(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
What constitutes a Christmas film? We know that A Christmas Story (1983) is a Christmas film. It Happened On Fifth Avenue (1947) is a Christmas film. But is Gremlins (1984) a Christmas film? Is Edward Scissorhands (1990)? How about Batman Returns (1992), Reindeer Games (2000), Black Christmas (1974), or Trading Places (1983)? They all take place during the holiday season, yet the aforementioned are not commonly regarded as Christmas films. If it’s not the seasonal connotation, perhaps it’s the emotional resonance of compassionate themes coupled with the backdrop of late December. Maybe it’s a character realizing what they have to be thankful for – a spouse, a child, a family, a brighter future – and beginning a metamorphosis into a new version of self. After all, the motifs of birth and rebirth are scattered all across the holiday season. Whether it be the year coming to a close and a new one beginning or a child being born in Bethlehem, Christmas is a paradox of old and new, of transformation and alteration.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) may not fit the traditional classification of a Christmas film, but the fact that it takes place during the holidays isn’t arbitrary. Whether it be for aesthetics or thematics, it was a purposeful choice made by the director, Stanley Kubrick. Notorious for his meticulous attention to detail, there is rarely anything in a Kubrick frame that wasn’t expertly considered. In post-production, Kubrick took the liberty of editing his work, marking every frame and segment by hand. Oftentimes, he was still tinkering with the footage hours and minutes before the film was set to premiere. As his career progressed, Kubrick’s technical obsessiveness began to express itself as a hyper-stylization that would come to define his work. The grandiose visuals and revolutionary photographic elements of his films have become so ingrained within thecinematic zeitgeist that the adjective “Kubrickian” has become commonplace cinephile terminology. Steven Spielberg once referred to Kubrick’s work not as films, but as “environmental experiences that get more intense the more you watch them.”
Eyes Wide Shut is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, Dream Story. It was a project Kubrick had been trying to get off the ground since the early 1970s. In its infancy, Kubrick envisioned Woody Allen as the film’s lead. But as the years passed and the adaptation process expanded, Kubrick found himself reimagining the source material. Much like his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining (1980), the director would take drastic artistic liberties transferring the page to the screen, modifying Schnitzler’s story into his own.
Beginning production in 1996, Eyes Wide Shut would shoot for over four hundred days, earning a Guinness Book of World Records accolade as the longest shoot in film history: “for over fifteen months, a period that included an unbroken shoot of forty-six weeks.” On March 1st, 1999, Kubrick screened the assembly cut of Eyes Wide Shut to Warner Brothers. Six days later, he died of a heart attack.
Kubrick’s perfectionism had led to an increasingly complex post-production process, which was left in limbo after his death. At the time of his funeral, Eyes Wide Shut was still in the midst of scoring sessions. The sound mix and overdubs were incomplete. The edit of the film was on the cutting room floor.“I think Stanley would have been tinkering with it for the next twenty years,” Nicole Kidman (Alice Harford) said of the film. “He was never finished. It was never perfect enough.” Warner Brothers released Eyes Wide Shut on July 16th, 1999, following a marketing campaign that advertised it as a steamy summer blockbuster featuring Hollywood’s flavor-of-the-week power couple at their most scandalous.
Eyes Wide Shut has become a polarizing film in Kubrick’s otherwise revered filmography. Is it what Kubrick intended to make? Was Warner Brothers exploitative in its release, misleading the audience’s expectations? Furthermore, what was Kubrick trying to say with Eyes Wide Shut? Is the film a critique of capitalism? A meditation on suppressed desires within the conscious state? Commentary on the power of sex as a coping mechanism, a shameful kink, or a transaction of pleasure? Is it Kubrick’s subtle effort to expose the long-rumored pedophile ring amongst his elite Hollywood peers? Or perhaps it’s his modern-day re-telling of Alice In Wonderland?
