Would you gamble everything for lust? Is thinking about infidelity as egregious an offence as the act itself? After all, faithfulness isn’t merely a construct of the physical world—our trust and respect goes beyond the exterior into the very fibers of our being to make the words “I’d never cheat on you” flow effortlessly and involuntarily from our lips even when thinking about the person we’d commit it with in a heartbeat. But lust clouds our judgment. It makes us do things we wouldn’t normally do. It allows for risk, our minds refusing to reconcile momentary pleasure against catastrophic consequences as libido takes control. It’s a drug that even the happiest of sexually active couples must combat because who doesn’t yearn for the unattainable in all things?
Want and desire are as commonplace as breath, our goals and aspirations forever pulling us forward on a trajectory we’d do anything to rise up rather than fall. We want the nice house. We crave the dream job. And we pine for the perfect spouse to build a family. Attaining these things isn’t some unwritten victory, however. On the contrary: to achieve one’s goals is to realize they were too low. Suddenly a new tier opens up for you to aspire towards. There are bigger houses, better paying jobs, and younger, more attractive partners who are willing if you are too. The only question we must therefore confront is the notion of when enough is enough. When is satisfaction enough to quell our appetite for more?
This is the question posed to both Dr. William (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) Harford in Stanley Kubrick‘s final masterpiece of psychological exploits, Eyes Wide Shut. Neither settled for the other, but who’s to say they didn’t merely unite for looks? An early debate gets their blood boiling about the idea that physical attraction will always be humanity’s first impression of a potential partner and the Harfords are nothing if not sexual creatures able to turn heads in a crowded room. They’ve been together for nine years, have a young daughter they cherish, and still crave the other’s touch. But what do we see besides manufactured smiles in public and seething anger in private when not joined in embrace? They’ve each become a prize dulled by time.
So they retreat within, enjoying the attention they command from strangers with nothing to lose and everything to give. Bill can be persuaded by a revolving door of fawning models undressing him with their eyes and is tempted by the perks of aristocracy his patient and fast friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) teases. Alice can be distracted by strength and confidence whether through fantasizing about a man in uniform she never met or one (Sky du Mont‘s Hungarian Sandor Szavost) she finds herself dancing with, the proposition for much more on the table to accept. These seemingly harmless diversions from their marital path conjure a fire they cannot achieve at home. Would they act on it? They don’t believe the other will, but they’re open to it themselves.
If plot summaries are correct, Eyes Wide Shut is a faithful adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler‘s novel of 1920s Viennese decadence Traumnovelle. He and co-writer Frederic Raphael shift the period to 1990s New York City, but the details and themes remain unchanged. The director acquired the rights in the 60s and almost began production a couple times before recruiting real life couple (at the time) Cruise and Kidman to bring his Harfords to life. The shoot was arduous, shrouded in secrecy, and lasted fifteen months from start to finish. Kubrick was always notorious for his perfectionism and it unsurprisingly took another nine months of post-production before he screened it for the studio. Less than a week later he would pass away, this divisive epic capping off his illustrious career.
For me it stands as an amalgam of his entire oeuvre from the Christmas-set natural lighting (Barry Lyndon) to the descent into paranoia (The Shining) to sexuality used as weapon (A Clockwork Orange) to the gorgeous cinematographic dolly shots holding mood and color above the actors within (2001: A Space Odyssey). The detail is immaculately orchestrated—forcing us to believe the at-times campy performances lend an intentional lilt of artifice to coincide with the film’s existence within a purgatory between reality and dream. Everything we see is a game Bill Harford must play to escape with his sanity let alone his life. Alice presents him a scenario where women lust as much as men and it drives him mad. It drives him into a hellish nightmare of temptation.
There’s hypocrisy to this adventure because he obviously doesn’t find fault with his own flirtations. Whether this is a result of an unwavering moral code to never go further or a damaging notion that men are “allowed” is up to you. But his need for vengeance is pure self-interest. If Alice could imagine throwing their life away for a single night’s tryst, why shouldn’t he enjoy one himself in the here and now? Bill feels betrayed. He feels justified to let himself be objectified. But when the opportunity presents itself, he isn’t quite ready to act. He’s a voyeur spying upon a world just out of reach—one of secret societies, masquerade orgies, and draconian rules wherein life is forfeit when not aligned. He doesn’t belong. Yet.
Enter a prostitute as unknowingly dangerous as the strangers she propositions (Vinessa Shaw‘s Domino). Enter a business owner (Rade Serbedzija‘s Milich) who can be bought at the price of his underage daughter (Leelee Sobieski) if the spoils are worth the trouble. Enter the innocently misguided love of an acquaintance (Marie Richardson‘s Marion) he sees as below his current status and the tragic existence of one above (Julienne Davis‘ Mandy). Enter an old friend arrived in a stroke of fate (Todd Field‘s Nick Nightingale) with the keys to opportunity. All these things tempt Bill into losing himself like a Ziegler would. They show him possibilities within his reach—a Pandora’s Box steeped in electricity as volatile as gratifying. Can he ignore the consequences? Will he bite the apple?
We watch him fall, the imagined affair his wife never had playing in his mind. It was just a thought, a desire. It’s not enough to throw everything away on his end until it becomes dream, dream an alternate reality he’ll never forget. Like a newspaper reads, Bill is ultimately “lucky to be alive” after a night of false starts and maybes both pleasurable and fatal. But the pain remains. The self-importance of his ego takes over and he tries again. He scratches at the surface of another life—one that can fulfill his fantasies but not his heart. The scales come out to balance the life he has, whether it’s forever or just now, against the possibility of immeasurable excitement at the cost of complete moral bankruptcy.
The film becomes a metaphorical two days of sexual frustration in search of a release that the Harfords keep postponing with hypotheticals and jealousy. Here are two creatures the world desires to be theirs and yet their own eyes stray. At times Kidman’s Alice peers to look at you watching while Cruise kisses and massages. We become voyeurs of their lives as celebrities just as their characters look upon the titillating potential of erotic adventure in corners we can’t even imagine. Their actions become dream, their nightmare our entertainment. Kubrick asks if we’re ready to experience it uncensored and unhinged by delivering kink, fetish, and criminal acts without the threat of personal suffering. He breathes life into our darkest ambitions, daring us to measure the cost of excess.