Monday, November 9, 2009

1999: Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)

Released: July 16, 1999

Director: Stanley Kubrick; Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael based on the novella “Traumnovelle” by Arthur Schnitzler; Cinematography: Larry Smith; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producer: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Tom Cruise (Dr. William “Bill” Harford), Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford), Sydney Pollack (Victor Ziegler), Todd Field (Nick Nightingale), Sky du Mont (Sandor Szavost), Rade Serbedzija (Mr. Milich), Vinessa Shaw (Domino), Leelee Sobieski (Milich’s Daughter), Alan Cumming (Hotel Desk Clerk), Leon Vitali (Red Cloak)

In what many consider to be a very strong year to close the excellent decade that was the 1990s, I am among a minority that looks toward 1999 as a rather tame twelve months in terms of cinematic masterpieces. Most of the “usual suspects” of the year that I have seen I tend to find incredibly overrated. Now, there is one major caveat to this assessment: most of what I have seen for ’99 is American films, meaning that there are some key releases that I simply couldn’t take into consideration. But my reaction to nearly all of the highly lauded American films of this year range from flat-out disliking (The Matrix, Magnolia, Fight Club), to finding good yet not great (The Insider, Three Kings, The Sixth Sense), to not having a clue what to make of it (Being John Malkovich).

There are others, but these are just general examples, and a drawn out way of getting to the point of this opening: I knew very quickly that there were only two selections that I could make and feel good about choosing as the best of a year. With the first option, it was the introduction of a new director to be reckoned with, as Sam Mendes made the crossover from theater to film impeccably. American Beauty must certainly rank among the finest debuts in recent history. In the other case, it was the final film in the career of a cinematic legend, a movie that took three years to fully complete and was released only after Stanley Kubrick’s death. It was nearly a toss-up for me, but in the end I had to side with the enigmatic quality of Eyes Wide Shut that has been embedded in my mind since I re-watched it again specifically for the countdown. I may not be able to perfectly understand everything I see, but the fact that I can’t stop trying to interpret it speaks to the impact that this polarizing film made on me.

Kubrick had not made a film since 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, so this was a highly anticipated return for the man that some consider to be among the greatest directors of all time. He had actually bought the rights to the novella on which the story is based nearly thirty years earlier, so this was a movie that was a long time coming. Shooting began in 1996, but with Kubrick’s notoriously demanding expectations, there were continual delays in shooting. There were also clashes between director and stars, with Kubrick acknowledging unhappiness with certain sex scenes involving Tom Cruise. Co-star Sydney Pollack was quoted as being “exasperated” by the pace that Kubrick was taking in filming. Secrecy surrounding the entire project was unparalleled. All information was kept under tight wraps, in hopes that little about the actual story and production would be known beforehand. All of this worked to create a thoroughly diverse reaction to the film when it was released. Some praised it as a masterpiece on par with anything that Kubrick had ever made. Others were completely turned off by the eroticism of it all and felt that it was garbage. Many didn’t know how to respond.

The story opens with a seemingly perfect couple in Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) on their way to a fashionable New York cocktail party. At the party, which is beautifully shot by Kubrick, the seeds for the rest of the chaotic tale are planted. Alice, having had too much to drink, begins dancing with a suave guest, creating a palpable atmosphere of sexual tension. Bill, meanwhile, is wooed by two beautiful women trying to seduce him and whisk him away for a clandestine tryst. Before this can happen, the doctor is summoned to help the party’s host, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), who has what appears to be an emergency. While having a sexual rendezvous with a young woman, Ziegler realizes that the girl has passed out from a dangerous mixture of drugs. Bill revives her and assures Ziegler that the compromising situation will stay between the two of them. While at the party Bill also runs into a former medical school colleague, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), who dropped out and is now making his living as a piano player. Nick tells Bill to stop by at a downtown club if he has the chance, as Nick is playing there for the next few weeks.

