Friday, December 25, 2015

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)


Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Frederick Raphael
DP: Larry White
Editor: Nigel Galt
Score: Jocelyn Pook
Producer: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack
Distribution: Warner Bros.
Length: 2 hrs. 39 min

The main character of Eyes Wide Shut, a doctor named Bill Harford played by Tom Cruise, is at the center of two different plot threads.  One of these seems to investigate Bill's inner life and his relationship with his family, while the other seems to investigate hidden parts of the world surrounding Bill.  These only really emerge as separate threads after the fact; they blend seamlessly, despite the link between them never manifesting in an obvious form in the film.

Having it be more explicit than it is might not even work; the reason these two things flow together so well is because they're inextricable.  In Kubrick's world, the influence of outside power structures relies on individual inclinations, and that influence changes people in turn.  While almost all of Kubrick's films set out to question the powerful, those that closely examine specific characters depict the influence of power as something that capitalizes on already-existing facets of individual personalities.  Eyes Wide Shut falls into this category.

The film opens with Bill and his wife Alice, played by Nicole Kidman, at home, getting dressed before heading to a friend's Christmas party.  After they arrive, they end up getting separated while they mingle.  The performative, harmlessly deceptive nature of their interactions with the other guests becomes clear quickly; they flirt, even though going beyond that would be taboo.  Equally important are the remarks they make about success, connections, and work-related perks.

But perhaps the most important part is how Bill's immersion in the party is abruptly ended when someone asks him to come away for a second at the host's behest.  Bill is taken to the upstairs bathroom to find Victor Ziegler, his friend and host of the party, waiting with an unconscious prostitute.  Here, the nature of Bill's relationship with Ziegler and the other high-class guests is finally shown.  Bill and Alice are certainly affluent, but it's obvious that Ziegler is far more wealthy than they.  By this point, Kubrick's roving camera has given the viewer a keen sense of how big the film's locales are; the Harfords' apartment isn't small, but it's nowhere close to the size of Ziegler's home. Bill and Ziegler are on friendly terms, but the only tangible thing Bill can offer him is clandestine medical service.  Having a trustworthy doctor around lets Ziegler enjoy the hidden parts of his parties with impunity.

This isn't the only time a person apparently wealthier than Bill attempts to exploit him in the film's first act.  The night after the party, he's called away to deal with the death of a patient.  Again, Bill enters a more expensive space than his own home is.  When he meets the patient's daughter, she explains that she'd plans to move out of the state with her boyfriend, but quickly changes her mind, declaring her love for Bill.  Bill identifies this as an attempt to lean on him for emotional support in a time of crisis.

After Bill rebuffs her and leaves, he ends up alone.  Earlier, Alice had asked him why he wasn't jealous that other men were hitting on her at Ziegler's party, and he responded by saying he knew she would never be unfaithful to him.  She reacted with offense, and decided to tell him about a time she once felt an intense attraction toward another man.  These circumstances what it means for a husband to love his wife; does he trust her not to betray him, or does he respect her as someone who can make decisions outside of his influence?  Or should we be asking why these are mutually exclusive?  Why didn't Bill ask Alice what she thought of his flirting?  Alice comments that deception is inherent in marriage, but why should it be?

Perhaps the answer lies in the film's most literal evocation of the concept of deception.  Halfway through the film, there's another party.  Like the first party, the host is much wealthier than Bill, there's an extended sequence of Bill getting dressed up before going, and the attendees obscure their true identities.  However, these similarities aren't immediately apparent, as this is not a traditional party; it's some kind of bizarre occult mass, a meeting held by extremely wealthy and powerful people where everyone wears an ornate mask and takes part in ceremonial sex acts.  The sequence in which Tom enters and explores this party is one of the most hypnotic scenes in Kubrick's body of work, simultaneously indelible and disturbing.  Near the beginning of this sequence is a shot of some ritual, with a blindfolded pianist in the foreground providing accompaniment.  Revealing the source of the scene's ethereal music demystifies it a little, but the cultists are in the light, taking up much more of the frame, while the piano player is in shadow.  There may be no supernatural or spiritual power in the ritual, but there is, in fact, some godlike force at work: The force of class, of financial and political power.

In another echo of the film's earlier party, it all ends abruptly when Bill is called away by the host and put in a position that demonstrates how much less power he holds than the host and other attendees. This may be one place where the link between the film's alternating explorations of Bill as a husband and Bill as a fixture in a hierarchy comes to the fore.  The password to the party is "Fidelio," obviously meant to evoke "fidelity," the concept at the heart of the tensions in the Harfords' marriage. It would be ironic that this should be the password to a party that revolves entirely around unfaithful sex acts, but the film considers the concept of fidelity not as it relates to loyalty, but as it relates to power.  As much as Bill's troubles stem from infidelity, it's of no concern at all for those who are more powerful than him.

Why is this difference in ideals so important?  Because it's enticing.  Throughout the film, Bill exercises influence over less wealthy people by throwing around his money and status.  He has no need for money, and that affords him some level of authority.  But the people even more powerful than Bill are not limited by social conventions, and they can withhold such benefits from Bill at will. By collectively declaring themselves above the obligations of others, they end up having something Bill wants, putting him in a disadvantaged position.  They capitalize on sexual anxiety, flaunting the fact that they are spared from such feelings but denying Bill the same.

Cinematographer Larry White causes every light in the film to emit a sort of translucent fog, contributing to the film's dreamlike ambience.  It also emphasizes the various Christmas decorations, and consequently the differences between wealthy, middle class, and working class spaces.  The tone of every scene is defined by color, and the way light pools in the film allows new colors to invade a scene when a character moves through space.  Kubrick also employs dissolve transitions of unusually long duration, starting from close-ups of Bill.  A similar technique was used in The Shining, to the effect of making the film's reality feel unstable and blurry; here it comes with the same effect, while also making the reality dependent on Bill's cognitive state.

In the most literal sense, Eyes Wide Shut is a conspiracy theorist's film.  But it lacks the resolution to give its references to the occult carry any weight; instead, it draws the viewer to consider them as references to power in general while the camera highlights the hierarchy of that power and its relationship to an individual personality.  In Eyes Wide Shut, power works by forcing people to suppress their true identities, threatening to destroy those identities if they ever show.  But it also tantalizes people by hanging the opportunity to be free from that suppression just out of reach.  The goal is not simply to make Bill follow, it's to make him want to follow.  The film's ending is not just ambiguous for us, it's ambiguous for Bill; the final dialogue suggests that he and Alice are trying to decide just how complacent they want to be.  The film offers the viewer awareness (or at least, an alternate way of looking at things, courtesy of Kubrick); it leaves it up to them to decide what to do with it.

You can certainly argue whether Kubrick's perspective is necessarily correct, but it's the thought that counts.  Think of it as a Christmas present.


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