Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

The Sexual, Conspiratorial Farce of 'Eyes Wide Shut'

Fun fact: Steve Martin was supposed to star in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. (Yes, that Steve Martin.)

In his biography Kubrick, Michael Herr writes: “Stanley thought it would be perfect for Steve Martin. He’d love The Jerk… I know that his idea for it in those days was always as a sex comedy, but with a wild and somber streak running through it.” When Kubrick finally made the film over a decade later, it appeared as though any chance of a “sex comedy” had gone out the window with the casting of 1990s power couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in the lead roles.

Based on the 1926 Austrian novella Traumnovelle (also known as Dream Story), Eyes Wide Shut follows Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) as he attempts a sexual odyssey through New York after the shocking reveal that his wife Alice (Kidman) had contemplated an affair a year earlier. While it’s interesting to wonder how the Steve Martin iteration might have turned out, the actual Eyes Wide Shut proves to be as dark and comedic a as Kubrick’s recognizable comedies (Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, respectively), albeit with a far more self-serious tone.

In a sense, Eyes Wide Shut is a fish out of water comedy — just one where the fish is always trying (and failing) to have sex. Throughout the film, Dr. Bill finds himself out of his element. Whether he’s interacting with an orgy cult leader or a hotel clerk, Dr. Bill always ends up the submissive one, scrambling for any leverage.

Kubrick might have watched titillating thrills like Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction as research for his film, but only so he could note what depravity he could get away with under an R rating. The film’s treatment of sex is just as clinical and removed as any of Kubrick’s subjects; however, when that treatment is applied to something as ridiculous as masquerade cult orgy, one can’t help but laugh.

Given the conspiracy to which Kubrick himself has been attached, perhaps the director saw Eyes Wide Shut as his opportunity to mock such conspiratorial thinking. When Dr. Bill tries to confront Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and accuses him and his cabal of murder, Ziegler responds with righteous indignation:

Okay Bill, let's cut the bullshit, alright? You've been way out of your depth for the last 24 hours! You want the truth? You want to know what kind of charade? I'll tell you exactly what kind. That whole play-acted, "take me" sacrifice that you've been jerking off with had nothing to do with her real death. The truth is, nothing happened to her after you left that hadn't happened to her before. She got her brains fucked out. Period!

Yes, Dr. Bill infiltrated a secret organization of Stonecutter proportions. (Ziegler tells him: ”If I told you their names… no, I'm not going to tell you their names… but if I did, I don't think you'd sleep so well at night.”) But to accuse them of murder? That’s as ridiculous as saying The Shining is Kubrick’s confession of his involvement in faking the moon landings.

Eyes Wide Shut ends on a brilliant comic beat as the ridiculousness of the film comes crashing down into a one-word solution offered up by Dr. Bill’s wife as a salve for their marriage:


That word not only sums up Eyes Wide Shut, or even Kubrick’s filmography, but possibly the entirety of human existence. I mean…fuck. What a way to go out, Stan.

Justin Geldzahler has this theory that if you play Eyes Wide Shut in sync with Dark Side of the Moon, you’ll look like an idiot.

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  • http://twitter.com/blexmx BLEX

    Glad it didn't turn out to be a Steve Martin sex comedy. I really liked the thriller aspect. Felt very much like a Polanski film. 

  • comfortablesilence

    That was pretty um, truncated.

  • http://twitter.com/yellojkt Yellojkt

    I always thought most people didn't 'get' what Kubrick was going for. And now I don't think Cruise and Kidman did either.

  • Velvet Knapsack

    Parties like this do go on in New York.  I've been to them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Goto-Tengo/100002594966860 Goto Tengo

    That the protagonist is a ridiculous figure is very much part of the source material, and the bumbling persona of a lot of Steve Martin movies is why he might have been such a good fit. That the entire tone of the movie shifted may well have been earlier than the casting of the leads.

    A quote from the original novella after the encounter with the students gives an idea of the comic haplessness of the Bill (originally Fridolin) of the book:

    "He now felt his heart beat just as it had at that time. What is this? he asked himself angrily, and now noticed that his knees were shaking a little. Coward – ? Nonsense! he answered himself. Should I go and confront a drunken student, I, a man of thirty-five, a practicing physician, married, and the father of a child! Formal challenge! Witnesses? Duel! And in the end get a cut on my arm and be unable to work for a few weeks because of such a stupid affair? Or lose an eye? Or even get blood poisoning – ? He had fought three saber duels and had even been ready to fight a duel with pistols; it wasn’t his doing that the matter had been called off amicably at the end. And his profession! There were dangers, everywhere, anytime – one just usually forgot about them. Why, how long was it since that child with diphtheria had coughed in his face? Only three or four days, no more. That was a much more dangerous thing than a little fencing match with sabers."

    There's a long, long, overlong look at the ridiculousness of this character of the book in a site I'm somewhat associated with. Possible link pimping (which might warrant removal):


  • Kungfoochimp

    Inner party

  • http://twitter.com/hoffmann74 Mike Hoffmann

    Yes! I've been arguing for years that Eyes Wide Shut is a comedy about a guy who, no matter how hard he tries, can't get laid.