Following the party, the couple has a conversation in bed that is the catalyst to kick off everything that follows. What began as an intimate evening between the two quickly degenerates into Alice revealing to her husband that on the previous summer’s vacation at Cape Cod she became obsessed with a naval officer she met. She talks about having set in motion plans to meet the officer, but is vague as to the particulars. This destroys Bill’s previous idea of possessing the perfect marriage and relationship and sends him on the twenty-four hour escapade at the center of the film. Along the way he encounters surreal events one on top of the other – angry young bigots who taunt him, a prostitute who begs him for meeting, a costume salesman who pimps out his own daughter, and finally receives a mysterious tidbit of information from his old friend Nick Nightingale. Nick tells him that he has been getting jobs playing for some sort of secret society that makes him play blindfolded. Bill pries the password out of him, manages to work his way into the party, and discovers an unimaginable world of sexual ritual and excess.

The first time that I saw it (which, I have to say, was actually a few years after its initial release), my reaction was probably closer to the assessment of being unable to decide what to make of it. Even now, after revisiting it a few times, I’m not certain that I could recount a completely consistent theory on what takes place. Is everything to be taken literally? Does Bill actually experience all of the quirky, disturbing events over the course of one wild night? Or is it possible that some of it is imagined or actually a dream? I have even read some hypotheses that argue that drugs are somehow in Bill’s voyage. Interpreting it as a dream is appealing to me, as it moderates some of the craziness of many of the episodes Bill finds himself in. But, even this has problems, as to my eye there are no markers to signal where reality and hallucination diverge. I don’t claim to need a big sign saying “Reality begins here!” but I do think there needs to be some sort of logical points at which one could reasonably argue the dreams begin or end (such as can be done in a movie like Lost Highway, for just one example).

So, as I said, I’m probably not entirely consistent in my own interpretation, but what can I do? The reason that such inconsistency really doesn’t bother me is that I don’t approach the film attempting to read deep meaning into it as so many others do. For those that do so and are successful, I envy you – if ever a movie called out for being analyzed in this fashion and would be rewarding to do so, this is it. There are many things that I could interpret, but nothing earth-shattering. But my main interest in the story is very simple. I am fascinated by the hypnotic nature of it all. Kubrick is able to move at a lumbering pace, jumping in episodic nature from one scene to another, and gradually build tension to an unnerving boiling point. By the time that Bill goes to revisit the site of the secret party, the film has become a full-blown thriller. Perhaps I’m watching at its most surface level, but it works incredibly well in this way.

Performances are all around solid, if not particularly spectacular. Cruise is Cruise – which means sturdy as usual. If anyone deserves specific praise, it is probably Kidman who is outstanding in her manic moments. As far as individual accomplishments, though, those that I single out are not surprising. The grand master Kubrick does whatever he wants throughout. Always someone who could draw a scene out, he does that perfectly here, marrying these extended sequences to music that creates an unbelievable sense of dread. In fact, the soundtrack might be the most haunting aspect of the entire film. The use of recurring classical pieces is mesmerizing, particularly the dissonant sounds of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Musica ricercata” piano cycle. It is unsettling, perfectly mirroring the anxiety that builds within Bill. This is a perfect marriage of soundtrack to scene and kudos to music director Jocelyn Pook.

This is another peculiar situation that I have brought up in past years of the countdown. Eyes Wide Shut will be the only appearance of Stanley Kubrick in the entire series, yet there are definitely two other of his films that I prefer to this final effort. Oh well, this is a film that I am happy to include in the countdown, if for nothing else than to see how others react to it. It’s a polarizing film – not helped in the least by the way that it was marketed as something akin to a softcore porn – and I honestly never expected to grow into such a fan of it. It might not be the best work of Kubrick’s career, but it was a film worthy of serving as his final statement in cinema.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1999: As I said, a lot of critically acclaimed films from this year that I don’t care for – Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the Wachowski’s The Matrix, David Fincher’s (who I am a fan of) Fight Club. But there are still a number of others that I would single out as favorites from this year. I think that Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead is underrated in his overall body of work, and I particularly like the performance of Ving Rhames in this one. I also enjoy Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, even though it does at times feel a bit too formulaic. It still looks great and is an enjoyable mystery. Others I would acknowledge: The Insider (Michael Mann), Three Kings (David O. Russell), and, yes, also The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan). And of course, I already pointed out that my definite first runner-up in this year is Mendes’ American Beauty.


