Sunday, November 18, 2007
Eyes Wide Shut(1999)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
This is a beautiful movie about sexual appetite, how integral that appetite is to the workings of society and personal relationships, and what it means for a person to be dumb to the nature of sexuality. The movie shows Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) discovering that he knows almost nothing about how other people think about sex, how it figures into their lives, because he is, in some fundamental way, sterile. The flirtatiousness and gestures of lust that other people display are natural extensions of their genuine desire, while Bill employs these things like apparatuses unconnected to his desires. They are for him a mask he feels that he is expected to wear.
Every time I watch this movie I like it even more. I got the new DVD two weeks ago, and I watched it for the first time in a couple years, my previous viewings having been my VHS copy, and before that I saw the movie in the theatre. Those occasions all featured cg silhouettes added to the movie's notorious orgy sequence, but this new DVD finally gives U.S. audiences the version that the studio deemed U.S. audiences were too immature to handle*. As I'd heard, Eyes Wide Shut: UNCENSORED ain't all that smuttier, though they do restore a great deal of aesthetic value to Kubrick's compositions in these scenes. A confusing clutter of silhouettes and moving flesh has been transformed into fascinating, animated oil paintings;
The film is incredibly tight--there's not a single redundant or wasted moment. There are three discernable acts; the first act establishes Bill and Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) as a wealthy couple in a superficially normal marriage, and one senses already a certain coldness, perhaps not entirely unusual, as in the first scene where, as the couple are getting ready for a party, Alice asks Bill how she looks and she notes he tells her she looks beautiful without even looking.
"You always look beautiful," he says. The moment comes and goes quickly, though; the movie's not about anything so trite as Dr. Bill taking his wife for granted. It simply notes that perhaps he does in some way. But it isn't quite that simple. He does enjoy having sex with her, and he does seem to adore her.
This later scene, after the party, obtrusively features Chris Isaak's "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing" and as it begins with Alice looking in a mirror before Bill enters the shot, the scene feels as though it's from Alice's point of view. After their kissing becomes passionate, she gives their reflections a cold glance the meaning of which is revealed explicitly a couple scenes later, but which is perhaps hinted at by Isaak's accusatory lyrics; "You ever love someone so much you thought your little heart was gonna break in two? I didn't think so. You ever tried with all your heart and soul to get your lover back to you? I wanna hope so."
What follows is a montage of their individual, normal, sexless daily routines. The previously glamorously beautiful Alice looks plain and utilitarian with their daughter, while Bill attends to his patients with a superficial, pleasant bedside manner. Though one curious shot thrown into the montage without a break from Shostakovich's waltz on the soundtrack shows Bill treating a beautiful topless woman with his same, superficial bedside manner with which he treats a young boy.
But by this point in the film, we've already seen that Alice isn't the only woman whose beauty does not seem to strike Bill in any kind of involuntary manner. This aspect of his personality was clearly on display at Victor Ziegler's opulent party earlier in the film.
Alice and Bill are separated early in the party, and we see them each experience preludes to sexual adventures that never occur. Alice dances with a lecherous Hungarian (played by a man whom I'm certain was cast at least partially for his nose) and Bill is beset by a couple of flirtatious models.
Already there's an illustrative, albeit subtle, contrast between the two Harfords, as Alice responds to the Hungarian's advances with a natural warmth, her body seeming to engage with him of its own accord, while Bill is the affable brick wall which the models are swooning against. He replies to them with a perfunctory flirtatiousness, as though to do any less would be rude.
Soon, Bill's curiously null libido is brought to another dimension as he's called upstairs to assist Victor Ziegler with a beautiful prostitute who's ODed.
The sight of this woman in the strangely opulent bathroom does nothing to faze Dr. Bill, who's immediately all business. Mandy, the prostitute, on the other hand, seems, upon awakening, sort of astonished to see this beautiful man in front of her. And maybe a little perplexed by his superficial demeanour. This'll be important later in the film.
Victor Ziegler, on the other hand, doesn't seem at all surprised by Bill's behaviour. He does know him, after all--Bill's his personal doctor. Ziegler's played by Sydney Pollack, who gives the character a pitch perfect petulant banality, indicative of someone extraordinarily powerful, intelligent, and lascivious. This shot says a whole lot (mind you, this is his bathroom);
So it's the next night that Alice confronts Bill with feelings that we only heard before expressed in the form of Chris Isaak lyrics. They're smoking pot--and one might note that unlike Dianne Keaton's character in Annie Hall, they didn't need to do so before sex in order to enjoy the sex. The pot renders simplistic an argument the two have that starts when they discuss their respective encounters at the party. Alice becomes angry when Bill is utterly unperturbed by the fact that Alice was dancing with another man, a man who wanted to have sex with her, and she's also angry because Bill doesn't feel the least bit guilty about flirting with the two models.
