Nicole Kidman: The Portrait of a Lady | Eyes Wide Shut | Dogville

Film Actresses & Global Classics


In this series I offer my reflections on actresses and their most compelling performances in (mostly) classics of global cinema.


Nicole Kidman as Alice Harford, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

As a film about a couple in crisis, the specific genius of Eyes Wide Shut is that it foregoes infidelity in favour of fantasy, adultery in favour of desire, and shows the imaginative forces to be more powerful that the enacted ones. It shares this trait with Godard’s Contempt. (Interesting comparisons could also be made with Zulawski’s Possession, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing.) The wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), though absent from the screen for much of the film, is nevertheless present throughout: It is her sexual fantasy that obsesses her husband, Bill, and provokes his jealousy, pushing him to reveal his inadequacies.

The driver of Eyes Wide Shut: Alice’s fantasy

Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Alice’s role in the film is to set Bill in motion, literally: He spends most of the movie wandering in search of his own desire, finding it nowhere. For her part, Alice is at home in her femininity and in touch with her desire. Bill’s response to Alice has been as wrong in its way as Paul’s had been to Camille in Godard’s film: Alice certainly feels contempt for Bill (this, I suggest, is what her ravaged, tear-stained face hides after Bill’s ‘confession’). At the end of the film, vaguely aware of how alienated Bill is from his own desire, she proposes an urgent remedy. ‘What’s that?’, Bill asks. Alice’s answer, of course, is ‘Fuck’. Let’s hope, for their sake, it will be a powerful one, for Bill certainly needs to be blasted out of his alienation.

The second shot of Contempt ends with Camille asking Paul, ‘Do you like my mouth, my eyes, my nose, my ears?’. To which he answers: ‘I love you totally, tenderly, tragically’. The second shot of Eyes Wide Shut has Alice asking Bill, ‘How do I look?’. Instead of looking at Alice, Bill examines his own appearance in the mirror and answers, ‘Perfect’. Alice then asks, ‘Is my hair okay?’. Bill responds, ‘It’s great’, to which Alice retorts, ‘You’re not even looking at it’. And thus, with such tiny particulars of conjugal intimacy, a movement which brings a marriage to a crisis is set in train.

Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut

Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

From the perspective of femininity, it’s interesting to note that in both Contempt and Eyes Wide Shut when we first see the wife she is nude, revelling in her sensuality before going on to seek affirmation of it from her husband (see image at the top of this section). From the perspective of dramaturgy, and therefore of the dynamics of the couple, what’s interesting is that, again in both films, it is the man who dominates the surface action but the woman who, on a deeper level, drives the narrative forward, giving it its key inflection points. In Eyes Wide Shut, then, Alice’s key scenes require Nicole Kidman’s acting to generate ‘aftershocks’: the actress meets this demand beautifully. Let’s take a look.

In her first extended scene, Alice flirts on the dance floor with a suave Hungarian seducer, Sandor Szavost. The acting challenge here—besides conveying just the right degree of drunkenness—is twofold: to play ping pong with clichés and yet remain convincing, and to delineate the arc of the sequence. The progression goes like this: first, acceptance of the game; second, performing in the ‘space of play’, suspending now belief now disbelief, coding and decoding the language of push-and-pull, advance and retreat; third, an interlude of reverie, eyes closed in the seducer’s arms; finally, bringing the game to a close with a graceful ‘no-means-no’. In acting this scene, Kidman employs a slow delivery of both word and gesture, and conveys a lively sense of play. She is a worthy partner to her would-be seducer while enacting her own agenda: to conjure romance, to imagine what-if, and to confirm her own sex appeal, all the while being aware that while Sandor is a convenient pretext for fantasy, he is not the one for whom she will infringe the convention of fidelity.

Sky Dumont & Nicole Kidman, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

‘Now, when she is having her little titties squeezed, do you think she ever has any little fantasies about what handsome Doctor Bill’s dickie might be like?’

