Philosophy of the bedroom

Mary Gaitskill, Greil Marcus, David Gates, Lisa Zeidner and A.M. Homes weigh in on "Eyes Wide Shut."

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

Kubrick: A little kid lost in the sexual darkness

By Mary Gaitskill

Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" is built on the idea that sex is a dark, chaotic, destructive force. This is a poor foundation, though not because the idea is wrong exactly; sex can be all of the above. But sex is too primary, too deep and too big for the idea; what makes it most destructive and violent is part of what makes it creative and intensely loving. How these opposed qualities interact in each of us is complicated and tender and strange -- it goes all the way down to the bottom of us, the part we can't see into. It's easy to be scared of what you can't see, but it's a little kid who thinks that because he's afraid of the dark, the dark is therefore evil.

"Eyes Wide Shut" has one strong early scene: A wife tells her husband of a moment some years past when a handsome young man simply glanced at her, and she was so inflamed that she would've thrown away her marriage for one night with him had the opportunity been there. That a complete stranger could arouse such a forceful primary response in her is scary for the characters and poignant for the viewer, poignant because it depicts how the underlayer of her unconscious -- what we can't see -- is at odds with the rational top layer of her life, creating an incongruity that might be funny or awful or both. At that point the movie is involving; we recognize the dilemma and want to see how it will play out.

But it doesn't. The husband, a doctor, gets an emergency call, leaves their apartment and is suddenly plunged into a (yawn) dark sexual underworld. It's a yawn because, unlike the first scene, it is not specific to a person in a particular moment; it seems a concept-driven overlay which makes the characters into stick figures. ("Concept" may be too cerebral a word. The sensibility of the film feels more obsessive than intellectual -- though it seems an old obsession gone stiff and dry.)

The events that follow -- a married patient throws herself at the doctor; a young girl prances with transvestites, after which her perverted dad tries to sell her to the doctor who has just witnessed a staid, funereal orgy -- don't have anything to do with what his wife has said to him, but they're presented as if they're all part of the same big ball o' hairy horror. It's the vision of a kid in the dark, sex as bogeyman: The emotional landscape is undifferentiated, populated more by leaden archetypes than individual personalities.

And it's no fun at all -- there is no sense of sex the ridiculous, the slippery curve-ball that turns heads of states into prevaricating buffoons. Kubrick's thematically similar "Clockwork Orange" was in its own way both sexy and goofy -- you could feel its clown-nosed hero's vicious pleasure in rape and battery, his mechanical appetite for cruelty. That film acknowledged cruelty's seductive force, but it also sensationalized it, drawing a superficial equation between vitality and violence. Maybe Kubrick was attempting to go deeper here -- and maybe he foolishly mistook an evocation of conventional morality for depth.

"Eyes Wide Shut" looks especially bad in contrast with "Summer of Sam," the new Spike Lee film, which is also about the fragility of monogamy and the destructive force of sexual desire. Lee's film is juicy, violent and sexy but also sensitive in the way he treats his characters' confusion and vulnerability. His male lead, the chronically unfaithful Vinnie, is a boy on fire, so hot he doesn't know what to with himself. He can't help fucking every girl in sight, not because he's driven by a dark, hellish force, but because his sexuality, while powerful, is undeveloped and muddled. We sense that sex is his only way of contacting the most dignified and truthful potential in himself -- his mojo, as Austin Powers would have it -- but that the contact never happens because his sexuality is also tied up with contempt and crude expressions of power, and he cannot put the higher and lower qualities together.

In longing for his own dignity and morality, he has displaced them onto his idealized wife, who must then become asexual in his eyes. In this film, sex is a complicated fireball of beauty and ugliness, life and death, and Lee isn't scared of the dark. "Summer of Sam" was not aggressively marketed as a sexy movie, but a male friend of mine told me he got an erection twice which watching it. He didn't even come close during "Eyes Wide Shut."

