Latest Issue

Kubrick’s empty enigma

Eyes Wide Shut is as erotic as a crap in an igloo

By Linda Holt   October 1999

Eyes wide shut is Kubrick’s swansong in more ways than one. The big teaser’s biggest tease is also his ultimate con-trick. By now, porn-seekers will know they’re in for a disappointment. Despite its peepshow trailers, the film is as erotic as a crap in an igloo. Tom Cruise as Dr Bill Harford never gets beyond a grope with his wife, and a few schmoozes with other women. Non-consummation is the joke which opens and closes the film: it begins with a black dress slithering down the back of Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford) and ends, abruptly, when she spells out to her husband that the “something very important we need to do as soon as possible” is “fuck.” This is a Kubrickian double tease, “a sweetly callous defeat of routine expectation,” in Frederic Raphael’s words, because Bill and Alice are in a toy shop, Christmas shopping with their daughter.

Bill functions as a voyeur, a point underlined by Tom Cruise’s inability to project an inner life. But whereas his progress through New York’s sexual underworld is a standard device in porn narratives, here the pornographic content is deliberately trimmed and distanced, as it is variously sent up, stylised, and undercut by other visual preoccupations.

With its Freudian source in Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick’s film also teases those who seek truths about sexuality and marriage. Adam Mars-Jones finds “a case study… about how much apartness can nestle inside togetherness,” Andrew O’Hagan “the most intelligent survey of marriage to happen in years.” Unfortunately, the ludicrousness of the film’s famous orgy scene extends to its overall psychology. The premise is that after nine years of marriage this urbane contemporary couple are suddenly and massively traumatised to discover that they have sexual dreams and desires for other people. Woody Allen (among others) has spent his career fleshing out this theme, but this is exactly what Kubrick refuses to do.

Schnitzler is more convincing than Kubrick, and not just because the turn-of-the-century Viennese bourgeoisie was less accustomed to, and perhaps more troubled by, sexual openness than its New York equivalent a century later. The novella also maps out the misperceptions and self-deceptions which charge its characters’ fantasies. After being propositioned by strangers at the opening party, the novella’s couple then happily play their own “game of gallantry, seduction, resistance and fulfilment” with each other, returning home to enjoy a night of renewed ardour. Schnitzler makes clear that it is only as they forget this, as they turn away from the happy sexual reality of their actual lives, that their fantasies about what might have happened begin to disturb them. The film, by contrast, excises the couple’s love play at the party and is characterised by a crudely mechanistic psychology which has little to do with the dynamics, sexual or otherwise, of marriage.

As with other realist films of sexual obsession novels, such as Crash and the two Lolitas, both too much and too little is left to the imagination. The film’s ultimate con, however, is its message. Mesmerised by Kubrick’s auteurship, critics have failed to see the film for what it is: a two-and-a-half hour long safe sex advert. Admittedly, Bel Mooney applauded it as “an old-fashioned morality tale,” but it is more vicious than Fatal Attraction, its 1980s predecessor. Now people who even think about sex outside marriage are in mortal danger. Eyes Wide Shut shows extramarital sex as necessarily perverse and joyless-besides the orgy, Bill’s sexual temptation is via prostitution, paedophilia and necrophilia. As a result, he risks his own life, and the lives of his wife and child. And despite a feminist rant about female desire, poor Alice remains cooped up at home, a jobless wife and mother, prey to horny dreams which provoke hysteria. The film’s stance on illicit sex, and sexual fantasy-keep it under-inflates and over-dramatises its destructiveness.

Kubrick’s fear of sex has produced a pre-Freudian film of male voyeuristic fantasy. Not for nothing did Kubrick send Raphael the erotic photographs by Helmut Newton of evening-dressed men watching naked women. The only real moment of threat occurs when the orgy’s master of ceremonies orders Bill to strip (a non-Schnitzlerian touch). Just in time, a woman offers herself up instead, preventing the voyeuristic tables from turning. The pleasure of Eyes Wide Shut is purely cinematographic: plays of Klimtian colour and light, profiles etched in light of startling beauty; otherwise the enigma is empty.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to

More From Prospect