Summary: A Kafkaesque, terrifying exposé of sexual hypocrisy that stands with the best of Kubrick’s work.
Fair warning: Because of the film’s disturbing subject, I will be handling mature sexual topics. Be advised.
Review: Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed filmography is largely composed of intelligent, penetrating meditations on human nature. Perhaps the most prominent subject is hypocrisy. ‘The Shining’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ explored our hypocrisy of violence; famously and controversially, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ extended this critique to sexual violence in a disturbingly graphic fashion. ‘Dr. Strangelove’ satirically blamed its nuclear holocaust on sexually dysfunctional leaders; ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ again attacks the American elite by way of a bizarre conspiracy of cloak-and-dagger sexual politics, and in the process levels a pointed accusation at humanity in general. We like to think we’re above the basic instincts of our species, but Kubrick would have us know that we’re walking about with our eyes wide shut. We are sexual creatures, and we’d better be honest about it.
Kubrick’s cinematic swan song is appropriately meta, to great effect. The first step is to present audiences with an erotic thriller headlined by two attractive, bankable stars in a well-known relationship. This draws folks in to see their fantasies realized in a carefully controlled environment. The next step is to pull the rug out from under their feet, by refusing to show the leads having Hollywood sex with each other, and by forcing the viewer to share the protagonist’s confusion and frustration up to the last moment. Just as ‘The Shining’ carefully condemns its gorehound audience, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ reminds viewers of their mental promiscuity and love of Hollywood exploitation. The film’s loveless eroticism serves to put off viewers who are uninterested in this critique. Instead of a sanitized, pleasant experience, the film’s orgy centerpiece is a flat-out terrifying, Kafkaesque nightmare — to me, it was scarier than ‘The Shining’ — so when the protagonist flees home to his wife, we’re right there with him.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’ defends monogamy, doubtless to the surprise of many self-appointed moral guardians, provided they could settle down for a few minutes to hear it out. The carefully constructed sexual mythology of human society, and American culture in particular, squeezes the love and life out of monogamous relationships. For reasons of class and religion, people lie about their most powerful undercurrent, and this results in mutually destructive hypocrisies. The narrative hangs on two upscale parties held at mansions, the first masking its abusive sexual commerce in hollow pleasantries, the second reveling in open displays cloaked in ritual and threat — the point being, in a dream logic sense, they are the same event. The multilayered narrative repeats images and themes in a lyrical way, uncovering the uncomfortable truth of each episode. In the end, the couple has to come to terms with their desires to heal. To experience true sexual union, stripping to the skin is not enough — they have to strip down to the heart. Leave it to Kubrick to transform exploitative nudity into an artful statement of the human condition!
Kubrick is often labelled “cold”, but in truth he’s simply objective, standing apart from traditional Aristotelian storytelling because he refuses to digest a given film’s ideas into cheap, predictable, marketable patterns. This is a film with a happy ending and a clear moral conclusion, but we have to go on an unusual journey to find it. It was misunderstood in its theatrical release, but like most of Kubrick’s work from ‘2001’ on it has gradually won over critics and cinephiles. For this reason, I call it a classic — a truly adult film.