A trashy movie about sexual diversion

By Greil Marcus

Just keep repeating to yourself: It's only a movie. It's only a movie. It's only a movie ... Just because Stanley Kubrick had dark eyes and had his picture taken as if the pain of the world was both his burden and his private joke doesn't mean he had wisdom to impart. "The Shining" is a film of sensations, not ideas; it's a great movie because Kubrick was able to put up a setting of unparalleled elegance and austerity, and then let it bleed.

You can have a good time watching "Eyes Wide Shut." There's a bit of "The Shining" in it, more of "The Firm," perhaps more of "Two for the Road" -- the Audrey Hepburn-Albert Finney picture written by "Eyes" screenwriter Frederic Raphael -- than anything else. It's a trashy picture. The action its characters play out seems cut loose from motive or even desire, yet in Nicole Kidman's performance there are anchors for the miasma drifting around her. Any number of scenes are excruciatingly slow, and some may endure for as long as people care about movies -- as camp classics. Here's this Hungarian lounge lizard who looks like Martin Scorsese on stilts and sounds like Bela Lugosi, trying to seduce a drunk Kidman on the dance floor; he's just words away from "I never drink ... wine."

The tableau outweighs its opposite, the scene in Gillespie's diner -- a pleasant counter-woman talking to Tom Cruise's doctor as if he's a real, ordinary human being, the Del Vetts' absolutely obscure 1961 doo-wop single "I Want a Boy for Christmas" singing out from somewhere deep in the soundtrack -- where for a moment one glimpses a simple decency that throws the tawdriness and glamour of Cruise's night-town meander into relief, that for a second collapses its artifice.

Cruise's character isn't smart enough for Kidman's; that's a gulf the film can't bridge. When the roommate of a prostitute Cruise has almost slept with tells him that the woman has just learned she's HIV-positive, the doctor's look is so dim you half expect him to say "What's that?" instead of registering his narrow escape from ruin and perdition, which he doesn't do either. But there is no reason for him to. This is not a movie about sexual obsession, and neither Cruise's doctor nor Kidman's wife is sexually obsessed. This is a movie about sexual diversion: about the way an image, or a word, can turn you off the familiar street of everyday affairs. Cruise has been hit over the head and he's walking around blind.

Kidman's you-think-you-know-me? monologue -- her claim, after she and her husband have both been flirting with other people at a party, that she once gazed on another man, that if he'd gazed back at her, "I was ready to give up everything," takes place on the same plane as Bibi Andersson's story about sex on the beach in "Persona" and Al Pacino's deadly build to "I'll kill them both" in "The Godfather." It's not arousing, as Andersson's speech is; unlike Pacino's, it's not a reversal of character. Up until this point, Kidman's wife has had no character. Now she offers a cold, hard, perfect little horror story. She plants it in her husband's brain like a tracking device; no matter where he goes, who he meets, what he does, he will not escape it.

The movie doesn't know how to maintain the mystery of Kidman's story -- of far more questionable reality than the was-it-all-a-dream orgy, which is no dream, just a traditional gnostic black mass -- except in Cruise's fantasies of what Kidman fucking another man would look like. That's where the trash takes over, with McGuffins and explanations and breast implants and Sidney Pollock's haimish fiend. It's as if Kidman's monologue has upended the film as surely as it does her husband. So it remains an anchor without a ship, but it may stay in the viewer long after the movie has been written off.

Island of the damned: Kubrick's creepy vision of sex

By David Gates

Not until I'd put some time and distance between me and Stanley Kubrick's supremely silly, supremely scary "Eyes Wide Shut" did I understand I'd been watching gothic grand guignol -- something like "The Shining," say -- and not a realist film about adultery and deception. (In "Eyes Wide Shut" neither the Tom Cruise nor the Nicole Kidman character actually commits adultery; this is the movie analogue to such tempted-to-cheat country songs as "Almost Persuaded" and "On the Other Hand.")

