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Eyes Wide Shut

Imagining Reality


Eyes Wide Shut is one of the great fussed over films. Not only for its lengthy gestation period and interminably long shooting schedule, but also for the interpretive work it seems to invite. In a short book on the film, sound theorist Michel Chion muses over the right we have to “generalise what we see, giving it a different, more general or symbolic meaning from that which is its story…” “In other words can and should we regard Alice Harford, the young, white American doctor’s wife, played by [Nicole] Kidman, as representative of young, white American doctors’ wives, or of young white, American women, or of young women and so on?” Chion reckons Stanley Kubrick’s film invites these generalisations, noting a montage scene showing Bill and Alice’s daily routines. Chion observes that in the sequence we see Alice attending to her daughter, Helena, at home, while doctor Bill (Tom Cruise) attends to a boy in his surgery. Chion asks whether we might muse over the boy Bill and Alice could have had instead of the girl they did have, and concludes, “but, of course, to make such a generalisation would be to disregard the facts. We have no proof, only ‘clues’”.

Chion admits to the hermeneutic impulse, but at the same time tries to keep it in check. Tim Kreider in Film Quarterly gives the impulse free rein. “Alice Harford’s status is subtly but unmistakably suggested: the wife as prostitute. She is associated with the streetwalker Domino by purple, the color of her sheets and of Domino’s dress, and by their dressing table mirrors.” Later, when Bill is informed the prostitute is HIV positive, Kreider reckons “Bill didn’t give Domino HIV, but he might as well have; she certainly contracted it servicing someone like him.” Kreider also sees an Introducing Sociology book on Domino’s bookshelf and believes it is a “key to reading the film, suggesting that we ought to interpret it sociologically – not, as most reviewers insisted on doing, psychologically.” Another critic, Rob Ager, in an online visual analysis, reckoned that what is ostensibly a continuity error is part of Kubrick’s subtle schema: Bill gets a taxi from a jazz club to a fancy dress shop, even though we may notice they are across the road from each other.

How can we accept that Eyes Wide Shut is a fascinating film of half meaning that invites interpretation, without at the same time over-determining our readings by taking clues as unequivocal? Perhaps the Introducing Sociology book is of importance, but maybe it indicates no more than that Domino is a sociology student paying her way through college by prostitution. The other book we can see on her shelf is Shadows in the Mirror – indicating we could insist on a psychoanalytic reading. And when we think back to those sheets, aren’t they Bill’s sheets as well? Couldn’t we go half mad making connections between certain colours in the film? Can’t we say that the white underwear Alice wears is similar to that of the daughter apparently prostituting herself at the back of The Rainbow fancy dress shop? It isn’t that similar, but bears more of a plausible resemblance than the purple dress and purple sheets in drawing two characters together.

We wouldn’t want to deny that the film is full of connections, mirrorings, and echoes, but at the same time how far can we go into the interpretive without finding ourselves just as easily making counter-readings that cancel the other one out? Let’s propose there are two ways into Kubrick’s film without simply taking it at face value. The first is the interpretive one offered by Kreider, Ager and to a lesser degree Chion; and the other is our own and that we will call speculative. Both respond to the hermeneutic impulse, but one insists on reduction, the other, we can argue, expansion. Where Kreider believes the American Empire “at the end of the millennium, is one in which the wealthy, powerful, and privileged use the rest of us like throwaway products, covering up their crimes with shiny surfaces and murder, ultimately dooming their own children to servitude and whoredom,” do we have to agree?

For surely what makes Kubrick’s film interesting isn’t its final message, but its indeterminacy. Throughout there are details that create rhyming effects that are effective in their uncanniness and semi-connectedness. At the first party early in the film Bill talks to a couple of models who tell him they’re taking him to the end of the rainbow, before he is interrupted by a man who says the party host needs him to attend to some business. Later in the film at the orgy there are a couple of naked ladies in masks, who may well be these two women. If they are, how could they know that he would find his way to this orgy via the Rainbow costume shop, for it requires what would seem to be numerous coincidences and much subterfuge for Harford to attend? If we try too hard to interpret the film, we might have to create a reading that puts these contingent moments into an overall pattern, and yet perhaps the strength of Eyes Wide Shut is not the design but the elliptical allusions that come out of the interruptive narrative Kubrick deploys.

