Michael Koresky on Eyes Wide Shut
â€śThe physical and the moral â€¦you canâ€™t separate the two. Maybe it was a trick of the devil.â€ť
â€”Jean-Louis Trintignant, My Night at Maudâ€™s
We live in a culture where everything has to be of the momentâ€”an emblem of the zeitgeist; a representation of the active or counter culture; a shiny, spangly indicator of the contemporary sociopolitical mood. To reach the proper firmaments of critical exaltation, a film, album, or novel must direct current temperaments back at the viewer, so that it can justifiably be tagged as â€śimportantâ€ť or â€śabout the world we live inâ€¦today.â€ť Itâ€™s just as easy a critical barometer as labeling something from an earlier era as â€śdated,â€ť a quaint sign oâ€™ the times, full of outmoded sensibilities. Perhaps itâ€™s become too simple to return to that screeching harpy of a drama American Beauty as a touchstone of supposed cultural commentary, but in 1999, that undying emblem of art-turned-into-national-instant-gratification arrived, complete with a title that called out its own importance before the credits were done rolling, and damned if the public didnâ€™t buy it hook, line, and sinker. The Oscars were delivered right into the hands of Sam Mendes and Alan Ball before anyone could smell that this Beautyâ€™s sell-by date had passed even before opening night. Rancid post-post-melodrama in the guise of a â€śGet-back-to-your-roots, straight dudesâ€ť rock anthem, the 21st centuryâ€™s first Best Picture winner posited millennial hetero suburban angst as a duck-and-cover playing field beset by wild-eyed, castrating she-bitch real-estate saleswomen; bratty teen-girl ingrates; gun-toting ex-military closet cases; and wan, dyspeptic, Goth boysâ€”each and every one, in Ball-land, a possible murderer in an agonizingly forced whodunit. With its gorgeously lit interiors, fabulously prefab exteriors, all coated in that obvious Sirkian irony via dialogue and nattering voice-overs (Spacey: â€śItâ€™s all stuff!â€ť), American Beauty was quite possibly one of the most reductive cultural phenomena the cinema has ever seen. The closest it comes to a moral insight is that it answers the â€śTo fuck or not to fuck the teen virgin?â€ť debate with a conciliatory â€śNo!â€ť
The only reason to have to further hold up American Beauty as the vile hokum it is is because in 1999, while it was busy reaping awards for its alleged topicality and funhouse mirror reflection of our contemporary realities, another film about marriage, betrayal, and responsibility hit theaters with the force of a hurricane and exited with barely a whiff of vapor. Stanley Kubrickâ€™s Eyes Wide Shut does indeed shock, but not in the way it had been marketed in the woebegone summer before Sam Mendesâ€™s bomb fellâ€”thereâ€™s nothing prurient or degraded here. No taboos are broken, and the closest the film comes to a â€śshocking momentâ€ť is simply through the abrupt whoosh of a camera zoom. What makes Eyes Wide Shut truly rock me to my core is not its tastefully cadaverous nudity or its depiction of a nefarious New York sexual underworld, but rather its utter lack of trendiness and its profound humanist empathy, all twisted up as it is in a portrait of suspended moral decay. Thereâ€™s simply nothing more shocking than being faced with our own mortality, and Eyes Wide Shut, bedecked in mirrors and fogged winter windows, is simply one of cinemaâ€™s great reflective surfaces: of mind, body, and soul, of fear and desire, death and rebirth. Itâ€™s shocking in its ambiguity, its refusal to give up its ghosts. Wandering through its hushed, ornate halls is like lingering on the aftereffects of a morning dreamâ€”buzzed with a slight erotic sensation yet humbled by the harsh light of reality, the realization that yes, it was just a dream, but you didnâ€™t know you were capable of such thoughts.