You've got the big old mansion behind the locked gate (from every gothic romance from "Mysteries of Udolfo" to Stephen King). You've got the sinister masked revelers (Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death," with a touch of "Fellini's Casanova"). You've got the mysterious, all-powerful enemy, a plot twisted by hidden conspiracy and malign coincidence, and a dark, narrow, powerful view of the world -- and the human heart -- as a place of lurking evil.

In the opening scenes, Kubrick provides Tom and Nicole -- I forget their movie names -- with patently preposterous tempters: for Nicole, a smarmy, silver-haired European out of '30s screwball comedy; for Tom, a brace of bubble-headed models. We know that if such cartoonish seducers are being given a second's consideration, this marriage must have some capital-I Issues. And sure enough. Nicole is the more passionate partner, who escapes sexual temptation because of circumstance, not willpower, while boyish, passive Tom's urges are mainly voyeuristic. He can't stop picturing (in stylish sepia) Nicole in bed with a man she didn't actually go to bed with, and his aim in sneaking into the film's already notorious orgy seems to be simply to watch. Is his subconscious aim to get caught and gang-fucked, as the revelers threaten to do? This would make sense of an otherwise gratuitous scene in which a gang of gay-bashers shoves and insults him. If they only knew, we think at first. Then we think, hmm.

Each partner has it in for the other. Tom only lets himself get picked up by a prostitute -- he backs out at the last minute -- after Nicole confesses (in a soliloquy that seems longer than all of Hamlet's put together) to having hopelessly lusted after a strange man. He doesn't want sex: He wants to even the score, or to go her one better. Nicole has resentments of her own. She once ran an art gallery or something that went belly-up; now she seems to be staying home with her daughter and living on the manifestly big bucks Tom makes as a "doctor." (It's impossible to believe he's anything but a movie actor.) This bit of back-story -- which she drunkenly tells to the Eurosmarm guy -- is apparently supposed to be the borderline-plausible motivation for her being so angry at Tom that she dreams of screwing lots of other men while laughing at him.

But Kubrick doesn't seem to take this motivation any more seriously than we do; he's more a Shakespearian than a Freudian, and what's really up with Nicole might be summed up in the well-known lines from "King Lear":

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above:

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiend's.

From her tempted-to-cheat soliloquy to her very last word -- now that they're out of trouble they'd better get home ASAP and fuck -- she's exhibit A in Kubrick's indictment of sexuality. (He even gives her a none-too-subtle doppelganger: a hooker who OD's on coke and heroin after an epic gangbang. Nicole is able to stop at mere fantasy and flirtation, pot and champagne.) Tom, the character who gets into all the trouble and through whose eyes we see the action, may have a kink or two. But Nicole's lust drives the story; Tom's dances with temptation, his lies and his bad decisions all happen in reaction to his discovery of her as a being whose sexual passion isn't his to control.

I'll leave it up to anybody with an interest in sexual politics to decide if this is misogyny or some kind of ass-backward feminism, or both or neither. What interests me about the film is its awe and dread in the face of sexuality, and its conflation of sex and deception: the revelers kissing with papier-mache lips, the horrific moment in which Tom discovers the mask he'd lost at the orgy on his marriage pillow. Like the horse's head in "The Godfather," it's heavy-handed but effective: What married person hasn't been that mask on the pillow, from spouses with genuine adulterous secrets to people like those in Philip Larkin's quietly terrifying poem "Talking in Bed," racking their brains for something to say to each other that's "not untrue and not unkind." Nicole is the only character who doesn't go through the whole film wearing either a literal or metaphorical mask -- but, paradoxically, it was her unmasking herself as a profoundly, uncontrollably sexual creature that caused all the trouble.

In "Eyes Wide Shut," sexual desire (as distinct from sex itself, which in the orgy scene doesn't look like much fun) is a force so uncannily fissionable that even in the containment vessel of marriage it's dangerous to handle. And once it gets out, all hell -- literally -- breaks loose. Kubrick's New York is a sexual inferno, from black-tie balls to lap dances. Prostitutes bob up on every corner, a costume-store owner pimps for his daughter, a grieving woman makes a desperate pass at Dr. Tom as her father's corpse lies there on the bed.

