Goats and Monkeys

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

illustration by Brianna Ashby
What does it mean to have an affair?

For some, a conversation might be enough. Most would draw the line at a kiss. Matthew 5:28 says that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And then there’s sex, which is certainly a thing. But most affairs never get that far. Most affairs are only experienced in dreams or as fantasy. Perhaps we each commit thousands of betrayals in a lifetime—some forgettable, others deliberate and haunting.

Some would say that there are no innocents. They might point out that our hypocritical society openly condemns infidelity even while encouraging the expression of all kinds of animal impulses in sanctioned spaces screened away from the rest of the world. Perhaps everyone is not only essentially selfish but motivated by sex above everything else. Everyone is having an affair. Everyone is unfaithful. But this is the philanderer’s excuse, you might argue; misogyny posing as fashionable misandry, a plea for moral relativism that conveniently brushes over whatever sins one might have committed in one’s time. All are guilty so nobody is to blame.


Eyes Wide Shut is set in New York at the end of the twentieth century. It’s Christmas. Dr Bill Harford and his wife Alice are going to a party. At the party they will meet people they barely know or have never seen before; at some point, they will go their separate ways and flirt with members of the opposite sex, before falling back together at the end of the night, both changed in ways they had never previously imagined. Alice meets a wealthy Hungarian gentleman, and they dance all night. Bill is pursued by a couple of rich British girls, but his time with them is cut suddenly short when he is called to revive a prostitute who has suffered from a drug overdose.

This is how it ends, the film says, this is what it’s really about: the stark juxtaposition between the glamour of the party and the woman slumped across the toilet upstairs. The old man tugs sheepishly at his suspenders and looks to Bill to fix everything, to make it right, to keep it secret. Later, Alice will make a confession to her husband that will irreparably damage his entire view of her. Even later, both will embrace, fall asleep, dream. Until then, Bill will behave like a professional, calmly ignoring the unpleasant consequences of the indiscretions of his powerful friend. “Look at me,” says Bill, pinching the girl’s chin, gazing into her eyes. “Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.”


It is not long before we realise that something is wrong with this world. The atmosphere is oppressive, and frequently overwhelms any base of realism. As in Kubrick’s other films, the shots are painterly in their elegance, and the cuts are few and far between as the slow, languorous steadicam glides from lush ballrooms to bedrooms to bathrooms, all hung heavy with an impossible amount of expensive art. The lights are low with hardly an exposed bulb in sight; everything is carefully shaded, screened.

I want to say this film is like a dream—it is an adaptation of a novella called Dream Story, after all. And it does seem to possess many of the qualities we often associate with the dreamlike in cinema: unlikely and sinister things occur, people talk in an oddly stilted fashion, the quality of the light is strange and unfamiliar. But if we think of dreams as the unbridled manifestation of the subconscious, then cracks begin to appear in this interpretation: the film is nothing if not absolutely controlled. Kubrick is too mannered to ever think of surrendering his narrative vision to surrealism for its own sake. Nothing is done here out of simple absurdity. Everything is done with intent.


And how better to demonstrate intent than to create your own world? Rather than film on location in New York, Kubrick rebuilt a section of the city on British sound stages from a collection of thousands of photographs. It is in these sequences that the film’s sense of unreality reaches its zenith. The streets through which Harford wanders, alone and confused, are cartoonish in their calculated depravity. Words float like thought bubbles around him. Every store is named after something to do with illicit love: the image of the “Hint of Lace” lingerie store right across the street from the “Verona Restaurant” being perhaps the most blatant signpost of the film’s thematic intent. It’s an odd kind of dream that comes with its own annotations.

Most uncanny of all is the lurid blue light that shines through the windows after hours: an intensely memorable shade, a purely cinematic, imaginary interpretation of moonlight bleeding through to the early hours of the morning. The constant mingling of pinkish-red on blue, so evocative of a repressed sensuality, becomes unsettling when its source is found to be the soft glow of innocent, omnipresent Christmas lights. That is not the night, you think. That is a street inside a large, darkened room. There is no direct indication that what we are witnessing is a dream—and yet light doesn’t look like that. Rooms don’t look like that.


