When Stanley Kubrick died on 7 March, 1999, it was some twelve years since the release of his last film, Full Metal Jacket; but all was not lost. He'd been working for some time on a new movie, and just days before his passing, he had screened a cut of it to some executives and the lead actors. "The final cut!" assured Warner Bros. to all of us nervous cinephiles hoping for one last masterpiece from one of the least prolific auteurs of the last quarter of the 20th Century. Well, the final cut except for the sound mix, a tossed-off admission that was framed in the entertainment media as just an incidental detail, oh the sound mix, well nobody needs to worry about that. As though Kubrick's films had slap-dash sound mixes that didn't do much besides make sure you could hear the dialogue. And of course, the director who had re-cut The Shining after it had opened - twice - could hardly be counted on to have a real picture-locked cut months out from the release date.

So let's just call it like it is: Eyes Wide Shut is an unfinished movie. It might very well be 98% of the movie Kubrick would have signed off on if he'd lived on for years and years; but that 2% niggles. The sound mix, for one, has some fucking dodgy moments, and the music (culled from Kubrick's notes, for he had not finalised the soundtrack yet) at times cuts in and out crudely. There are incidental shots that feel redundant, scenes that plainly go on too long, and the film's momentum is extravagantly strange in its final hour. I do not know what changes Kubrick would have made, had he lived; but I really don't think this movie is exactly the movie he'd have signed off on. It's unfinished. We might deeply wish that not to be the case, but it is.

That being said, it's one of the greatest unfinished movies in the history of cinema. In its current, unmistakably compromised state, it's still among my favorite of all the director's career: it's a little spooky to imagine what it might be like if Kubrick had had the time to make it even better. As it stands, it one of the most tightly self-contained and complex in its themes; it's positively brazen in how it plays by a cinematography rulebook that no other movie I've ever seen has apparently even heard of, let alone copied from. It even manages to make the hoariest, most laughable cliché in all of dramatic fiction - "it was all a dream!" - work in such a way that the possibility of its most confounding elements being explained away thus actually manages to make the film denser and more challenging, not simpler and gimmicky.

Admittedly, it comes by the dream subtext by virtue of its source material, the 1926 novella Traumnovelle by Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler. Kubrick and Frederic Raphael's screenplay is surprisingly faithful, considering the shift from 1920s Vienna (not incidentally, the home of Freud and symbolic psychoanalysis) to 1990s New York, and from a pair of not-quite-explicitly Jews to the most vanilla gentiles you could conceive of (to hammer the point home, Kubrick - an ethnically Jewish filmmaker, lest we forget -; set his film at Christmas and included decorations and trees lit with multicolor bulbs in so many shots that it very quickly lunges into self-parody). The very title of Traumnovelle - that is, Dream Story - tips its hand that there's more than a little possibility that some of what we're reading takes place in the characters' heads, and while Eyes Wide Shut is significantly more cryptic, it unpacks to mean about the same thing: being absolutely certain you're awake (Eyes Wide) when you're not (Shut). At any rate, I think it's quite certain that some of the action takes place inside its protagonist's dreams, though I won't pretend that I can pick the exact scene where the dream starts or where it stops.

Regardless of how much of it is in dreams, it's obvious that it all takes place inside the main character's head: at heart, as suggested by the very first image - a blunt, objectifying shot of Nicole Kidman dropping her dress to reveal her naked backside - this is the story of how Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) perceives his wife. And himself, and their relationship, and the world; but mostly, it's about an individual man being terrified by the inscrutability of the female sexual drive. One night, the day after a dull but opulent Christmas party where they both fruitlessly flirt with other people (and Bill saves a naked woman from dying of a drug overdose in the private room where the host took her for a rendezvous), Alice Harford (Kidman, then married to Cruise; easy to forget all these strange years later, but it's part of the reason they were cast) recounts a memory of a profound romantic and sexual longing she felt towards a man she made eye contact with during a family vacation. This completely unmans Bill, and he spends the rest of the evening wandering in a fugue: encountering a friendly prostitute (Vinessa Shaw) with whom he does not have sex, hearing tell of a mysterious party from an old college friend (Todd Field), serving briefly as a kind of protector for the barely-dressed teenage daughter (Leelee Sobieski) of a Balkan costume shop owner (Rade Šerbedžija), and ending up as a voyeur at a bizarre orgy in a huge manor home outside of the city, where masked individuals in sweeping black cloaks engage in ritualistic copulation so devoid of passion for all its mechanical energy, so unearthly and uncanny and terrifying, that a new word needs to be coined to describe it, because "sex" feels like it describes something in an entirely different emotional universe.

