The Last Picture Show: Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, by Craig Schroeder
The Last Picture Show is a recurring Battleship Pretension column that reviews and examines the last films of a given director, actor, cinematographer, etc. as a means of exploring their filmography as a whole.
When Stanley Kubrick died in March of 1999, there would be little doubt as to his legacy as a fastidious cinematic intellect, a director whose oeuvre could and will inspire, teach and influence directors for the remainder of the medium’s existence. Completed mere days before his death, Eyes Wide Shut would be Kubrick’s swan song, a controversial film that is the assured culmination of a career that redefined filmmaking time and time again.
Eyes Wide Shut—Kubrick’s first film in twelve years, following Full Metal Jacket’s 1987 release—is, in itself, an oddity (by casting Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in an erotic film about desire and betrayal, Kubrick certainly recognized and leaned into the idea that the film would be a meta commentary on tabloid culture and the nature of celebrity). Based on the novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler—the film retrofits the novella’s turn of the century Vienna setting into modern day Manhattan—Eyes Wide Shut is a disjointed sojourn, meandering through a series of vignettes wherein Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) encounters social elites, prostitutes, musicians and coroners while exploring the outer limits of his sexuality and morality. Known to make both odyssean epics (Spartacus and 2001: A Space Odyssey) and films in which the narrative splits at the seams (Full Metal Jacket, A Clockwork Orange), Eyes Wide Shut is a combination of both, at once a sprawling epic and a meditative journey that eats its own tail, in the most Kubrickian sense of the idiom.
If there is a dominant theme that can be run through Kubrick’s filmography, tying his films together as a singular entity, it’s cynicism. Whether aimed at the government (Dr. Strangelove), war (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket), the perversity of machismo (take your pick), life or the meaning thereof (2001: A Space Odyssey), Kubrick’s cynicism paired with his unparalleled eye for aesthetics, mutated his films into meticulous paradoxes, depicting the ugliest parts of humanity as decadent fever dreams. Perhaps his most meticulously composed film, Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s vision of modern love, romance and sex in a barbaric, hateful world.
Rodney Ascher’s 2012 film Room 237—a documentary exploring several of the many conspiracy theories surrounding The Shining—highlights just how many steps ahead Kubrick was from his audience, inventing new tricks (i.e. the impossible window and the ever changing layout of the Overlook Hotel) to mold the audience’s frame of mind. And while Eyes Wide Shut isn’t as dense with his sleight of hand tricks, the film is consistent with Kubrick’s ability to sculpt the minds of a malleable audience. Two sets of gorgeous tracking shots illustrate just how influential his meticulous staging, lighting and framing were to his films. The first occurs early in the film, at an upscale Christmas party. The camera follows Dr. Harford through a number of rooms, each backlit in yellow or shades of soft multicolored haze (Kubrick had great fun with the neon glow of Christmas lights). The camera and Dr. Harford are aimless as they navigate through the party, seemingly floating through a dream world that’s grounded in reality. Conversely, when Dr. Harford sneaks his way into an orgy held by a group of masked (and possibly dangerous) elites, Kubrick shifts to heavy shadows, illuminating only what need be seen in shafts of light. The exquisite tracking shots continue but aren’t as circuitous; as Dr. Harford makes his way through a bizarre erotic showcase of sexual decadence, the camera moves with more purpose and far less fluidity than earlier in the film. The color palette has changed inside the mansion. Instead of the hazy soft light of the world outside, the manor is monochromatic, punctuated with violent shades of black and red. Whereas the world outside of the orgy appears real but feels like a dream, inside the mansion, the universe looks like a nightmare but feels all too real.
Eyes Wide Shut remains a divisive film, with its fair share of critics who accuse the movie of being indulgent and far too grim. And for a filmmaker whose muse was unrelenting cynicism, this may be his most cynical film. But behind the cynicism and ugliness is a greater definition of the world at large. How much ugliness has been mitigated by Kubrick’s willingness to expose the machinations behind it? Kubrick made heist films, war movies, comedies, tragedies, period dramas, horror and science-fiction, all of them with their distinct worlds that exist as a part of the bigger universe of his filmography (with the exception of the 1955 noir outing Killer’s Kiss, a film that feels stilted and unoriginal). There are few working directors capable of transitioning genre and tone with the ease of Stanley Kubrick (Scorsese and the Coen Brothers are the most obvious directors carrying this torch). And Eyes Wide Shut feels like the culmination of a career spent telling stories of every stripe; it’s at once horrifying, sexy and thrilling and it explores a world that is unlike anything that could exist outside the mind of Stanley Kubrick.