‘Voyeurs welcome’ went the advertising campaign. It wasn’t a spoken agreement. It was a look. In the theatrical trailer for Eyes Wide Shut, the defining image is of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, naked, making-out in front of a mirror. Tom has his eyes closed to what he’s doing. He can’t see himself in heat. But Nicole’s eyes are open, she’s watching herself in that mirror, and her look is fearful, hunted. Tom’s hand is round her throat. It’s as if she sees his brute desire in that mirror. As much as she enjoys it – and, rest assured, she does enjoy it too – catching desire is dangerous. He’s in the grip of lust: right where we are. By looking in the mirror, Nicole dares us to admit: we want to see. She snares the voyeur.
People want sex from this couple, whether in life, or on-screen. They ripple with it. Director Stanley Kubrick has Nicole naked before the credits have even begun. (She puts on her bra like someone anxious to let us look at her chest.) At a society dinner in New York, they are each offered sex before they get to their appetisers. Their marriage seems to have a vacancy. Nicole knows this; she’s seen a possible tenant. In a lovers tiff, after the party, she tells Tom about her fantasy of running away with a handsome sailor. Tom is shocked. He didn’t know she had such thoughts. He leaves her for the night, taking the idea of adultery with him. Jealousy throbs in him like lust. This night, he can’t recognise himself.
Kubrick films Tom’s odyssey as if it were in between dreams. Even the dinner party is drunk on light: yellowy in a way that reminds you of sleep. Tom drifts from one erotic encounter to another, at first resistant, then curious, then…whatever you are when you’re stood-by at an orgy. The movie isn’t pornographic. There’s a lot of sex, but it’s all viewed like fine art. Kubrick is more interested in the mental process of desire. He wants us to think about where sex lives; its tense relationship with morality. The title of the movie is about Tom, the everyman, blind to himself. The plot is a series of unveilings. At the orgy, Tom wears a mask. When he’s asked to remove it… he’s asked to look at himself. What’s interesting is that the house where the orgy takes place is lit yellow, like the dinner party. The “court” that tries Tom is lit white, like sudden day.
Tom Cruise is perfectly cast here because he embodies unblemished masculinity. His screen persona isn’t sexual (like, let’s say, a young Mickey Rourke). He’s wholesome. Tom is to marriage what Mickey is to smut. When he tells his wife – his real wife, at the time – that he loves her, he’s convinced of it. Tom is fully committed to being good. But, of course, he’s also lying to himself. In his scenes with Nicole, he’s instantly vulnerable because he can’t acknowledge anything unwholesome. It’s a rare role for a leading man, because a woman knows more about sex – and him – than he does. Nicole makes Tom jealous in order to teach him a lesson: be humble. No-one governs desire. Least of all: men like Tom.
Nicole’s fear, and anger, is brimming. Her role is to be the madwoman in the attic, the one who warns Tom against complacency. It’s a mistake to think she wants to have an affair. She wants Tom to fear an affair, the way she does; to understand that love isn’t impregnable to desire. When she tells him about a dream – all sex and anarchy – she’s afraid because, in the dream, desire belittles love. Nicole never sleeps with anyone but Tom in the movie, but the threat posed by others – or rather, the possibility she might give in to that threat – is always present in her mind. She knows she could be weak; she knows Tom could be too. At the end, they aren’t any safer, they’re just equal.
They’ve each been visited by doubt.
The movie isn’t anti-marriage; it believes in marriage vehemently. Wherever Tom goes in New York there’s a Christmas tree: a symbol of family. In every room – even the hooker’s apartment Tom frequents –there’s a tree: a reminder of selfless choice, quite apart from self-gratification. Nicole (as wife and mother) pricks Tom to be honest. She doesn’t want him to commit to her lightly. She, after all, struggles every day. She may even be the movie’s hero. In Fidelio (Beethoven’s opera, and, tellingly, the password to enter the orgy), the protagonist is saved by his wife. Eyes Wide Shut makes Nicole such an object of desire, it’s hard to see her virtues, aside from sex. But ultimately, she’s the one who makes Tom open his eyes.