TFS the Season: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
“[It’s a] remarkable film…And, the more you see Eyes Wide Shut, the more you get involved in that world. At a certain point you don’t want to anymore because it’s too painful.” – Martin Scorsese
Stanley Kubrick’s swan song—Eyes Wide Shut, completed six days before the director’s death—is a picture that is, at once, incidentally Christmas-set and totally steeped in the connotations and traditions of the holiday. It’s a film that uses the sparkling yellow lights of Christmas trees to provide a bit of compositional flavoring, giving us a web of bokeh to pretty up the background, while also dealing precisely with the ideas of recollection and reckoning that are so integral to the holidays. Like a more handsome version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dr. Bill Hartford floats through an odyssey of nocturnal temptation, each episode he faces testing his fidelity more and more.
Eyes Wide Shut tells the hypnotic story of Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise), a married man who becomes embroiled in a dangerous orgiastic cult after running into an old college friend, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), at a Christmas party. Before rejoining his friend at a local nightclub, his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses a fantasy involving another man to him and expresses incredible shame and regret. When Bill meets Nick at his nightclub, Nick admits that he plays a gig early in the morning for a bizarre cult. The location changes each time, he’s blindfolded, and he plays during a ritual before going back home, only to be given a new location and entry password the next night. Bill decides to explore the cult, but little does he know that it is at his own peril.
In many ways, Eyes Wide Shut is a film about reflection; reflection on past sins, how reflecting on these past sins can bring about catharsis through pain, and what desires do to warp these reflections. It’s also a film that, through a treacherous odyssey of material desires—sexual temptation and base emotional gratification—explores how a love for and desire to protect another can save someone. For much of Kurbrick’s finest psychodrama, he debases sacred symbols; symbols of purity and warmth, symbols of familial unity and forward-looking hopefulness. The beleaguered arguments of Bill and Alice Hartford on fidelity and the nature of male and female sexuality take place to the backdrop of Christmas trees adorned with angels, on a holiday meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus. And, though I don’t think Kubrick is necessarily attempting to communicate anything in particular about the holiday itself, I do think his use of the holiday, here, is pointed. What, on a less benign holiday like Halloween, might appear to be a major spousal clash, appears positively cataclysmic on Christmas. It’s as though the picture is tearing the fabric of this family and this relationship in two, on the very day meant to celebrate the unity and harmony of families and relationships.
The longer you watch Eyes Wide Shut, the further you are drawn into the picture. Like Bill, we wonder just how far the rabbit hole goes. And, when the rabbit hole begins to close in around us, asphyxiating us for even daring to recognize its existence, we hope for just a bit more air so that we can see an inch deeper. This is a film about the tantalization of mystery and the seductiveness of not knowing. When we do see what’s at the center of the mystery—the infidelity, the lies, the unrequited desires—it’s all too painful to examine. It is in many ways the exact opposite of the emotions we associate with Christmas: joy, hope, comfort, and warmth.
Eyes Wide Shut is a Christmas classic in the most Kubrickian of senses. It’s dark, it’s painful, it’s totally hypnotic, and it’s utterly profane. Kubrick’s last film challenges us to use the time for reflection that Christmas provides to remember not how content and happy we are, but what pains and insecurities we harbor. In other words, make this a Christmas tradition, just maybe not as family viewing.