Great bad sex

Yes, "Eyes Wide Shut" is wooden and static. And wooden and static never looked so good.

Published July 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Eyes Wide Shut" begins in the ticket line. The audience-to-be considers the hyped steaminess, pictures variations of Tom and Nicole in the buff, hot and heavy. Waiting for popcorn, we reflect on the matter of married actors acting married for the camera. By the first image -- Kidman, her butt -- this reverie has prepared us for something more like a denouement than a climax.

As with the infinitely layered act of sex, the movie spirals inward in a labyrinth of levels. Also like sex, it's too rich and complicated to get to the bottom of. The only option is to enjoy the lateral navigations, the pleasure of complexity itself.

It took Kubrick two years to get flawlessly wooden performances out of his stars. Kidman and Cruise come off like Actors -- stilted, Hollywood, fake as plastic roses -- and keep us from losing ourselves in plot for any longer than a minute or two. Remember, we're acting, they remind us again and again. We remember, and it's the consequent remove that makes the movie's erotics as fascinating and unsexy as sex can ever be.

When photos of beautiful naked people pass through our art galleries, we don't get turned on. We look, then move to the next and look, then move to the next and look. This is a function of the museum -- a stadium for musing: Few institutions engender more self-consciousness. In a gallery, one's task is twofold: Experience the art, then experience yourself looking at the art. We don't interact privately or spontaneously with the exhibited works; our evaluation occurs within a clear and ordered relationship. With such explicit parameters, it's hard to get lost. Without getting lost, it's hard to get hot and heavy.

Such is the sex in "Eyes Wide Shut": We observe the flesh, but also, always, observe ourselves observing. The eerie woodenness of the performances has the effect of the theater lights having been left on -- there's no getting into a zone. Instead we watch perched between the fictive world, where Dr. and Mrs. Harford exist, and the real one, where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are real people with real lives that we read about in real tabloids.

This detachment is most manifest in the movie's sex scenes. Gorgeous bodies press against each other, but in the most static interpretation of passion. Breasts look like Everybreast, the sex is explicit but choreographed, and nobody's eyes seem to mean it. It's like watching lousy theater: We can't immerse ourselves in the turns of Hamlet's soul, and are instead left with questions like "What on earth are these people doing?" By the end of the production, unable to get sucked in, we've mushroomed this question into a million others about the director, the actors and perhaps our own decision to spend a Saturday night among them.

While for some it's just this awkwardness that proves Kubrick himself has blundered, there are signs that Kubrick is channeling our intellectual meandering into a layered consideration of fantasy. Throughout the movie Dr. Harford indulges in the painful vision of his wife having sex with another man. The sex never happened -- it was just a fantasy of hers, uploaded into a fantasy of his -- but his jealousy lends the fictitious image clarity. The picture haunts him to the point of irrationality, and it's this irrationality that delivers him to the movie's famous orgy scene. So as the previews assure us, we have husband and wife, separately poking around the fringes of infidelity. But as Kidman points out, she pokes merely in dream, while he actually attends an orgy, actually visits a prostitute. A schism opens between fantasy and reality.

Then Kubrick draws a schism in the schism.

Mrs. Harford never got naked with the other man, but Mrs. Kidman did. To represent a character's fantasy on film -- for the essential voyeurism to succeed -- the fantasy must first be acted out before the camera. When we cut to Dr. Harford's picture of the affair, we are simultaneously cutting to a picture of Tom Cruise's wife in bed with another actor; fantasy and reality fuse.

And this is neat. At the simplest level, it indulges a question perpetually fascinating to us non-Hollywooders: What's the deal with acted sex? We wonder if we could maintain professionalism, if fantasy and reality ever get confused for the Sharon Stones and the Michael Douglases of the world. Kubrick couches the question in the casting of Cruise as a doctor. The doctor, Mrs. Harford says, puts his hands on beautiful women's breasts. The breasts, the doctor says, are just part of the job.

Folding our pre-movie curiosity about the famous couple into the film's frame, Kubrick confuses our viewing. The protagonists are sometimes characters, sometimes real people. We can imagine the making of the movie as crystallization of the self-consciousness that must pervade Kidman's and Cruise's public sexualities.

Summoning the archetypal moral divide between uptown and downtown, Kubrick keeps Dr. Harford's erotic inferno below 14th Street. But Kubrick picks the dorkiest part of Greenwich Village. Dr. Harford's wanderings about the Village play as a stock descent into depravity. Set in the Village's most commercialized and self-conscious streets -- these blocks are no longer bohemia, but rather a re-created, retail fiction of it -- the scenes smack of depravity's representation. Even the prostitute is a conspicuous amalgam of all celluloid prostitutes: "Wanna have some fun?"

As a result, we aren't lost in depravity -- as in, say, "Taxi Driver" -- but instead we're lost in the fantasy of depravity. It's through this frame that we watch Cruise and Kidman fictionalize their nonfiction marriage. Representation itself becomes the film's subject matter.

In destabilizing our relationship to itself, "Eyes Wide Shut" goes far beyond such simplistic meta-media explorations as "The Truman Show" and "To Die For." And the sex within, like the movie itself, is something that knows it's being looked at. Each steamy scene bears the awareness that a camera has it pinned. While this could be said about any number of voyeur flicks, the difference is that we're looking and thinking, not just looking and getting turned on.

Not that there's anything wrong with being turned on, but nothing beats a little cerebral sex now and then.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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