Sex and Subtext: The Critical Frustration Over Eyes Wide Shut


Upon the release of Eyes Wide Shut, the critical response was polarized.  The film holds an unimpressive sixty-eight percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a mild approbation comparable to that of the summer’s other controversial film about sex, American Pie.  Any dissent over a film event as major as Stanley Kubrick’s last film is significant, and there was quite a lot of it.  However, many of those negative reviews find their source more in larger aesthetic debates and disappointment over the relative lack of titillation than in thorough engagement with the film.  Eyes Wide Shut is an intriguing if oblique film about an enduring moral, and in the end it succeeds by most standards if not by the unfair standards applied to the work because of its marketing and its acclaimed director.

In the critical reception of Eyes Wide Shut, no reaction is as common as dissatisfaction with the sex, or relative lack thereof.  The marketing and media had promised a voyeuristic glimpse of “Cruise”, “Kidman” and “Cruise” with “Kidman” not to mention scandalous orgies, but the film itself is mostly coy, its sex teasing and elusive.  The final product revealed that in fact everything that was to be seen of Cruise and Kidman was already in the aptly named teaser.  And as for the implied possibilities of Cruise pairing off with a prostitute on the street, two models at once, or a young and scantily clad Leelee Sobieski, well, none of these would-be-sex-scenes advance further than a kiss.  Even the much anticipated orgy is mechanical and filmed at a distance.  To deny that we want to see sex is to deny our whole evolutionary heritage, to deny that we are human.  Even Stanley Kubrick, the reputed cinematic chronicler of the loss of humanity, knows we still want to see sex.  So of course this disappointed everyone, even those critics that might seem so intellectual or academic as to have locked away their libido.  For example, David Edelstein titled his review “The Naked and the Dead” and subtitled it “Eyes Wide Shut is a fearfully distant orgy” (Edelstein).  As Tim Kreider summarized in Film Quarterly, “critical disappointment with Eyes Wide Shut was almost unanimous and the complaint was always the same; not sexy” (Kreider).

And this is only to mention those who were aware and explicit about the root of their feelings of dissatisfaction.  Surely countless other critics found themselves frustrated with the film’s teasing but sublimated that feeling into other criticisms.  Andrew Sarris even offered that he might be guilty of this, confessing that “perhaps if Eyes Wide Shut just popped up out of the blue without all the infernal hype and infomercials [he] might have appreciated it more for its uncommon virtues” (Sarris). Of course while his owning up to this might be an admirably honest rhetorical move, it does nothing for the tarnished credibility of his review.  While critics are certainly welcome to mention a film’s marketing and compare it with the product, it is also their duty to ultimately set this aside long enough to review the film itself.

Still, even if a film’s marketing were to be taken as relevant to the value of the film itself, Eyes Wide Shut’s teasing serves a clear, if misunderstood, purpose.  Unlike most films on the temptation of extramarital sex, Eyes Wide Shut does not mean to indulge the viewers in the pleasures of infidelity.  It views this activity as dangerous—in the film just flirting with having an affair puts Bill not only at risk of divorce but in danger of being publically humiliated, infected with HIV, and murdered, all while others seem literally to be murdered because of his sexual adventures—and so refuses to give the viewer this pleasure even vicariously.  This is not to say that the film denies the allure of adultery.  In fact, the allure of adultery, or in other words its attractive appearance, is represented well in both the film and its marketing. In the film much of this allure comes simply from mystery: when Nick describes his experience performing masked at past orgies, what he (nearly trembling) and the viewer imagine is undoubtedly sexier than the one that comes later in the film.  This is of course manifest in the scores of disappointed reviews of the sexiness of the ballyhooed scene.  But this effect, the result of the anticipation generated not only by the film but by the film’s marketing, is intentional.  Kubrick, aware of the symbiotic relationship between movies and their marketing described by Jim Hoberman, “masterminded” the marketing himself in order to create these expectations (Hoberman 532, Frazer).  In this way the experience of the film becomes like Domino’s apartment and the film itself’s view of adultery: they all appear more glamorous from without than the experience actually is within.  The marketing of the film was just one more way in which Kubrick presented a contrast between the allure of infidelity and the ugliness of its realization.

In fact, this contrast between surfaces and that which they conceal is a recurring theme in the film.  Everything seems glamorous at Ziegler’s party, but in the back rooms lurk prostitution and drug overdose.  Similarly, Bill and Alice’s life and marriage at first appears perfect—they are beautiful people in a beautiful apartment with apparent money and privilege—but while they might carry on the semblance of intimacy by sharing the bathroom while one of them uses the toilet, in actuality there is more deception than true intimacy between them.  The Somerton masquerade ball becomes particularly resonant then, as in the film’s dream logic the masked couplings symbolize the deception that can exist between romantic partners.  When the masked figures ritualistically kiss each other, which Kubrick emphasizes with close-ups, this reflects how couples like Alice and Bill go through the rituals of intimacy and love but without truly revealing themselves to each other.

