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Love, Death and Sex: Eyes Wide Shut

10/30/2007 09:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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In Stanley Kubrick's cinematic universe reality,
dreams, order and insanity progress on distinct,
intersecting planes. Whether he was depicting an
absurd, chillingly real war room in Dr.
Strangelove
, the disturbing but oddly sexy ultra
violence of an Orwellian future in A Clockwork
Orange
, the siren call of insanity in The
Shining
, or the hyper fantastical yet authentic
Vietnam War in Full Metal Jacket, life was a
surreal work in progress -- nearly an ambiguous joke
that veered from hilarious to sexy to terrifying,
sometimes within seconds. Attempting to understand
order, or how any system designed to make our
universe more rational or safe seemed fruitless. With
this in mind, I love how Sterling Hayden approaches
such a predicament at the end of Kubrick's The
Killing
. He watches his life literally fly away
on an airport tarmac and bitterly spits one of
cinema's greatest last lines: "Eh, what's the
difference?"

Which brings me to the final line of Kubrick's
frequently misunderstood Eyes Wide Shut in
which Nicole Kidman states rather flatly, "Fuck" -- as
in, that's the answer, that's what we need to do. A
movie I've defended since its release, I'm pleased
that within Kubrick's newest box set, the unrated
version of Eyes is now easily available (with
more appreciation to follow, I think...). It's a
picture that deserves closer inspection and a worthy
finale for the enigmatic auteur.

The controversial movie (some thought it silly,
some, un-erotic) Eyes Wide Shut found the
director once again studying the perplexing nature of
dreams and reality, this time exploring them in a more
personal and private arena: sexuality. As he did with
Lolita, Kubrick created more than a film
about sexual desire; he created a film about bitter
romance, troublesome marital bonds, societal
contradictions and, significantly, the fear of
death.

An updating of the 1927 Traumnovelle
(Dream Novel) by Arthur Schnitzler, an Austrian writer
whose deeply psychological work resembled Freud's, the
picture remains an unsettling blend of antiquated
garishness and modern transgression -- an alternate
sexual universe haunted by ghouls of the past, present
and future.

In this universe "live" the healthy, handsome
walking dead -- Dr. Bill Harford (an impressive Tom
Cruise) and his wife, Alice (a slinky, wonderfully
creepy Nicole Kidman), a glamorous, rich couple who
appear the picture of storybook perfection. But like
most supposed perfection, there are cracks in that
portrait, and in their case, it's the usual: they want
to screw other people (or at least they think they
do). At a sumptuous party given by Bill's obscenely
wealthy friend Victor (Sydney Pollack), Bill almost
strays upstairs with two models and Alice flirts with
a bizarre Hungarian man who looks like one of the
cadaverous partygoers from The Shining. The
next evening, in a fit of jealousy over Bill's near
indiscretion (he ended up contending with a naked drug
overdose), Alice confesses that she's had thoughts of
cheating and, even worse, reveals that if things had
been different, she would have thrown her entire life
away for one flight of sexual fancy.

Unmasking something that usually remains one of
those deep, dark secrets you don't tell your
significant other, Alice deftly rattles Bill's
perception of her fidelity and the strength of their
marriage in a speech that makes his mind spin out of
control (Kidman's performance here is superb.) After
this confession, Bill is abruptly called away to
confirm the death of a patient during which the
daughter of the deceased makes a pass at him. The
grief stricken but, considering the circumstances,
kinky gesture helps Bill's decision to not immediately
return home. Instead, he wanders the streets of New
York and embarks on a sequence of actions that, though
not as outwardly comic, somewhat resemble those in the
Scorsese movie After Hours: He discovers a
surreal sexual underworld that he's both attracted to
and repelled by.

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A prostitute, a piano player, a bizarre
costume-store owner and his slutty Lolita-esque
14-year-old daughter lead Bill to the film's infamous
ritualistic orgy sequence, during which participants
are cloaked and masked, and naked women are used as
sacrificial sex lambs. The gothic, terrifying yet
titillating feel of this sequence walks a fine line
between horror and parody and true to Kubrick's
genius, manages to cross into both camps. The
magnificent, exacting camera work and unrelenting
music compel us to look, no matter what happens, and
though I was actually a little scared the first time I
saw this moment, I found myself highly amused--laughing
even. If ever a person was out of place in a Bohemian
Grove-like orgy, it is Tom Cruise's Dr. Bill. And yet,
I was absolutely hypnotized, watching these moments
like a waking dream and investing it with multiple
meanings. What the hell is going on here besides a
bunch of silly old rich men getting their jollies with
beautifully breasted, long legged Helmut Newton
models? And further, what do all of Bill's adventures
mean? Are Bill's encounters simply nightmares that
will damage his marriage beyond repair, or are they
mere titillating fantasy -- fodder for a closer
relationship and better sex with his spouse?

Well, I can't answer that. Given the picture's
ominous tone, however, there is something definitely
rotten within its slinky, Christmas-lit loveliness.
Like the impeccable environment of The Shining, the
aura of Eyes Wide Shut is one of beauty ready
to be defiled, sexuality ready to be slaughtered,
lovely exteriors that reek of formaldehyde. The pall
that hangs over this picture is fear: fear of the
unknown; fear of yourself or of others; and fear that
if sex can lead to freedom, it can just as easily lead
to death.

In fact, the picture can be viewed as a commentary
on sexual attitudes in the last few decades -- a time
when meaningless indiscretions can lead to horrifying
blood-test results. It is no surprise, then, that Bill
is a doctor and that throughout the film, he flashes
his physician's ID as a police detective would his
badge. "I'm a doctor," he constantly says,
for both reassurance and intimidation. In a profession
that requires intimate investigation of flesh that may
well be on its way to the morgue, sex is serious.
These unsettling references to AIDS, necrophilia and
forbidden sex (not to mention Kubrick's own death upon
bringing the film to completion, une petite mort of
sorts) permeate the picture like one giant prick
tease. In today's world, sex is still there for the
taking, but at what cost and for what gain? Kubrick's
frustrating, brilliant coda neither answers nor
ignores its own questions. Rather it leaves us in a
mysterious, contradictory mishmash of dream and
reality, where not only are our eyes wide shut, but
our legs are too.

Read more Kim Morgan at her blog href="http://sunsetgun.typepad.com/">Sunset
Gun
.