Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
March 21 and 24 at IFC Center, part of its The Films of Stanley Kubrick
The received wisdom on Kubrick is that he could recognize the stirrings of desire, passion, and guilt in others but could never feel them for himself—that he was a great choreographer of bodies who rarely saw in them any signs of life. That might well be true, yet it risks overlooking how often Kubrick himself acknowledged, challenged and resisted his aversion to the flesh.
Eyes Wide Shut is set in one of Kubrick’s most beguiling invented-worlds: a New York City built on a soundstage and lit with perfectly proportioned yellows, reds, and blues. It’s a murder mystery without a murder; a story of marital jealousy, guilt, and forgiveness in which neither party manages to be unfaithful; a dream seen through a dreamer’s eyes. Its hero is suave doctor Bill Harper (Tom Cruise), whose impersonal attitude toward women mirrors the director’s own; its central sequence, a masked ball in which human sexuality is filmed as an alien ritual: chilly, anonymous, mechanical. The defining image, though, comes much later in the film: Harper staring down a beautiful corpse and finding there the only possible source of true aesthetic perfection—and by extension, the fulfillment of the only desire he’s ever known.
This film, Kubrick’s last, was the work of a perfectionist at odds with his own perfectionism; it found the director confronting the absence in his own cinema of any desire that might stabilize or ground him in the physical world. What’s left is a labyrinth with no center, a fleshless, bloodless rabbit-hole down which, if you’re not careful, you could keep on falling forever.