  1. Dave, it's interesting that you prefer two other Kubricks in this general period, but EYES WIDE SHUT is the one that makes the top spot. But the competition in 1999 is admittedly less acute. I'll admit that this filmdoes grow on you, and it is increasing in estimation as we move forward. Your exceptional essay does put the film in astute focus. Superb writing.

    My own #1 Film of 1999:

    Rosetta (Dardennes; France)


    The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami; Iran)
    Magnolia (Anderson; USA)
    Time Regained (Ruiz; France)
    Beau Travail (Denis; France)
    The Limey (Soderbergh; USA)
    All About My Mother (Almodovar; Spain)
    Election (Payne; USA)
    American Beauty (Mendes; USA)
    Mifune (Jacobsen; Sweden)
    Les Amants Criminels (Ozon; France)
    Boys Don't Cry (Pierce; USA)
    The Loss of Sexual Innocence (Figgis; USA)
    Mumford (Kasden; USA)
    The Straight Story (Lynch; USA)
    Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick; UK; USA)
    Girl on the Briadge (Leconte; France)
    The Cider House Rules (Hallstrom; USA)
    Titus (Taymour; USA)
    East is East (O'Donnell; UK)
    Sunshine (Szabo; Hungary)

  2. Nice writeup! Eyes Wide Shut is one of my very favorite films, a hauntingly poetic masterpiece and a fitting farewell from the great Kubrick.

    I go back in forth with this and Safe (Todd Haynes) as my favorite film from the 90's. Beau Travail (Claire Denis) would also be in the running for me.

    Nice blog, keep up the good work!

  3. Great review - I have actually seen this one but admit I found it confusing. After reading your review, I should give it another look.

    I'm one of those who thinks 1999 was a great year - my personal favourites are:

    Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese)
    Sweet and Lowdown (Allen)
    The Cider House Rules (Hallstrom)
    American Beauty (Mendes)
    Aimee & Jaguar (Färberbock)
    Magnolia (Anderson)
    The End of the Affair (Jordan)
    Being John Malkovich (Jonze)
    Topsy-Turvy (Leigh)
    Onegin (Fiennes)

    Glad to see you mention 'Bringing Out the Dead', Dave, as I think it's one of Scorsese's finest and it always seems to get overlooked. Does anybody else like Allen's 'Sweet and Lowdown'? I think both Sean Penn and Samantha Morton give such moving performances. Judy

  4. Dave, I share your opinion of the film completely. I've seen this film only once, a long time ago, and was primarily struck by the Alice in Wonderland like tone of the movie. It does portray creepily how men and women view each other, but it was the experience that hit me first.

    (I too love that ballroom sequence - a kind of tribute to Madame De, the film that Lyndon thematically takes off from.)

    Although I find many of these movies flawed now, I loved them when I watched them:

    American Beauty (Mendes)
    The Matrix (The Wachowskis)
    Being John Malkovich (Jonze)
    The Sixth Sense (Shyamalan)
    Bringing Out The Dead (Scorsese)
    Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick)
    Fight Club (Fincher)
    Sleepy Hollow (Burton)
    Sweet And Lowdown (Allen)
    The Green Mile (Darabont)
    The Straight Story (Lynch)
    Toy Story 2 (Lasseter)
    The Wind Will Carry Us (Kiarostami)
    My Best Fiend (Herzog)
    The Colour Of Paradise (Majidi)
    Rockford (Kukunoor)
    The Terrorist (Sivan)
    All About My Mother (Almodovar)
    One Day In The Life Of Andrei Arsenevich (Marker)

  5. Since I brought up that there were two other Kubricks I preferred to Eyes Wide Shut, even though I also love this one, and I'm in a list-making mood... here's how I would rank Kubricks personally:

    1. The Killing
    2. Dr. Strangelove
    3. Eyes Wide Shut
    4. Paths of Glory
    5. Full Metal Jacket
    6. The Shining
    7. Barry Lyndon
    8. 2001
    9. Spartacus
    10. Lolita
    11. A Clockwork Orange (assuming, of course, that I must include it in rankings... LOL!)

