Over his fifty-year career, late director Stanley Kubrick and his films have seen their fair share of criticism. Despite the fact that his filmmaking deemed him “legendary”, critics consistently doubted his work every time a new film was released. This could not be truer than with his penultimate film Eyes Wide Shut, which he co-wrote, directed and produced.
Eyes Wide Shut introduces audiences to married couple Dr Bill and Alice Harford, who immediately give off the impression that their relationship has flatlined. From the opening scene showing the couple getting ready for fellow Manhattanite Victor Ziegler’s party as well as during the event, they do not appear to feel passionate about one another. This is especially true for wife Alice. It then comes as little surprise (except to Bill) when she admits after the party, to have desired another man while the couple were on holiday. At this news, Bill becomes distressed and uses a medical late night call from a client as an excuse to run away from what his wife has just told him. From that moment he experiences a break from reality allowing him to fantasise what it would be like to pursue sexual desires outside of his marriage, just like his wife had described.
While there are many themes at work within the film, it is, in essence, a dream and should be treated as such. Not only are there hints of this from within the structure of the narrative, but Kubrick also leaves clues intentionally placed within the mise en scène for audiences to pick up on.
Critics failed to recognise that what was mistaken for faults was actually Kubrick’s way of actively building up the framework of a dream, in which the emotionally-withdrawn protagonist Dr Bill is forced to confront his emotions.
The Structure of the Narrative
One of the film’s main criticisms was the structure of the narrative. Jonathan Ross even went so far as to say that “the plot is confused […] and the situations [the characters] are placed in are absurd”. Critics did not understand the film for the dream story it was because if they had, they would not have chosen to judge it from a realistic point of view. Dreams follow a different logic more subjective to the dreamer, and this is what Kubrick was trying to get across in the narrative.
The film was faithfully adapted from the source material, Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Tramnovelle or ‘Dream Story’. This dream story follows theories on dreaming also shared by psychoanalyst and contemporary Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, dreams are the way repressed feelings, thoughts and desires in the unconscious mind are revealed. Though these desires can surface in unusual ways, the dream is ultimately meant to allow wish fulfilment. Dreams have two parts: manifest content, meaning the events the dreamer remembers happened throughout the day, and latent content, otherwise known as the symbolic meaning of the dream. The manifest content is strung together into the most logical order of events to the dreamer to allow the fulfilment of their hidden wishes in what Freud describes as secondary elaboration.
To understand the structure, one needs to understand the protagonist and the emotions he is feeling, as this is what guides the dream. Out of jealousy and frustration at his wife’s fantasies, he creates a dream where he is able to pursue sexual fantasies of his own. While it does not make logical sense, it allows Bill to pursue what he secretly wants. With that in mind, the story very clearly takes us through instances where he can fulfil that wish.
The seemingly “sketchy and episodic” series of events that displeased reviewers is actually the secondary elaboration of what happened during Mr Ziegler’s party. It is not random, it is meant to facilitate his unconscious desires. The dream comes to a screeching halt when he realises there are tragic consequences for his actions, and because the dream feels real to him he is scared into confessing what he has been hiding to his wife. There is structure to it, if viewed as the psychological thriller it is and not the fast paced thriller critics at the time hoped it to be.
The Visual Style
Nothing in “Eyes Wide Shut,” which is set in Manhattan, feels like it has a connection to any recognisable notion of urban life or human behaviour. The movie’s Manhattan (shot, except for a few second-unit establishing shots, on sets in London) is the least populated you’ll ever see. That sealed-off feeling might have had some charge if we had the sense that we’d entered a king director’s fevered fantasy life. […] It doesn’t have the visionary craziness that can sometimes energise even mucked-up dream projects.
Stanley Kubrick, known for his meticulous attention to detail, spent a record-breaking 300 days in principal photography for Eyes Wide Shut to make sure that every frame was exactly the way he envisioned it to be. Attention was paid to every detail from modelling the couple’s apartment exactly like his own, to building up the city of Manhattan on sets he stationed in London. With this level of attention paid to every aspect of the film, it is foolish to assume that everything we see isn’t exactly the way he wanted it to be to tell the story.
Though some hints were subtle, even the most obvious creative decisions were lost on critics. The mise-en-scene was created to further Bill’s belief that what he is experiencing is real. Though it is meant to seem vaguely realistic, there are still hints present that what is being seen is surreal. These include the vague setting on Manhattan streets where only people present in his everyday life are visible figures (a common trait in dreams), as well as the sense of travelling from place to place and the regular repetition that occurs at each of the places he goes.
As for the “visionary craziness” critics believed to be missing from the film, it is present in the harsh cuts back and forth between his sexual fantasies and his anxiety-filled fantasies of his wife with the man she says she fantasised about. It is also in his obvious use of blue and red to show his tension, anxiety and excitement.
Even though some hints were subtle, even the most obvious creative decisions were lost on critics. An understanding of the main character (who was thought to be “unresponsive” by one of the most outspoken critics) and what is fuelling his dreaming would have allowed critics to see how the mise-en-scene facilitates the telling of the story, as well as incorporates the visually striking representations of dreams previously shown in film and the creativity Kubrick is known for.
Despite recognising Stanley Kubrick as imaginative, critics certainly kept a very closed mind to what he could have been trying to share with them. It would be understandable if the negative reviews were because the film just did not meet reviewers taste. However, to make that judgement implies that the intended meaning of the piece was fully understood, and it was not.
Dreams are rarely ever logical, and if critics had kept this in mind, they would have known not to judge the structure of a dream based on how things normally happen in everyday life.
Fortunately, Stanley Kubrick films have a history of being viewed more positively as the years pass and the films are re-examined. This will likely be the case with his final film. In due time new meaning can be drawn, and from that, new appreciation may be felt for the work of a director who always sought out to share his imagination with the world.