Those in search of non-standard Christmas movies to watch this holiday season will have long since tired of hearing recommendations of Die Hard. While the cop-versus-terrorists hit that made Bruce Willis an action star does indeed feature an unusually high body count for a picture set at Christmastime, it adheres in other respects to the usual Hollywood contours. For serious Yuletide cinematic subversion you need the work of Stanley Kubrick, who made an entire career out of refusing to honor the expectations of genre. Specifically, you need the final work of Stanley Kubrick: Eyes Wide Shut, which adapts Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story, a novella of fin-de-siècle Vienna, into a vision of wealth, sex, and decadence — as well as secrecy and possible murder — in New York at the end of the millennium.
"The film was billed as an erotic thriller starring the two hottest — and, yes, married — actors, at the time," says Wisecrack's Jared Bauer in the video above. But since its release 20 years ago, "what was initially dismissed as a failed piece of erotica has proven, upon further inspection, to be something way deeper: an exploration of sociology, dreams, desire — and yes, sex — through the lens of New York City's elite."
It all begins when Tom Cruise's well-to-do doctor Bill Harford hears his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, confess a fantasy she once had about another man. This sends him into an all-night journey into the sexual underworld, one designed to be experienced by the viewer, as Nerdwriter Evan Pucschak has argued, like an immersive virtual-reality experience, and one whose central themes manifest in every single scene.
Kubrick fills Eyes Wide Shut with prostitution, of both the obvious fur-coat-on-the-street-corner variety and its many subtler instantiations at every level of society as well. "At its deeply cynical core," says Bauer, "the film asks the question: are we all somebody's whore?" The video's analysis draws heavily on "Introducing Sociology," Tim Kreider's analysis in Film Quarterly. Kreider writes that "almost everyone in this film prostitutes themselves, for various prices": true on the surface level of the women at the occult masked orgy at which the doctor finds himself in the middle of the night, but just as true on a deeper level of Mr. and Mrs. Harford themselves. "The real pornography in this film," according to Kreider, "is in its lingering depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of Millennial Manhattan, and of the obscene effect of that wealth on our society, and on the soul."
It is in a toy store that the film, with what Bauer calls its "metaphor of Christmas as an orgy of consumption," concludes. As their young daughter looks for things to buy, the Harfords discuss what to do about the revelatory experiences of the past two days. Kidman's famous final line suggests that the couple is "doomed to repeat the same petty jealousies again and again, while potentially spending beyond their means — you know, the American Dream." It also "connects to the title of the film, which evokes a sense of enlightened false consciousness. We may know that we're being screwed over and controlled by the wealthy and powerful, but at least it's Christmas and we can play with our toys, both commercial and sexual. So our eyes are firmly, deliberately shut, because that's the only way to tolerate this world." Kubrick has taken us a long way indeed from It's a Wonderful Life, but perhaps we can consider the ever-greater resonance and relevance of Eyes Wide Shut his final Christmas gift to us.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.