    I haven't seen Killer's Kiss, so that obviously was not included.

    Sam - Your #1 was one of the movies I probably needed to see before making a selection, but didn't get the chance. Plan to see it though.

    Drew - Thanks for stopping by! I have added a link to your blog, which looks great, and I'll be stopping by there in the future as well. Keep checking in on the countdown as we move through the remaining years.

    Judy - This is a weird film, for sure, and certainly isn't going to appeal to everyone. But I think it works as just a great mystery, which I'm always a sucker for.

    Just another film buff - Very good point about the Madame De connection... such a great scene.

  6. Dave – Interesting write up but this is one film, while I liked it and consider it one of the better films of the year, I did not find it satisfying, maybe because I still cannot figure out everything that goes on. My # 1 pick is “American Beauty” with “The Straight Story” a close second.

    # 1 American Beauty

    Best of the rest

    The Straight Story
    Boys Don’t Cry
    Eyes Wide Shut
    Being John Malkovich
    Topsy Turvy
    The Limey
    Sleepy Hallow
    Cider House Rules
    Bringing Out the Dead
    Sweet and Lowdown
    Three Kings
    The Insider

  7. Dave, my opinion of Eyes Wide Shut is colored by my feeling that it's an unfinished film, left "as is" upon Kubrick's death and not subjected to the preview and editing process he usually practiced. The film that exists definitely has its moments but often feels slack. It occupies a position near the rear of my own Kubrick list, but I'm probably overdue for a fresh examination of the film.

    There's a lot I liked from this year but it's hard to name one that dominated the field. A lot of the phenom films of the year (Matrix, Blair Witch, etc.) left me unimpressed, but I like the relentless pace and daring fantasy of Magnolia but the best performances of the year were Terrence Stamp's in The Limey and Reese Witherspoon's in Election. Overall I think I was most satisfied with The Limey, and here's what comes behind it:

    2. Magnolia
    3. Election
    4. Toy Story II
    5. The Wind Will Carry Us
    6. Summer of Sam (Spike Lee)
    7. The Talented Mr. Ripley
    8. Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf)
    9. The Straight Story
    10.Ride With the Devil (Ang Lee)

  8. Samuel - I can understand this feeling and I have even read things where Kubrick apparently was not pleased with where things were going with the editing anyway. I still think it works, but it's always interesting to ponder how Kubrick might have changed things if he had lived a bit longer.

    John - Can't argue with American Beauty at #1.

  9. Dave - I applaud your bold choice here. 1999 is considered a watershed year by many for all the up-and-coming auteurs who shined, but your pic of the last pic from a legendary auteur is certainly audacious.

    There were just so many quality films from '99 I find it hard to keep them straight but here's a top ten list anyhow:

    American Beauty
    Being John Malcovich
    The End of the Affair
    Fight Club
    The Limey
    Office Space
    The Straight Story
    Eyes Wide Shut

    Though easily upon more review, the following could've ended up there:

    Boys Don't Cry
    Sweet and Lowdown
    The Cider House Rules

  10. I have trouble with the year '99, which is when American cinema took an aesthetic shift which I'm not quite comfortable with. Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings, are all somewhat indicative of this shift (a focus on surfaces and slick, twisty narratives over humanism and romanticism, Hollywood standbys since the Golden Age). Even American Beauty I'm ambivalent about - it's a very entertaining film, and certainly very well controlled by Sam Mendes in his debut, but it strikes me as cold in a lot of ways, especially for a film which ostensibly documents a spiritual awakening.

