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Those were not just ordinary people there.

Eyes Wide Shut
(1999)

(SPOILERS) Eyes Wide Shut’s afterlife in the conspirasphere has become so legendary, even a recent BFI retrospective article had to acknowledge the “outlandish” suggestions that this was Kubrick’s all-out exposé of the Illuminati, an exposé so all-out it got him murdered, 24 all-important minutes excised into the bargain. At the time of its release, even as a conspiracy buff, I didn’t think the film was suggestive of anything exactly earthshattering in that regard. I was more taken with the hypnotic pace, which even more than the unsympathetic leads, made the picture stand out from its 1999 stablemates. I’m not enough of a Kubrick devotee to rewatch his oeuvre on a loop, but that initial response still largely holds true; I can quite respect those who consider Eyes Wide Shut a (or the) masterpiece from the director, but it can’t quite reach such heights for me.

Indeed, the picture in Kubrick’s arsenal I’d most likely place it next to, tonally and performatively (if not in terms of content), is Barry Lyndon. They both exert a similarly unhurried hold on the viewer, and both boast at best ambivalent, at worst outright dislikeable lead characters performed by fairly shallow “star” actors. In the case of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, I’m not sure either are interesting enough presences for such unremitting, relentless study (Steve Martin might have been a more offbeat but rewarding choice – considered way back in 1980, since the project had been percolating since the early '70s).

Which may be the point of the exercise, but there’s a view that everything Kubrick did in his god-like omniscience was honed to the max, and interviews with those closest professionally tend to suggest that just wasn’t the case, that vacillation and discussion were key ingredients (and re-editing his pictures once released). It’s why, while I appreciate and enjoy the likes of Room 237, I can only buy into subtextual readings of his films so much. Anyway, the choice of leads can focus directorial intent or it may end up overstating the Kubrick’s tendency to impersonality (in the case of Barry Lyndon, it’s said the director’s hand was forced to pick a Top 10 box office star, and first choice Robert Redford had turned the role down).

There’s also the idea that, rather than necessarily having controversial material removed from Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick didn’t get a chance to edit it enough. Both David Lynch and Christopher Nolan have come down on the side of feeling the film is not quite as precision engineered as it would have been had the director been able to spend more time with it. And I can certainly see that; I don’t have a problem with its length, but there is a sense that the climax comes with another seventy minutes left, making for a very long epilogue.

Which in turn might feed into the argument that there was a lot more intrigue in there at one point. David Wilcock claimed – he has claimed lots of things, of course – that a scene prior to the orgy saw Bill (Cruise) pass by an empty room with an altar and a pentagram on the wall (this site suggests a similar scene, but with a pentagram-like circle on the floor). He also thinks Sandor Szavost (Sky du Mont), who dances with Alice (Kidman) early on, is revealed as Red Cloak, the ominous overseer of the proceedings, with the argument of “Why else would he be in that early scene if he wasn’t going to feature later?” Which is a bit like asking why William Sylvester isn’t in the last chapter of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Or the apes, come to that. Wilcock also believes Red Cloak – played by Kubrick’s assistant Leon Vitali – had sex with Alice during that sequence… Which makes no sense whatsoever narratively, in terms of later interactions between Bill and Alice. Which means substantial re-editing and extensive reshoots would have been required to fashion the sequence into the form we have, where Alice is clearly at home and oblivious to Bill’s excursion.

Others have suggested, understandably perhaps, that there was further footage at the ritual, in which the masked woman met a grisly end (Abigail Good played the character here, although were intended to conclude she’s Julienne Davis, seen in the initial overdose scene and later at the morgue). But the idea that Bill saw anything more than the lack of anything tangible he did see is undermined by his clear shock at the thought that she has been murdered, rather than taken an overdose.

Which leaves the suggestion that the other principle change was the ending, where the Harfords’ daughter Helena would be sacrificed and Bill and Alice would be shown to have joined the cult. Again, I can see where this idea comes from, as there are definitely peculiar and intentional undercurrents running through Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s the fact that all these elements are undercurrents, that Bill himself can’t put them together materially, that makes me doubt Kubrick intended to have anything so explicit ending the film.

The final scene we do have is quite weird and disturbing enough, once you take in the elements out of immediate focus; that amidst the couple’s intense conversation in the toy department, Helena is following a couple of old guys previously seen at the party at the start of the film, as a waiter from the same event steps between the Harfords and their disappearing daughter. In response to which, Alice shows no apparent concern. Now, I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting Alice is being abducted there – if anything, it’s more an intimation of what lurks ahead beyond the apparently innocuous surface of a familial status quo restored – but it is odd, and with Kubrick’s obsessiveness, the reuse of performers surely cannot be coincidental (the same is true of the drawing directly above Helena’s bed, which, once you see it saying “sex”, you can’t not see it).

The film has already made a great play of the Russian costumier Milich (Rade Šerbedžija) offering to sell Bill his teenage daughter (the coat lined with ermine line seems expressly designed for conspiracy theorists to seize upon). Taken in conjunction with other clues relating to a depraved world just out of the Harfords’ line of sight, the suggestion that Alice has some degree of suppressed family links to secret societies, even as an MK Ultra style victim, perhaps isn’t beyond the bounds of the possible (her vivid dream, the possibility that Szavost was triggering her during the party). There’s a good reason such apparently far-fetched theories persist with Kubrick; such themes are writ both large and small in his films (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining).

