Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the Most Troubling Christmas Film Ever Made

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Are Stan­ley Kubrick Films Like Immer­sive Video Games? The Case of Eyes Wide Shut

How Stan­ley Kubrick Made His Mas­ter­pieces: An Intro­duc­tion to His Obses­sive Approach to Film­mak­ing

Dis­cov­er the Life & Work of Stan­ley Kubrick in a Sweep­ing Three-Hour Video Essay

How Stan­ley Kubrick Became Stan­ley Kubrick: A Short Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed by the Film­mak­er

The Shin­ing and Oth­er Com­plex Stan­ley Kubrick Films Recut as Sim­ple Hol­ly­wood Movies

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.

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