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How ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ Went From Disappointment to Unlikely Christmas Classic

When Stanley Kubrick’s final film opened in the summer of 1999, most thought it was a misfire. More than 20 years later, it’s now properly appreciated as a strangely appropriate encapsulation of all that’s alienating and weirdly entrancing about the holidays

My Christmas wish is that you live long enough to watch the films that got savaged in your youth be embraced as masterpieces in adulthood. It’s now fairly common to see “Why [bad movie] is actually good” think-pieces, but there’s nothing quite like living your life with decades passing, and then discovering that the world has come around to your way of thinking about a certain film. Movies don’t change — we do — and I now reside in a universe where the consensus is that Eyes Wide Shut is amazing. It wasn’t always like this, and as we head into another Christmas season, one of the strangest (and yet fitting) holiday movies is worth celebrating for the strange road it took to being reappraised.

It’s common now to lionize 1999 as one of the great years in movies. No matter what kind of film you prefer, there was something special for you that year — everything from The Matrix to The Insider to The Sixth Sense to Election to Three Kings to Flowers of Shanghai to Topsy-Turvy to All About My Mother. That summer, The Phantom Menace was easily the most-anticipated blockbuster, but among cineastes, no film was more anxiously awaited than the new movie from Stanley Kubrick, who hadn’t put out anything in more than a decade. The Oscar-winning director had long had a reputation for taking his time between projects — and for being meticulous, even obsessive, about shooting multiple takes of each scene — but that mixture of perfectionism and brilliance only made fans that much more excited for what he’d do next.

Of course, it helped that Eyes Wide Shut was wrapped in mystery, despite starring one of the most famous married couples in the world, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Kubrick never liked discussing what his movies were about — he also resisted doing interviews — and all the studio, Warner Bros., would say was that it was ”a story of sexual jealousy and obsession.” 

So what did that mean, exactly? There were rumors that it would be super kinky. There were stories that Cruise would wear a dress. And screenwriter Frederic Raphael, who with Kubrick adapted Arthur Schnitzler’s novel Traumnovelle, told Entertainment Weekly before the film came out, “Like a lot of people of my generation, I think Stanley felt he missed the sexual revolution. We all felt like we were born too early or too late for the orgy. And Stanley was curious about that. Also, it was a genre — the sexual relations film — he’d never attempted before. As a director, I think he’d been wanting to explore that for a long time.” 

Most films are shot over a few months — Eyes Wide Shut went more than a year, with Kubrick and his two stars holed up in England, no one for sure knowing when production would be over. Cruise once recalled, “I remember talking to Stanley and I said, ‘Look, I don’t care how long it takes, but I have to know: Are we going to finish in six months?’ People were waiting and writers were waiting. I’d say, ‘Stanley, I don’t care — tell me it’s going to be two years.’” Cruise, one of Hollywood’s surest things commercially, hadn’t been in a movie since Jerry Maguire, which only added more anticipation to what, exactly, this film would be, and when the hell we’d get to see it.

And then just a few months before Eyes Wide Shut hit theaters, Kubrick died suddenly at age 70. The reports were that Cruise and Kidman had just seen the finished product before his passing, and soon the excitement around the movie was laced with melancholy. We’d been waiting 12 years for a new Stanley Kubrick picture — and now this was going to be the last one we’d ever see. 

The film opened July 16th during the thick of summer movie season, and it was greeted with the kind of buzz you normally see for a special-effects blockbuster, debuting at No. 1 and knocking American Pie out of the top spot. But the reviews were far from ecstatic, with several critics feeling that the deceased master had failed to deliver a convincing portrait of sexual jeaously and obsession. As Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman put it, “[W]hat we see, instead, is a vague, fragmentary mishmash of ominousness and cheap thrills — Red Shoe Diaries with metaphysical pretensions. I have always been an ardent Kubrick fanatic, but Eyes Wide Shut, a movie that views sexuality not as experience but as ritual, has an oddly formal, closed-off quality, like a dream that has already been analyzed on a shrink’s couch.”

It wasn’t just critics who were thrown. Eyes Wide Shut told a seemingly strange story about a married couple, Bill (Cruise) and Alice (Kidman), over the holidays as they go to a rich friend Victor’s (Sydney Pollack) Christmas party, both of them experiencing flirtations with attractive strangers. Later back at home, Bill and Alice get stoned and, while discussing marital temptations, she admits that, years earlier, she had strongly fantasized about having an affair. The revelation unmoors Bill, who heads out into the night to check in on one of his patients. Soon, though, he’s involved in an increasingly surreal series of misadventures, leading him ultimately to crash an orgy. 