The argument that emerges seems to be about sexism--Alice accuses Bill of believing that woman are incapable of lust, and he ascents to this--he asserts that he really does believe that "women just don't think like that," although he amends to this by saying that the argument's "a little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that." What's happening here isn't that Bill's expressing his sexism, but that he's never really given it much thought. The two are slipping into a familiar, pop argument about stereotypical roles for men and women, not because it's what the conflict is really about, but because it's the closest argument Alice can find to fit her feelings. Partly because of the pot, and partly because of them have difficulty even conceiving of the true nature of the problem.
When Alice says that, according to Bill's own argument that men are more naturally lustful than women, she ought to be jealous of the attentions he was giving to the models, Bill responds that no, she needn't be, because he's an exception. He has to struggle for a moment before he can figure what it is that makes him an exception--he decides it's the fact that he loves his wife.
Bill's assertion that women are incapable of lust leads Alice to describe to Bill a fantasy she'd had about a naval officer she'd seen at a hotel when they were on vacation. She very convincingly describes a desire for sex with the strange man that was so strong that she was tempted to leave Bill and their daughter. The look on Bill's face as he realises she's telling the truth isn't one of jealous fury, and certainly not the shock of discovering that women are capable of lust. It's a look of horror, a look of a man who suddenly realises that someone he thought he knew totally is in fact a creature who is fully and fundamentally alien.
This is where the second act begins, as Bill's called away to see the family of a patient of his who'd died that evening. He goes out alone into the night, and what follows are a series of increasingly strange sexually charged encounters, none of which result in Bill having sex.
Throughout it all, he plays over and over in his mind an imagined scene of Alice with the naval officer. Is he tormenting himself, or is he trying to figure out what the image means, and what it's supposed to mean to him?
The number of sexual encounters Bill has in one evening defy credibility, which is perhaps why Kubrick shot all of it on a conspicuously artificial back lot and also why each of the encounters is in some way strangely dreamlike. The point here is for Bill to discover how other people regard sex, so, condensed into one night we have what one would more reasonably expect to be the findings of a few months.
The first encounter is with the daughter of the deceased patient, and Bill suddenly finds himself in the role of the naval officer; this woman strongly and convincingly conveys an attraction for Bill that is so strong that she's willing to throw away her fiancé and her normal life.
So Bill has his first hint that his wife is not unique. That it is not she who is the alien, but him. He embarks on the night's adventures to find out if he really is such an "exception". But it's important to note that he takes his first step rather passively.
A group of drunken young men he encounters on the street suddenly, and for no apparent reason, start laughing and yelling at him, calling him a "fag", and telling him to "go back to San Francisco". Already feeling something at a loss about his sexuality, perhaps this brash little episode is partly why he's so easily wooed by a prostitute's sales pitch. But it's hard to imagine Bill initiating a purely sexual encounter on his own under any circumstances--she captures him.
The prostitute, Domino, seems improbably perfect; she looks healthy, she seems like she genuinely enjoys her work, and her apartment, while poorer than the decadent homes otherwise seen in the movie, is unrealistically comfortable and warm, featuring the film's omnipresent drapings of Christmas lights.
Bill immediately drops into affable Dr. Bill mode, and she seems charmed by the fragility of his façade and the fact he doesn't know what he wants from her, asking her what does she "recommend". He's not trying to buy sex; he's trying to buy lust.
Interrupted by a phone call from his wife, he feels immediately compelled to flee the scene. This is one of many instances where Bill can't consolidate sex with other aspects of life.
But he can't go home yet. Running into an old friend at a nightclub, Bill finds out about a strange, secret party being held that evening. His friend, Nick Nightingale, gives him the password to get in, "Fidelio", and informs him he needs a costume; a tuxedo, a cloak, and a mask.
The party sounds to Bill like the perfect opportunity to get in touch with his lustful side, so he goes late-night costume shopping.
He witnesses the owner of the shop angrily discovering his daughter engaged in a bizarre liaison with two middle-aged Asian men. It seems human sexuality commonly reaches even stranger depths than Bill first suspected, and on this expedition on an alien world, this is the most alien thing yet. But not quite as strange as the masked ball;
Rich, ultra-powerful, ultra-jaded men attempting to find their own lust with an extravagantly odd ritual that dissolves into an orgy. As Bill wanders in this strange landscape, a woman asks him if he's been enjoying himself, and all he can think to say is that he's had "an interesting look around". He's completely out of his ken here; the scene is at the exact opposite of the sexual spectrum from Bill. One of the masked women seems to know this, and warns him that he's in incredible danger.
