Tom and Nicole and Colin and Kathryn

"Eyes Wide Shut" provokes literary couple Colin and Kathryn Harrison to spar over marriage, passion, jealousy and the lure of dangerous sex in a vanilla world.

By Colin Harrison - Kathryn Harrison
July 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Colin: OK, so I saw it, I was hooked, I think it's beautiful to look at -- all those reds and blues -- but I don't understand the hype. Tom Cruise looks like a Boy Scout who burned his mouth on a roasted marshmallow.

Kathryn: The hype is that this is Kubrick's last film. We've been waiting for it for 10 years.

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Colin: I know it's Kubrick, but the media has totally oversold the movie, promising that this film cracks something open. I was waiting for that, in part because, after you saw it, you said that you felt like you were in another country. I didn't feel that -- not even close.

Kathryn: This film succeeds where few do; it creates the texture of a dream, a dream that doesn't feel like a movie dream, but a real dreamed dream. The only other movies that come to mind are Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" and Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast." I think all three are films that when they're over, you feel as if you've woken up. You're disoriented, provoked.

Colin: Didn't happen for me.

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Kathryn: But why were you disappointed? What did you want?

Colin: I wanted to be freaked out, like I was after I saw "Blue Velvet" or "Apocalypse Now" or "Last Tango in Paris" or "The Butcher Boy." I wanted to be broken and remade, and although I admired the film, I thought that the terms of its psychological investigation were rather shallow.

Kathryn: But the Tom Cruise character, Dr. William Harford, is broken and remade.

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Colin: Yeah, he has his Boy Scout cap knocked off.

Kathryn: Yeah, he does, he's a sexual naif initiated into a destructive and violent sexuality he hasn't perceived before.

Colin: But he never has sex! The closest he gets is a few leers at the two models at the party in the beginning of the movie. What he does find out is -- surprise, surprise -- that his wife has the occasional hots for some other guy. I don't think that's big-time news. Smart men assume that about women, just as all women assume that about men.

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Kathryn: So, he's not smart -- he's not sophisticated, he's not even a genuinely sexual being yet. From the start his wife is a more complex, grown-up character than he is -- surprise, surprise.

Colin: Yeah, yeah.

Kathryn: It's her revelation of sexual fantasies that begins his inquiry into adult sexuality. By the end of the movie he's learned that sexual intimacy is filled with risk and danger -- the threat of death. I loved the fact that he never actually has sex, that a series of opportunities unfolds in an absurd and surreal way, and that each time, he's literally saved by a bell -- the alarm of his own consciousness goes off, just like in a dream. I didn't see it as a realistic narrative at all.

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Colin: Alice, the Nicole Kidman character, is more complex. I also think Kidman acts circles around Cruise, but that's another issue. Anyway, yes, Harford is learning about adult sexuality, but I don't buy the starting point of his journey. Here he is a big-time Manhattan doctor with a busy practice, with a privileged vantage on the world, its sorrows and tragedies and inequities, its fears and appetites, and he seems wholly ignorant of the fact that his wife's sexuality does not end at the point where his dick begins. He's utterly failed to imagine her and --

Kathryn: Wait, why isn't it possible that his professional imperative to witness nakedness and decay is the very thing that necessitates the denial of that in his own life, his own psyche? He's a bland and emblematic figure -- he's far less interesting than all the characters with whom he interacts but I don't have a problem with that. It makes him more recognizably the passive dreamer, the man who is asleep and undergoing a transformation ... even Tom Cruise's looks, his predictable handsomeness, contributes to this.

Colin: Presumably you married a man who is awake and decayed -- sort of like a corpse who drank too much coffee. Anyway, I agree with what you're saying about Cruise, I just can't get excited about him. I mean, give me Nick Nolte in "Mulholland Falls" any day. You get Nick with Jennifer Connelly, the gravel voice, and the great fedora.

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Kathryn: But do you have to be excited by Harford? Can't you see him as an archetype, the way the journey itself is archetypal with its eerie religious overtones, the way initiation and sex and God are all conflated? I loved that. Well, admittedly I have a lot of dreams about menacing, unexplained rituals.

Colin: Please, I know. Maybe because I married you I'm not shocked by the idea that the wife has a vivid imagination. But maybe because you married me , you shouldn't be surprised by my indifference to Harford. These densely urban, marital transgressions and sexual wanderings are what I try to write about. What does he risk, really? He chats up a friendly prostitute and goes to a mansion and sees a lot of people having sex in funny costumes. He never approaches anything like intimacy with any of these people. He's not forced into a dangerous choice where either action involves loss. He never puts many chips on the table. It's a freak show, or as you would have it, a dream.

