FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 30, July 1999

 


 

Marty Fairbairn

The Gaze and _Eyes Wide Shut_

 


 

 

_Eyes Wide Shut_

Produced and Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Warner Bros., 1999

 

Stanley Kubrick's much-anticipated last film, _Eyes Wide Shut_ is an appropriate conclusion to the director's distinguished career, as well as being a summation of his views on the role of art in culture, in particular the role of the narrative arts such as cinema. Ostensibly, the film deals with the marital troubles of a young, successful New York couple, Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman), who, after engaging in some harmless flirtation at the upscale party of rich socialite Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), begin to question their commitment to each other. Alice expresses jealousy at Bill's attraction for two young models. This prompts Alice to tell Bill a story about her more serious attraction for a naval officer the couple ran into at a vacation resort. This is a disturbing story in so far as Alice makes it plain that if the naval officer had 'wanted' her, she would have given up Bill, their daughter Helena, indeed, their whole life for a single night with him. Not surprisingly, the story causes a crisis of marital confidence in Bill, who, when suddenly called out to attend upon a patient's death, follows a sexual yellow brick road through a bizarre New York night, ultimately descending, via a series of gates, to a secret, nightmarish, possibly dangerous underworld of voyeuristic, ritual sex. But like Dorothy, Bill finds 'there's no place like home'.

 

The film features two strong central performances that subtly capture the sexually repressed, emotionally alienated psyches of a modern, successful couple. Cruise's and (especially) Kidman's performances show us a superficial, self-deluded sensuality, yet manage to suggest that deeper passions bubble just below the surface. This 'successful' couple's happiness, like their sensuality, is only skin-deep. Kubrick's camera suggests his characters' duplicity by constantly flipping sides, showing us the same characters from two opposite directions. Sydney Pollack is the manipulative philanderer Victor Ziegler, surrounded by art but thoroughly corrupt and degraded. A nightmare version of the wizard, it is he who reveals the secrets behind the masks but, as it turns out, there *are* no secrets.

 

This is a film that operates on many levels: it is about the vagaries of adult sexual relationships, but it is also about voyeurism; it is about the fetish of looking, 'scopophilia', as well as the problem of being looked at; and, it is about the role of the 'image' in the postmodern world. Right from the start, Kubrick makes us accomplices in looking. The opening image of the film, inter-cut with the credits, is one of Alice/Nicole Kidman sliding out of her dress. This opening sets the tone for the film: Kubrick casts *us* in the role of voyeurs by casting America's most-watched couple in the lead roles of his film. We enjoy watching Alice and Bill watch themselves make love in front of a mirror (to the strains of Chris Isaac's 'Baby did a Bad, Bad Thing'). We also enjoy watching Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman reveal *them*selves. This is perhaps the central image of the film and it operates simultaneously as sexual stimulant and cultural commentary. Within the film, it operates as a template for the powerful lure of the image, the superficial facade of things and the 'story', the fascination for which causes trouble between Bill and Alice Harford. Outside the film, it operates as a central example of the reason why this film, starring this couple, holds such interest for us: they are perhaps filmdom's most alluring couple. We are attracted to them; we want to look at them. (Indeed, the sequence even suggests that star images are a source of fascination *for the stars themselves*, but this takes us well beyond the scope of this review.) But images are a temptation, a trap into which we may fall at any time, a trap that resonates with Christian theology's history of ambivalence vis-a-vis the image as icon.

 

_Eyes Wide Shut_ suggests that the more you look at something, the less you actually see. Looking is a type of flirtation, but there is a price to be paid for it. For Bill, the price is humiliation; for us, it is losing touch with our own sensuality by living our dreams through others'. The more we look at that which is private, intimate, the less able we are to deal with our own intimacy. But more than the role of the image is dealt with here. Kubrick suggests that the arts, especially the narrative arts such as film, have an important role to play in the self-conscious awareness of a culture. We tell stories to learn about ourselves. But we should never take the stories *themselves* for real. Bill's 'crisis' is based on the story that Alice tells him, but the reality is that Bill and Alice are still together: she didn't go off with a sailor and he didn't go off with the two models. Similarly, film artists tell us stories and actors 'reveal themselves' to us, but none of it is real. Film directors play games, audiences participate. Through Sydney Pollack, Kubrick tells us 'It's all fake. None of it is real.' ('Just ignore the man behind the curtain.') It is not accidental that Kubrick casts Sydney Pollack, a well-known American film director, in the role of a rich manipulator who likes to watch the intimate sexual acts of strangers. Bill's reaction to Alice's story reminds us that stories can stimulate all manner of emotions; fear, sexual arousal, amusement, excitement, anger. (In the case of cinema, they sometimes send us reeling from the theatre, especially if the director is Stanley Kubrick.) Hence, film art, like the other narrative arts, is a force to be reckoned with. Like Gadamer's notion of 'play', narrative art is a serious game. It can change the way we view ourselves, even sometimes the way we live. But it is not real life. Real life is what we live every day.

 

_Eyes Wide Shut_ is the work of a gifted director near (as it turns out, *at*) the end of his career, reflecting on the role of film art in popular culture and the lure of the image. As much as it is a film about the vagaries of adult sexual relationships, it is a film about scopophilia and our obsession with the postmodern god, the Hollywood icon. This perhaps accounts for Tom Cruise's and Nicole Kidman's interest in the project, apart from the rare opportunity to work with one of the world's great directors: _Eyes Wide Shut_ is about people seduced by images, people who are so taken with the image that they forget the substance of the object of their gaze. Film directors/story-tellers -- not limited to, but perhaps especially Kubrick -- manipulate our emotions and play fast and loose with personal identity through temporarily blurring the distinction between dream and reality, art and real life. But as Alice and Bill discover, stories are essentially 'fake'. Our lives are real, ours to live, ours to be in. Take what is useful from this 'dream for waking eyes', but don't stay too long, because in the end it's about reality, not dreams.

 

Bon voyage and thank you, Mr Kubrick.

 

Guelph, Ontario, Canada

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

Marty Fairbairn, 'The Gaze and _Eyes Wide Shut_',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 30, July 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n30fairbairn>.

 

  

 

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