This is story not so much meaningful because of cause and effect, but meaningful through their relative absence. In conventional narrative one or two coincidences are acceptable, and an interruption at key moments justifiable, but Kubrick relies on several coincidences and numerous interruptions. Alice happens to tell Bill a story that she concludes just as the phone coincidentally rings to tell him that a rich patient has died and his grown-up daughter would like Bill to come and see her. When he arrives the daughter tells him how much she loves Bill, and as Bill says they’ve never even had a conversation, it resembles Alice’s comments earlier where she talks about falling in love with a man after he looks at her when Bill and Alice were staying at a hotel. After attending to the father’s death, Bill goes out into the night and finds himself going into a club where Nick Nightingale plays: Nightingale is a friend from medical school that Bill met the previous night at the swish party. As they talk, the phone rings and Nick is given the password for a clandestine party he will be performing at in a couple of hours’ time. Bill persuades Nick to give him the password.

As plot logic the narrative is weak, but critics have also pointed, out, notably Larry Gross in Sight and Sound, that there is an element of dream logic here as well. Is this though not an easy way of justifying a story with too many coincidences? Perhaps not if, at the same time, the film is accompanied by the interruptive: that just as dreams allow for a strong sense of agency in the disruption of space and time for emotional connections, so also one loses agency in the interruptions that take us off in other directions or to an awakened state. Eyes Wide Shut isn’t quite as inculcated by dream logic as some of David Lynch’s work, but there is a sense of coincidence and interruption that hints at dreams, and it is this oneiric dimension that allows us simultaneously to question the categorical dismissal of many mainstream critics, and the overly interpretive defences of Kreider and others. Attacked by Time Out as a film that gets lost “in a murky conspiracy mystery that’s barely suspenseful or credible…”, by Stuart Klawans in The Nation, who believed “if Kubrick was going to make a movie about sexual obsession, he should have chosen characters with interesting individual psychologies”; and by David Denby in The New Yorker, who reckoned the orgy sequence “the most pompous orgy in the history of film”, the film wasn’t short of flak.

For the defence, Kreider insists on reading the film’s echoes unequivocally: indicating order where mainstream critics saw only chaos. At the end of the film he believes “Bill and Alice have learned nothing; for all their innocent talk about being “awake” now, their eyes are still wide shut.” But ours he implies can be wide open. In the closing scene in the film he reckons while Bill and Alice are talking, what really counts is what we are seeing visually. He notes that every item the daughter fondles in the shop they’re in, “associates her with the women who have been exploited by her father’s circle: a baby carriage (recalling the stroller seen twice outside Domino’s apartment), and placed next to a stuffed tiger just like the one on Domino’s bed, an oversized teddy bear (next to a whole rack of those tigers), and a Barbie doll recalling (The Rainbow shop owner] Milich’s daughter, dressed in a diaphanous angel’s costume like the one Helena wears at the beginning of the film.”

Now while we don’t want to underestimate Kreider’s observational astuteness, what happens is that the film is understood but not comprehended. Often the problem with interpretive over speculative readings is that they assure us in fact but not in feeling. There is a useful quote from Nietzsche that helps explain this when he talks of scholars, “the faith in a proof is merely a symptom of what in a hard-working family has for ages been considered ‘good workmanship.’” There is an attempt “to schematize things, become scholars, [and] they manifest a tendency to consider a problem as solved when they have merely schematized it.” What is interesting about Eyes Wide Shut is the ease with which it lends itself both to the dismissals of a Klawans or a Denby, and at the same time the sort of defence offered by Kreider and others. It is true there is a pram outside Domino’s apartment and that Helena looks at a pram in the toy shop. It is also a fact that there is a tiger on Domino’s bed and a tiger in the toy store.

But while some will insist this is Kubrick’s genius for symbolic connotation; others will see cliché at work. Isn’t the pram in the hall a metonym of poverty, of a family too poor to have a flat big enough to accommodate it inside? Is the tiger, or rather tigress, also not an index of a woman’s sexual energy? These are as easily clichéd short-hand images as part of a subtle symbolic web. And even if they are part of a broader meaning, what is the point? This is where the schematic reading comes into its own as Kreider notes every item Helena fondles in the toy shop, and then reckons “the subplot with Millich and his daughter is clearly echoed here, in another place of business, as the Harfords too, casually pimp their own little angel to the world of commerce.”

