Kubrick’s Strange Love

Eyes Wide Shut

a film by Stanley Kubrick

Eyes Wide Shut, the thirteenth and last feature film directed by Stanley Kubrick, who died on March 7, is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, which was published in 1926. Schnitzler’s story is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna and Kubrick’s movie is set in contemporary New York City, but otherwise the adaptation is pretty faithful. A successful doctor and his wife, happily married and with a young daughter, go to a party one evening where they are flirted with, separately, by attractive strangers. The doctor, at one point, is called away by the host to minister to a young, naked woman who has overdosed in an upstairs bathroom. When the doctor and his wife get home they discover that the experience has aroused a sexual passion that had become semi-dormant, and their renewed intimacy inspires the wife to confess to an intense but unconsummated infatuation with a man she had glimpsed briefly at a vacation spot the previous summer.

The doctor is a little shocked by his wife’s revelation; he had not imagined her capable of deception, or of a desire not grounded in domestic affection, and he is in the middle of sorting out his feelings when he is called to the house of a patient. This begins a series of erotic misadventures which take up the rest of the doctor’s night, culminating in his appearance, in disguise, at an orgy where all the participants are masked. He is found out and threatened with death, but one of the orgiasts, a beautiful woman, pleads for his life, offering to accept his punishment herself. The doctor is allowed to flee. The next day, he retraces his steps to see if he can learn the identity of his deliverer, but he is continually frustrated, and he ends by finding, in a morgue, the body of a woman who has died under mysterious circumstances. We later gather both that she was the woman he had earlier treated and that she might have been the woman at the orgy. He goes home again to his wife, who has been having her own erotic nightmares, and, shaken by their exposure to the libidinal nightworld, they reaffirm their commitment to each other and to nice safe marital sex.

Kubrick at one point reportedly planned to film this story as a comedy, and thought of casting Steve Martin as the doctor. But he eventually signed Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, no comedians, to play the doctor and the doctor’s wife; and he instructed his screenwriter, Frederic Raphael, to stick close to the Schnitzler novel, which is a fairly earnest piece of Weimar-era Freudiana. Raphael and Kubrick spent more than a year on the script, beginning in 1994; shooting took another year. The result, in spite of everything, is pretty funny.

Kubrick had a reputation for remorseless intelligence. He knew what he wanted (or, which was just as valuable for his purposes, what he didn’t want), and he had set things up …

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