Also implicit in this frustration of the expectations that the film and its marketing sets up is a criticism of the male gaze and the objectification of women.  Many reviewers such as Andrew Sarris and Slant’s Jeremiah Kipp criticized the film precisely for these two traits (Sarris in particular cited the conspicuous lack of “male members”), but what they did not realize is that this critique was already embedded in the film itself (Sarris).  The film’s repeated baiting of the viewer with sex and then taking that away is meant to make the viewer aware of these desires and punish them for it just as it does for Bill.  But beyond simply punishing the gazer with a sort of cinematic blue balls, the film also puts the gaze itself on display.  For example, while the opening shot of the film gives us a glimpse of Kidman casting off her black gown to disrobe to nothing but her high heels, the film not only cuts off this shot immediately after the action is complete, but rearticulates later it in the Somerton ritual.  Here we once again see women casting off black gowns to disrobe to nothing but their high heels, but this time the gazers are on display, spread in a sinister circle around the women.  Meanwhile, the objectified status of the women is emphasized by their being entirely naked except for the covers over their faces—they are once again presented as just bodies, but this time to disturbing effect.  The effect of all this is not to indulge in the male gaze and the objectification of women, but to reflect it on screen, frustrate it and critique it.

Feeling cheated that they did not the promised sex that they consciously or unconsciously sought in the film, many critics dismissed the film’s message of monogamy and total intimacy as worn, but age that does not make the message unworthy.  Peter Rainer from New York Magazine shrugged that “the message is: Play around, get in trouble” (Rainer).  Geoff Andrews from Time Out similarly dismissed the film, asserting that “finally, however, it is just a cautionary tale about some very mild, old-fashioned erotic fantasies” (Andrews).  Surely many of these critics are citing the fact that the film is based on a century-old novella.  However, just because a message is old does not mean it is dated.  In fact, sometimes when themes recur that means they are not clichéd but timeless.

Other critics responded not just to the old theme, but its being dressed up in fancy clothes.  For example, Charles Taylor from Salon disparaged the film as “nothing more than an art-house version of an army training film” (Taylor).  Certainly a film should not be valued strictly for being art-house or esoteric, the latter of which tends particularly to be an evil.  The film’s obliqueness and formal complexity not only confounded many of film’s summer audiences, but also some of the nation’s more perceptive critics.  For example, MaryAnn Johnson from FlickFilosopher ended her review (subtitled “Frisky Business?”) on a resigned note, saying, “Trying to wrap my brain around this one is giving me a headache” (Johnson).  Similarly, Stanley Kauffman could not look past the film’s “formalist” tendencies (Kauffman 148).  When even critics become frustrated with how much a film plays to their expertise and sensibility, eyebrows must be raised.  The film illustrates how being subtle and subtextual, qualities perhaps too commonly regarded as virtues, can be a liability.

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a good film, if not the one it was hyped up to be.  Still, most critics were too focused on what it was not to focus on what it was.  It was not as sexy as expected, the effect of which on the critic’s reviews it is hard to measure precisely, but this was to serve a greater purpose.  Furthermore, anticipating a lascivious romp, the critics dismissed the wholesome morals that they may otherwise have respected.  The themes, such as the need to look beneath the surface of things, the danger of infidelity, and the necessity of total honesty in marriage, are not novel, but they remain important, perhaps even timeless.  As for the critique of the subtle and nearly impenetrable manner in which it conveyed its themes, this is the manifestation of a much larger taste war more than a judgment on the film itself, and on its own this is not enough to either entirely dismiss or aggrandize the film.

Works Cited

Andrews, Geoff.  “Eyes Wide Shut.”  TimeOut.  8 March 2009.                                                  

Edelstein, David.  “The Naked and the Dead,” 16 July 1999.  Slate.  8 March 2009.

Frazer, Bryant.  “Eyes Wide Shut,” 27 July 1999.  8 March 2009.

Hoberman, J.  “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today.”  American Movie Critics.  Ed. Phillip Lopate.  New York: The Library of America, 2006.  528-537.

Johnson, MaryAnn.  “Eyes Wide Shut.”  19 July 1999.  Flick Filosopher.  8 March 2009.

Kauffmann, Stanley. Regarding Film. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. 142-148.

Kreider, Tim. “Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut.” Film Quarterly. Volume 53, number 3. University of California Press.

Rainer, Peter. “Strangelove.  19 July 1999.  New York Magazine.  8 March 2009.

Sarris, Andrew.  “Eyes Don’t Have it: Kubrick’s Turgid Finale,” 25 July 1999.  The Observer.  8 March 2009.

Taylor, Charles.  “Eyes Wide Shut.”  16 July 1999.  Salon. 8 March 2009.


3 responses to “Sex and Subtext: The Critical Frustration Over Eyes Wide Shut

  1. Nice interpretation. The two people next to me in the theater guffawed throughout, but I found the film sobering, even icy. Adultery films are perhaps my least favorite genre, but this is probably one of the better ones. I prefer the recent genre, the almost-adultery, as in Lost in Translation, Spanglish, Things I Lost in the Fire. Keep it up, bro.

  2. I buy the “almost-adultery” movie as a genre lately, but couldn’t you view Eyes Wide Shut as a different expression of it? The movie and its marketing were so full of skin that one hardly remembers it as such, but, like in Lost in Translation, I don’t think the cheating goes past a kiss (if even that occurs outside a dream).

  3. There’s a lot of time taken with this film, and Kubrick delivers with an almost terrifying atmosphere that works so well because you almost feel as if you are in a dream. Not his best work, but still a reminder that he still did have the brilliancy. Good review, check out mine when you can!

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