Kathryn: Can you really be that reductive about the orgy scene? Just funny costumes? Just because you're more sophisticated than Harford, does that make his journey unaffecting? Our children lose their baby teeth and that's a transformation, one we feel, even though we're years beyond it. As for loss -- what about the masked participant who dies as a result of his trespass?

Colin: I thought about that. You could take the Sidney Pollack character's word for it, that her death is unconnected to the events in the mansion, that she locked herself in her hotel room and shot up and died and no one else is responsible -- that she's just a junkie, but not only is he an untrustworthy source, but that explanation doesn't imagine her sorrow or remorse or agony over what might have happened in the mansion. And if you think about that, then Harford is accountable, does have blood on his hands --

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Kathryn: Which do you believe?

Colin: I knew you'd ask me that. I think -- in a horrible way -- that I agree with the host, the Sidney Pollack character. It was coming to her. She was on that track toward self-destruction, no matter whether she met Harford or not.

Kathryn: What's at stake in this film is the progress of Harford's soul; it doesn't matter if the amoral Pollack character is right, it doesn't matter if the prostitute was self destructive; the only thing that matters is that Harford believes that he is culpable. Actually, this is a film with a strong moral agenda. The only sexual experience that doesn't invite death is vanilla, hetero, marital sex.

Colin: Wait, there's a difference between what's done and who's doing it.

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Kathryn: Is there? Even when Harford imagines his wife with her demon lover it's straight up missionary sex, her always on the bottom.

Colin: Well, you know what I think about that.

Kathryn: I'm sure I do. Is this a movie about passion ignited by jealousy?

Colin: He's as jealous of her imagination as of what she imagines. In other words, her imagination activates his. But he has no reason to think that his wife's fantasies put their marriage and home in any kind of genuine danger.

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Kathryn: No? Their marriage appears to be one of dull commitment. I felt that his wife is trying to incite a more forceful response from him -- a more forceful sexual response -- by inventing a flirtation scenario that was more serious than anything that really went on during the party.

Colin: Do you think -- speaking as a wife, of course -- that she knows he'll be driven nuts by her revelation, that she means to induce not just his passion but a crisis?

Kathryn: The only thing she reveals that strikes me as truly threatening is a willingness to destroy marriage and family for consummation with an exciting stranger. Her recklessness is far more dangerous than any sexual attraction to another man, because she's not talking about a meaningless fling, she's talking about her capacity to destroy him and their life together.

Colin: So you believe that moment, you believe she could do that?

Kathryn: I absolutely do. Why, did you think that's something she says just to be dramatic?

Colin: Some women are born dramatic, some women achieve drama, and some women have drama thrust upon them.

Kathryn: I think she was probably hoping for a little drama to be thrust upon her.

Colin: I agree. That often solves a lot of problems -- at least for one night. Do you think Kubrick is advocating the telling of truth or the necessity of lies?

Kathryn: Truth.

Colin: But we have all this Truth slung around between husband and wife, and she's no better off at the end than she was at the beginning. Or am I wrong?

Kathryn: I don't think this movie is about her or about them. I think it all takes place inside his head.

Colin: The death of the junkie hooker takes place inside his head?

Kathryn: Yes.

Colin: The wife's confession of passion takes place inside his head?

Kathryn: Yes, I think it's all in his head. It's all about him. Surely you approve of that.

Colin: So he can imagine her passion after all! What a wonderful husband!

Kathryn: Very wonderful. After the party, each time we see the wife she's at home, she's at the kitchen table, she's helping her daughter with her homework. Juxtaposed to his nocturnal adventures, her life has a very claustrophobic quality. A reckless, passionate woman could get desperate under those circumstances, she could blow it all to hell.

Colin: But that doesn't happen, of course. The movie is about how they recalibrate themselves to each other, the whole thing is sort of therapeutic -- in the worst sense of the word. I mean, at the end, it's a few tears in the toy store, she brazenly uses the F word, and everything's cool.

Kathryn: She's still trying to get him into bed! After they end up in FAO Schwartz, their return to a sort of workaday family life is dishearteningly uninteresting. I didn't care very much about what happens to them after that.

Colin: So you're coming around to my point of view?

Kathryn: No.


Colin Harrison

Colin Harrison is the deputy editor of Harper's and the author of three novels, the most recent of which is "Manhattan Nocturne." A new novel, "Afterburn," is scheduled to be published in January 2000.

MORE FROM Colin Harrison

Kathryn Harrison

Kathryn Harrison's fourth novel "The Binding Chair," was published this month.

MORE FROM Kathryn Harrison


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