Nov 10 2011 4:00pm

“No Dream Is Ever Just A Dream”: Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick’s contributions to science fiction: Eyes Wide Shut

When watching Eyes Wide Shut the other night — an experience I did not enjoy — it occurred to me that over the years my assessment of it as a movie has jumped all over the place. I’ve ardently defended it as an underrated masterpiece, reluctantly classified it as a misfire from one of my favorite directors, and numerous points in between. Almost nothing in its entire two hours and forty minutes is literally happening, and the audience is given very little warning that this is so, which means if anyone ever invents the genre “stealth fantasy,” Eyes Wide Shut will be its Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s a movie far more enjoyable to ponder and discuss than it is to watch, though not without some excellent moments.

I do suspect that, even viewed through the most generous prism, it’s more of a critics’ movie than it is for general audiences. This isn’t to say that a non-critic watching a movie can’t approach it analytically, more to say that the average person lured into the theater with the promise of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in some big sex movie probably isn’t going to know — or care — that the reason the movie’s pace is a little off is because Stanley Kubrick hadn’t quite finished fine-tuning the editing before he died, or that the novel it’s ostensibly based on, Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, is actually the story that’s dreamed by Tom Cruise for 90% of the movie, presuming of course that this hypothetical audience member even knows — or cares — who Schnitzler was.

I do care about Eyes Wide Shut, because, although not by design of course, it’s the last picture one of America’s greatest filmmakers made. This is why it annoys me a bit when people tear it to shreds for things like not being a realistic portrayal of New York, even though the contrast of the second unit footage of the actual New York with Kubrick’s deliberately unrealistic sets really underscores that point. If Kubrick had survived to make a few more tweaks to the editing, I think it would have been a bit clearer that everything in the movie from when Tom Cruise takes the phone call in the middle of the argument with Nicole Kidman (the argument where it takes Nicole Kidman twenty times longer to say her lines than any human being has ever taken to say the equivalent number of words) to the very end when they take their daughter shopping in FAO Schwartz takes place inside Tom Cruise’s mind. The movie is, after all, based on a book called “Dream Story,” and most of that last conversation between Tom Cruise and the slow-motion Nicole Kidman is concerned with dreams. That part is fairly easy to sort out.

Stanley Kubrick’s contributions to science fiction: Eyes Wide Shut

The problem is the other two-plus hours of the movie. Even if we take as a given that criticizing the realism of the events that unfold is beside the point because it’s a dream, we’re still left with the problem of it not being a terribly interesting dream. Tom Cruise’s character, Bill Harford, is a doctor to the extremely wealthy, whose patients regard him as a friend or even family. That this happened over a presumably very short period of time isn’t necessarily a problem. Maybe he’s just that good.

The problem arises with the impetus of his extended dream sequence: the discovery that his wife (Nicole Kidman, his wife in real life as well at the time) has fantasized sexually about someone other than him. I know a lot of men find this shocking, but think about it: if women didn’t have sex, how were you born? “Yeah, but I don’t like thinking about it” is not an excuse. Finding out your wife had a hot sex fantasy about a sailor — dude, seriously, a man in uniform? Of course she wanted to hit it, grow up — does not in any way justify going out, nailing hookers, and infiltrating Freemason orgies. Now, to Eyes Wide Shut’s credit, it doesn’t try to sell us on the idea that any of those things Bill does are justified, but even in his dark sexual revenge fantasies....he never even gets laid! He stops himself before he sleeps with a pretty and friendly young streetwalker, just as he stops himself before getting freaky with the Freemasons (or whoever they are; maybe they’re those swingers from The Da Vinci Code?).

Stanley Kubrick’s contributions to science fiction: Eyes Wide Shut

Even the non-sexual aspects of his fantasy have an oddly anachronistic feel to them, from the idea of a musician who can’t get a gig in Seattle in the 1990s (an idea roughly akin to a plastic surgeon being unable to make ends meet in Los Angeles), to sports bars with maitre ’d’s, to the idea that every customer service person in New York City is a flirtatious English person (well, that one just feels like the movie was shot in England). Again, setting aside the realism issue, since this is a dream, there’s a generally old-fashioned feel to all of Bill’s interactions with people that make it feel like Bill is a very old man interacting with the modern world for the first time in about fifty years.

That is the biggest problem Eyes Wide Shut has. If Kubrick had made this same movie in 1969 with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie with no changes other than letting Julie Christie talk like a normal human being — seriously, I want to know what kind of horribly wrong line notes Kubrick gave to Nicole Kidman, it takes her five minutes to complete one sentence — it would have been revolutionary. Thirty years on, though, it’s an extremely well-photographed if structurally loose meditation on the importance of honesty in marriage with a lot of odd touches that distract from the picture’s point.

One thing I must say I was pleased to note, revisiting Eyes Wide Shut, is that Tom Cruise is really quite good in the lead. It’s his focused, completely committed performance that keeps Bill’s weirdly anachronistic fussiness about his wife being a sexual being from seeming utterly absurd. He almost, almost, convinces the audience that he’s simply a sheltered innocent. The problem is, the whole rest of the movie is working against him, and it takes entirely too long to make the ultimate point about the importance of both fantasy and honesty to a marriage that it does.

