Why Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is the greatest and most disturbing Christmas film of all time
“If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed.” – Stanley Kubrick
American auteur Stanley Kubrick is widely acknowledged for the breadth of his ambitious artistic vision. His projects beautifully condense the universal to fit the big screen, but at the same time, they expand and keep growing in the consciousness of the audience. Most of his films, like Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, remain essential parts of cinematic tradition because of their compelling conceptualisations of important and familiar issues through the unfamiliar and unsettling perspective with which Kubrick chose to examine things.
The last film that Kubrick ever directed, Eyes Wide Shut, was overlooked as the complicated product of an ageing filmmaker’s creative sensibilities when it first came out but time has solidified its status as one of the best works of Kubrick’s illustrious filmography. Martin Scorsese explained why this happened in his introduction to Michel Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, “When Eyes Wide Shut came out a few months after Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999, it was severely misunderstood, which came as no surprise,” he said. “If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you’ll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realisation that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.”
Starring Tom Cruise as Dr. William Harford, Eyes Wide Shut is a mesmerising cinematic dream which follows Harford as he embarks on bizarre psychosexual adventures after he finds out that his wife (played by Nicole Kidman) had thought about indulging in an extra-marital affair. Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1928 novel Dream Story, Kubrick transposed the story from 1900s Vienna to 1990s New York and changed the Mardi Gras setting to Christmas. Critics have debated for years over this artistic choice, wondering whether the festive period had been chosen because it is a symbol of rejuvenation or whether it is a critique of how materialism has replaced the inherent spirituality of Christmas.
Kubrick’s final contribution to the world of cinema is not a conventional Christmas film by any means. With its recurring insistence on human depravity, Eyes Wide Shut is more of a philosophical inquiry about the inevitable corruption of idealist pretensions. The film envisions a manifestation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the “carnivalesque”, a phenomenon in which normative conceptions are usurped by subversive dialectics which offer the subjects of that framework new truths. In this way, the Christmas setting becomes the foundation on which Kubrick builds his narrative.
Harford, a doctor who believes he is control of life and death, is forced to confront his own mortality and to change his reductive views of sexuality as he is carried forward by the hallucinogenic Christmas lights until he ends up at an orgy. Although it was called an “assault on Christmas”, Eyes Wide Shut is probably one of the greatest films of the genre because it challenges our voyeuristic expectations and questions the validity of the season’s spiritual cheer which is completely based on materialistic obsessions.
Stanley Kubrick passed away just six days after showing his final cut to the executives at Warner Bros, with conflicting reports stating that he was disgusted by the film. It is unclear whether Kubrick approved of his farewell to cinema (his daughter claimed that he was proud of the film) but what is clear is that Eyes Wide Shut has gone down as a dark, unsettlingly beautiful addition to the legacy of Stanley Kubrick.