by Amy Taubin
To be blunt about it, it’s impossible at this moment to separate thoughts and feelings about Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut from the fact of his death. Or to put it another way, Kubrick’s death is the closure that his final film, for better or worse, resists to the last.
The ultimate Kubrick irony is that the director died while making a film that sides with Eros in the eternal struggle between, as Freud termed it, Eros and Thanatos, Eros and the death instinct. Kubrick’s great subject—the subject that each of his films confronts—is mortality, and he presents it sometimes as tragedy, sometimes as farce, sometimes as both within the same work. Is there any American movie with a more powerful sense of mortality than Barry Lyndon?
Forget good and evil, too burdened in the popular imagination with religious concepts of heaven and hell. As a secular Jew (like David Cronenberg, whose films often make common cause with Kubrick’s), he was resistant to religious metaphysics, although, like Freud, he was attracted to parapsychological phenomena. (Eyes Wide Shut involves the possible transmigration of dreams.) But in Kubrick’s films, when you shuffle off this mortal coil, it’s all over for body, mind, spirit.
Which doesn’t preclude the memory of a person or of a film from haunting the living. Eyes Wide Shut is a mess of a movie, but it certainly stays with you. That it’s open at every moment to multiple interpretations, that it oscillates between registers of dream and reality, subjectivity and objectivity, diegetic and nondiegetic truth, that the narrative may or may not involve an elaborate tissue of lies, and that the lies may extend outside the narrative proper to the issue of how much of the film was completed by Kubrick himself are what makes Eyes Wide Shut compelling—more compelling, perhaps, to think about after the fact than to experience directly.
Opening with a woman slipping out of her dress and offering her naked, flawless body to the cameras scrutiny, and climaxing (almost) with the film’s protagonist and governing conscience gazing down at the body of another naked woman, this one dead—her eyes “wide shut”—lying on a slab in a morgue, Kubricks last film is built around the body of a woman and the desire, or rather, the lack of desire, that a man feels in its presence. Since the man is a doctor, his sexual desire is complicated by the issue of mortality. His relationship to the flesh has an extra wrinkle that may have even predated and directed his choice of profession. In the way of classical narratives, the man goes on a journey and comes to the knowledge that allows him to remedy the lack. Thus, in this traditional happy ending, Eros holds Thanatos at bay.
But the ending lacks conviction. Nothing that we’ve seen of this couple, Bill and Alice Harford (played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), encourages the belief that it will be possible for them to follow the wife’s suggestion: that they go home and have a good fuck. Its clear that Kubrick wants us to believe that this couple can make it—at least for the moment. In that sense. Eyes Wide Shut is meant as a corrective to The Shining, where marriage is a horrorshow. But something has been miscalculated. Perhaps the problem is with the actors—that their coupling lacks “chemistry.” Or perhaps it’s with Kubrick’s choice to refrain from the ironic touches that are precisely what makes the desires and dilemmas of the characters in some of his other films so moving. Remember Humbert Humbert, lying on the hospital floor, clutching his chest, knowing that he’s lost Lolita, his one true love, forever. It’s Nelson Riddle’s swelling strings that nail the agony and absurdity of romantic love.
Or perhaps, it’s that the subject of the film—which is not marriage, but masculine pathology—is too powerfully and disturbingly expressed for there to be a positive resolution. The fact that the confessional scene that precedes the happy ending—and, supposedly, brings Bill and Alice together again—takes place entirely off screen is not exactly helpful to the emotional turnaround. Bill comes home from his second night on the town with some of his libido shaken loose, falls weeping into Alice’s arms, wailing “I’ll tell you everything,” and the next thing we see is the two of them with tearstained faces, trying to pull themselves together sufficiently to take their daughter Christmas shopping. The happy ending occours in some F.A.O. Schwartz-like store. The set looks like Kubrick (it strikes the proper note of regression, like the Mouseketeer ending of Full Metal Jacket) but the direction seems like pure Spielberg.
But, to back up to the origin of this peculiar project: Eyes Wide Shut is adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, a narrative about the crisis in a seemingly stable marriage when the husband and wife reveal to each other certain erotic fantasies and dreams involving other people. Although written in the Twenties, it’s set two decades earlier, in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Available in English only in a wooden translation, it hasn’t aged well. It pales in comparison with Robert Musil’s short story “The Perfecting of a Love,” which is set in the same period and also deals with the problem of desire in marriage, but exclusively from the woman’s perspective.
