Eyes Wide Shut: What the Critics Failed to See in Kubrick’s Last Film | by Lee Siegel [Harper’s Magazine]

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.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) - The party scene

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—Eyes 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 Voice

“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 genius, 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 fiancé 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.

Harper’s Magazine, October 1999


1 thought on “Eyes Wide Shut: What the Critics Failed to See in Kubrick’s Last Film | by Lee Siegel [Harper’s Magazine]”

  1. In another 10 or 20 years perhaps, movie critics may finally recognize the underlying symbolic themes Eyes Wide Shut actually revisits from A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and most importantly, 2OO1: A Space Odyssey.

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