I’m a little less persuaded by harping on about Alice’s naval officer fantasy a being important because of the naval aspect, or the Yale jackets meaning exclusively Skull and Bones rather than “straight” frat boys, but it’s easy to see why even Newsweek has noted some of the elements in a piece that conveniently draws a line under the Epstein case while namechecking some of the more superficial theories relating to the film (in reference to the faked Kidman interview, from the highly inventive YourNewsWire.com, it is notable that there are boggling allegations relating to her deceased father, which could be why that fake interview was placed in the first place). And in furtherance to these themes, it’s impossible to ignore that Kubrick had, for a long-gestating period, planned to make A.I. Artificial Intelligence, about parents desirous of having an eternal boy who would never grow up, a film Spielberg made that studiously ignored the implications thereof.

Could the worst-case theorised scenario be accurate? That Kubrick somehow managed to get the entirety of Eyes Wide Shut made before anyone realised what he was doing – presumably, what he was putting on celluloid wasn’t in any draft script seen by any bigwigs – and he was only then bumped off at the last moment, when the extent of his revelations was discovered? That a depraved ending was filmed but removed? These things are, of course, possible, even given that Kubrick was a life-long smoker in his seventies. And that his films are frequently designed to be opaque rather than explicit (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining), so the suggestion that all would have been clear if these alleged 24 minutes hadn’t been lost rather goes against the grain of his filmmaking ethic. The empty room scene seems quite plausible, however, and we know there was a cut scene with the family in a boat. The rest? Well, I’m not convinced. There’s quite enough lurking in the picture without that.

Naturally, as with any movie that has, in one way or another, spawned its own myth and mystery, there are counter-claims. Such as R Lee Ermy’s – disputed by all and sundry – that he spoke to the director two weeks before he died, and “He told me it was a piece of shit and that he was disgusted with it and that the critics were going to have him for lunch. He said Cruise and Kidman had their way with him – exactly the words he used." Which is different, since usually it’s attested that Kubrick’s influence was the other way round (causing his cast and crew frustrations, probably Shelley Duvall being top of the list; the stress of playing Bill reportedly gave Cruise an ulcer). So Ermy’s probably about as reliable as that Kidman interview. Others have suggested the opposite tack with regard to Kubrick and the Cruises, from the bizarre – that the director was trying to engineer the failure of their marriage, as if he didn’t have better things to do – to the at least curious; there’s a thread of undermining Bill’s heterosexuality, from the Yale frat boys baiting him to Alan Cumming’s flirtatious clerk. Albeit, it might be conversely argued that Bill is a sexual magnet to all, barring his wife.

At the time, one of the big criticisms of Eyes Wide Shut concerned its antiquated exploration of relationship mores; Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post amusingly labelled it “the dirtiest movie of 1958”. It does rather feel as if the attitudes and behaviours of the Harfords are closer to Traumnovelle’s 1926 setting than 1999. Tom does get very agitated by a fantasy. But it’s also difficult to believe the affected air wasn’t intentional on Kubrick’s part, unless his faculties had waned considerably between Full Metal Jacket and this, like Woody Allen permanently setting his pictures in a milieu that bears no resemblance to anything contemporary outside of his own head, was the bewildered result. But the picture is very deliberately treading a line of not-quite reality, of artificial interiors and waking-dream paranoia; in that context, the exaggerated jealousies and provocations within the relationship actually come across as pretty much of a piece (one can take such reasoning only so far, however; the notion of an intentionally fake looking New York, when the background was Kubrick’s Anglocentric aviophobic status, may complement the ambience, but that’s more luck, in a way English roads doubling for Parris Island is not.

For me, Eyes Wide Shut is fascinating, but ultimately not hugely compelling. Which again, puts in a similar category to Barry Lyndon, and where I came in. The supporting cast, be it Pollack, or Šerbedžija or Cumming, fare much better than the main couple (as per Lyndon) and the picture does rather feel like it is indulging an hourlong comedown, as watchable as that hour is. Once can but speculate how things might have been different had Spielberg not stolen Kubrick’s thunder with Schindler’s List and the latter had gone ahead with Aryan Papers in 1993/4 (he had already cast the lead). He might well have picked up Eyes Wide Shut subsequently, but there is a feeling to it that comes across of forging ahead with a (any?) project after others have floundered (much as Barry Lydon saw him channelling ideas from the aborted Napoleon). 

Some see Eyes Wide Shut as a fitting culmination of a career’s worth of conspiratorial themes (exposing the workings of the elite in a relatively innocuous manner). I tend to view it as the last work of a master craftsman who hadn’t quite settled on material equal to his talents for a couple of decades. It’s a shame Umberto Eco’s feelings with regard to adapting Foucault’s Pendulum were misrepresented to Kubrick, as that might have done it all, satisfying the conspiracists, providing a plot worthy of the director, and dispensing with any need for Dan Brown adaptations.


Addendum: Your mileage may vary with unsupported sources for hot takes, but I tend to consider the “open-mind first’ position a productive one, particularly when it comes to the conspirasphere. Janine’s readings are undoubtedly of variable merit in terms of accuracy/ interpretation, but her suggestion regarding Kubrick sounds plausible: that he was steeped in “dark cult” activities and was a high-ranking member – which would make sense, as one can trace foregrounded themes from at least Lolita onwards – yet even he eventually fell foul of his masters by stating the modus operandi too obviously in Eyes Wide Shut (she refers only to the end of the movie being removed – the abduction of their child – rather than extensive reediting, but either way, cult member Spielberg was on hand for the mopping up).

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