But unlike The Shining, where slow turns of the screw are punctuated by glimpses of extreme horror, Kubrick provides no dramatic pay-off to this tension. There will be no elevators spewing blood here. Instead, Eyes Wide Shut is the cinematic equivalent of a premeditated coitus interruptus. Widely promoted with variants on “the sexiest film ever made” at the time, part of its original attraction to certain filmgoers must have been the chance to see a pair of stars, approaching the height of their fame, actually doing it on screen—and actually, they don’t. This is a film in which the only lovemaking depicted is anonymous, animalistic rutting.

Practically everyone Tom Cruise’s character meets in the film establishes some kind of immediate sexual connection with him: a house call to the home of a dead patient ends up with the man’s daughter throwing herself at his feet; he’s buttonholed by a prostitute walking down the street, then later seduced by her friend when he can’t even begin a session with her; even the waitresses flirt with him, and a hotelier (played with relish by Alan Cumming) gives our man a crucial piece of information for no other reason than that he’s clearly hitting on him. The whole film is pretty much Harford trying and failing to get laid—he isn’t sure what is going on, and neither are we. His befuddlement represents a basic failure to interpret the events before him on the level of either reality or dream.


Tom Cruise is only really interesting as an actor when his persona is pushed almost to the point of breakdown. When playing it cool, he often comes across as dull. As with Nicolas Cage, Cruise often resorts to manic tics and weird expressions when required to emote, but what’s curious about Eyes Wide Shut is the way in which Cruise doesn’t get to do any of that. He’s toned right down, and left strangely still. He seems incapable of demonstrating any emotion at all. And throughout, the camera lingers on this stare that he does—the same cold, angular stare we see shining out from all those CGI-daubed movie posters. In the context of a film, this could barely be considered acting. Cruise rarely looks like he knows quite what he’s supposed to be doing here, and yet this somehow fits perfectly with the disaffected mood of the film; the character of a faintly stupid man without palpable emotions trapped in a world he can’t seem to understand.

It’s worth noting that the infamous orgy sequences aren’t particularly orgiastic. There’s nothing dangerous here, nothing violent. Just bland sex in a series of large, lavish rooms; various couplings in a variety of positions borrowed from soft-core porn. Naturally, the men are fully-robed, perhaps because these are the fantasies of a fairly dull, upper-middle-class straight man. There are the obligatory sexy lesbians, but the only gay men to be seen are the two dancing a tender slow dance in the hall. But the orgy is more than one man’s voyeuristic wish fulfillment: it’s an elaborate inversion of the ‘real’ party at the beginning of the film, a kind of negative image which illustrates how what is apparently a rich and complex world of emotion and character can be reduced to a world of indecipherable ritual, of judges and the judged, the fuckers and the fucked.


You might say that we should take none of this particularly seriously. You could argue that the whole film is essentially one long paranoid dream-fantasy of sexual betrayal on Harford’s part, and that it is too risible, too incredible to be anything like a serious work of cinema. You could say that it has all the significance of a dream. And you might be correct. But as Alice says near the end of the film, ‘No dream is ever just a dream.’ The Freudian formulation has its comforts: it accounts nicely for an implausible plot, and it compensates for any weariness we might feel at the film’s excessive length by explaining its ponderous tone as part of a conventional attempt to convey dream logic on screen.

But to think of Eyes Wide Shut as purely the stuff of dreams makes it easier to swallow. If we can dismiss it as fantasy, its troubling politics become subjective insinuations rather than definite conclusions about our world. And besides, the distinction between waking reality and dream is a strange one to make in a film which chooses neither. It is ultimately a complete fictional world unto itself. If Inception taught us anything, it’s that modern audiences are not only willing, but are actively eager to accept that dream reality and cinematic ‘realism’ are essentially one and the same, with neither of any more ultimate significance than the other.

That critics and audiences largely embraced Inception and rejected Eyes Wide Shut has something to do with Tom Hardy wielding a grenade launcher. It also has something to do with the fact that Inception was built around a vision of liberal interventionism, tastefully furnished with a nostalgic eye for the happy family and a sympathetic ear bent towards the concerns of the very wealthy. Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, is completely lacking in all of those things. It’s a vision of a decadent millennial society populated by affectless, amoral people whose only interest in one another can be effectively reduced to the exchange of bodily fluids. There is no love in this world. There is only fucking.