And the bottom circle of this hell is a mansion in Glen Cove -- a tip of the Kubrickian hat to both "The Great Gatsby" and "North by Northwest"? -- in which the masked decadents hold their quasi-Satanic orgy. (They spend more time chanting than coupling, perhaps because of the cutting it took to get the American version an R rating.) Is this a Puritan, even Manichean, vision of sexuality? No kidding. Is it crazy? Well, maybe a little selective: Kubrick never gives us one of those long, lyrical sex-is-beautiful scenes with groovy music and artfully concealed genitals, as in "Titanic" or "Shakespeare in Love," to balance out the sin and creepiness. Is it convincing? Yeah, it convinced me. For as long as I was in the theater.

Married, without humor: The grim family life of "Eyes Wide Shut"

By Lisa Zeidner

When I was a kid, we had a neighbor who was pathologically jealous of his wife. Whenever a repairman or meter-reader came, this gnome would run around the 'hood screaming "Whore!" -- this despite the fact that his wife had three toddlers underfoot and looked like Jesse Ventura in drag. My father, a psychologist, explained to us that the poor guy had what was sometimes called the Othello Syndrome. Obsessive jealousy, he said, was a form of paranoia, notoriously intractable.

I must confess to finding jealousy somewhat tedious. I can't even quite warm to "Othello," which often seems like too much ado about a missing hankie. My own marriage is blessedly jealousy-free. We talk openly about finding other people attractive. Not that I'd smugly state we're forever safe from competition. But there's a difference between a hubby declaring "That Elizabeth Hurley sure has a succulent ass" and his running out to hire a hooker -- Ms. Hurley and her paramour Hugh Grant being, by the way, an alternate casting suggestion for Stanely Kubrick's excruciatingly silly, overwrought film, "Eyes Wide Shut."

Not since Jimmy Carter declared he had sinned in his heart has anyone been this punished for having a dirty thought. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise each flirt with strangers at a party; she admits she was majorly hot for a fellow once before; and soon Cruise is spectator at a ghastly orgy that is more black mass than Playboy Bunny funfest.

Kubrick's subject is not jealousy. That's just the (thin) pretext to set Cruise cruisin', so we can get to the real subject: voyeurism. "Eyes Wide Shut" is a movie about people who like to watch. This is hardly new territory for Kubrick, who clamped his hero's eyes open in "A Clockwork Orange," or for other filmmakers -- there's Michael Powell's 1960 masterpiece, "Peeping Tom," and of course practically every Hitchcock movie sports a version of the peephole in "Psycho."

The trouble is that Kubrick does not seem to enjoy watching. The uplit nipples on his orgy gals are not tantalizing but threatening, like Phillipe Starck horn lighting fixtures -- it's almost a relief when one girl gets bumped off and Cruise studies her flopping breasts at the morgue.

The sexual energy between Kidman and Cruise is equally embalmed. So unengaged was I that I had time to wonder how they could afford that Manhattan apartment on his earnings as -- I think -- an internist (he's my favorite Doctor With Bounteous Leisure Time since Cameron Diaz in "Something About Mary"), or why they'd have a stainless steel dishwasher and oven but a white refrigerator with magnets and kid art. (This power couple, I assure you, would spring for the Sub Zero.)

The real reason married people have affairs is to escape from the kids. Nothing like becoming a parent to make you long for a night of anonymous sex far, far away from your family. Tom and Nicole have a cute red-headed 7-year-old girl, so demure and invisible that even walking with them in a toy store before Christmas she discreetly leaves her parents alone to look deep into each others' eyes and have soulful conversations: "No dream is ever just a dream. The important thing is, we're awake now, and for a long time to come." Whereas our son won't even let us get an uninterrupted sentence out about who's going to fetch the milk we forgot!

Needless to say, the roots of jealousy are Oedipal. No lover or husband could be more possessive than a small child. "Eyes Wide Shut" reeks of mother-neglect and mother-longing. As in "The Shining," the poor kid's all alone and unloved in the big, cold house while the adults overdress for their boozy parties, complete with spooky jazz right out of "Reefer Madness."

