Rants, Feelings & Opinions

Revisiting the Orgiastic Holiday Film “Eyes Wide Shut”

December 30, 2017

Stanley Kubrick’s holiday erotic thriller, Eyes Wide Shut, explores marital jealousy and the sexual underworld—but what you may not remember is how lead Alice challenges stereotypes around married women (spoiler alert: wives have hot sex fantasies about other men). Time for a revisit? By Casey Ireland

I saw Eyes Wide Shut (1999) for the first time almost 10 years ago, when I was an undergraduate. I don’t really remember what I thought of it, but I do have a sense of being vaguely traumatized. I can appreciate a high-cut thong and Central Park interiors as much as the next person, but I was confused by the misnomer slapped onto the film by critics: “erotic thriller.” I was watching it a good 10 years after Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s divorce, so it looked more like a documentary on marital decline than a dreamy and sinister sexual odyssey. I had also never been in a serious relationship at that point, and seeing two people with a child alternately bait each other, fuck each other, and try to fuck other people seemed like an actual nightmare.

I saw it again in during the Danish Film Institute’s Stanley Kubrick Festival in Copenhagen this month. The film has its faults— lack of diversity, for one— but there’s so much of the film that feels current and forward-thinking. It’s not that Alice and Bill Hartford are particularly interesting people— they aren’t— or that they have a particularly complicated relationship—they don’t. He’s a doctor who can’t remember the babysitter’s name, and she’s a former gallery director who now looks after the couple’s 7 year-old daughter full time. They have a beautiful apartment with creamy white carpet, and attend fancy Christmas parties thrown by Bill’s equally fancy patients. What makes the film progressive isn’t the structure of their marriage, but Alice’s open and honest assessment of their marital realities. Fidelity, female disinterest in extra-marital sex, and the concept of forever are romantic assumptions Alice constantly pushes back against, whether in a stoned monologue about her own fantasies or a reconciliation during Christmas shopping.

The film looks like a garden variety key-party pearl-clutcher about middle-class boredom and the dangers of non-monogamy. What makes Eyes Wide Shut different is its representation of female desire and problematization of sexual double standards in long-term relationships. Both partners flirt with others at a Christmas party— Alice is propositioned by a Hungarian fuckboy, and Bill walks around with two models who offer to take him “where the rainbow ends.” It’s only when the couple gets stoned later (in arguably one of the most memorable conversations about marital fidelity on film) that they discuss their attractions to other people. After Alice tells Bill about her desire for a naval officer seen on vacation, Bill receives a call to attend the deathbed of a patient and takes off on the erotic thriller part of the billing. There’s an Illuminati sex party, secret passwords, suspicious deaths, and a marital recommitment in F.A.O. Schwartz. The last word in the film is the imperative “fuck.”

Tom Cruise is all elegant overcoat and white teeth as Bill Hartford, whose self-assuredness instigates Alice’s revelation about her extramarital fantasies. The promotional material for the film emphasized the male gaze trained on naked women— in the film itself, Bill’s gaze is frequently self-reflexive, fragmenting and distorting his own desire in an often comical manner. He constantly trespasses on the sex lives of others— he watches himself feel Alice up in a mirror, does a quick tour of an orgy while wearing a mask and disguise, and has low-budget paranoid visions about his wife fucking said naval officer. When Bill attempts to neutralize Alice’s attraction to other men, she sneers at him, “you’re so sure of yourself, aren’t you?” When he responds pedantically, “I’m sure of you,” Alice dissolves in laughter. Her legs buckle like a colt as she falls to the ground, pointing and laughing at Bill’s performance of male security.

Despite Bill’s growing sexual paranoia and the constant affirmations of the film’s other characters, Alice reclaims and asserts her subjectivity by rejecting a purely aesthetic appreciation of her worth. Her husband, peers, and would-be lovers present her as the emblem of a woman— the object of male desire and female worship, but not a body. Kubrick himself is obsessed with Kidman’s appearance. The film opens with a shot of her from behind, dropping a short black evening dress down from her shoulders onto the carpet as she tries on clothes in heels. Kubrick constantly presents us with her body—nude, clothed, resting, in motion. But there are also shots of her peeing in an evening gown, or red-eyed and snotty, or drunk and sloppy in a ballroom. Her body dominates the frame she’s in. Alice herself takes pleasure in her own appearance– watching herself get undressed in the mirror while Bill kisses her– and seeks to minimize its effect on how others perceive her. She’s concerned about wearing the right dress to a party, but more concerned with Bill’s assertion that men only talk to her because they want to fuck her, and they only want to fuck her because she’s beautiful.

She’s also one of a revolving door of normatively beautiful white women with the same body type. A man of his time, Kubrick likes his women blond with a minimum 40” inseam. As Bill bumbles around the sex party he’s crashing, any one of the masked women could be his wife. They are all legs, tits, blond hair, masks. The uniformity is striking enough as to be automated, a veritable assembly line of women who are interchangeable at the sex party and whose deaths only affirm their lack of individuality.

In Eyes Wide Shut, Kidman’s character is constantly confronted by her own objectification.  Her Hungarian dance partner only wants to talk with her because she’s beautiful and he wants to fuck her— a sentiment echoed by Bill, and reiterated throughout the film. They enjoy looking at her, we viewers enjoy looking at her, she enjoys looking at herself— but this gaze is consumptive, neutralizing, and incomplete. It’s only when Alice tells Bill about her fleeting desire to leave her family for one sexual encounter with the naval officer that we fully understand the cruelty of Bill’s security in her faithfulness. His lack of jealousy about her is wounding, as is his insistence that her status as a wife and mother negates her interest in extramarital sex. Sure, it’s her revelation about her attraction to the officer that leads Bill off on his grainy porno paranoias and masked sex parties, but the real victim of this revelation is Alice, not Bill. Confronted with the fantasies and dreams of his partner, Bill has to sublimate his desires instead of engaging with hers. To see Alice as all body, no brain, is to neuter her desire, control her fantasy, and render her docile.

When the two reconcile at the end of the film, Bill’s relief is tangible. Alice is cool and chic in a long camel coat, pretending to care about Christmas shopping while her husband quakes with anxiety about whether or not she’ll forgive his almost-infidelities. When she tells Bill that they should be grateful that their adventures weren’t too harmful, and that they’ll have a happy and more aware future ahead, