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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Spoiler-filled Analysis-

It was only in my last viewing of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s most controversial and polarizing film, at Cinema Rendezvous did I realize what the film-maker was really on about. I believe that Dr. Bill Harford’s journey here captures man’s first encounter with Helen, the second phase of the anima archetype. It is in this phase that man sees women to possess no virtue. Kubrick also addresses sexual incompatibility and the need for communication in a marriage in the film. Additionally, he talks of the necessity for a man to channelize the Warrior/Protector archetype to prevent his woman, his anima projection, from feeling defeminised, and inadvertently him from feeling emasculated, when she compensates by projecting her own animus elsewhere. The film released after Kubrick’s death, giving rise to several conspiracy theories surrounding the nature of his death. One of them suggested that he was killed by cult illuminati.

I always saw Eyes Wide Shut as a psychosexual thriller that revolved around Bill’s drive for sexual retribution. While that is partly true, it is hardly his sole motivation. Re-watching the film multiple times helped peel off the layers and see that there’s far more to it. I firmly believed that Eyes Wide Shut pointed to Bill and Alice remaining oblivious to a seemingly conspicuous distance that had crept in between the two of them. This time though, I felt it was only Bill who was oblivious to the distance. And the causes for this estrangement seem to bring him at fault. His inability to sexually satisfy his wife, his non-possessive nature and his non-confrontational nature would be three to name. He remains blind to the effect they have on his wife and their relationship. Eyes Wide Shut might also point to Bill being blind to the primal, animalistic nature of female sexuality. But, more on that later.

The film opens with Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) heading to a party as a couple. We’re given a hint of Alice’s sexual dissatisfaction here. A greying man she’s dancing with softly asserts his sexual desires, “Marriage was the only way women could lose their virginity and be free to do whatever they wanted with other men. The ones they really wanted.” She wants it, yet can’t help but reject his advances, all the while being amused. Bill, on the other hand, has two young girls flirting with him. He seems used to the attention and takes it lightly.

Alice cuts the man off. The film clumsily transitions (intentional?) to Alice and Bill back at home having sex. The scenes here speak volumes of the nature of their relationship. The lovemaking sequence has her lost, distracted and uninvolved. There’s a certain shot that follows after they’ve had sex that needs special mention. She’s smoking, and the camera slowly backs off. Bill is beside her and leaning over her. She has her back towards him and is looking away from him. This take on their relationship is consistent with the poster that has Bill intently making love to Alice as she looks lost elsewhere. She’s far, far away from the present. Both of these symbolic devices communicate that he gets more than she does from their relationship and that she’s dissatisfied with this lopsided sexual bargain.

She brings up an anecdote here, of other men wanting to have sex with her. He broaches the topic impersonally, when she expects him to be possessive of her. Later, we see her narrate a dream that reveals the way with which she regards her husband. He’s merely a provider unable to embody the Warrior/Protector archetype, on account of his being non-possessive. What’s interesting here is that she’s trying to communicate her dissatisfaction. And he simply isn’t listening. She wants to explore the problem here unadulterated but, he’s keener on diffusing the situation. He responds impersonally, is non-confrontational and remains in denial, refusing to see that there’s a massive problem here. Eyes Wide Shut indeed.

The tension slowly escalates. Alice says, “Oh, so men get to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s about security and commitment etc.” He responds, “A little over simplified, but yes, something like that.” She goes on to dispel the illusion harshly, his puritanical perception of femininity, by revealing how close she was to having an affair with a naval officer (a more fitting projection of her Warrior/Protector animus). It’s told with such conviction, leaving both us and Bill aghast. She concludes telling him that she’d have risked their marriage for just one night with the naval officer. Silence. Their phone rings. It lingers. It takes him a while to snap out of what she’s just told him. Upon picking up, he’s informed of someone’s death. Bill takes off saying, “I have to go show my face.” 

There’s a reason this dialogue was worded this way. He abandons an important conversation about an important issue regarding his marriage to go act out social formalities for another person’s loss. There’s a jarring cut intentionally out of tone to emphasize the inconclusive nature of their conversation.

While he might’ve escaped from having to listen to more that could potentially threaten both his masculinity and his marriage, the visual of another man defiling his wife constantly grates his mind. There’s a constant droning sound in the car played from time to time vocalizing this dissonance. He doesn’t know what to do with all this unsettling information, and he’s not about to go back home. His wife’s words ring true when the daughter of the dead man makes a move on him moments before her fiancé arrives. He’s perturbed and unable to make complete sense of it. This is the first incident that reinforces what his wife has told him about female sexuality and infidelity. Another thing I feel inclined to mention here, at the funeral, was the soft emphasis of the ticking clock. It evokes a lifeless ambience.

Bill wanders around empty streets, coming close to having sex with a hooker. A key scene here involves a bunch of guys calling him a faggot. I think this is Kubrick’s way of pointing to some form of emasculation the character feels. Bill then goes to see an old friend, one he hasn’t seen in years, perform at a club. This encounter points him to a costume store. His aimless journey here feels dragging. But this narrative stalling is intentional and with purpose. It points to Bill’s aversion towards having to go back home. There’s an incomplete conversation waiting to be finished. It belittles his masculinity and threatens his marriage. So, any distraction that comes his way triggers him to unconsciously follow it.  On this incidental journey, he’s lavish in his spending. He pays a whore he’s barely touched. He pays two hundred dollars over the rental price for a costume. He tears a $50 bill to promise a taxi driver of a wealthy tip. Kubrick seems to almost suggest the price Bill is willing to pay to avoid the confrontation, and conversely, the enormity of the price he might have to pay if he does engage in it.

The scenes at the costume store brought in a bit of comedy into this study of marriage. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know what happened. What’s interesting here is a certain line uttered by the costume owner to his underage daughter, “You depraved creature.” I somehow felt this was Kubrick giving his two cents on the inherent nature of femininity. What is unclear though is whether it’s his protagonist or his audience he’s enlightening of this (debatable) fact. When Bill returns with his costume (without the missing mask), he witnesses the costume store owner pimp out his own daughter to the very men he threatened to file a complaint against. He even offers her to Bill without batting an eyelid. The only person here who seems unaware of (and unsettled by) this seemingly oblique angle to femininity and female sexuality is Bill.

He ends up at a cult populated with men and women having anonymous sex. He sees the women (and men) at it like animals, pleasuring the bodies without a tinge of emotion. It once again challenges his virtuous perception of femininity. His unauthorized presence here presents serious risks, but he keeps at it to distract himself from Alice and her fantasies that let his imagination run wild from time to time.

Upon returning home, he finds Alice laughing in her sleep. He asks her what her dream was about. She cries, as she narrates the dream. We learn that her inner sexual animal is something she’s got no control over and the sexual fantasies it conjures up in her mind, near involuntary. Her dream, set in a dystopian world, has the two of them naked and afraid. Bill rushes away to find them clothes, leaving her alone. She ends up having sex with several other men. When Bill returns, he just stands there and stares. And she laughs hysterically looking at him. I think this is another way to bring up his emasculation. Just as it reveals her perception of him- He’s simply a provider, when what she seeks is a protector.

The subplot of the cult seemingly chasing him is slightly distracting, causing the film to veer off from psychological study to crime thriller. But, other than showcasing the minimalist yet effective score, it seems to have existed to culminate at this point of confrontation. Bill reads too much into an unfortunate coincidence and has an emotional breakdown in front of his wife when he finds his mask on his bed. He weeps, “I’ll tell you everything. I’ll tell you everything.” I remain confused as to what exactly brought about this response. Did he think the mask was a threat from the organization? Or is it a shocking reminder of the girl who 'probably' sacrificed herself for him? Or did he fear his wife learning of his recent escapades? All three possibilities seem equally probable.

The best cut in the film is inserted here. Kidman’s staring past the camera, her nose red, her cheeks dried up, teary eyes and a weight seemingly off her chest. Her gaze communicates that the issue has finally been fully broached. The conversation that was meant to be had has finally been had and everything’s finally out in the open. I thought it was genius to communicate so much with a cut, instead of bringing in a long dialogue that might, or might not, end conclusively. This technique’s safer, wiser and even more telling. We get to fill in the blanks.

If you dig deeper, past the characters and the relationships, you'll see that Kubrick also intends to talk about civilization here, or the illusion of it. Particularly, of our wearing masks, in the form of personas. Perhaps it is this illusion that has shielded Bill from the animalistic nature of female sexuality. (Alice says, “Millions of years of evolution, right?” challenging his virtuous perception of femininity) In the sex cult, everyone wears a mask to be able to shed their own personas. One mask replaces another, allowing its people to deindividuate and freely be themselves. But here’s where the question arises, which among the two is the ‘true self’? The ‘civilized’ version? Or the animalistic version? Is there such a thing as the true self? Or do both selves exist in every person? Are we multifaceted creatures, innately, after all? There's a line uttered by Alice early on that distinctly brings out this duality in human nature- “By night, I was relieved. I don’t know whether I was afraid that he'd (the naval officer) left or that he might still be there.” 

It seems to me that it was Kubrick’s intentionally darkly comical idea to have Bill and Alice’s final discussion at a toy store. I think this is once again meant to say something about civilization and personas. The bright milieu in the background, which we normally associate to innocence, is strongly contrasted by the relatively crude wrap-up of their conversation. (For a change, he initiates the conversation as she stays afloat). But what better way for Alice to say “Let’s give our sexually incompatible marriage another shot” than “Let’s fuck.” It might work out or it might fizzle out. Either way, there’s little to question about the complexity of their relationship. What Kubrick seems to also question here, though, is the validity, or plausibility, of monogamy. Is he trying to say that human relationships need an animal satisfaction to even sustain themselves? Is he questioning whether humans are anything but animals? Kubrick's really set my mind on fire.

Bill’s emasculation here is easily identifiable. But only in my latest viewing did I realize that it was even Alice’s defeminisation that brought about a rift in their marriage. She complains in the film about his inability to be jealous of her. He even coolly says “I guess it’s understandable for him to want to fuck my wife.” And in connecting the dots looking backwards, I finally see the relevance of a dialogue exchange early on in the film.

- How does my hair look?
- Perfect.
- You're not even looking at it.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful analysis of the film. The duality of human nature, of both the sexes.


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