In this sinister erotic drama, the marriage of a wealthy New York couple, Alice (Nicole Kidman) and Bill (Tom Cruise), is put under strain when Alice reveals some of her deepest sexual desires. When Bill goes out for the evening he ends up embroiled in a dark and controlling sex cult.
Made in 1999, this is Kubrick’s final film which he finished shortly before his death and there are no signs of the quality declining with his health. The photography once again gives the impression of having an absolute attention to detail, which is probably true, given this film’s record continuous 15 month shoot.
The music is also noticeably brilliant, with Kubrick demonstrating both his brilliant ear for selecting classical music, in making Shostakovich’s Waltz No.2 the main theme, but also the simplicity of the scored music, building paranoia around an incredibly simple two note motif. It’s chillingly brilliant, but not a soundtrack you’d want on you iPod.
Also brilliant are the performances. These are some of the best performances from Cruise and Kidman I’ve ever seen and the only good Cruise performance I’ve seen where he doesn’t play an asshole. Ok, so his character in Eyes Wide Shut isn’t exactly Gandhi, but he’s not quite an asshole. They both demonstrate an impressive range and show brilliant onscreen chemistry, probably due to being a real life couple at the time.
For a frame of reference, this film is something like American Psycho meets The Shining. The American Psycho side of it is the idea that money can buy anything, from sex to power and secrecy, and the idea of a dark underbelly to the respectable veneer of the super rich. From The Shining comes many of the settings, in plush red surroundings. A scene at a ball, and another involving masks could almost be lifted straight from that film. Also from The Shining comes the sinister weirdness of it.
There remains a lot that is unexplained at the end of the film, as with much of Kubrick’s work, but it never feels like he’s just throwing ideas at you and making you do the work like David Lynch at his worst. Yes this film is strange, and yes a lot remains unexplained, but it also feels like you’ve watched a coherent film with a narrative and that there are answers out there if you watch it in the right way.
So what is it about? I’m not going to pretend I understood everything this film was about on a first viewing, but there is one theory I have which, while perhaps not right, is probably better than most of the theories about the meaning of The Shining in last year’s documentary Room 237. I think Kubrick may be saying Tom Cruise’s character Bill is gay. Hear me out.
Firstly, at no point in this film does Bill have sex. After Alice has upset him by telling him in detail about a sexual fantasy of hers, he is approached by a recently bereaved woman for sex. He declines. He then goes to a prostitute (clearly he intends to have sex at some point this evening) but can’t go through with it. He then goes to a sex party where he doesn’t have sex. Ok, so he was thrown out so it’s not his fault, but it’s not a good record so far.
Also, after he arrives he’s warned that he “can’t keep fooling everyone for long”, before being thrown out by the exclusive cult. Perhaps he’s not welcome at the party because he’s not attracted to the naked women who seem to be there for the pleasure of the men. The mask could represent his heterosexuality, which is why it’s on the bed next to his wife before he comes clean to her.
Not only this, but he never seems particularly interested in women. While Alice dances with a suitor at the opening ball, Bill is with a naked woman, but only in his capacity as doctor, treating her for an overdose. The events of the night when he seeks out sex, whether real or imagined, may simply be his final attempt to suppress his homosexuality.
Furthermore, we see Alice’s sexual fantasy enacted in detail in the mind of Bill, but we never see any fantasies of Bill’s. In the book, when Alice tells Bill her fantasy, Bill replies with one of his, but in the film this is completely removed.
But this isn’t all. There are two points where the character is thought to be gay by other people. The first occurs when he’s walking down the street and a group of burly men shout homophobic abuse at him. The second occurs when he goes in search of his pianist friend at a hotel. The hotel clerk is camp, and describes, with a knowing wink, the men who took the pianist away as “not the kind of man you want to fool around with if you know what I mean.” Clearly in both these incidents the character has been mistaken for gay. It’s so clear, in fact, that it’s a wonder the notoriously litigious actor allowed it to be in the film.
At the very end of the film, Bill comes clean to Alice, apparently about the events of the previous two days. We don’t see him explain what happened, however; we simply see him break down, then the aftermath: them both appearing to be upset. Perhaps he’s come clean to her about his sexuality following his night of trying to be heterosexual. In theor conversations they never reference any of the specific events of Bill’s night, and Alice concludes “we should be grateful we’ve managed to survive through all our…adventures.” Perhaps Bill has convinced her it’s a phase, or they’ve agreed to keep it secret.
Or perhaps not, but there’s certainly a lot to think about here, and isn’t that what counts?