Kubrick in Reverse- Eyes Wide Shut: Sex as Horror, by Kyle Anderson
Stanley Kubrick’s career as a filmmaker spanned 46 years during which he made only 13 films. A perfectionist to a fault, Kubrick wished he could have made more films but just couldn’t bring himself to work faster. When he died in 1999 at the age of 70, he left behind a body of work incredibly varied in terms of genre and story but all held together by the director’s unflinching eye. His films are among the most technically proficient ever to be printed on celluloid, but they are all, in some way or another, cold. Whether the coldness was a product of the filmmaker’s vision or as a result of him being disconnected from the films on anything but a mechanical level is up for debate. Kubrick is a favorite director of mine and I have often revisited his films without ever really being able to grasp fully why I love them so much. I’ve decided to take a look at Stanley Kubrick’s body of work in reverse, from last to first, to see if I can pinpoint what about his films are inherently “Kubrickian,” and precisely what is the most “Kubrickian” film of all.
His final film was 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut. On the outset, it doesn’t seem like a film Kubrick would have made, being that it’s about a married couple dealing with thoughts of infidelity, and indeed the first 45 minutes of the film’s 159 minute running time is a whole lot of talk. The bulk of it deals with married couple Dr. Bill and Alice Harford as they traverse the murky waters of fidelity and infidelity. Frank, sexual dialogue is the centerpiece of the film’s beginning and it culminates in Alice’s confession that she has considered not only having an affair, but totally leaving her life with Bill behind to do so.
Despite my own displeasure at the performance of the lead actress, it is after this conversation that the picture starts to pick up steam and where Kubrick’s talents begin to that center stage. Troubled by his wife’s confession, Bill starts a disturbing journey into a sexual world with which he is wholly unfamiliar. From here until the end, the film can be split in twain; one of the halves deals with Bill’s enticement into sex and the second portrays the consequences of such a lifestyle. It is this first half, when Kubrick is again at his best, that I will be discussing here and how his filming techniques add to the character’s state of mind.
Immediately after Alice’s bombshell is dropped, Bill is called out into the night as a terminally ill patient of his has passed away. On the way, Bill is beset by visions of Alice engaging in sex with the naval officer and dwells on them. He gets to the man’s house and has a long conversation with the man’s tearful daughter, whom Bill only knows through his house calls. The adult daughter says to Bill that she is engaged and that they plan to move away. As Bill congratulates her, the woman impulsively kisses him and confesses her love for him, saying even if they never saw each other again, she couldn’t bare being in a different city from him. As if things couldn’t get awkward enough, it is right then when the daughter’s fiancé gets home. Bill excuses himself and goes on with his journey.
In this first ring of the sexual world, Bill is encountered by the chastest form of sex, which is sex as infatuation. The woman with whom Bill has had little interaction outside of medical matters has grown to “love” Bill as he was the one caring for her father. This is a sexual level that Bill has no trouble getting passed, though the temptation is there and might have gone further had the woman’s fiancé not arrived. Kubrick shoots this scene rather tightly on the two actors and continues the shot, reverse-shot mode of cutting. This implies that while Bill is not interested in what she is offering, he is the most comfortable with the scenario. He is still in the role of the doctor giving advice and the tightness on him in the scene implies his relative dominance.
Bill leaves and takes a walk and isn’t two feet down the sidewalk when he is approached by Domino (Vinessa Shaw), a young prostitute. She asks if he’d like to come up to her apartment and he agrees. After some ungraceful conversation, Bill and Domino settle on a price and begin kissing. Just then, his cell phone rings. It’s his wife. Bill answers and Alice asks when he will be home. Bill lies about having to stay with the dead man’s family for longer and that he’s unsure of when he’ll get home. Figuring he probably shouldn’t stay, Bill pays Domino anyway, for which she is very grateful, and then bids her adieu.
Bill is in the second level of sex with this meeting, which is desire. He chooses to entertain the idea of sleeping with a prostitute, though she is, seemingly, a very clean prostitute, certainly very young and pretty, and she lives in a nice little apartment in a decent part of the city. Bill is out of his comfort zone a bit here and Kubrick, as such, shoots the scene just a little bit wider. We get to see more of the scenery and also physically more of the characters. We’re removed slightly from Bill as he is removed from the circumstance, or his familiarity with it.