We later learn this is in fact Mandy, the prostitute who'd ODed in Ziegler's bathroom, so she does indeed know the limits of Bill's sexual appetite. Why is he in danger? Because when the men realise that Bill is an intruder, his innocence excites them. They force him to remove his mask and are about to take turns sodomising him until Mandy appears and offers to take his place. She knows that Bill is utterly unequipped to handle the experience. He's visibly terrified when he's ordered to take his clothes off.
The second act closes when Bill returns home to find Alice laughing in her sleep. She wakes and tells him she'd had a terrible nightmare, that she'd dreamed she'd been fucking several strange men, and that he saw her, and the sight of him made her laugh. This reinforces the idea that Alice is part of this strange, inherently sexual world around Bill, and it's also reminiscent of something she'd earlier, when she'd told him about the naval officer. After the officer had left the hotel, and she and Bill had made love, she'd said she'd felt a love for him then that was both "tender and sad". And now her dream of laughing at his exclusion from her orgy had seemed to her a nightmare.
At some level, Alice recognises that Bill is internally stunted. In some way, he's never really passed puberty, and the love she has for him is in a way both maternal and pitying. The meaning of the title, Eyes Wide Shut, becomes clear when we see that no matter how hard Bill tries to open his eyes to what appears to be nature for everyone else, it's patently impossible for him to see.
The third act is largely concerned with Bill's feeling that this strange world is hostile to him, and it further establishes his inability to consolidate sexuality with every day reality.
The day after his night of exploration, he returns to Domino's apartment, hoping what seemed to be the most innocent part of the night's exploits might yet yield the discovery he seeks. Instead, he finds only Domino's roommate, another prostitute, with whom Bill begins to make out, only to stop when the woman reveals to him that Domino had just discovered that she's HIV positive, and that's why she's not around. The revelation prevents Bill from consummating the sexual encounter with the new woman--try as he might, other aspects of reality continually override any would-be purely sexual urges. This is similar to the way in which the encounter with Domino had ended, only now there is a more sinister aspect.
He tries to find his friend, Nick Nightingale, who'd been playing an organ blindfolded at the masked ball. Bill goes to Nick's hotel, only to find out from the concierge that Nick had been in only briefly, that he'd had a black eye, and that he'd been accompanied by a couple of large men. A series of events leads Bill to feel threatened by the powerful men from the masked ball the night before.
The concierge is played by Alan Cumming in a cameo role. He flirts shamelessly with Bill, who's immune and in fact seems to not even notice. This is an important moment, as it tells us this movie's not about Bill Harford finding out that he's gay.
Bill soon learns that Mandy has died. He visits her corpse in the morgue, and there's an odd moment when, leaning over her body, we sense that he might be about to kiss her.
If it wasn't clear before, it's obvious now; Bill doesn't know what to do with his sexuality, and he doesn't have any clear idea of how it's supposed to coexist with other aspects of life.
Also, Mandy, as a prostitute and someone who, for him, as a potential patron, ought to mean nothing more than sex, symbolises something especially grim by being dead, perhaps for sacrificing herself in a scene that was supposed to be his sexual exploration.
A following scene where Ziegler, who was also at the masked ball, explains that Mandy's dead because she ODed, and that Nick Nightingale was safely back home in Seattle, is written like a pure exposition scene, but what it actually does is to make things a great deal less clear. Bill leaves only having Ziegler's word on a lot of things, and we the audience are left not knowing for sure whether or not anyone was murdered. That's fine**, because the important thing about the sinister atmosphere was to emphasis Bill's fear and his growing feeling of helplessness.
Coming home that night, Bill finds the mask he'd worn to the ball on the pillow next to his sleeping wife. We watch Bill's reaction change from shock, fear, and finally to complete breakdown as he collapses, crying in her arms. We never learn how the mask got there, or whether or not Alice had perceived any significance in its presence. The sight of it next to Alice is enough to finally cast his own nature into sharp focus for him and he's left feeling utterly helpless. He can only plead with her to rescue him by some means he cannot even imagine and which perhaps doesn't even exist. Of course, we never find out if Bill does find a way through.
In the final scene, in the safe surroundings of a toy shop where they're Christmas shopping for their daughter, Bill and Alice at last have the problem laid before them but find they have no idea what to do. They reaffirm their love for each other, but they can't say if it will be enough to save Bill or their marriage. That's a question no movie or work of art can answer.
*Having just seen Beowulf last night with an audience who sounded greatly disturbed by the sight of Angelina Jolie naked, I can't say I don't see the studio's point of view.
**And a little fun.