Life-affirming festive films are as fundamental to Christmas as warm fires and emetic portions of food. But Eyes Wide Shut, famed principally for its most lurid scenes, may not seem to fit in with It’s a Wonderful Life, The Bishop’s Wife, and other familiar favorites. Still, if—as painfully unoriginal people are so fond of remarking—Die Hard is a Christmas movie that requires annual viewing, then so is Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent, misunderstood final work from 1999. Rich in thematic relevance and artistic flourishes, Eyes Wide Shut offers perfect companionship for a dark winter’s night.
Marketed as a lubricious erotic thriller in the mold of Basic Instinct, the film was met with an almost vitriolic reception upon its release when audiences instead discovered a hypnotic meditation on ideas of class, love, and reality. Tom Cruise stars as Bill Harford, an affluent Manhattan doctor whose life appears idyllic. His apartment is lavish, his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), is beautiful and refined, and his young daughter seems poised for a successful future. One evening, however, Alice shatters Bill’s complacency when she confesses to having contemplated an affair with another man. Devastated, he ventures out into the night, moving through a series of surreal encounters that test his fidelity and probe his psychology. His voyage culminates at a remote mansion, where he interrupts a secret society’s ritualistic gathering. The next day, struggling to understand what he experienced, Bill retraces his steps.
Bill’s adventure takes place at Christmastime, and the holiday itself is as lively a character as anyone he meets on his odyssey. Although cults and adultery may not usually be indicative of the season, the same cannot be said of the wreaths, presents, and songs that surface throughout, or the trees and multicolor lights that permeate almost every scene. When Bill and Alice attend a party at the palatial home of their friend, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack, who delivers a memorable and uncharacteristically coarse performance), white lights flow from the ceiling to the floor like radiant waterfalls. Likewise, when Bill visits a prostitute’s modest apartment, even she has managed to decorate with a tree that bathes both of them in a pinkish glow. Kubrick creates a magical holiday atmosphere, evocative of yet removed from quotidian life.
Eyes Wide Shut’s Yuletide New York is an illusory imagining of the real city. The streets and neon-lit buildings are suitably grand, but distant from actual Manhattan geography, as if Kubrick had designed them from a corroded memory. Curiously given the season, religious iconography is absent. There are no nativity displays to be seen, carols are not sung, and the characters either express no religious sentiments or openly disregard biblical moral standards. Bill is not contemptible. He is an ordinary man grappling with ordinary male anxieties; a comfortable protagonist who feels trapped by his own introverted tendencies. But throughout his journey, he nonetheless considers indulging in various sordid liaisons, purely for the sake of scoring some internal victory over his wife. All the while, he is indifferent toward the actions of his wealthier peers, who are capable of living brazenly hedonistic lives as a result of their elite status. Bill enjoys the authority his social position affords him, but his exploits reveal how far he truly is from the top of the hierarchy of end-of-century America. Eyes Wide Shut can easily be taken as a commentary on marriage and commitment, but its real concerns are power and decadence.