Next, Bill goes to a local jazz club to meet his old college chum Nick Nightingale (Todd Field) whom he saw playing the piano at the Ziegler party the previous night. Through conversation, Bill learns that Nick is going to another gig after this, a secret one where he is to wear a blindfold and there is a password to get in. Bill beseeches Nick to tell him where it is and Nick begrudgingly agrees, telling him he needs a mask, cloak, and tuxedo to enter.
This is the first instance of Bill taking an active role in his dark path. He was complicit with Domino’s advances earlier, but here we see he actually chooses to go forth and pursues the knowledge to do so. The jazz club is very dim, playing to the director’s strengths in lighting. The lighting is integral here as Nick Nightingale acts as the gatekeeper for the journey into further darkness.
In order to get into the mysterious party, Bill needs a costume and so calls upon a former patient who owns a costume shop. Unfortunately, the patient no longer owns the place and it is now run by an Eastern European man named Mr. Milich. Milich is not particularly keen to help Bill, given the hour and the specificity of Bill’s request, but an offer of $200 speeds things along. While they are picking out pieces of the costume, Milich finds his scantily clad daughter engaged in some odd, kinky behavior with two middle-aged Japanese men. As Milich’s daughter is clearly very young (indeed the actress playing her was only 16 at the time), Milich gets furious and locks the men in the shop’s office so the police can be called.
Bill has just entered the third level, that of deviance. He is merely a spectator, which will be his role for the rest of the adventure, but he sees a dark underbelly for the first time. The costume shop is larger than expected and is filled with holiday-inspired lights, giving it a carnival appearance. Kubrick pulls back even further during this scene, removing Bill yet again from his comfort zone.
And the final portion of the sequence is a long, nearly dialogue-free scene in an enormous mansion. Having bribed a cabbie to wait outside for him and armed with his costume and password, Bill enters the house to a massive ballroom. He sees dozens of people adorned in black and wearing various oversized commedia masques. In the center of the room is a figure in red surrounded by a ring of women wearing next to nothing aside from their own masques. Bill witnesses a strange ritual wherein the women bow and kiss each other through the masques. Each woman then goes and chooses a person from the crowd. One woman chooses Bill and tells him to leave, somehow knowing not only that he doesn’t belong but that he is in danger for being there.
Bill doesn’t leave and instead surveys the massive house as an orgy takes place. Kubrick shoots everything incredibly wide, the widest the lenses are in the film, and depicts Bill as being almost totally removed from what he sees. He floats through the dreamlike sea of sex and debauchery largely unnoticed until he again meets the woman who warned him, who again warns him to leave. A butler walks over to him and says the cab driver wishes to speak to him. He is then lead into the grand ball room where literally everybody at the party wearing the cloaks is standing around the circle staring at him, including the red hooded man who is still seated in his throne.
As Bill walks forward, the grotesque masques become even more frightening as Kubrick shoots various groups of them with a wide angle lens staring directly into camera. As he stands along in front of Red Cloak, Bill is never smaller in the frame and he is in a near-spotlight, conveying both the character’s lack of power as well as his realization of both his actual and perceived guilt.
In this portion of the film, and especially the sequence at the party, Stanley Kubrick employs his best filmmaking techniques. As Bill is walking around the party, graphic sexual acts are shot from a great distance at once making them seem foreign and mechanical, and the fact that everyone is wearing exaggerated Mardi Gras masks gives it the alien feel that exemplifies Bill’s feeling out of place. A scene like this which is at its most graphic feels far less impactful than the grief-stricken kiss from his patient’s daughter earlier. It’s shot like a horror film and the audience and character react accordingly.
Kubrick does the strange and otherworldly better very well, but I never bought any of the relationship stuff in this film. The actors don’t do a great job and the dialogue early on seems forced and unrealistic. Still, the sequence in the middle I’ve just described makes this film a worthy final entry in the director’s canon and an interesting beginning to my continued journey into the filmmaking mind of Stanley Kubrick.
Next week: Full Metal Jacket