At the end, Tom and Nicole, chastened, agree to fuck and make up. The kid has noticed nothing amiss. Her homework even got done. Just a bad Manhattan night like the hallucinatory one in Scorsese's "After Hours," with one huge difference: Scorsese has a sense of humor. That's a fine quality in an artist, and indeed in a spouse.

Without humor, the best defense against the terrors of love is to make war. Kubrick's best movies have nary a woman in sight, just the chilly glitter of boys in boots, diddling their hardware. Is it not a "naval officer" whom Kidman claims she lusted after? For a control freak like Kubrick, the military makes a safer home than a marriage -- just ask Othello.

Bring me the outtakes! There's a hot movie in there somewhere

By A.M. Homes

Or: Fantasy is not what it used to be. Absent of tension, absent of desire, absent of flirtation, absent of the hint of promising something more, "Eyes Wide Shut," the final film by Stanley Kubrick, heretofore one of our most brilliant filmmakers - is like a bad date. I got all excited about it in advance and then it turned out to be excruciatingly long and a big bore.

Profoundly frustrating. "Eyes Wide Shut" reveals nothing. The most interesting moments, and there are really only two or three, demonstrate that Nicole Kidman has a measure of agility as an actress, and that contrary to what she recently demonstrated on Broadway in "The Blue Room" (another sexless sex play), there is something to her that can be toyed with ... but what? Was Kubrick playing with the power couple when he cast them as an affluent New York doctor and his wife? The idea was to dip into the dark side of jealousy, of marriage. But there is no dark side here ... in fact, there are no sides at all, only surface; slick, shiny surface.

Cruises performance is incredibly wooden -- it is hard to watch this formerly boyish, formerly sexy guy attempting to play doctor -- he is less convincing than the average 5-year-old playing the same game. Cruise is caught in an extended adolescence, not adult enough, not sophisticated enough, not evolved enough for the role. I can accept him as a fly boy, a race car driver and even a Vietnam vet, but as an uptown doctor consumed by sexual jealousy? Youve got to be kidding.

There was a moment in "Eyes Wide Shut" that intrigued me: Cruise is walking down a New York City street late at night, a gang of young men appears and taunts him about his sexuality, calling him a homo, etc. Here I thought perhaps something could happen, Kubrick-Cruise could take on the recurring rumors about Cruises real-life sexuality. I thought perhaps Kubrick had staged the moment to push Cruise ... but then nothing happens.

And going forward with the notion of nothing happening, the infamous orgy scene is laughable: orgy as quasi-religious experience. Cruise takes a taxi to an enormous house, repeats a cheesy password and enters a palace where a bunch of weirdos engage in a faux orgiastic dry hump with a bunch of Stepfordy, zoned-out women with 50-foot legs and over-inflated tits. It is so absent of eroticism as to be remarkable, to win the award for Worst Orgy.

What happened to the tease, the fantastic and delicious torture of desire and the thrill of fantasy? Why does Kidmans confession of desire for a Naval officer throw Cruise for such a loop that he is suddenly hurling himself toward prostitutes, orgies, anything remotely hinting of sexuality? Fantasy, flirtation can and should be used to reinvigorate a marriage. Bring it back into the bedroom, Cruise could have asked -- How does he do it to you? -- and we would have been on the edge of our seats. Can I watch? Tell me about it. He could have turned fear into a game, a dark and sexy game.

I want to see the movie that wasnt made, the movie that gave Tom Cruise the ulcer, a two-hour reel of scenes between Cruise, Kidman and Kubrick. I want to hear what they were thinking, I want to see what they threw out -- the trash.

There must be something there.

I picture something like Eleanor Coppolas stunning documentary about the making of "Apocalypse Now." I want to see that applied to the Cruise-Kidman marriage. That is the movie that would truly take them somewhere and return them, and us, transformed.

By Salon Staff

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