The key thing uniting all these experiences, and the rest that Bill experiences in his days and nights of working through the confused fugue state that Alice's words threw him into, is that he is presented with the most generic manly-man fantasies of having gorgeous women throw themselves at him, but he never actually has sex with any of them. And here's where it makes the most sense to describe the plot of Eyes Wide Shut in terms of being a dream, so cleanly and snugly symbolic that I frankly find it dull. The more interesting questions raised by the movie are those of Bill's own personality: what kind of man would either experience these things in the way he does, or have the fantasies he does? Answering that question is in no small degree the reason to watch Eyes Wide Shut, a film that absolutely deserves better than being pinned down to any one interpretation, but my own sense is that we're meant to understand Bill as deeply threatened by real feelings, by authenticity: this brings us to the question of why Kubrick cast Cruise, which in grand "Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon" fashion I believe to be because Cruise represents a completely superficial kind of movie star. Think about Cruise - what do you think about? His smile, right? Maybe his hair? Completely surface-level, easily faked elements. Cruise, as an actor, is about the appearance of charm and charisma, irrespective of whether or not he actually possesses it (the same year as Eyes Wide Shut, Paul Thomas Anderson compellingly argued that he does not, in Magnolia). And Bill Harford, as a character, is about the appearance of being a New York doctor: attending the right parties, making the right social gestures, having the right frigid wife who gave up her job to raise their daughter, pointedly denied any personality beyond "that little thing that the Harfords have to exist around".

In this reading, the understanding that his flawless wife, both morally and aesthetically, has feelings and urges outside of his script is so profoundly threatening to Bill that he has to retreat into a fantasy - and dream or not, Eyes Wide Shut plays out as a fantasy, with side characters who feel more like a male daydream of what women act like, streets of a patently artificial New York,* arriving at what can only be called an inscrutable nightmare of an orgy where he is rescued - redeemed, which is a much more emphatic and meaningful word - by a naked woman who behaves as both an exclusively sexual object and also a sexually untouched goddess figure. On his second day, he then plays at being a sleuth, a brave problem-solver who can easily explain everything; but this only results in his intelligence and implicitly his masculinity being undercut so easily that it's damn near comical.

(I've heard it said that the film, during its theatrical release, opened and closed on extravagantly grainy footage that slowly grew clearer until the orgy sequence, at which point it was sharp as could be. Since every home video release - the only way I've ever seen the film - scrubs clean all the grain that Kubrick worked so hard to put into it, I'll never know if that's true. But it certainly makes the idea that the orgy represents the deepest, more primal expression of Bill's feelings towards sex as an incoherent, inscrutable terror a lot easier to defend).

What is certainly true, no matter how you interpret its various puzzles, is that Eyes Wide Shut is about surfaces, and truth being disguised and revealed (no movie with so many masks can possibly pretend to be coy on this point). It is about the environments people build for themselves, whether that means the palatial interiors throughout the movie or the backlot New York; and it is about how people inhabit those environments. Everybody who saw the hugely misleading ad campaign that tried to act like this was a steamy erotic thriller knows that the film is about human bodies, but what matters isn't how those bodies are sexualised, and anyway, Eyes Wide Shut is a deeply non-erotic film. What matters is how casually Kidman (who is simply terrific in a smallish and probably thankless role as the prism through which a man is confronted with his dysfunctional ideas of women) moves her body, lounging on chairs and beds in sheer clothes that reveal the details of her breasts, completely without modesty; it matters how much Sydney Pollack barrels around with his thick, hairy abdomen; it matters how Alan Cumming tightens himself up in little coils of unexpressed desire. It mostly matters how Cruise moves, fluid but mechanical, and how calculated every gesture feels; how unlike all the other characters other than the freakish masked orgiers, he seems to be using his body as a tool to maneuver, not as a part of himself to inhabit.

