The Final Christmas Film: 23 Years of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

‘Tis the season of chills and questionable decisions which saw its cinematic peak with Stanley Kubrick’s haunting final ode to cinema: Eyes Wide Shut.

On paper, it’s a smorgasbord of film noir-psychological horror-soft porn-marital drama-surreal oddity-gritty thriller and, of course, a dysfunctional love story. Underneath, every layer mentioned is scarily intertwined and screams at the anonymous. Bashed and adored equally, a cult favourite and often rated as the late maestro’s most divisive work, this one-of-a-kind Christmas film remains a cult classic for the ages – be it the taboo subject or the behind-the-screen dramas that unfolded with its starlet protagonists.

The film is based on a German novella from 1926 called Traumnovelle (Dream Story) which focuses on a man in Vienna who finds out his wife has fantasies of other men. He then goes on a two-day journey dealing with personal realisations about sex, individualism and morality.

Kubrick’s take featured Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as the main couple in the story as Bill and Alice Harford and takes place around Christmas. While the rest of Kubrick’s filmography explores topics like free will, conformity and class privilege, Eyes Wide Shut takes on society’s dehumanisation of sex.

For Bill and Alice, sex and temptation is all around them but they have eyes only for each other. When Alice admits that she considered having an affair with a handsome naval officer a year earlier, and Bill’s whole world goes topsy turvy. He then begins a night-long journey to explore and possibly give in to his own temptations, stumbling upon a secret society participating in a masked orgy and several hard to embroil instances which threaten his sanity and existence.

The story is idiosyncratic and winding, enhancing the dreamlike quality of filmmaking that takes influence from the original Dream Story. Throughout the night, Bill meets random strangers who attempt to lure him into sexual activities. While he almost gives in a few occasions, he makes it through the encounters until he gets to the main event – and orgy held by a secret society. The scene has been described as “the fulcrum” of Eyes Wide Shut, as sex is generally the most intimate means of human interaction, yet here it has transcended to a ritualistic, religious and creepy form of gratification. Anonymity is cherished, but intimacy is overshadowed by isolation and vacancy of emotion.

The film heavily becomes an addiction, with its operatic background score and eerily mannered dialogue and delivery. Several early reviews described Eyes Wide Shut as an “erotic thriller” and “sexual odyssey”, with the inevitable labels of “infidelity”,”surrealism”, “paranoia” and “guilt”. Sex is indeed a de facto protagonist in the film, but just as significant are the subjects of capitalism, the elite’s of the world, and powerful secret bodies with undisputed rules and codewords. There’s a very odd quality of transtextuality to this film wherein close examination of any aspect results in a rabbit hole maze of cryptic symbolism, bizarre linkages, and cross-references to other elements within the film, other works of art, and real life- a very meta piece of creation. Countless details initially pass unnoticed, only for deeper contemplation to unveil profoundly resonant interconnectedness.

Upon its much talked about release in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut has since garnered considerable interest albeit the opinions often remained at poles. Few days after completing the final cut, Kubrick died of a heart attack at age seventy at his home near London, England.

Eyes Wide Shut’s satire is hard to define. Is it a parody of a pornographic film, of sex and power in Hollywood? An ironic take on the erotic thriller genre, festive films, murder mystery or film noir? It has been termed as an anti-capitalist holiday classic by the devotees. Meant to manipulate its audience into a false sense of security with its translucent ambience – the relationship between the film and the most cheerful time of the year might seem odd and entirely out of sync. The film appears to blur the thin line between fantasy and reality while ranting on the veiled depravity of societal elites, on sexual repression, on old money versus new money and on evil authoritarian culture.

The orgy taking place during this very time is symbolical, given its hypnotic chants and the stringent regulations- as if Kubrick is mocking the fallacies of religious gatherings. By using Christmas as its backdrop, Eyes Wide Shut’s narrative runs parallel to a different, though similarly ominous, cult.

Two extravagant Christmas scenes are sighted in parallel: first, the grand holiday party thrown by Bill’s wealthy patient Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack); and finally, the Harfords following their daughter Helena (Madison Eginton) around a toy store while she picks Christmas gifts. All the while, the manufactured magnificence of Christmas permeates every scene – except, that is, within the cult, where the only flashy decorations are the claret hues of the carpeting and the ominous masks, and the cult leader’s cloak. The contrast is striking when the outside world is already swathed in the drapery of one form of zealous, ritualistic worship.

Kubrick took reference from Blume in Love: “A love story for guys who cheat on their wives.” Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were a married couple in real life, both absolute Hollywood superstars and sex symbols — which contributes to the brilliance of their casting and the film’s metacinematic (i.e. metafictional) qualities. Both being well-known Scientologists propagates the film’s commentary on wealthy powerful cliques. Cruise admitted at one point that it would have been troublesome for the couple to be in the film if they were in the early part of their marriage because of the sensitive issues around infidelity, monogamy and sex that the film addresses. They separated a year after Eyes Wide Shut debuted, and divorced shortly thereafter. It has been speculated that Kubrick shot a separate elongated sequence for Kidman’s erotic dream where Cruise was not allowed to be present while filming. Kubrick also held sessions for Kidman and encouraged her to take firm decisions on her rocky marriage. It would be a vantage point to what extent the film impacted the power couple’s separation, as the mood and theme associated are uncannily suggestive.

Kubrick was a dedicated chess player and he incorporated that sneaky manipulative side effortlessly in his films. He didn’t owe his audience more than what he deemed enough – he made works of art to be dissected and discussed, not mere crowd-pleasing entertainment to be simply consumed and agreed upon. This arrogance is most prominent in Eyes Wide Shut.

Tom Cruise, already then a Hollywood heartthrob, gets obliterated in Kubrick’s script – his anxiety of committing infidelity gets multiplied with random insults and digs by strangers and eventually leads him to a vortex of paranoia and delusion. Kubrick dethrones his main protagonist with utmost audaciousness. Simultaneously, he triumphs Kidman’s Alice while keeping her absent from the street drama that unfolds – that’s Kubrick’s genius and makes the film a revelation in character study.

The film paints a poignant parallel: Bill, coming clean with the burden of his secrets and opening himself up to Alice, remains trapped in another way of consuming guilt. Alice is trapped inner doubts and insecurities. Both are trapped by a society controlled by elites, and by financial flexing, and hedonism, and ho-ho-hos. Kubrick’s ultimate tribute to Christmas is possessed by mythical dark cloaks and eternal conundrums.

Rajanmoy Adhikary is pursuing a Film and TV essentials scholarship course from Yellowbrick/NYU in association with Indiewire and aspiring to be a feature writer for films/TV.