Michael Koresky on Eyes Wide Shut
“The physical and the moral …you can’t separate the two. Maybe it was a trick of the devil.” –Jean-Louis Trintignant, My Night at Maud’s
We live in a culture where everything has to be of the moment—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 “important” or “about the world we live in…today.” It’s just as easy a critical barometer as labeling something from an earlier era as “dated,” a quaint sign o’ the times, full of outmoded sensibilities. Perhaps it’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 didn’t buy it hook, line, and sinker. The Oscars were delivered right to the meaty palms of the condescendingly British Sam Mendes and the self-loathingly gay Alan Ball before anyone could smell that this Beauty’s sell-by date had passed even before opening night. Rancid post-post-melodrama in the guise of a “Get-back-to-your-roots, straight dudes” rock anthem, the 21st century’s first Best Picture winner posited millennial hetero suburban angst as a duck-and-cover playing field beset by wild-eyed, demonic castrating she-bitch real-estate saleswomen, bratty teen girl ingrates, simmering, gun-toting ex-military closet cases, and their wan, dyspeptic, Goth-tinged sons—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—that even Todd Haynes later had the good sense not to make painfully clear—via dialogue and nattering voice-overs (Spacey: “It’s all stuff!”), 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 “To fuck or not to fuck the teen virgin?” debate with a conciliatory “No!”
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 Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut does indeed shock, but not in the way it had been marketed in the woebegone summer before Sam Mendes’s bomb fell—there’s nothing prurient or degraded here. No taboos are broken, and the closest the film comes to a “shocking moment” 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. There’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 cinema’s great reflective surfaces: of mind, body, and soul, of fear and desire, death and rebirth. It’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 dream—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 didn’t know you were capable of such thoughts.
A common criticism leveled against Kubrick’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, aren’t we infinitely more “liberated” now than when this stuff was in vogue? Aren’t we hip to the gaps and contradictions inherent in every relationship? Isn’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 Kubrick’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 a old-fashioned mindset and certainly for the Entertainment Weeklys and the like who demand that pop art be reflective of the “moment,” 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 didn’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 not setting out to make neither the “erotic thriller” that the press maintained nor an easily identifiable “Kubrick film” 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 it’s what was sheerly uncanny about Eyes Wide Shut—its visual and aural repetitions, its refusal of sexual satisfaction, and most of all, its methodical self-deconstruction—that really burrowed into peoples’ comfort zone.
The miracle of the film is that it plays as though it aspires to utter detachment, yet it can’t save itself from being overwhelmingly emotional. Kubrick’s film, despite its auteur’s (perhaps misunderstood and overanalyzed) pedigree, was dismissed as though an art-house date-movie relic from the late Sixties. Perhaps if that’s the case, then its spiritual sister would be, shockingly, Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s. Similarly entrapped by the fear of carnal pleasure, buttressed as it is up against daily morality and philosophical self-preservation, Maud’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 Maud’s Jean-Louis, it is his reliance on the scientific philosophies of Pascal, as well as his trust in Catholicism that holds him back. What’s gripping Eyes Wide Shut’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 night’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 “lady friend,” 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 Shut’s orgy scenes were obviously, unwittingly getting the point: Bill’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 doesn’t want to unravel your expectations or subvert your values, as so many “movies of the moment,” like American Beauty, seem inclined to do. It’s not political, it’s not perverse; rather, it snakes its way into your subconscious and lies there in wait. My Night at Maud’s, one of Rohmer’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 Rohmer’s respect for and inquiry into holy ritual. Everything after seems tainted by Jean-Louis’s church attendance, marked as it is by the twinned encounters he has with Christ and his declared romantic ideal and eventual wife, Françoise; 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 Françoise, though the latter could never possibly live up to Jean-Louis’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: it’s a world in which people bow to their own desires rather than what is sacred or socially acceptable.
It’s Kubrick’s frighteningly measured respect for Bill’s tortured self-denial that makes Eyes Wide Shut the most surprising work of his career, indeed the most like a Rohmer film. Despite Kubrick’s reputation as a greatly visual, painterly director, it’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 “compositions” 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 Kidman’s many dancerly flirtations and evasions with Sky Dumont’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 Richardson’s every movement before she confesses her love for Bill, her late father’s doctor, who she barely knows. Rohmer’s characters talk more often, perhaps, and at a quicker clip, but are they necessarily revealing more? Kidman and Cruise’s pot-hazed repartee, which instigates Bill’s after-hours prowl, is perhaps the most Rohmeresque moment in all of Kubrick, not simply because it’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.
It’s the connections between these seemingly dissimilar films that reveal why perhaps people were not ready for the “shock” of Eyes Wide Shut’s emotional conscience. Anticipating prurience, viewers were forced to question moral lethargy, and by extension, their own expectations. If Eyes Wide Shut didn’t arouse, if it didn’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 Rohmer’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, Frédéric) after exiting the tub, she is then quickly wrapped in a towel. For the remainder of the film, Frédéric 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. It’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 “vulgarity” uttered by Alice, cathartic and oddly daring, is what makes all of Kubrick’s film seem like, more than anything else, a wake-up call. It’s the shock of clarity, and it can take your breath away.