Watch a video essay about the dreaminess of Stanley Kubrick’s final film.
“And no dream is ever…just a dream.”
This line is spoken in the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s last ever film, Eyes Wide Shut. The 1999 drama tells the story of Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), a married couple living in New York City. The night after a party, the two get in a fight about fidelity. Neither of them has been unfaithful, but Alice is upset by Bill’s assumptions about female sexuality, and Bill by Alice’s revelation that she’s fantasized about another man. Bill leaves the apartment after the fight and what follows is a nightmarish and cyclical journey through the city. While the subject matter is erotic, the film is mostly creepy rather than sexy, as most of the sex scenes have an absurd and methodical feel to them.
The film, like any by Kubrick, is pretty out of the ordinary for a few reasons. First, there is a lot of dispute over whether it should be considered unfinished since Kubrick passed away a few days after delivering a final cut. He often continued altering his films until the last possible second, so some contend that he would have done more with Eyes Wide Shut. The studio and the late director’s estate also had to complete some unfinished post-production work after his death. Kubrick, however, is said to have been very happy with the cut he turned in. Eyes Wide Shut also holds the record for the longest continual film shoot of all time: 400 days.
The film is also pretty astounding because of its cast, and not just because Cruise and Kidman are talented actors. The film is a sprawling and intense study of a marriage. In the film’s almost three-hour runtime, Eyes Wide Shut tackles many subjects, including how to make a marriage work, how marriages fall apart, what it means to be a spouse, and the nuances of commitment. For this reason, the fact that that Cruise and Kidman were really married at the time feels significant.
Considering the film’s grueling shoot, the idea that the process of creating Eyes Wide Shut with the notoriously demanding director might have affected their relationship doesn’t seem out of the question. After all, they would have been constantly revisiting these themes and characters for over a year. Cruise and Kidman divorced in 2001, two years after the film’s release.
Something notable about the film itself is the abundance of scenes of Bill walking around. While fans must have enjoyed this decision from Kubrick, many critics have said that these scenes unnecessarily add to an already bloated film. The below video essay by Fabian Broeker explores the significance of these scenes and how they contribute to the film’s dreamlike state. Titled “Dream Walking,” this montage drives home the reason why these moments are important to the narrative.
People can interpret all of Kubrick’s extremely layered films in many different ways. Eyes Wide Shut perhaps even more so because of the director’s untimely death. The film heavily explores the notion of dreams. After all, the film is an adaptation of the 1926 novella “Dream Story” by Arthur Schnitzler. Also, the plot is set in motion by Alice’s revelation that she’s had dreams about other men.
On his aforementioned journey, Bill visits many places. To name a few, throughout the night he finds himself in a morgue, a costume shop, a shoebox apartment, and a sweeping mansion where a ritual orgy is taking place. Scenes of Bill walking around are interspersed between each location. Most of the time, the camera is either following or leading Bill.
So many things about these shots contribute to this motif of dreams. For one thing, long takes like this have an inherently hypnotic quality. Getting to follow Bill in long and meticulously choreographed shots as he navigates through the beautiful production design is mesmerizing. As the camera moves with him, uninterrupted, we feel as though we’re following him on a journey to god knows where. Often, he is simply aimlessly wandering and our imaginations can run wild. The fact that he’s visiting unconventional, frightening and sometimes outright ridiculous locales adds to the dreaminess as well.
Something else that draws you into this atmosphere is the location of filming. Kubrick had a fear of flying. This meant they had to shoot the film in England where he was living at the time. However, Eyes Wide Shut takes place in New York City, which can be a difficult place to replicate. They went to great lengths to reproduce Greenwich Village in an outdoor set at Pinewood studios in England. The final product looks great. However, there is something eerie about the way the setting seems just the slightest bit off. The set looks like New York but still feels inauthentic.
This feeling of being somewhere familiar, but you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, is a common sensation in dreams. Whether or not this was intentional – your guess is as good as mine when it comes to Kubrick – the atmosphere the decision created works well for the final product. The result is that filming at the studio in England adds to the dream state idea and maybe even makes it slightly more nightmarish.
The film begins with a fight and ends with forgiveness. The dreaminess of all previous scenes is important for the emotional weight of Bill and Alice’s reconciliation. Once the audience feels lulled in by these scenes, the final scene is a stark wake-up call. Marriage is work and if Alice and Bill are going to work to save theirs, we all need to wake up.
We can view Bill’s odyssey as a path back to Alice and his marriage. The dream state is an undesirable one that Bill has entered because of his disillusionment with his marriage. Once Bill finally confesses where he was all night to Alice, the dreamy atmosphere of the film is broken. When they reconcile the next day, Bill’s return to reality is consolidated, so to speak. The earlier mentioned quote comes from Bill and Alice’s final conversation in the film. In their attempt to make amends with one another, they both agree that the “dream” is over. The two cannot erase or ignore last night’s events, but they can choose to move past them. Both characters agree that they’re “awake” now and that that’s all that matters. Bill even promises he will remain that way “forever,” which Alice says she finds to be a frightening idea.
When this scene arrives at the end of the film, even though the meaning of their conversation is ambiguous; the words they exchange seem to make a lot of sense. Bill needs to leave the dream state to find his way back to Alice and their marriage. Returning to the idea of movement, this conversation is entirely stagnant. Bill and Alice stand face to face unmoving in a department store for a few minutes for its entirety. Instead of floating from location to location, as Bill does throughout the majority of the film, they are grounded in the moment. As for their fate, Eyes Wide Shut is open-ended. Can Bill and Alice remain motionless and awake? Perhaps more importantly, do we believe that that’s what they really want?