Books and essays have, and will undoubtedly continue to be, written about all of this, furthering the cryptic mythology of Eyes Wide Shut. What we know for certain is what appears on screen was endlessly deliberated over by Kubrick, his well-documented fastidious nature in full swing: costuming, art direction, camera placement, blocking, lighting, set decoration, etc. Regardless of post-production aspects such as editing, scoring, and mixing, the production elements have Kubrick’s fingerprints all over them. So why did Kubrick choose to set an esoteric film about sexuality, dreams, and infidelity during Christmas?
While adapting Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story, Kubrick and screenwriter Frederic Raphael made many notable changes, most of which are documented in Raphael’s memoir, Eyes Wide Open. For instance, instead of the main couple being Jewish (as they were in Schnitzler’s novella), Kubrick made his protagonists “vanilla Americans” in an effort to identify American audiences to the Harford’s, amplifying the contrast between their commonality and the atypical plight their relationship undergoes.
There is far less information on why Kubrick wanted to set the film in 1990s NYC during Christmas (the book takes place in Vienna “just before the end of the carnival period” during the turn of the twentieth century). This change is even more puzzling when considering Kubrick’s choice to shoot the film at Pinewood Studios in the UK as opposed to on location in New York. Some believe this was due to the amount of manipulation a controlled environment such as a studio offered Kubrick. Others believe it was due to Kubrick’s fear of flying, which had escalated in his later years. Whatever it may have been, Kubrick’s choice of New York City during Christmas was unquestionably resolute.
Kubrick is using our notion of Christmas as a comfortable and familiar time of year – perhaps the most wonderful time of year – as a tool to disrupt us. The contrast between Christmas as a universally joyous occasion and the foreboding events that the Harford’s find themselves in creates an uneasy juxtaposition. It’s a film with customary Christmas motifs such as marriage and family, set in arguably the most recognizable city in the world during the biggest holiday season. But the look of the city has an unnatural, fabricated undercurrent. And while the film deals with the complications of marriage and family, it does so by presenting us with backroom drug overdoses, child prostitution, and secret Illuminati orgies.
The look of Christmas permeates the entirety of Eyes Wide Shut. Cinematographer Larry Smith (who first worked with Kubrick as a gaffer on Barry Lyndon (1975) lit the film primarily with practical light sources such as Christmas tree lights, per Kubrick’s request. The film is hazy, glowing red and green, enhanced by the push processing of the 35mm film to intensify the saturation. We see Christmas trees and lights everywhere. But most of these seasonal decorations are within the confines of dark places: an after-hours jazz club, a prostitute’s dingy apartment, a seedy costume shop where a father sells his teenage daughter’s body. The exterior storefronts are decorated, but they’re closed for the night. The city streets are adorned with wreaths and tinsel, but they’re empty and cold. These are not places we associate with the joyous spirit of Christmas.
We identify Christmas as a time when family comes together, but in Eyes Wide Shut we watch the Harfords come apart, stricken with thoughts of infidelity. By using Christmas as scenery for the film’s malevolent themes, a discordant mood emerges that upsets our perception of the holiday and the story taking place. This creates tension within the viewer as the film continuously contrasts the familiar with the unknown, the benevolent with the sinister.
Eyes Wide Shut challenges our perception of what defines a Christmas film. At the forefront of the genre, we have classics such as It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) or any version of A Christmas Carol. These are films that not only take place during Christmas but probe the season for its deeper emotional resonance – what is the feeling of Christmas? Thematically, they share a preoccupation with the concept of return; reclaiming something that the protagonist is afraid to lose or fears has already lost. Even a film such as Die Hard (1988) is essentially about a man trying to repair his family life in time for Christmas. Although the Christmas film is a genre-hybrid that differs from category to category, they all deal with puritanical themes that are deeply rooted within the Christian view of the holiday. From the vantage point of religion, Christmas is about birth. But from the lens of cinema, Christmas is about rebirth; the change and transformation within the human condition.
