The Lovebirds’ Love Affair with Stanley Kubrick

We examine the unexpected influence of Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, on Netflix and Kumail Nanjiani’s lighthearted rom-com, The Lovebirds.

Eyes Wide Shut Scene in The Lovebirds
Photo: Netflix

This article contains The Lovebirds spoilers.

It’s one of the funniest sequences in the movie. After a joyful singalong in the Lyft ride to the third act, where Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) hit Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” high notes, it’s suddenly as if they’re in a different movie. And maybe they are. Adorned in Venetian masks and fancy evening wear, the pair find themselves among a seeming cult of one percenters who’ve gathered in a New Orleans theater to watch masked strangers do the nasty.

“This is some Illuminati bullshit,” Rae snarks in one of her many zingers in the moment. But more accurately, it’s Stanley Kubrick’s kind of “bullshit” to a tee. For in a sequence that homages, beat for beat, Eyes Wide Shut’s centerpiece vision of sexcapades gone conspiratorial, The Lovebirds is providing more than just a wink and a nudge to the enigmatic auteur’s final film.

The scene in The Lovebirds is one its very loose plot pivots on: The secret organization of the “Sacarium” initially appear responsible for the murder that Jibran and Leilani were framed for. While that turns out not to be the case, it’s in the Sacarium’s theater of debauchery that the couple get closer to the truth—after they’re discovered to be imposters by a man dressed like the Masque of the Red Death. This mysterious Grand Inquisitor styled leader then has the couple unmask in front of everyone, which would appear to be a death sentence until a last minute reprieve.

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For all its chuckles about Leilani’s open-mindedness—“I love they actually respect the word stop,” she marvels about the orgy commencing in front of her on stage—the scene mirrors in function and foreboding content what happens to Tom Cruise’s Dr. William Hartford after he falls down the rabbit hole of Kubrick’s 1999 film. That movie—which arguably was never finished, despite what Warner Bros. marketing said after the director’s death—likewise pivots on a sequence where taboos from multiple time periods are blended into a hedonistic nightmare.

With their more ornate Venetian masks and robes punctuating a mansion decorated like an Italian piazza, the secret society in Eyes Wide Shut remains maddeningly elusive. Are they some sort of “Illuminati bullshit” from the Renaissance era with the aforementioned pageantry, which recalls Venice’s infamous Carnival celebrations that mingled alleged promiscuity with Catholic rites, or conversely are they Satanists worshipping their medieval, red clad priest who appears a mockery of Church sanctioned inquisitors? Could they be an elaborate swingers party of rich racists with a Grand Wizard fetish or world leaders exchanging notes for control between gang bangs?

The answer is yes. They’re whatever you fear them most to be, and in the case of Cruise’s Hartford, they’re a bridge too far. A married doctor who is already guilty of infidelity in his heart if not his hands, his desire for adventure beyond the monotony of domesticity turns Faustian as he finds himself a stranger in a strange land of secret customs and naked bodies—documented with Kubrick’s reliably lascivious framing. It culminates with him being discovered and outed publicly for his private perversity by the cult when they force him to unmask. They likely even knew he was a fraud before he stepped into their mansion, considering he arrived in a taxi. If it were not for the intervention of a mysterious woman (Abigail Good) who pledges to “redeem” him by some nondescript pain, the implication is Hartford would’ve never left that mansion alive. And who wants to imagine what those kind of people’s torture chamber looks like?!

The Lovebirds plays on this in similar fashion when Jibran and Leilani watch two men in red on a blue-lit stage read off raffle numbers. Those chosen by chance must climb the stage and each other in a public orgy. Of course the joke here is that Leilani is the one into what was clearly another Kubrickian fetish and male fantasy in the 1999 film. “You think they’re going to call more numbers?” Rae’s character asks in complete sincerity. It doesn’t even bother her that there’s no rational reason these events are occurring. Indeed, rather than visually inferring every primal fear about sinister powers that be, the “Sacarium” of The Lovebirds comically pray to ancient Greek gods like Hermes, and invoke pagan rituals when they threaten the protagonists with “your burnt offerings will be made to the gods and it will replenish.”

Still, it’s an amusing homage, and one that suggests The Lovebirds at some point had higher ambitions than the diverting but lightweight finished product. After all, like Eyes Wide Shut, Lovebirds is a movie about finding the spice of life after a relationship has gone stale. For Jibran and Leilani, it’s because after four years, the pair have fallen into a rut with Jibran complacent in his status quo and Leilani jealous of the forward momentum enjoyed by friends. In Eyes Wide Shut, it’s because William Hartford and his wife Alice (Cruise and then real-life wife Nicole Kidman) have disengaged from their marriage, with the smugly restless husband toying with the idea of affairs and dalliances, and Alice ready to rock his world by revealing that he’s not the only one.

It could also be argued that, in its own perverse way, Eyes Wide Shut is Kubrick’s most optimistic effort. While only living up to the chilling menace of György Ligeti’s piano score when inside the belly of the “Illuminati” beast, the picture literally ends on a joke of reconciliation between its married couple—even with the implied dead bodies left in their wake. The Lovebirds takes that a step further with its romantic pair having a happily ever after where they’re stronger than ever, and on reality television to boot, after they saw the actual bodies left in their wake. Hell, they reversed the car over one of them in the movie’s first act!

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Admittedly, the Netflix rom-com and Kubrickian psychosexual thriller make for strange bedfellows. But then Kubrick, and it appears Leilani, would probably be into that.