Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Opening Eyes Wide Shut: Genre, Reception, and Kubrick's Last Film

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Opening Eyes Wide Shut: Genre, Reception, and Kubrick's Last Film

Article excerpt

Disturbing both stylistically and thematically, refusing ever to do what is expected of him though sometimes infiltrating traditional cinematic genres . . . as a visionary film-maker bringing his most personal obsessions to life on the screen of his fantasy, [Kubrick] has been able to apprehend the underlying tensions of his period and tap its collective unconscious.

Michel Ciment (43)

Receiving Stanley Kubrick- however one chooses to define him- has never been a simple task.

Jason Sperb ("Their Eyes" 125)

IN SPITE OF KUBRICK'S REPUTATION AS AN important- albeit reclusive and eccentricauteur and his death on 7 March 1999, a few months before the film's release, reviewers did not handle Eyes Wide Shut (1999) with kid gloves. Indeed, it has since become commonplace to assert that critics overwhelmingly panned the film (D. Johnson 55; Kreider 280; Sperb, "Their Eyes" 125). Clearly, Eyes Wide Shut was widely misunderstood, but it elicited a somewhat more ambivalent response than subsequent analyses have suggested. Although some labeled it puerile, pompous, unrealistic, risible, unsexy, and anachronistic, the film nonetheless caught viewers' attention with its dreamlike camera work, paranoid protagonist, and "extraordinary orgy sequence" (Ebert). More recent assessments, such as Michel Chion's monograph devoted to what he considers one of Kubrick's top three films (9), suggest the need for a révaluation of the initial critical reaction to Eyes Wide Shut and the reasons for it.

Although some scholars have peripherally discussed post-release responses to Eyes Wide Shut (EWS], none has made the argument outlined in this article: that the perceived "failure" of Kubrick's last film can be attributed not to its flaws as a work of art but rather to critics' misplaced expectations about the film's genre and its conventions. Throughout his career, the director worked with non-canonical film genres such as horror (The Shining, 1980), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1964; A Clockwork Orange, 1971), and social satire (Dr. Strangelove, 1964). Most of his film projects developed out of existing literary works, and even the most canonical of these, such as the film version of Nabokov's Lolita (1962), explored the edges of the socially acceptable. Such is the case, as well, with his final film, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle (1926), literally a "Dream Novel." EWS explores the dangers of sexual fantasy and marital infidelity, using the tropes and narrative structure of Gothic horror.

The growing body of literature devoted to Eyes Wide Shut in the ten years since its release most frequently offers the hypothesis of a misleading publicity campaign to explain a somewhat general sense of disappointment among the film's initial critics and audience (e.g., Sperb, "Their Eyes" 126-27; Kreider 280). Lindiwe Dovey's recent analysis links EWS's failed reception not only to its mis-marketing by Warner Brothers as "the sexiest movie ever" (qtd. in Rasmussen 333) but also to genre expectations set up by that campaign: "Audiences who were expecting an erotic thriller from the film were sorely disappointed; they received, instead, a kind of horror thriller" (174). In terms of stock Hollywood genres, a handful of contemporary and more recent critics, including Dovey, identify the film as a "thriller" (Ebert; Naremore 23). A conventional thriller, though, tends to provide an explanation for the unsettling events it portrays, something that EWS, as many reviewers have observed, does not do. Indeed, Richard Schickel observed in 1999 of Kubrick's career prior to EWS that "[mjost of his pictures, whatever their genre roots, disappointed genre expectations, not to mention critical anticipation and occasionally the studio's box-office ambitions" (69). As I argue here, Eyes Wide Shut proved to be no exception.

For its status as a failed or successful adaptation of its literary source, Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle (1926) represents another focal point for commentary on EWS, both in mass media reviews and academic analyses (e. …

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