If we approach Eyes Wide Shut as a Christmas film, a sub-genre based around a character’s rebirth during the holiday season, we need to start by looking at Bill Harford (Tom Cruise). Bill is a successful doctor, husband, and father. When we first meet Bill, he and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman) are in their high-rise Manhattan apartment, getting ready for a ritzy holiday party hosted by one of Bill’s wealthy patients. Cloaked in formal wear, the couple tells their young daughter that she can stay up late to watch The Nutcracker on TV. They say goodbye to the babysitter before exiting the apartment. So far, so good, right? Christmas. Family. New York City. A holiday party. We know these things. We understand them.
While at the party, Bill and Alice are separated, tempted and seduced from outside parties. Later that night, the couple confronts each other based on their assumptions of infidelity. Alice confesses she’s had fantasies about being with other men, including a naval officer she met on a vacation. “If he wanted me,” she says, “I would give up everything. You. Helena. My whole fucking future. Everything” Wait. Pause. This doesn’t register as Christmasy at all. Is this a Christmas film?
Disturbed by Alice’s confession, Bill leaves the apartment for a house call. This leads to a series of dangerous and perplexing events that take place throughout one night, challenging Bill’s faithfulness to Alice as well as resetting his moral compass.
When Bill returns home in the wee small hours of the morning, trying to gather himself and make sense of the night’s events, he approaches the glowing Christmas tree in the living room and shuts it off. And all at once – the shimmering red and green lights, the surreal Kubrickian trip through after-hours jazz clubs and decadent masked orgies – fades away like a half-remembered dream. We’re left in the cold blue light of reality.
The following day, Bill retraces his steps by sunlight, realizing the potential consequences of his actions from the night before. Had he made different choices, throwing caution to the wind and acting upon impulses, he could have contracted AIDS. He could have been killed. And maybe, other people could have lived.
We need look no further than characters such as George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol to identify the Christmas film’s archetypical hero. Bill Harford is part of this continuum. Just as Bailey and Scrooge are shown alternate versions of what could’ve been and what will be based on their actions throughout a single night, Bill spends an evening in a sexually charged alternate landscape of reality. Through this series of events, we come to realize that Bill isn’t trying to leave his marriage or distance himself from Alice – he’s trying to find a way back to her. He’s trying to repair the broken relationship; reclaim the love that has been lost.
Eyes Wide Shut ends with Bill and Alice shopping with their daughter at a crowded F.A.O Schwarz toy store. Bill has confessed the events of the past twenty-four hours to Alice. The couple acknowledges their love for each other, and Alice says, “I think we should be grateful. Grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures. Whether they were real, or only a dream.” Although we’re never given an epilogue to the Harford’s marriage, we leave the film knowing that (at least for the time being) the Harford’s have come back together. And Alice wants to fuck. Merry Christmas!
In his review for Nashville Scene, columnist Jason Shawhan wrote, “Eyes Wide Shut is the perfect embodiment of capitalist Christmas tendencies, wherein money talks and class supplants everything.” Harper’s film critic, Lee Siegel, believes that the film’s recurring motif is the Christmas tree. Siegel wrote that it symbolizes the way that “compared with the everyday reality of sex and emotion, our fantasies of gratification are pompous and solemn in the extreme…for desire is like Christmas: it always promises more than it delivers.”
Eyes Wide Shut has been called an erotic mystery, a psychosexual drama, and a paranoid thriller. But is it a Christmas film? It decisively takes place during Christmas and shares all of the prototypical hallmarks of the genre. In comparing and contrasting, Bill Harford’s journey isn’t too far off from that of Christmas archetypes such as George Bailey or Ebenezer Scrooge. Maybe it’s not the kind of film you want to watch with the family on Christmas day, but does that negate it categorically?
The next time you’re at a holiday party or posted up at a bar, you may overhear the well-worn back and forth discourse of Die Hard as a Christmas film. Take the opportunity to chime in and make mention of Eyes Wide Shut. See what kind of response you get. There’s a lot to debate, but there’s no denying that Eyes Wide Shut – whatever it may be – is Kubrick’s Christmas film. | e hehr