In such schematic reasoning analysis is chiefly illustrated through example rather than instinct, and often requires the sort of apparent close readings Kreider, Ager and Michel Chion go in for. Yet where Kreider and Ager do so for categorical interpretation; Chion is more given to a mixture of the interpretive and the speculative. When he says “With Eyes Wide Shut, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is a great temptation to construct the ‘perfect interpretation’”; instead what is required is surely the nuanced speculation. For example just as critics negative to the film have scoffed at the idea the Harfords could afford an apartment that would probably cost around $7m dollars, so others have defended its plausibility by wondering just how much money Bill makes from house calls. The implausibility is taken as plausible, when maybe it is better occupying a place in between. Chion usefully throws up the term ‘cinematographic irony’, noting that “Kubrick brings great care, precision and calm to the depiction of characters and actions which we do not know whether to regard as insignificant or important, ridiculous or admirable or simply human.” The speculative mode can allow us to consider the film as both mocking and serious, a critique of capitalism and, at the same time, a glorification of certain aesthetic beliefs afforded by the rich. For example what are we to make of the numerous books in Ziegler’s apartment (where the opening party takes place), and the wall to wall books in the mansion where the orgy happens? Again these could be lazy metonyms for stuffy wealth, or part of the cultural capital the wealthy have accumulated that makes them greedy but doesn’t mean they’re without taste. Is there not a push-me/pull-me response to the wealth and decadence? Is Bill the exploiter here or the innocent abroad in a land of wealth? He seems to be both: a hard-working doctor who happens to live in a $7m apartment, a dutiful family man who wants to get in touch with his kinkier side, and a man whose sense of discretion can shade into being implicated in darker deeds.

But maybe we need to return to what script gurus like to call the ‘inciting incident’ to get to grips speculatively with the film. The following evening, after the party at Zeigler’s, Alice tells Bill of falling instantly in love with a man and would have been willing to sacrifice her life with Bill and Helena for him, her whole future for a night with this stranger. It may be the phone call that forces Bill to make a house visit, but it is this confession that sends Bill into the night, and that leads him to Domino, to Nightingale, and to the orgy, no matter if these are, as we’ve proposed, generally coincidental events. It is as if both Alice and Bill create for themselves briefly a conditional existence – an existence out-with the predictability of their lives: for Alice through fantasising over a man she once saw; for Bill in allowing a mixture of contingency and intent into his sexual life, no matter his fidelity by the end of the film. A speculative reading would seem better able to comprehend this balance between the intentional and the accidental, the idea of various levels of consciousness at work simultaneously, rather than, in Kreider’s words, assuming “nothing is incidental; every detail of mise-en-scène should be assumed purposeful and significant.” Even if we do assume everything is purposeful and significant (and we may recall the film was mainly shot in a British studio and not chiefly on the potentially more contingent New York streets), can the film not be purposeful and significant in contradictory ways? Is Kubrick making an unequivocal statement about the awfulness of the top 1 per cent, or making an equivocal comment on the problem of desire, of which capitalism is a by-product?

In the final scene in the film sure we can read Helena’s symbolic function here as her linkage to the other women in the film that have been prostituted, but the scene also tells us about her simple desires, which are basically sublimated into material objects, and at the same time her parents’ desire to go beyond the sublimation to the sexual act that the film has throughout been procrastinating over. “There is something we need to do as soon as possible,” Alice says. “What’s that”, Bill replies, and Alice offers the closing line: “Fuck”. As they talk in this final scene about what is real and what is a dream; how one night cannot sum up a life, how dreams are never just dreams, both characters seem baffled by their own mind games. Indeed it is as though almost every character in the film has a sub-text beyond them, a sense of knowing more than they are letting on, but equally not quite privy to what that something more might be. Whether it is the two models telling Bill they will take him to the end of the rainbow, Millich chastising his daughter for her sexual adventures with two Chinese men, the dead man’s daughter telling Bill she loves him, or a clerk in a hotel giving details about Nick’s disappearance, the characters seem driven by a desire greater than what we can call the symbolic or the physiological: material want or sexual release. There is a constant need to confess, to express more than is socially acceptable, and yet this is perhaps not necessarily a truth: as if the frisson resides in the need to tell rather than in what’s told; a wish not to be open, but to create openings for complicity. When the daughter talks of never loving her husband but actually Bill, or Millich confesses his fears of hair loss, or a masked woman insists that Bill’s not safe at the orgy, characters are constantly generating complicit moments.