A common criticism leveled against Kubrickâ€™s farewell film upon its unveiling was that it was dated; that its values were somehow outmoded, that what it was saying was by now well-trod territory or, worse, had no place in contemporary sexual discourse. What is this supposing? That dramas of fidelity no longer reflect a common mindset, or that marriage no longer needs defending as an institution or a spiritual solace? After all, arenâ€™t we infinitely more â€śliberatedâ€ť now than when this stuff was in vogue? Arenâ€™t we hip to the gaps and contradictions inherent in every relationship? Isnâ€™t the threat of spouse-cheating on every talk show on every channel every day from 9 to 5? Whichever the case, Eyes Wide Shut revealed more about popular culture than it did about Kubrickâ€™s moralistic outlook. Taking so much time off in between films, Kubrick was an easy target for those who wanted to claim that he remained locked in an old-fashioned mindset and certainly for the Entertainment Weeklys and the like who demand that pop art be reflective of the â€śmoment,â€ť rather than of long-held truths and internal conflict. Truth be told, Kubrick was never particularly fashionable, as represented by the critical reception of his previous three films: Barry Lyndon exhumed, of all people, Thackeray, painting his cynical man-on-the-make parable into a still-life Enlightenment canvas; The Shining rejiggered a wispy best-selling haunted house story into a ruminative-turned-chaotic portrait of domestic crisis, pissing off its author and legion of fans; Full Metal Jacket looked like a war film, but didnâ€™t feel like one, largely eschewing action for philosophical set pieces and geographical disorientation. So was it that much of a surprise that this director, who defies expectations at every turn and brings genre to his feet, was setting out to make neither the â€śerotic thrillerâ€ť that the press maintained nor the easily identifiable â€śKubrick filmâ€ť that critics seemed to think they could define from years of auteur study? Its meditative pace, nearly medicated dialogue delivery, and unforgiving, clinical approach to narrative could not have come as a shock, yet itâ€™s what was sheerly uncanny about Eyes Wide Shutâ€”its visual and aural repetitions, its refusal of sexual satisfaction, and most of all, its methodical self-deconstructionâ€”that really burrowed into peoplesâ€™ comfort zone.
The miracle of the film is that it plays as though it aspires to utter detachment, yet it canâ€™t save itself from being overwhelmingly emotional. Kubrickâ€™s film, despite its auteurâ€™s (perhaps misunderstood and overanalyzed) pedigree, was dismissed as though an art-house date-movie relic from the late Sixties. Perhaps if thatâ€™s the case, then its spiritual sister would be, shockingly, Eric Rohmerâ€™s My Night at Maudâ€™s. Similarly entrapped by the fear of carnal pleasure, buttressed as it is up against daily morality and philosophical self-preservation, Maudâ€™s was a runaway success in 1969, the height of hip, even ending up with a screenplay Oscar nomination (the only Rohmer film to do so). So what happened in the intervening thirty years to seemingly nullify its outlook for moviegoers? Both films take as their centerpiece extended nighttime sojourns, directly before the simultaneously rejuvenating and culminating event of Christmas. In both, a man is faced with the decision of whether or not to appease his inherent sexual animalism, as gnarled up in the spokes of ethical quandary as it may be. For Maudâ€™s Jean-Louis, it is his reliance on the scientific philosophies of Pascal, as well as his trust in Catholicism that holds him back. Whatâ€™s gripping Eyes Wide Shutâ€™s Dr. Bill Harford are the twin discomforts of fidelity, to his wife and to medicine.
Jean-Louis and Bill are both clinicians in a sense, and while the women they face over the course of their long nightâ€™s journey into day could not be more different, in stature and in spirit, they both view women with the same discretion and wariness. Jean-Louis, tempted by his school chum Valentin to have a go with his â€ślady friend,â€ť the sensual and free-thinking Maud, nevertheless views her as an obstacle, a test, as excited as he is by her tangled mess of black hair and unabashed independence. Likewise, Bill, spurred on by his med-school buddy, Nick Nightingale, witnesses a progression of beautiful women, many of them naked from neck to toe, with the hesitant authority of a doctor. Those who complained of the lack of erotic charge, the deadness, in Eyes Wide Shutâ€™s orgy scenes were obviously, unwittingly getting the point: Billâ€™s profession defines who he is and how he sees, and therefore, how we see. Long-legged, ample bosomed, crotch-shaven women, each one physically indecipherable from the next, are unveiled onscreen with the same lack of delectation, whether they are kneeling before a medieval incense rite or lying on a morgue slab. For Bill, supple flesh is merely a precursor to its eventual rotting demise, his sexual energy is all caught up in his fear of death.
