Stanley Kubrick died six days after he sent Eyes Wide Shut final cut to Warner Bros. And this, if you know Kubrick’s perfectionism, doesn’t mean in any way that the version of Eyes Wide Shut that we know is the one he really wanted, neither it means that it was the perfect version. Because two things are sure: first, Warner Bros applied several modifications to Kubrick’s version (“leaving the original idea unchanged” someone said, but people still wonder if Kubrick would have liked the changes); and second, for Kubrick the definitive version just doesn’t exist. His obsessive tendency to perfection led him to modify his films even when time was over (for 2001: A Space Odyssey last changes took place after the first screenings in cinemas). Even Nicole Kidman was sure:“I think Stanley would have been tinkering with it for the next 20 years. He was still tinkering with movies he made decades ago. He was never finished. It was never perfect enough.”
This is why, besides the big question about the true meaning of Eyes Wide Shut, there is often another one: is this the Eyes Wide Shut that Kubrick really wanted? Kubrick’s head had begun to elaborate this film from 1968, when he read Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, a novella that triggered his intention to make a move about the relationship between man and woman, something he thought about for years. Eighteen years later shooting began, and it set the Guinness World Records for the longest constant movie shoot: 400 days without interruptions. Then nine months to refine its results, up to the version sent to Warner. Six days later, Kubrick dies. Let’s just say that the possibility that just this was the perfect version is at the limits of the impossible. And if the question about the meaning of the movie involved hundreds of conspiracy theorists in the world (who are quite sure that this is a film about the Illuminati, as well as The Shining was the confession of the fake moon landing), the doubt about how much Kubrick would really appreciate this version comes also from iimportant colleagues, such as David Lynch and Christopher Nolan.
A famous quote by Salvador Dalí says: “Have no fear of perfection: you’ll never reach it.” Perfectionism is a common feature of great artists, and it’s good for us: we would never like to see one of our myths giving up early into an imperfect scene, song or page, just to speed up. Of course, Kubrick is likely to be one of the worst (or should we say best?) cases of perfectionism. The most famous example is probably a sequence on The Shining, where Jack Nicholson gets crazy and Shelley Duvall walks backwards on the stairs: Kubrick wanted to shoot it so many times that the exact number belongs to the legend: someone says 35, someone 127. John Baxter, Kubrick’s biographer, told the story in the best way:
“In the first shots, Nicholson makes a regular interpretation, and Kubrick says ‘Nice. Let’s do it again’. And then he plays it in an extravagant way, and then more extravagant. About twelve takes later, he starts to get tired. And Kubrick keeps reshooting. So Jack starts to do crazy things, horrible faces, howls, cries. Jack Nicholson’s insanity scenes, especially the one with the axe in his hand, arrive usually after 27, 29 takes. But all them were necessary to the final one. You can’t ask an actor, even if he’s a very good one, “first take: now you are insane.” You have to bring him there.”
Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t different: they say that a scene where Tom Cruise simply had to walk through a door was filmed 95 times. And it wasn’t the only case. No actor ever contradicted his methods. Just the opposite: Tom Cruise gave himself an ulcer during the filming, from the stress he had in giving to Kubrick what he wanted, but never said a word to him. Todd Field, who plays the pianist friend of Tom Cruise’s character, will say about Cruise and Kidman: “You’ve never seen two actors more completely subservient and prostrate themselves at the feet of a director”
But the refinement process, with Kubrick, never comes to a conclusion. In some respects, it’s the beauty of his style: the shapes, the mechanisms, the interactions narrated by Kubrick are not geometries that follow a rule, but represent the direct result of his instinct. Instinct that obviously kept changing, impacting the fate of the film. That’s why that second question – whether or not this is the Eyes Wide Shut that Kubrick wanted – is indirectly an answer to the first one, about the meaning of the movie: Kubrick doesn’t have a specific meaning to send, a pivotal content, a message to be launched. Kubrick simply faces topics that hit him, such as society dominance, consumerism, love, betrayal (either imagined or real), transgression, secret society, the dangers of trespassing the limit and everything we can see in Eyes Wide Shut. And he does it abandoning himself to the heart of his art, which is filming according to his vision and his instinct. What comes out is the movie he wanted in that moment. Not because it’s what better explains the message (not at all: Kubrick preferred when the content remains hidden by symbolisms and deceits), but just because it’s what best represents what he wanted the spectator to see. At least in that exact moment.
Then the instinct changes and tinkering came, looking for the final version that would never come. Because actually they all are final versions: finished products of a hopelessly changeable instinct. Each of them is perfect, in its own way.