No Dream Is Ever Just a Dream
On March 7th 1999, four days after screening his first cut of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) to stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (still married at the time) and Warner Brothers executives, director Stanley Kubrick died at the age of 70. Kubrick, of course, was long known for his perfectionist qualities, which often continued after a film made its theatrical debut. For instance, following its disastrous New York premiere, Kubrick trimmed nearly twenty minutes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). More than a decade later, after The Shining (1980) was in its general release for a week, Kubrick demanded the film’s original ending be revised. This said, as scholar Michel Chion asserts in his BFI monograph on Eyes Wide Shut, “It is highly likely that Kubrick would have made changes had he been able, but we must accept seeing this film as it was left after its director’s death.” Re-watching the film for the first time in maybe six years, I was still engrossed by its mysteries and its aesthetic beauty. Yet, for the first time, I felt confused by some of Kubrick’s formal choices. Perhaps part of this confusion was unintentional, as Chion notes. Yet, those inconsistencies are present in the text and they fundamentally altered the film for me upon review.
Kubrick’s film, an adaptation of a novella by Arthur Schnitzler entitled Traumnovelle (Dream Story), begins as a wealthy married couple, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), prepare to attend a Christmas party at the home of one of Bill’s patients, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). When they arrive, Bill is drawn away from his wife by Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), an old medical school acquaintance, now a jazz pianist. As the party progresses, Alice finds herself in the arms of a Hungarian man who attempts to seduce her while two young models try to do the same to Bill. Under the effects of marijuana the following night, Alice and Bill discuss their encounters with their would-be seducers. The conversation becomes confrontational when Bill assumes that Alice would never cheat on him, simply because women are hard-wired into marital lives that command commitment and security. Alice, angered by Bill’s assumption, confesses that she once considered cheating on him and leaving their lives together simply because of a glance she once shared with a naval officer.
After Alice’s confession, the phone immediately rings, drawing the confused and bitter Bill out onto the night-shrouded streets of New York City. He is instantly propelled on a sexual odyssey that includes such highlights as a run in with a prostitute (Vinessa Shaw) and an un-invited trip to a Venetian masked-orgy. When Bill refuses to leave the orgy, he is threatened by a mysterious man in a red cloak. Before Bill can be harmed, a mysterious woman steps forward and “redeems” him. The next morning, Bill discovers that his friend Nick, who informed him about the orgy, has disappeared and that the body of a woman, who shares a striking physical resemblance to the one who saved him at the orgy, is in the morgue. Were the events of the following night real or just a nightmare? What possible consequences will they have, as a dream or as reality, when Bill returns home to Alice? That question is the preoccupation at the heart of Kubrick’s final film.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Eyes Wide Shut from the perspective of this retrospective is that it, as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in his review, “isn’t a film of the 90s in most respects but something closer to what movies at their best used to be.” While Rosenbaum’s comment is drawn from his description of the film’s aesthetic attributes (specifically its old-fashioned sound track, the grainy photography, and exquisite color balances), I would tend to place it in the domain of the old fashioned via two other characteristics: the film’s ambiguity and moral viewpoint. The film’s ambiguity stems from the question of what, exactly, is the nature of Bill’s journey? Is it a dream or is it reality? The film, both to its credit and to a degree of weakness, tries to play it both ways. For instance, Bill’s odyssey begins with an encounter that seems to take place in a parallel universe. He is beckoned the house of a patient who passed away in his sleep and tries to comfort the patient’s grieving daughter, Marion (Marie Richardson). As their encounter progresses, Marion reveals that she has wanted to give up her life to be with Bill, just as Alice confessed in the previous scene. As Chion has shown, Kubrick enhances this thematic echo visually with two virtually identical steadicam shots, the first framing Bill, the second framing Marion’s boyfriend (who looks a lot like Tom Cruise’s Bill).
Bill’s encounters get more surreal as the evening progresses. First, nearly every woman Bill meets offers herself up to him. Men, on the other hand, react to Bill with either homophobia or sexual attraction (as Alan Cumming’s hotel desk clerk does). Secondly, there are odd repetitions foregrounded in the film. For instance, during Ziegler’s party, the two models attempting to seduce Bill tell him that they want to take him where “the rainbow ends.” Later, when Bill needs a costume to attend the orgy, the shop is coincidentally called “Rainbow Fashions.” Finally, to draw off Chion’s analysis once again, characters engage in minimalist dialogue, often parroting one another to a comical and, sometimes, frustrating degree:
[At Ziegler’s Party.]
