Cult Classics: Eyes Wide Shut

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“Temporality temporalises as a future which makes present in the process of having been.”
– Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

Panned at the time of its release for its sluggish pacing and length, there’s no denying that Stanley Kubrick’s final film is flawed. But past the stilted acting lies the story of a director struggling with his cultural identity and the identity of his work. This isn’t a film for audiences, it’s a film for Kubrick. Critics shouldn’t be so bloody entitled, they should have been grateful that they were even being given access to it. This is a film about self-discovery, and after years of borrowing from other cultures, Kubrick finally got to grips with his own heritage.

Following the rise of Nazism, Jewish artists who had previously ruled Vienna, the capital of central Europe, moved to the US where they came to dominate Hollywood and began creating artificial images of their ‘lost paradise’. Especially famous for this was director Max Ophüls, who made films during the 1940s and 50s (when Kubrick began his career) that were nostalgic for a fantastical ‘old Vienna’. As a child of Austro-Hungarian Jews, Kubrick developed an affinity with Ophüls and Arthur Schnitzler, who would prove to be the main influences on his final work.

Much like Ophüls’ film Letter from an Unknown Woman, Eyes Wide Shut evokes an intense nostalgia for old Europe. The teasing, fluid cinematography (that literally pushes aside Kubrick’s symmetrical one-point perspective), luxurious interiors, opulent colours and cultural pointers (such as artwork and shop windows) are an obvious tribute to the great European auteur. Even the casting choices of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman pay homage to Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan (Ophüls’ idealised portraits of the classic European man and woman). Kubrick literally abandoned his own style in favour of European cinema.

Philosophy has always been a key aspect of Kubrick’s work, and the philosopher who seems to exhibit the most dominance over Eyes Wide Shut is the German scholar Martin Heidegger. This is primarily a film about relationships: Cruise and Kidman’s Bill and Alice Harford as well as Bill’s relationship with the wealthy Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). Heidegger stressed the importance of authenticity in relationships. He stated that an individual’s sense of identity, ‘Dasein’ (‘being there’) was made up partly from other peoples’ ‘Daseins’. But there are also relationships that are ‘non-Dasein’, revolving around usefulness instead of actual friendship.

The party that Ziegler gives is full of ‘non-Daseins’ who don’t know each other, and are there purely because of some business relationship. When Bill is called to help Ziegler after a prostitute overdoses, he mistakes his ‘inauthentic’ relationship with Ziegler for an ‘authentic’ one. This gives Bill the illusion that he can enter Ziegler’s murky upper-class world as an equal, which he attempts after becoming disturbed about his wife’s imaginary affair with another man. But when Bill glimpses Ziegler’s world – that of a ritualistic orgy – it proves so alien to Bill (and by extent the audience) that he cannot hope to understand it.

However if we are to assume that Kubrick’s identity is intertwined with the film’s identity, Heidegger’s philosophy begins to undermine both somewhat. In contrast to Kubrick, who looks to the past, Heidegger asserts that the time most essential to our existence is the immediate future. Our identity is established by what we set out to do:

“Dasein exists as an entity for which, in its Being, that Being is itself an issue. Essentially ahead of itself, it has projected itself upon its potentiality-for-Being before going on to any mere consideration of itself…”

Much like Kubrick, Alice responds to the word “forever” (the future) by saying “don’t use that word…it frightens me.” Even the title Eyes Wide Shut is a contradiction, obviously referencing Bill mistaking and misunderstanding his relationships.

Another contradiction is found in the setting. Despite being a ‘European’ film, the pre-1914 Viennese setting (as of Schnitzler and Ophüls) has been transferred to 90s Manhattan. Given that this is the case, it seems odd to evoke such nostalgia. By choosing this setting, he has made a film which reinforces that our true identities lie in the present and future, not the past. In making these artistic decisions, Kubrick both damages and embellishes the film (even if the setting seems like a bizarre choice, there’s no denying its beauty). Maybe what this shows us is that philosophy works best as a subtext or even a guide, not the main focus. Kubrick’s true element is film, and much like Bill, he is in too deep in a world that was not meant for him.

Kubrick was a romantic, though. And really, what’s more romantic than philosophy? Philosophers were all the rage at the beginning of Kubrick’s career. As his films progressed, philosophy’s influence became more and more significant. His creative decision to finally let his film ‘become’ philosophy was an inevitable conclusion. Even if it doesn’t completely work, there’s no escaping that Eyes Wide Shut is given an insurmountable level majesty by this vast array of culture and philosophy, which few other filmmakers could ever achieve, making it, in my view, a masterpiece.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999), directed by Stanley Kubrick is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Certificate 18.

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Filmmaker, philosopher, critic (on occasion). Also writes for MUBI Notebook. It's not the side-effects of the cocaine. I'm thinking that it must be love.

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