    I very much like the left-field nature of your choice here. Not sure how I feel about the film yet; like apparently everyone else, one viewing was not enough to settle the tension between its intrigue and my doubts. This film, along with some other late Kubricks, sometimes makes me think that Kubrick was a genius who didn't always know what he was doing - a control freak who often made downright bizarre decisions that somehow work in spite of themselves, simply because his style is so hypnotic. A lot of these bizarre decisions revolve around studio shooting - from the Overlook exteriors to the English "Vietnam" to the New York nighttime streets in this movie, Kubrick is usually unable to create a convincing facsimile of his desired location. At times this results in a weird, pleasing ambience, at others it's just plain distracting. Performances are another issue ... Kidman has been praised for her work here, but I found her largely artificial and forced. I actually preferred Cruise's performance. Yet at times Kidman's intensity, however contrived, does set off sparks, so again maybe the approach was wise...

    Among other things, Eyes Wide Shut is so lush and rich to look at that it deserves a better reputation than it had. Great pick, and I look forward to the last decade of the countdown...

  11. MovieMan - "...sometimes makes me think that Kubrick was a genius who didn't always know what he was doing - a control freak who often made downright bizarre decisions that somehow work in spite of themselves..."

    I could definitely agree with this assessment, and that the result is that he is somehow able to craft hypnotic works out of these strange episodes. That's part of the appeal for me of this movie. It's obvious that the man making it was able to do whatever he wanted, but there's always that hanging question of exactly what he is wanting to do.

  12. I've been enjoying your reviews and countdown very much. This is the first time I've felt the need to comment.

    I'm really surprised that you don't like Fight Club. I'd be curious to know what you don't like about it? I've found it to be very multi-layered and I get something different from it each time I watch.

  13. Shoot, lost my message. Briefly, then: I'll go with The Virgin Suicides for '99 - a flawed film but an endlessly fascinating one. Some have it pegged as 2000, but I believe it made some festival appearances in 1999, so I'll peg it there for my own convenience.

  14. EYES WIDE SHUT will remain at the top. you have choose a right movie for intro.

  15. If anyone would ask me for seeing this movie I will say what are you waiting for just go and watch it. This movie will make you all think for hours. So be ready for that after seeing this movie.

  16. In re: Movie Man : American Beauty "Cold"???? My oh my.....But Eyes Wide Shut, THAT you find relatively full of warmth? I love Kubrick, he is my favorite director, along with Billy Wilder, John Huston,and Hitchcock, a few sentimental favorites aside (Friedkin, Coppola, Michael Curtiz, Jean Negulesco, and Welles of course). But I found EWS to be tedious, stiff, and tiresome. Tom Cruise was not up to this part at all--and I do see him as capable of depth as an actor, e.g. Rain Man---but he was not able to pull this off. This was a 19th Century story, essentially, where SEX is just so shocking. Well, in 1999, it is not that shocking anymore, Stanley. We've had had Tropic of Cancer, Bob Carol Ted & Alice, Last Tango, and 9 1/2 Weeks, so a high-class orgy is no big deal--and even that got censored!!! What a mess!!! I don't know, it bored me, especially once Nicole Kidman was out of the film. I thought it was his worst film, probably, just below The Shining. I liked the Shining a lot more, I have to say that. Coming up from the bottom, I would probably then put 2001. A beautiful movie--and one I've seen in Cinerama---and interesting, but also tedious for me. At the top, I think Strangelove and Paths of Glory reign supreme, followed closely by Full Metal Jacket, the Killing, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork. I love Spartacus and Lolita but I think these were not so much Kubrick films as much as they were movies Kubrick directed very well. Killer's Kiss, I like it, I don't know where to put it...certainly not too high.

    I think American Beauty was a marvelous movie, very deep, and very warm. Easily the best of this year, in my estimation. And I am not swayed by the Oscar thing, either. That means little to me. When Apocalypse Now can lose to Kramer v. Kramer, then Best Picture is nothing but a political football, and it is not about Art. But sometimes it is, and they got it right in 1999 at least. It is a very painful and very joyous movie, full of great performances, humor, and wonder. None of which takes place in EWS to any appreciable degree. I think I've watched it once since I saw it upon release; American Beauty I watch 2-3x a year. Harvey Canter Tarzana CA