That description could make Eyes Wide Shut sound like a rollicking sex farce, but Kubrick played it straight, inviting the audience to wonder if Bill’s escapades are actually just in his head, but then offering enough elements of menace that we’re not quite sure what to think. Cerebral and difficult, Eyes Wide Shut quickly shed theaters in subsequent weeks as viewers balked at its metaphors and ambiguities. (On Cinemascore, which polls audiences on their reactions to movies, respondents gave it a D-.) Commercially, it actually did pretty well, bringing in about $160 million worldwide, but the film received no Oscar nominations and didn’t appear on a ton of critics’ Top 10 lists that year. The consensus was that the movie failed to be sexy, and that Cruise was pretty stiff in it. Most lamented that Kubrick’s swan song was such a disappointment. Those of us who actually liked Eyes Wide Shut were treated with pity: Why couldn’t we just accept that it was bad?

Of course, the movie had its share of fans even back then — Martin Scorsese listed Eyes Wide Shut as one of his 10 favorite films of the 1990s — but it’s taken a while for it to be celebrated the way that Kubrick’s previous films were. That has seemed to be his pattern: Stunners like 2001 and Barry Lyndon had angry detractors upon their releases, too, and now they’re considered some of the finest movies ever made. (Fifty years after its release, A Clockwork Orange is still something we argue about.) 

But relitigating the “Is Eyes Wide Shut good or bad?” argument isn’t interesting to me. Instead, I’d rather focus on the interesting phenomenon of not just people coming to love the once-maligned movie, but celebrating it as a great Christmas movie — because, to my mind, those two positions seem to have dovetailed. The folks who respond so passionately to Eyes Wide Shut seem to connect to its yuletide setting — which its initial viewers, because the film opened in the summer, did not.

When you look around online, you see people discussing Eyes Wide Shut’s Christmas-ness in the same way folks used to argue for Die Hard as a legitimate Christmas movie: It’s not just that these films take place around the holidays, it’s that they convey something profound about the season itself. And while I think Die Hard is a Christmas movie, I think Eyes Wide Shut is even more so. 

But before I get into that, it’s worth outlining briefly the other factors that have helped elevate the film’s status since its release. For one, Kubrick’s stature has only grown since his death. His movies remain celebrated, and even if his controlling, demanding aesthetic is the sort of thing obnoxious film bros dig, he doesn’t alienate others. (Even those, like me, who hated his treatment of Shelley Duvall on The Shining acknowledge that her performance, which she sculpted and deserves endless credit for, is extraordinary and the actual soul of that film.) 

Plus, Cruise is an even bigger star than he was back then, with Eyes Wide Shut now viewed as one of his riskiest and most interesting on-screen portrayals. And Kidman was only beginning to come into her own: She had gotten plaudits for 1995’s To Die For, but after Eyes Wide Shut (and leaving Cruise), she went on one of the great all-time runs, starring in Moulin Rouge!, The Others, Dogville and Birth. (She won an Oscar during the time, too, for The Hours.) Frank Ocean memorably sampled the film for his breakthrough album Nostalgia, Ultra, and the film’s orgy scene — much ridiculed at the time for not being sexy enough — is now widely referenced in TV shows and other movies. And that’s to say nothing of the umpteen debates and discussions that the film has spurred about relationships, commitment and trust. Over a couple decades, Eyes Wide Shut has seeped into our collective consciousness. 

But none of that entirely explains its adoption as a seasonal favorite. Largely, I think it’s because the movie expresses something disquieting about Christmas. Kubrick was always excellent at illustrating the dehumanizing aspects of life — war, technology, incalculable evil — but he also liked to leave us feeling ill at ease about the institutions that were meant to make us feel loved and safe. (What is The Shining if not a deconstruction of the myth of the happy family unit?) 

Eyes Wide Shut looks at the impossibility of keeping a relationship going — Bill and Alice aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, mostly going through the motions — but it has just as dim a view (or is it just realistic?) about the holidays. We see Christmas lights or ornaments in many of the scenes — we’re always reminded that it is Christmastime — but there’s very little yuletide cheer in the images. And although Bill and Alice have a daughter, Eyes Wide Shut is mostly devoid of children — it’s a Christmas movie without kids, populated by sad, solitary adults. It’s a Christmas movie that has no Christmas spirit.

And yet, that chilliness is partly why people respond to Eyes Wide Shut. You don’t have to be in love with the holidays to understand why there’s something deeply sad about the season — to feel like it’s yet another aspect of life that’s far more disappointing than advertised. Of course, there have always been movies that cater to the bah-humbug crowd — lazily misanthropic comedies like Bad Santa, for instance — but Eyes Wide Shut is more elegantly gloomy. The ornate classical music on the score both mocks the festiveness of the season and also Bill and Alice’s upscale existence, serving as another example of the spiritual desolation that we’re all supposed to pretend we don’t feel during Christmas.