For Kubrick completists and critics, Eyes Wide Shut is essential. For anyone else, it’s less so. Its squeamishness about sex in general and kink in particular make me impatient, and Kubrick’s detachment from the modern world was showing, more to the detriment of this movie than any of his others. Still, for all the frustration it causes, it’s an ambitious, extremely well-made movie, a necessary caveat to any complaints about it being painful to sit through, which is itself a necessary caveat to any assessment of it as being ambitious and well-made. It’s, accidentally, a fair summation of Kubrick’s entire career: hard to pin down and, for better or worse, completely his.

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to and

This article is part of Kubrick’s SFF: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Joseph Kingsmill
1. JFKingsmill16
This movie should never have been made. I have watched it a few times and IMO it is awful and I want the time I spent watching it back plus interest.
2. JoeNotCharles
JFKingsmill16 @1: Your opinion is objectively false.
3. Kadere
I must advise you watch any of the special features on either the dvd or the blu-ray where everyone discusses the film and what Kubrick was trying to say. You've completely missed every point. This whole article is so ridiculous, and completely misses the point of every scene, that I wonder if you know anything at ALL about Kubrick films.
4. tree_and_leaf
@ Kadere - if you have to watch the special features to understand it, then I'm inclined to say it's not actually that well-made a move.
Danny Bowes
5. DannyBowes
@ Kadere - I'm interested, having seen the same special features you have, to know specifically where you think I went wrong. This isn't snark, I'm genuinely curious if I've made factual errors or if we've simply interpreted the movie differently.
Joseph Kingsmill
6. JFKingsmill16
@JoeNotCharles - Enlighten me... How can an opinion be false?
7. mpappas
Always found the movie watchable and an interesting end to Kubrick's career. So I will leave the debate alone. I will say that I typically avoid discussion pages altogehter but find the TOR threads to actually be worthwhile.
Harry Burger
8. Lightbringer
I didn't get that the whole orgy/dead hooker plot was a dream at all. It almost makes me want to see it again, but not enough to pay for it.
9. mordicai
Mostly it just makes me want to go back to Sleep No More.
Benjamin Klein
10. benjaminsa
I have hated every Kubrick movie I have watched. It is not that I cannot see the mastery, nor understand, on some level, the genious of the films he made, I can. I just hate the films. Really really hate them. Eyes wide shut was just another one that I gritted my teeth through cursing myself for getting sucked in again.

I do appreciate the analysis though, makes me feel a little better that I at least get something interesting to read out of the experience.
11. sammyboy
Eyes Wide Shut is so misunderstood. It's also quite complex and has many themes, ideas and layers to it which takes more than one viewing. If you dismiss it as rubbish then you are an idiot and have comprehended it terribly. This film makes a very important statement on many things on not only sexual jealousy/fantasy, fear, guilt, intrigue and so on but human nature itself. Open your mind and you will learn how to appreciate it for what it is
12. confused
I don't really see why you went off on the whole thing about Kubrick being an old fuddy-duddy and the main character being horrified at the idea of his wife as a sexual being, and "how do you think children are conceived, then?". He doesn't balk at the idea of her enjoying sex - he balks at the idea of her enjoying sex with other men. There is a huge gulf between these two concepts and I struggle to understand why you seem to think that the latter implies the former.
13. Jeremiah W
Nice overview of the film. For those interested in learning more about the movie, check out this interpretation of the meaning of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Apparently there is historical significance to the masks in the party scene, which you mention here.
14. claaa7
personally i think that this is truly a great movie which i, unlike you, always find myself extremely drawned into whenever i watch it. Tom Cruise's understated, even repressed, performance is perfect for the role imo. what i most like about it however is the atmospheric mood that fills the whole film - a creeping, mysterious, and dreamlike tone that is underscored by the beautiful set designs and arrays of christmas trees and lights.

the way that Kubrick translated the book from 1920s Germany to 1990s new new york while keeping pretty much all the major events in the story is very strange though, i agree with that. yet to me it doesn't at all bother me, it is almost like Bill had read "Dream Story" before bed and in his dreams his feelings about Alice is being interwoven with scenes from the book...

last but not least, the climax of the film, which comes in the middle rather than at the end, is one of the most masterful pieces of cinema i have ever seen. the way Kubrick combines music, images, and symbolism in the mansion orgy sends chills up my spine every time and is more truly chilling than 99% of the bs that pass as horror movies and thrillers.
15. slidr02
In my opinion, it's pretty clear the over-arching point of the movie is the question "is fidelity limited to reality?"

Kubrick made the "password," or the key, "fidelio" which means faithfulness.

Throughout the movie, both Bill and Alice cheat on each other in every way possible without actually commiting the act. Alice cheats on Bill in her dreams in the worst ways possible, and Bill is thrown into a sea of lust in real life, and wants to cheat in the worst ways, but never commits the actual act.

Yes, there is a plethora of symbolism that goes beyond this as with any Kubrick film, but I think that question is the primary point of this work.

At the end, Bill and Alice decide they have "survived" because the act didn't really happen, and they will dismiss these thoughts and move on. But I think Kubrick's point is that the metaphysical thought of infedelity is as real as the physical act to the mind, and is therefore just as real in effect -- but as a society, we only see the physical act as the fault.

Should that be the case? Is the act of infidelity permissible if it wasn't commited it in real life? Put another way, is it permissible if the act was commited in thought only; with eyes wide shut? Kubrick gives closure to the film relationship by showing Bill and Alice settle this on the fact that the act didn't actually happen, but he also shows that the act happening in thought only still has real effects -- and this leaves the viewer with a question they get to answer for themselves.

Amazing movie.

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