I couldn’t understand why Traumnovelle had held Kubrick’s imagination for nearly thirty years (he first announced the project in 1971), that is, until I reached the scene in the morgue that occurs some ten pages before the end. After 48 hours in an underworld of fairly tepid sexual perversions (each “ended before it’s begun,” to quote a line from “When I Fall in Love,” a song that Kubrick uses to update Schnitzler with hilarious effect), the good doctor, who at this point is close to a paranoid, psychotic break, finds himself eyeballing the naked corpse of a woman about whose identity lies as unclear as he is, at this point, about his own. She is, perhaps, the woman he had desired at the orgy he had crashed the previous night and who, after his crime of illegal entry had been discovered, offered to give her life to save his. In other words, she is the both the dangerous filthy whore and the all-powerful, all-forgiving, life-giving mother—two archetypes rolled into one dead woman. Schnitzler also tells us that our hero half-expected the body on the slab to be his wife’s, and, furthermore, that he now knows, that in all the encounters of the previous two nights, it was his wife he had been searching for. This understanding is cathartic; the anger, guilt, fear he felt in relationship to his wife lifts, and he’s able to go home and revive the marriage. Or to put it another way, the castration anxiety that his wife unleashed by telling him her secret fantasies of leaving him for another man, and that has sent him into the night in a sexual panic, is quelled when he fuses his whore and mother fantasies.
Reading this sequence, I flashed on scenes from two Kubrick movies: the naked woman rising from the bathtub. embracing Jack Nicholson, and turning into a pustulated corpse in his arms in The Shining; and Matthew Modine looking down at the wounded Vietnamese woman sniper, trying to find it in himself to kill her, in Full Metal Jacket. In these scenes, as in the scene in the morgue in Eyes Wide Shut, anxiety about masculine identity is expressed through a confrontation with a woman who’s dead or dying. What makes these moments so disturbing is not only the way the women look, but that the editing slows time to a nightmarish crawl.
The issue here is not misogyny, although one could certainly argue that Kubrick had a limited view of women, portraying them as children, mothers, and whores (and seldom in combination), giving them far less screen time than the men in whose lives they play such a crucial part, and almost never allowing their subjectivity to come to the fore. The notable exceptions are Lolita and, to a lesser degree, Eyes Wide Shut, where Nicole Kidman runs the show whenever she’s on screen—the problem bring that she’s not on screen that often. Which is why the film, like the novel, is less about a marriage than about the masculine pathology of “Dr. Bill.”
Its more to the point to think of Kubrick’s films – from the baldly titled Fear and Desire to Eyes Wide Shut—in terms of their critique of masculinity as, by definition, pathological because it involves a mortal fear of surrendering to the feminine within or without. Thus, in the most extreme example, Full Metal Jacket, the drill sergeant calls his new recruits “ladies,” and basic training is regression to Freud’s anal-sadistic stage where death is defined as castration and the dreaded feminine is extruded and identified with the enemy. In the chaos of Vietnam, Joker (Matthew Modine) proves he’s learned his lessons by killing the female sniper and marching off to the Mouseketeers hymn, “free and unafraid.” The homosexual panic lurking below putative heterosexuality is played out even more clearly in Eyes Wide Shut, where Kubrick inserts two outing scenes that don’t appear in the novel: In his first night on the town, Bill is gay-baited on a deserted street by a some young punks. Following the second night, a hotel desk clerk played by Alan Cumming comes on to him. Cumming, who’s marvelously over the top (as are all Kubrick’s desk clerks), adds a nondiegetic level by playing the scene as if he can’t believe how lucky he is to be flirting with Tom Cruise.
From a psychosexual perspective, the film that significantly compares to Eyes Wide Shut is Vertigo. Both films have passive-aggressive, guilt-ridden protagonists who, by their professions, are investigators of life and death. And both have a strange, bifurcated narrative in which the protagonists, fearing that they have somehow been the cause of a woman’s death, are compelled to retrace their steps in order to solve a mystery they can’t quite grasp. Of course, there are differences, the most crucial being that, unlike Scotty in Vertigo, Dr. Bill is married. It’s not stretching a point, I think, to read Kidman’s Alice as an amalgam of Vertigo‘s motherly Barbara Bel Geddes (note Alice’s Nineties version of Bel Geddes’s horn-rimmed glasses) and femme fatale Kim Novak—albeit more punitive and narcissistic than either of them.
But the connection is not just to Vertigo but to the larger Surrealist project of film-as-dream that Kubrick has explored before, although never as extensively as he does here. Schnitzler’s novel is a likely vehicle for such an exploration since the characters come to the rather extraordinary conclusion, in fact, that it doesn’t matter whether they’ve dreamed their adventures or actually lived them out. Traumnovelle is an attempt to give literary form to Freud’s theory of the unconscious, but Schnitzler also implies that introspection has dangers for the self and others. (For starters, if the doctor’s dreams were real, some bad stuff may have happened, and someone should call the police.) The couple’s cocoon will not protect them from the madness that’s already taking hold of Europe.