MODEL: Where the rainbow ends.
BILL: Where the rainbow ends?
[During Bill and Alice’s argument.]
BILL: What did he want?
ALICE: What did he want Oh… What did he want.
[During the orgy.]
RED CLOAK: The password for the House.
BILL: The password for the house?
Through the dialogue, the mirroring compositions, the stylized lighting (Christmas lights, like candles in Barry Lyndon, seem to provide the lighting for every scene); we are pressed to read Bill’s odyssey as a sexual nightmare. Yet, as noted above, Kubrick does not relay to us where reality ends and dream begins, producing a film that wants to have it both ways.
Watching the film the first couple of times, I felt that the party sequence was real and the events between either Bill and Alice’s lovemaking (emphasized by an ellipsis) or her revelation and his confession to her upon returning home and finding the mask on the bed (again emphasized by an ellipsis) were a dream. How else could you justify the ambiguity of the woman that “redeems” Bill at the orgy? Specifically, the film, via both voice-over and a dialogue exchange, attempts to relay to us that it is the same woman Bill saved from an over-dose at Ziegler’s party. However, that woman had crimson hair and the one who sacrifices herself for Bill has dark blond hair (we also see her talking to the red headed woman, presumably the one Bill saved, in one scene). Are they the same woman? The sequence does not make any logical sense when categorized as reality, hence my temptation to read it as a fantasy. Yet, if we are to take the formal devices of parroted dialogue and stylized lighting as indicators of something other than reality, we notice that they both appear before the “dream” begins.
Finally, if Bill’s odyssey is a dream, how is he privy to an omniscient point-of-view? Specifically, in the final act of the film, Kubrick shows us Bill’s missing mask on a pillow next to Alice’s sleeping face. Yet, Bill has yet to realize where he left it, let alone enter the room. If it is his dream, which would make it a subjective experience, this objective shot seems strikingly out of place. Obviously, the line between dream and reality is fuzzy in Eyes Wide Shut, which I appreciate intellectually to a point but also find maddening (For the record, I would not prefer a formal device as obvious as a shot of Bill falling asleep. I would have been happy with something far more subtle.). As James Naremore writes in his study of Kubrick, “These repetitions and transformations [in Eyes Wide Shut] create a problem of interpretation.” Essentially, the spectator is left in an unresolved state of ambiguity. As I said earlier, Rosenbaum was discussing aesthetics as marking the film as not being from the 90s. Yet, I find the film’s ambiguity as not being characteristic of the films of that decade (with the notable exception of films of the American independent cinema movement) but much more in line sensibilities of European art cinema of the 60s and 70s.
Finally, the overall moral message of the film does not share the belief and value system of the late 90s. While it is rather progressive of the film to acknowledge that Alice is a sexual creature and that love may not last “forever,” she is viewed by her husband in an oddly Victorian fashion, unwaveringly faithful. Moreover, despite the abundance of nudity and the controversy surrounding the orgy sequence (it was once censored thanks to the strategic placement of digital fig leaves), the sex depicted within it is surprisingly abstract.
The orgy is not sensual; the music and camera’s spatial distance from, for lack of a better word, the action does not allow the viewer to become enticed. Finally, the end exchange between Alice and Bill is telling with regard to the film’s morality:
ALICE: Then we have to do something very important.
BILL: What’s that?
ALICE: We need to fuck.
Thus, in the end, the film suggests that the couple’s sexual fantasies can be assimilated into their relationship. Instead of fucking the naval officer or a masked woman at an orgy, Alice and Bill can fuck one another, treasuring fidelity, even if it isn’t immortal in the end. This ending is not of the contemporary period with regard to two respects. First, the morality of the message seems reactionary. Secondly, Kubrick refuses to give both the on-screen couple and the audience a traditional happy ending. As Naremore writes, “Whatever optimism there might be in the last scene is extremely hard won, and the film has the courage to leave its characters relatively unchanged…Tomorrow and the next day they will have similar adventures, which they may or may not survive.” Thus, there is a complex tension in the fílm’s resolution, adding a second layer of uncertainty and ambiguity, making it more reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films of the 1960s than 1999’s seventh highest-grossing film, Notting Hill (1999).
A Hilarious Note of Coincidence: Following my viewing of Eyes Wide Shut on Thursday night, I found myself in the midst of the latest episode of “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update.” I was shocked when Bill Hader’s James Carville went on a rant about the film. You can see the clip here, but make sure to fast-forward to roughly 2 minutes from the end.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.