettable ass. We see her back when she dances with the

Hungarian; Bill sees a man grabbing a woman's behind in a doorway as he

wanders the streets; a partly obscured sign over a store reads "ass"

through a window behind Bill and a gay desk clerk in a hotel as they

talk; Ziegler delivers his stunning monologue about the banal

inevitability of sexual desire to Bill's back; Helena picks up a giant

teddy bear from behind in the film's final scene and asks if Santa will

buy it for her. The back, the ass, represent our animal side. They do

not convey our individuality. Only our face does that. But the risk is

that if we surrender ourselves absolutely to our anonymous animal side,

we slide helplessly toward death, the absolute anonymity. For this

reason, there are masks in Bill's patient's apartment and in the

prostitute's place too, and this is why Kubrick makes the orgy a masked

affair. When Bill finds out that the mysterious woman at the orgy who

may have saved his life has died, he goes to the morgue, steps over to

her body, and almost kisses her face. Her face has become a death mask,

and his urge to kiss it signifies that he has submitted too thoroughly

to his obsession. And to Alice's machinations. For just as every

enchantress Odysseus meets on his voyage home is an echo of his

thralldom to Penelope, every woman Bill meets is a version of Alice.

(The numerous references in Eyes Wide Shut to 2001: A Space Odyssey; the

naval officer; and the large model of a ship in Ziegler's billiard room

emphasize the film's allusions to Homer.) This is why the prostitute is

beautiful and educated. And this is why Bill is constantly being

interrupted just as he is about to satisfy his desires. He allowed an

interruption to come between him and Alice, and now he must be punished

in the very same terms over and over again. Just as the husband in

Fidelio is in prison, so is Bill: twice we see him standing behind bars,

outside the costume store and outside the gate of the Long Island

mansion. With her tale, Alice has orchestrated his fate for him. At any

moment she can betray him with her naval officer, just as at any moment

Penelope can betray Odysseus with her suitors. The movie does not

resemble New York? How can it when it has such a large poetic and

symbolic dimension? Kubrick paints vast pictures with minute strokes. As

Bill is being tormented by his black-and-white fantasy, Alice sits at

home watching television, helping Helena with her homework, and eating a

black-and-white cookie. Consider, too, the movie she is watching. In the

scene we see and hear, George Segal is sitting in a cafe- in Rome,

across from the Colosseum. A waiter brings him something, and Segal says

"Grazie." The waiter says "You're welcome." "If I were Italian," Segal

mutters to himself, "he would have answered me in Italian." What a

wonderful, whimsical way to improvise on the film's theme of the

expectations and disappointments of desire. We live in the subjunctive:

if only we could be someone else and get what we want. But when Bill

gets what he wants and enters the orgy, he sees nothing but sterile

coupling. There is the fantasy of absolute gratification, cynically

projected from every corner of the culture, and there is the reality of

the cookie and the child and the homework and the companion you have

chosen, and for whom, despite everything, you sit at home waiting

Compared with the everyday reality of sex and emotion, our fantasies of

gratification are, yes, pompous and solemn in the extreme. That is why

the film's recurrent motif is of the Christmas tree. For desire is like

Christmas: it always promises more than it delivers. Kubrick's film is

hardly, as some critics have said, an instance of anti-erotic moralism.

It is, instead, honest about the power and necessity and permanence of

erotic life. It is about the simultaneity of irreconcilable desires. As

the film proceeds, the dialogue increasingly takes the form of double

entendre: "Would you like to come inside?" the prostitute asks Bill. The

gay desk clerk refers to two tough-looking guys "you'd not like to fool

around with" and giggles Ziegler gestures to the pool table and says he

has been "knocking a few balls around." The orgy itself runs parallel to

the ball at the beginning, even as it parodies social life. The

Hungarian with the long nose finds his mirror image in a man wearing a

mask with the very same nose. Pairs proliferate throughout the film,

reminders of our double natures. A sculpture in Ziegler's house, seen at

the beginning of the film, is of two figures, a winged one bending over

another without wings; people lift both their arms and raise both their

hands; there are symmetrical doors and coffee cups; in Ziegler's

billiard room, you see two pineapples, a perfect image of the banal

duality of our desires. I don't know how the critics could have missed

the tenderness of Kubrick's themes, the way he has Cruise and Kidman

look at each other out of each one's unfathomable depths--I's wide

shut--the way he has Kidman stroke Cruise's head after she tells him her

violent second fantasy, as if she is taking a maternal pity on the man

whom she, as the furious lover, cannot help tormenting. Indeed, the

movie ends with a clement apprehension of a marriage's fragile world.

When Bill finally returns home at the end of his adventures, he finds

the mask he wore to the orgy, and which he thought he lost, on the bed

next to the sleeping Alice. This is what they both have created,

unwittingly, through their psychosexual pas de deux: the menace of an

utterly lost individuality. Bill begins to sob, but he is sobbing for

two opposite reasons, inextricably entwined: he is afraid that his

marriage has been destroyed, and throughout his adventures he has failed

to satisfy his desires. And so when Alice says to Bill in the movie's

last line, "You know, there is something very important we need to do as

soon as possible.... Fuck," she is reiterating the doubleness. Fucking

is exactly what they have to do, but sexual desire is what got them into

trouble in the first place. For there is no such thing as fucking in a

vacuum. In the end, nothing is resolved, but the fundamental

irresolution at the heart of life is briefly illumined. Such is Stanley

Kubrick's final film. You can understand the film and honorably still

not like it, but you cannot proclaim your dislike of the film without

basing it on your understanding. At a time when we are surrounded by

movies about killing, and movies about murdering, and movies about

slaughtering; by cheap caricatured reflections of human life; by

dishonest and money-driven and career-driven drivel at every turn--at a

time like this, you'd think someone would have given a genuine work of

honest art its due. Oh, how I wish I were in Italy.