Eyes Wide Shut is also most compelling when an image or a passing remark (the reference to AIDS for example, when Bill revisits the shabby apartment of the young woman he mistakes for a professional hooker) widens the perspective to suggest that the panic and dread Bill feels are not only symptoms of his disturbed psyche (his neurosis, if you will) but also legitimate responses to the dangers and derangements of the world as well. The fear that his marriage is on the rocks strips him of the womblike protection he took for granted, and of the stabilizing factor in his identity, leaving him prey to perils within and without. Not only does he not have a clue who he is if he’s not Mr. Happily Married Man with a wife who only has eyes for him, but suddenly everyone (male and female) is coming on to him as if he’s Mr. Available. And what they’re offering is sex—unsafe sex, because for Dr. Bill, all sex is unsafe, because bodies are intrinsically unsafe. They die. Putting aside, for the moment, his wife, who can’t get a rise out of him no matter what she does (anyone who thinks that mirror scene is the prelude to a hot night has missed the fact that the only time we see Bills eyes, he’s looking at his own reflection), the first woman he encounters during his escapade hurls herself on him with her father lying dead in his bed just ten feet away.
There’s wild bedroom farce lurking within this film that Kubrick, who at one point considered casting Steve Martin as Dr. Bill, only occasionally allows to surface: A man with a terrible case of entrance anxiety, Bill is constantly knocking on doors, fumbling with knobs, or desperately flashing his identity card (his physician’s “license”) to legitimize what he’s doing in all these strange bedrooms. When Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), the ruthless opportunist who is Bill’s doppelgänger (in the sense that Quilty is Humbert’s), tells Bill that everything that happened was a farce, a charade, he’s right on the money. There’s no doubt that Eyes Wide Shut would have been less baffling and more of a box-office success had it been tuned for comedy.
Or if it had been sexier. But Kubrick doesn’t make sexy movies: there’s too much dread in him for that. The film, however, does have a profound sense of bodies and of the way they impinge on consciousness. One of the enigmas that Bill, in his somnambulatory way, is trying to solve as he roams (yes, I know, “cruises”) the confines of the movie set that represents New York is how his wife could passionately desire the body of a total stranger, desire it so much that she fantasized about it while having sex with her supposedly beloved husband. And every woman he meets (all of whom bear some off-kilter resemblance to his wife and to each other) confirms his worst fear by seeming to desire him—a total stranger—the way he imagines his wife desired a man she’d barely glimpsed across a restaurant. But that he, too, could be guilty of such feelings is something he can’t acknowledge except in the most impossible circumstance—when the object is a woman lying dead on a slab in the morgue, i.e., when it’s too late.
When critics ask what Kubrick was doing for two years, the answer is trying to negotiate these subtleties of character and motivation (and to tailor them to Tom Cruise, a major movie star whose sexually ambivalent persona has titillated the public imagination since he first hit the screen). But the more difficult problem was to sustain the oneiric quality crucial to the narrative. Vertigo is the modem masterwork of the genre, but Kubrick’s vocabulary is more indebted to silent surrealist cinema—to Cocteau and, particularly, another French master: The incredibly strange and beautiful shots of Bill standing outside the gates of “Somerton,” the Long Island pleasure palace where the orgy, such as it is, takes place, are straight-out Feuillade.
Feuillade turned the real Paris into a gangster’s underworld that also evoked the hidden passages and illicit byways of the psyche. Out of practical necessity as much as artistic vision, Eyes Wide Shut is largely filmed on a movie set consisting of a couple of brazenly phony Greenwich Village streets, some obsessively accurate interiors, and one apartment so oversized that any Manhattan multiple-dwelling would crumble under its weight. This model city is framed by establishing shots of real New York Streets and matte shots so crude they would make Hitchcock squirm. The idea, I’m sure, was to evoke the common dream experience of being in what seems a familiar city until you turn a corner and find that nothing is as you remembered. But the establishing shots impose a continuity (unconvincing though it is) that’s exactly the opposite of the fragmented space and time of dreams. Eyes Wide Shut works best when it uses repetition and dislocation: for example, when the ostentatious display of Christmas lights at Ziegler’s party (they make for one of the most gorgeous scenes in movie history—Nan Goldin meets, well, Kubrick) show up in a diminished version in the Kafkaesque costume shop, where the under-aged daughter of the proprietor is cavorting with a pair of Asian transvestites. Had the perverse quality of that scene carried over into the orgy that follows, Eyes Wide Shut would have had a chance at greatness. But the ponderous orgy drags the film and it never quite recovers.