In her second extended scene, Alice first confronts Bill with his naïve conception of feminine sexuality and his smug assurance of her fidelity, and then narrates the scenario of her fantasy with the naval officer. Kidman gives a bravura performance in the first segment, and in the second she lets the inherent drama in the situation—her willingness, in fantasy, to abandon husband and child for one night with the man whose glance had set her body on fire—speak for itself. Alice knows that ‘a couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime: sex is often the closest they can get’. She knows that in monogamy the challenge is ‘to keep what is always too available sufficiently illicit to be interesting’ (Adam Phillips, Monogamy). Bill, on the other hand, is a ‘nice guy’ who has sanitized his mind; alienated from his own desire, he can’t imagine Alice’s and so can’t take her where she wants to go. If a fantasy is ‘a little novel that one always carries in one’s pocket and that one can open anywhere without anyone being aware of it—in the train, in a café and, most commonly, in bed’ (my translation from Juan-David Nasio, Le Fantasme: Le plaisir de lire Lacan)—then Bill’s problem is that his ‘little-novel pocket’ is bare. One wonders how Alice could have put up with him for so long. When he tells her, ‘This pot is making you aggressive’ and she responds, ‘No, it’s not the pot, it’s you!’, the perceptive viewer understands that Alice is reproaching Bill for his lack of imagination, for his ‘empty pocket’.

In her third extended scene, Alice tells Bill her erotic dream. What makes this so upsetting for her is the fact that, however shadowy, she is aware that while she still loves her husband, she no longer desires him. This, of course, is a structural dynamic in marriage, and only in a couple in which each individual constantly exercises their imagination, sloughing off their old skin to reveal a new one, can sex in marriage remain erotic. Alice wants to thrash things out with Bill, to use the breakthrough of the evening to provoke a change in him, but he constantly avoids her. She wants to rekindle the remnants of their eroticism—to put themselves through a purifying fire, as it were—but he is incapable of accepting her invitation. Indeed, Kubrick highlights how Bill is a man with a fat wallet and a thin imagination—a ‘hollow man’, an automaton—alienated from his desire and therefore lacking a fantasy of his own. What could be more pathetic than running around at night trying to buy yourself a fantasy while your wife is waiting for you in bed? Troubled by the dream she tells, Alice embraces Bill, takes him unto herself, but even her touch is not enough for him to see that he has been barking up the wrong tree: in vain she offers him her body and the richness of her imagination.

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick


Stewart Thorndike, Tom Cruise & Louise Taylor, Eyes Wide Shut

Leelee Sobieski, Eyes Wide Shut

Vinessa Shaw & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise & Abigail Good, Eyes Wide Shut

‘No Daddy, this is not Mommy’: Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

In her final extended scene, Alice finds herself with Bill in, ironically, a space that is the antithesis of play: a mega toyshop in which enchantment is smothered by hyper-consumerism. It doesn’t bode well for the future of the couple, and indeed it quickly becomes clear that Bill hasn’t even begun to understand his experience. When Alice says to him, ‘The important thing is we’re awake now and hopefully for a long time to come’, he responds: ‘Forever’. Again, the disjuncture between where she’s at and where he’s at is striking: he meets her insight with an empty cliché. He fits in so well with his milieu that his individuality—like that of the child’s imagination in the toyshop—is smothered. Far from being awake, he is sleepwalking through life, in contrast to Alice who is vitally alert. She then says, ‘Let’s not use that word, it frightens me’. Bill is perplexed: he has realized his wife is not a Barbie doll, but he just doesn’t know what to do.

She tells him: ‘I do love you and you know there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible?’. He asks, ‘What’s that?’. She answers… Well, you know what she answers. Easy to say, but hard to do in a liberating way. And it is on this image of Alice instructing Bill that Kubrick leaves us: an image of a wife who, unlike her husband, understands that ‘the difference between monogamy and infidelity is the difference between making a promise and being promising’ (Adam Phillips, Monogamy).

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Nicole Kidman’s performance in Eyes Wide Shut is remarkable in that, in a film conceived as a complex ‘score’, she avoids all false notes as she plays the feminine ‘melody’ in beautiful counterpoint to the masculine, while conveying without sentimentality the pathos of dissonance aspiring to harmony.

Acting is a collaborative art—actors act ‘off’ each other—and I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention that Tom Cruise’s performance, though in a very different register, is every bit as good as Kidman’s. I conclude, then, by taking my hat off to both Cruise and Kidman: thanks to them, Kubrick was able to realize his dark vision of masculinity, femininity and the couple in the bright land (all those Christmas lights!) of hyper-consumerism.

Nicole Kidman & Tom Cruise, Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick

Alice and the real Bill: an empty mask

Catherine Sauvat, Arthur Schnitzler, Fayard

Adam Phillips, Monogamy, Faber & Faber

Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story, Penguin Classics

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2019 | All rights reserved