The connections between Rohmer and Kubrick prove edifying in an attempt to understand what part of the brain Eyes Wide Shut is truly aimed at. The true shock of the film is that it doesnâ€™t want to unravel your expectations or subvert your values, as so many â€śmovies of the moment,â€ť like American Beauty, seem inclined to do. Itâ€™s not political, itâ€™s not perverse; rather, it snakes its way into your subconscious and lies there in wait. My Night at Maudâ€™s, one of Rohmerâ€™s Six Moral Tales, uses religion as its starting point, initiating its tale of temptation at a Catholic mass service, a remarkably drawn-out sequence, the sheer duration of which both shows Rohmerâ€™s respect for and inquiry into holy ritual. Everything after seems tainted by Jean-Louisâ€™s church attendance, marked as it is by the twinned encounters he has with Christ and his declared romantic ideal and eventual wife, FranĂ§oise; every choice he makes must be reconciled with this moment. Maud will pose a threat to the sanctity of his possible romantic and spiritual bliss with FranĂ§oise, though the latter could never possibly live up to Jean-Louisâ€™s moral and amorous idealizing of her. Eyes Wide Shut exists in a more explicitly secular world but nevertheless is imbued with a metaphysical malaise. Christmas peeks from every corner of practically every scene, with trees both skeletal and verdant baring twinkling colored lights; yet no one makes mention of Christmas other than to remind each other of the shopping that needs to be done. Rather than religious memorial or even familial celebration, the holiday simply serves as a transitional period. This is not to suggest that the teeming carnal underbelly of New York City that gradually reveals itself is Godless, but rather that its inhabitants must deny their innate spiritual hunger to navigate its realms. The orgy scene at the Long Island mansion, with its whiff of Pagan ritual, coalesces this: itâ€™s a world in which people bow to their own desires rather than what is sacred or socially acceptable.
Itâ€™s Kubrickâ€™s frighteningly measured respect for Billâ€™s tortured self-denial that makes Eyes Wide Shut the most surprising work of his career, indeed the most like a Rohmer film. Despite Kubrickâ€™s reputation as a greatly visual, painterly director, itâ€™s a very verbal film, if not terribly articulate. Words are used against those who uttered them, lengthy exposition leads to dead ends, phrases are repeated to the point that they lose their meaning. For a director so known for â€ścompositionsâ€ť and whose reputation for perfectionism would seem to eradicate spontaneity, Kubrick is great at capturing those little surprising moments of movement or interaction between people: Nicole Kidmanâ€™s many dancerly flirtations and evasions with Sky Dumontâ€™s Count Szavost during the opening Christmas ball sequence; the awkward schoolboy giggles between Bill and med-student-turned-pianist Nick Nightingale upon seeing each other for the first time in ten years; the push-pull of accusatory will and crumpled melancholy splashed across Marie Richardsonâ€™s every movement before she confesses her love for Bill, her late fatherâ€™s doctor, who she barely knows. Rohmerâ€™s characters talk more often, perhaps, and at a quicker clip, but are they necessarily revealing more? Kidman and Cruiseâ€™s pot-hazed repartee, which instigates Billâ€™s after-hours prowl, is perhaps the most Rohmeresque moment in all of Kubrick, not simply because itâ€™s a male vs. female battle of wills but because its rapid-fire accusations unite as they split apart, bringing two characters closer together through words, even though for the remainder of the narrative they will be cleaved in two.
Itâ€™s the connections between these seemingly dissimilar films that reveal why perhaps people were not ready for the â€śshockâ€ť of Eyes Wide Shutâ€™s emotional conscience. Anticipating prurience, viewers were forced to question moral lethargy, and by extension, their own expectations. If Eyes Wide Shut didnâ€™t arouse, if it didnâ€™t go far enough, then it was deemed a failure. Even its blink-and-miss-it opening image of Kidman disrobing, in front of a mirror, from behind, is reminiscent of Rohmerâ€™s dazzlingly sexy yet eminently practical introduction to Francoise Verley in Love in the Afternoon: seen nude from behind (by us and, more crucially, her husband, FrĂ©dĂ©ric) after exiting the tub, she is then quickly wrapped in a towel. For the remainder of the film, FrĂ©dĂ©ric will be tempted to sleep with a tantalizingly free-spirited old flame, yet he will not. Likewise, there is no orgasm in store for Bill, just a series of almosts, maybes, and never-wases. Every moment of possible infidelity is shunned by a series of uncanny interruptions, whether it be cell-phone rings or medical emergencies. Itâ€™s the lack of sexual release, the denial of orgasm, that is most willfully antagonistic about Eyes Wide Shut. Rather than action, words do the most damage here, for better or for worse. The final â€śvulgarityâ€ť uttered by Alice, cathartic and oddly daring, is what makes all of Kubrickâ€™s film seem like, more than anything else, a wake-up call. Itâ€™s the shock of clarity, and it can take your breath away.