If you’re looking for evidence that Kubrick hadn’t completed Eyes Wide Shut when he died, you need go no further than the orgy scene—and I’m referring not only to the stupid digital censorship. The sound mix would be unacceptable even in a student film, and the score, here and in the entire second half of the movie, is shockingly heavyhanded. Since sound influences picture as much as picture does sound, no film is finished until the sound work is done. Serious directors of hig-budget films spend months mixing. And though it’s not economical, a locked picture is often unlocked during a long mix, and by directors far less obsessive than Kubrick. What are we supposed to think he was planning to do in the four months between the time he showed the “final cut” to Cruise, Kidman, and Warner execs Bob Daly and Terry Semel and the film’s July release?
Semel gave his own game away when, in interviews with The New York Times and Variety, he recounted a telephone conversation he had had with Kubrick the day before the director died. The Times reports Semel as saying: “The film is totally finished” except for “a few color corrections” and “some technical things…. What he showed me was his final cut.” The last is undeniable, since, as J. Hoberman quipped, Kubrick would make no more cuts, at least not on earth. The phrase “some technical things” is absurdly vague, considering that every aspect of postproduction is a technical thing. Variety reported Semel as saying that the film would run two hours and 19 minutes, which, since the released version is two hours and 39 minutes, could have been a reporter’s error, or wishful thinking on Semel’s part—or it could suggest that Kubrick was planning to cut the film by 20 minutes. Semel also told Variety that “the score is principally classical and Kubrick wanted to add a few beats to it.” A few down-and-dirty beats. I would think. Given the mileage he gets from Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” it’s bizarre that it’s a complete anomaly in the score.
But the strongest suggestion that Kubrick hadn’t finished working on the film is in Michael Herr’s brilliant and affecting piece in Vanity Fair. Herr recounts that Kubrick, who wanted him to write about the film, telephoned to say that “he couldn’t possibly show me the movie in time for my deadline because there was looping to be done and the music wasn’t finished, lots of small technical fixes on color uml sound.” Herr goes on to say that Kubrick said he had to show it to Cruise, Kidman. Semel, and Daly but that “he hated it that he had to.” Then, two days before he died, Kubrick called again to say that he could show Herr the movie in two weeks, but when Herr asked him “if this was his last word on the subject, he laughed and said. ‘Maybe.’”
Even had time not run out on him, Kubrick probably would not have been able to solve some of the big conceptual problems: the forced happy ending, Cruise’s limited emotional range (although with repeated viewings Cruise’s performance seems more interesting, especially in the first half). Eyes Wide Shut is the only Kubrick film since The Killing without a single formal epiphany—a moment when picture, sound, and meaning suddenly fuse. It almost happens, just as it does in the novel, in the scene in the morgue, but the redundant fragment of voiceover (Cruise is supposedly hearing the deceased woman’s words in his head ) stops it dead.
What’s most fascinating—aside from the degree to which the film provokes the hermeneutic impulse—is how openly personal it is. The city that Kubrick creates is a collage of Schnitzler’s Vienna, Nineties New York, and Kubrick’s own post-World War II New York of jazz clubs, expresso houses, and rambling Upper West Side apartments where no one ever had enough cabinets to contain the clutter. (Despite all the Christmas cards lining the shelves, this nuclear family seems as isolated as the one in The Shining.) Eyes Wide Shut is like the grandest, most exquisitely lit and knowingly photographed home movie imaginable. The saturated reds and blues resemble 16mm Kodachrome before it fades. And because it’s such a personal film, it’s tempting to read the specific references to death as an uncanny (or unconscious) prophecy.
In a program note for her film Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren wrote: “This film is concerned with the interior experiences of the individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.”
The most influential work of the American avant-garde cinema, Meshes of the Afternoon is also a link between American psychodrama and the surrealist dreamscapes of the Twenties. Like Eyes Wide Shut, Meshes can be read as a film about sexual identity and a marriage in crisis. And although on the surface the two films are radically dissimilar, Deren’s description of her own film is not only apt but illuminating when applied to Kubrick’s.
Kubrick and Deren were both part of a generation of Jewish-American artists shaped by European modernism and its transposition to America just prior to World War II. For Kubrick, Deren, who also died before her time leaving films uncompleted, represents the path not chosen. And yet, Kubrick’s films have as much in common with avant-garde film as they do with Hollywood, which is why when I started to write about Eyes Wide Shut I thought of the line that closes Deren’s description of Meshes of the Afternoon: “It culminates in a double ending in which it would seem the imagined achieved such force that it became a reality.”
Film Comment Vol. 35, No. 5, September/October 1999; pp. 24-26, 30-31, 33