The film thrives on a sense of disorientation and disconnection, which is communicated best through it's soundtrack, a great one however potentially corrupted from Kubrick's plans. There are, broadly speaking, three signature tunes: one is an original, rare for the director, composed by Jocelyn Pook. It's a droning, menacing chant (a backward tracked piece of Romanian Orthodox liturgy), with humming strings beneath it; it's pure, unadulterated horror, equally as suited for an Italian paranormal thriller as for a strange and otherworldly ritual orgy. The other two major pieces in the film are the second movement of György Ligeti's Musica ricercata, a pounding, metronomic repetition of sharp notes that drive a sense of inevitable fate into your skull like nails; and Dmitri Shostakovich second waltz from Suite for Variety Orchestra (misidentified until 1999, and thus in the film's credits, as Jazz Suite No. 2), a swirling, carnivalesque number that opens the film on a spirit of energetic confusion that it never shakes.

And, too, the film's visuals contribute a great deal to its mood, as one would expect of a Kubrick film; his unfortunate victim this time around was Larry Smith, credited as a lighting cameraman, who had to execute Kubrick's hugely ambitious scheme of shooting the whole movie solely with available lighting, frequently showing the sources of lights - table lamps, chandeliers, neon signs, and what feels like billions of miniature Christmas lights in all colors - right onscreen. The result is a film that almost literally glows: especially in the opening party scene, the whole thing is coated with a fuzzy aura, but there are few places anywhere in the movie where the lighting does anything like we would expect. There are hard spaces with suggestive, floating shadows; there are dusky spaces with yellowish haze ever so slightly diffusing the image; there are cool neon-lit interiors that feel like brief oases from the chaos of lighting on the streets outside. I literally can't name a single other film that even starts to resemble the look of Eyes Wide Shut, and while that's geekery talking a little bit, it's surely the case that, if only on a subliminal level, anyone watching the film will absorb how strange and totally alien the film's look is, and apply that feeling. The story of the film is already frequently inscrutable, despite a late scene where Pollack's character explains it all and is probably lying (it's the one scene of the film I just don't like, and I hope some or all of it would have ended up on the chopping block if Kubrick lived), but the images push that inscrutability right into the realm of feverish hallucination.

The point is not to confuse us for the sake of being a dick; the point is to blur the distinction between what's "really happening" and and the half-formed, vaguely-remembered, fatigue-addled perception of what's really happening. At a pragmatic level, all of us are living a life based on our best guess of what's going on rather than knowing for 100% certain what is true and what things mean; in burying itself in Bill's foggy perception and letting just enough of the actual reality of Alice, of the orgy, of whatever else creep in at the edges, Eyes Wide Shut becomes a magnificent depiction of that perceptual gap, and the ways in which it affects our ability to genuinely engage with other people, too easy to reduce - as Bill does - to supporting characters in our own solipsistic dramas. In giving the final word to Alice - and oh, what a word it is - the film at last breaks clean of Bill's limited perspective and suggests that he's come through his experiences with a greater ability to appreciated the distinct inner lives of other people, and that all told, he's better for his traumatic experience, whether a dream or not. In that respect, Eyes Wide Shut might be the most genuinely optimistic film that Kubrick ever made.

*Aside: I remain convinced, after 15 years, that the film's initial hostile reception mostly owes to the New York-based critical intelligentsia's disgust at how trivially the Bronx-born Kubrick represented his clearly-not-actually-Manhattan.