The most extreme example of this is also the most contrary: the inciting incident where Alice claims that she fell instantly in love. Is she telling the truth or is it an imp of perversity trying to counter Bill’s steadfast assumption that when he is at work the women who come into his surgery and have their breasts felt by Dr Bill have no sexual thoughts on their mind? As they talk, Alice is clearly stoned and intent on wounding her husband, and tells, or makes up, the naval officer story. The black and white flashbacks to the incident are not offered as Alice talks about it, but later when Bill thinks about what she’s told him. It’s as though she’s planted in his mind the importance of the imaginary life, where Bill can understand sexual desire and materialism, but not quite imaginative exploration.

Is it better to see Kubrick’s film not as an attack on capitalism and high finance, especially, but as a comment on a certain limited point of view that either cannot quite comprehend the imaginative capacity, as in Bill’s case, or hyperbolizes it as the rich so clearly do in their expenditure, their art-buying and their orgies? In such a context the title works as a useful paradox: how does one keep one’s eyes wide shut? This failure so might simply indicate an inability to face reality, a refusal to face the corruption, exploitation, depravity and depravation around us. That would be the political dimension to the film, and shouldn’t be ignored, but there is at the same time an ontological question hovering over Eyes Wide Shut. The film’s inciting incident is not a political issue but an ontological one: the question of how layered is our being, and how many of these layers need to be actualised or virtualised. Alice might not have committed adultery, but she reveals to him a side that creates a feeling of astonishing insecurity in Bill. This is not only something that touches on the fragility of his marriage, but also the fragility of his own all too actualized existence: if so much potentially sits inside his wife, what sits inside him?

In the scene that Chion earlier invokes we see Bill at work and Alice at home, and out of this ‘idle’ domesticity, out of the failed gallery she talks of, she may have recognized the importance of the subjunctive: of the forking paths that a life can take. When early in the film Bill talks to Nick about medical school, from Bill’s perspective he is the success talking to a failure. As Nick asks him if he’s still a doctor, Bill replies: once a doctor always a doctor, and Nick says, in his case, “never a doctor, never a doctor.” Ostensibly Bill would seem to win this exchange, and earlier he had mentioned to his wife dismissively that Nick never finished medical school. But from the perspective of forking paths, of conditional lives, Bill is arguably the least evolved character in the film. From this decidedly speculative angle Eyes Wide Shut is a sort of apprenticeship in the imaginary, in the capacity to comprehend less one’s direction than the sum total of one’s being. Just after the beginning of the film Alice asks Bill how she looks and he replies that she look great, but he isn’t even looking at her. The very first shot of the film however is of Alice seen nude from behind taking off her dress in a fixed frame, with no context provided, no point of view offered. Considering that shortly afterwards Bill swiftly moves around the flat and interrupts Alice as she pees on the toilet, it would appear he has neither the patience nor the erotic imagination to be responsible for this point of view. Yet at the end of the film he just might.

What one offers here is no more than a speculation, nothing so definitive as an interpretation. There is much in Kubrick’s film that remains enigmatic, much that may seem to smack of cliché, with dialogue that sounds clunky, acting that seems to be trying too hard. An interpretation might feel obliged to turn all these elements into part of Kubrick’s deliberate genius. Others read it differently, and even the screenwriter Frederic Raphael had reservations about the original novel, Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, “saying it’s cute, but it turns all that happens into a dark tale that gets tied up with a flourish like a pat little bow. There’s not much progression, is there?” There is and there isn’t, as our speculative take on the film suggests that nevertheless some important and interesting interior progression does take place

© Tony McKibbin