Pornography or art?
What the billboards don't tell you about Stanley Kubrick's last film, `Eyes Wide Shut'
Sunday 18 July 1999
Ever since 7 March, when Stanley Kubrick died, it has been clear that Eyes Wide Shut was set to be an event - perhaps the last great opening of our century, the age of cinema. That was not Kubrick's fault, nor his film's - though Warner Brothers must have seen the death of the master as one of their greatest strokes of fortune in presenting this picture. It does not open in Britain for two months, but the size of the event is enough to eclipse Stars Wars 1: The Phantom Menace, which has arrived this weekend and surely needs shelter. It is part of the consuming dynamic of the movies that the film coming is better than the one here already. That's what trailers are all about. But at the end of the century, I'd like to propose a contrary principle: that almost the only movies to be trusted now are the ones you haven't heard of, whereas the dogs, the white elephants, the withered rubber sharks, are those that "everyone" has been made desperate for.
Eyes Wide Shut is wretched. It is as slow and painful as watching someone with Alzheimer's try to play patience. It studies the primal human impulse - erotic imagination - but without energy, humour or hope. It possesses one of film's most famous married couples, and puts them in a film where they never make love. It is as if Kubrick was prepared to give them nothing but the benefit of his own baleful voyeurism. He has an actress close to greatness, whose sense of the unexpected illumines her every scene, and yet he excludes her from far too much of the film. Instead, he puts the load on an actor whose boyishness bars him from the maturity, the sadness and the desperation his part needs.
Most damning of all, this is meant as a film about sex by a man who seems shy or innocent with it. Heaven knows, there's a lot of sex around in this world, some dangerous, some delightful, most of it excited, antic, hopeful, awkward and comic. But Kubrick builds towards an orgy scene that is so pretentious, so solemn, so paranoid, so repressed, so implausible, it may reduce audiences to laughter. And the film has a last line and a closing sentiment that wraps up all the risk in love and sex in a platitude so pious that a maiden aunt would be ashamed to utter it. Yet for now Eyes Wide Shut may be treated with respect (Kubrick's death and his intimidating status will ensure that) but this could be the Rocky Horror Picture Show in 10 years' time, with giddy mobs reciting the dialogue in mocking unison.
There's no point in being angry at Kubrick's brooding celebrity - no matter that his isolation and intense self-delaying may be the worst way of working. My disappointment is directed specifically at his betrayal of his own subject. Eyes Wide Shut is a movie about marriage, sex and fantasy; about film, dream and voyeurism. There are no greater subjects. Whether now, in the age of Arthur Schnitzler (whose novel prompts the film), or of William Shakespeare, there are few human urges more lethal or transporting, or more worthy of study than our capacity to fall in love with different people at the same time. This is something that Jean Renoir's great film, The Rules of the Game, called "the exchange of two fantasies and the coming together of two epidermises". It changes people, and destroys them, sometimes in the same instant.
But Renoir was a natural dramatist, able to let us feel fantasies as he showed us skins. What is damning to the drama of Eyes Wide Shut is that we never grasp the inner life of the characters played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Indeed, those inner possibilities are no more than ghosts behind the bright skin. The characters are well-to-do: he is a successful doctor; she dabbled once in the art world, but is unoccupied now; they have an ample apartment on the West Side of Manhattan; they have a daughter, yet they have this child rather in the way they have paintings by Mrs Kubrick on their walls: the little girl is applied like decor.
Are they bored with each other? Have they reached a point when they are beginning to believe that life, energy or novelty have passed them by? Is one of them sexually more adventurous than the other? We never know. Are they in love? We hardly feel it. Are they at risk of losing each other or their own souls? Or are they really no more than glossy photographs? In short, they are not ready for transformation or tragedy, and so the proper arc of sexual and moral action flops before it can take off. Some argue that here, at last, at the age of 70, Kubrick has let warmth and generosity flood into his film, along with the light. I think that's a sham: this picture is fatally restricted by its own cool posing of its characters. They have not a flicker of true human untidiness.
And so the orgy is never the realisation of their fantasies. It is a sinister set-piece, like Murder in the Cathedral as a Folies Bergere tableau, a vision of horror worthy of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining but never a dramatic cockpit in which these two people confront their marriage or their dreams. It's as if Kubrick wanted to order an orgy, and specific characters had been compelled into it. Because love is never established or put in danger, the sex is automatic and inhuman. There is no catharsis, no awakening, no loss, no profit. There is actually no Kidman at the orgy - how much more intriguing it might have been if she, with a different look, had played one or more of the other female figures Cruise meets. Then we could have seen every experiment as something reflecting on the original relationship. But that would need a writer and an artist, a real user of actors - as opposed to a photographer of figures and a withdrawn fantasist. In his last movie, Kubrick's only confession is in the helpless admission of his limits.
OK, but are you going to recommend the film, a friend asked after I had outlined my dismay. Recommendation is not the point. Anyone who takes their relationship with the dark and the screen seriously is going to see this film, no matter what I or other rebels say. The weight of publicity is irresistible; we cannot shrug off our own hopes. Stanley Kubrick's strange authoritarianism and his narrow pondering, as much as his actual achievement, deserve attention. This is a perfect lesson in where tyranny cut off from experience can lead the movies. For this is not art but artistic pomp, the mere flexing of film's apparatus. And it is deadly. But go see it and - if you will - raise a mighty roar and dispute.