That all sounds pretty dreary, but that’s not how Kubrick’s message is received by people who love the movie. Instead, Eyes Wide Shut feels like a sophisticated portrait of urban alienation — an exploration of how Christmas feels in the big city when you’re cut off from your fellow man. Whether it’s Victor’s lavish party at the film’s start or Bill’s later reunion with his old classmate Nick (Todd Field) in a nightclub, Christmas lights hanging on the walls and from the ceiling, Bill can’t quite connect with anyone — and that’s especially true of his wife, who has floored him with the news of this possible infidelity from long ago. If the holidays are a time to be with the ones we love, Bill is going to learn how marooned he is. But the truth is, we all feel that way sometimes, and even Christmas can’t save us. Strangely, the preciseness of Kubrick’s vision is like a warm cocoon — we feel safe in Bill’s odd journey, even if Bill doesn’t always.

Plus, Eyes Wide Shut has a somewhat similar narrative trajectory to two other Christmas classics, A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, which send their disillusioned protagonists on a somewhat fantastical voyage to discover a different version of their lives, the path not taken. In those earlier works, the main characters emerge profoundly changed, coming to appreciate the world and the true meaning of Christmas. Does Bill? It’s debatable — and very much in keeping with Kubrick’s reluctance to offer clear-cut endings, leaving viewers for decades to argue over whether Bill and Alice are in a better place at the film’s conclusion. But even that is part of Eyes Wide Shut’s Christmas allure: We rarely get the seasonal miracles that are visited upon Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey. More often, we’re like Bill and Alice, puzzling over what to do next as we’re wandering through a department store.

There are plenty of ways in which to dissect Eyes Wide Shut’s distortion of Christmastime solemnity. Is the movie a critique of capitalism? (Bill’s utterly inept flirtation with the hooker Domino, played by Vinessa Shaw, underlines the grossness of consumerism.) Does the film’s kinky mixture of sex and death puncture the holiday’s more chaiste tendencies? And by setting a film about sexual paranoia and repressed desire during the most joyous time of year, is Kubrick saying something about our odd need to separate the more carnal aspects of ourselves from our fundamental nature? Are we all still basically children, craving the innocence of a time when we believed in Santa Claus and thought babies came from storks? 

The film’s final line, which I won’t spoil if you’ve somehow never seen Eyes Wide Shut, seems to suggest that we can’t reconcile our adult impulses with the purity we attach to Christmas — or our vision of romantic commitment.

But that’s all intellectual. When you get right down to it, despite the film’s chilly tenor and clinical distancing, Eyes Wide Shut nonetheless captures something surprisingly ethereal about the holidays. Partly, it’s those Christmas lights hung throughout the film: Kubrick’s cinematographer Larry Smith talked about finding the white lights used in the opening party sequence, recalling, “We tried out a variety of different Christmas lights before I found the ones I wanted in a catalogue. They were very low-wattage, but had a really magical quality.”

That unnervingly beautiful scene sets the tone for the rest of Eyes Wide Shut, which takes place mostly at night, existing in a dreamlike state that unconsciously echoes the eerie thrill of Christmas Eve evening, wondering what you’re getting from Santa the next morning. Anyone who goes to Midnight Mass knows that sense of hushed anticipation — that feeling that most of the world is asleep, leaving the city an unfiltered playground for you and a select few others — and Bill’s weird saga while Alice is conked out in bed has the same sort of illicit rush. The same naughty streak you showed by sneaking downstairs to see if Santa had left you something is embodied in Bill, except his sexual exploration may get him punished far more severely. We don’t often equate sex with the sanctity of Christmas. Eyes Wide Shut makes the connection symbolic but palpable.

While the rest of humanity watches something wholesome for the holidays, like A Christmas Story, your hip, edgier friends will be enjoying Eyes Wide Shut, which now frequently gets revival screenings during the wintertime. Some might say it’s a demented choice, but for anyone who resists the forced cheerfulness of the season, Kubrick’s final film is a tart rejoinder, envisioning Christmas as little more than a sham orchestrated to vainly make people forget what’s so unfulfilled in their lives. No present is going to make Bill feel better — no carol can make him forget Alice’s long-burning desire to be free of him. In Eyes Wide Shut, marriage is hard, Christmas is a lie and all that’s assured is each of us is basically alone, even if we’re surrounded by family. 

It may not be a wonderful life, but there’s comfort in knowing it’s the life most of us recognize as our own.