`It peddles flagrant lies about women'
Y ou may have seen the trailer in your local cinema: Nicole Kidman posing naked in front of a mirror to a thumping soundtrack of Chris Isaak's "Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing". Enter her husband, Tom Cruise, also naked, who begins to caress her until the screen goes dark and three words flash up in quick succession. "Cruise. Kidman. Kubrick". Already, in a matter of seconds, we have been promised several things. Not just graphic sex between actors but a glimpse into a real-life marriage, with the soundtrack's assurance that what they are about to do, far from being natural and healthy, is dark and dirty.
Voyeurism, danger, shame. OK, got that. But is it sexy? More to the point, is it two hours, 39 minutes and 47 seconds sexy? Some of you will already know the plot, in which a fashionable New York doctor (Cruise) is so stunned when he discovers his wife's sexual fantasies that he sets off on his own journey into a dark world of sexual obsession. From an initial, unconsummated encounter with a prostitute, he follows a series of clues which lead him to a secluded country mansion where bizarre sexual rituals are performed by masked men and women.
From the film's opening scene, a brief glimpse of Kidman stepping out of a black dress to stand naked with her back to the camera, we get to see a great deal of bare flesh. There is an unconscious prostitute, sprawled in a bathroom after taking a drug overdose at a society party; there is Kidman, having sex with a naval officer in fantasy scenes which recur throughout the movie; there is a circle of beautiful women, naked except for g-strings and masks; there is a dead prostitute, lying in a drawer in a hospital morgue.
Let me declare an interest here. I have a problem with movies in which the women are half-dressed or naked - including, in this case, the under- age daughter of a theatrical costumier whom he prostitutes to two Japanese clients - and the men for the most part keep their clothes on. It's true that there is an orgy, in which a variety of couples are shown having sex in different positions. But there is not a single penis in sight, not even a flaccid one, which the law does allow, and that tells us something about - how shall I phrase this? - where Kubrick is coming from. In that sense at least, this is little more than a high-budget blue movie, even including the obligatory lesbian orgy scene which turns up so often in commercial pornography for heterosexual men.
But then you do not have to watch this vapid, interminable film for long to realise it is a tour of wearily familiar obsessions. "Inspired" by Arthur Schnitzler's novella Traumnovelle (Dream Novel), it has clearly been influenced by other libertine texts, so much so that one of the few diversions available to the bored viewer is clocking them. Hello, everybody, here comes the chateau from L'Histoire d'O! Look out for the woman in the bird mask, because something horrible is going to happen to her! Wake up at the back, it's time for a black mass courtesy of the Marquis de Sade!
Traumnovelle was published in Vienna in 1926 and Kubrick bought the film rights as soon as he discovered it in the 1970s. Written during a period of intense interest in sex, particularly the so-called puzzle of female sexuality, the plot - if its elements are faithfully reflected in Kubrick's movie, as they appear to be - reflects a set of ideas which also surfaced a couple of years later in Pandora's Box, the celebrated expressionist movie by G W Pabst. That fim starred the luminously beautiful American actress Louise Brooks as Lulu, a free spirit who destroys countless men, and eventually herself, through her boundless sexual appetite.
From the original Wedekind plays on which Pandora's Box is based, through Traumnovelle to Eyes Wide Shut, identical notions about women and sex are on display - and they are, not to put too fine a point on it, the malign fantasies of a bunch of dirty old men. Kidman's role in Eyes Wide Shut is to talk dirty from beginning to end, confirming that all women, no matter how beautiful or respectable or maternal, are really whores underneath. (The juxtaposition of beauty and filth is underscored in an early scene which shows Kidman - not Cruise, of course - get up off the toilet and wipe her bottom.)
Describing her fantasies about the naval officer, Kidman tells Cruise dreamily: "I thought if he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything. You. Helena [their daughter]. My whole fucking future." This is not the authentic voice of a woman, but a man's lubricious idea of a woman dazed by sex. Inverting the popular 19th-century notion that women are sexually inert, it proposes instead that we are dangerously, disgustingly insatiable. It is another manifestation of the tired old dispute which swings between a belief that women have no sexual feelings at all to a fearful conviction of widespread nymphomania in the female population - or that portion of it which, like the women who appear in this film, happens to be young, pneumatic and desirable.
At the heart of Eyes Wide Shut, contrary to what its late director would like us to believe, is a profound sexual disgust. It peddles flagrant lies about women, denying us any roles other than mother and whore - or mother/whore in one person, as we are supposed to conclude from the banal scene cutting between Kidman and her child and Kidman with her fantasy lover. Some men, it appears, never get over the trauma of discovering that their mothers had sex - a shock which gave rise, in another context, to the myth of the Virgin Mary.
Eyes Wide Shut inhabits an infantile fantasy world in which female desire, once let off its leash, is exhibitionist, masochistic and indiscriminately promiscuous. That women might not share this neurotic sexual disgust - that we are able to conceive of ourselves as autonomous, unashamed sexual beings - lies beyond the scope of this feeble movie. In its final scene, the chastened husband and wife visit a toy shop - scene of lost childhood innocence, for those of you who are a bit slow with the symbolism. Cruise asks Kidman what they should do. Her final speech is a four-letter word which requires only the addition of the letters "-ing awful" to stand as the film's epitaph.
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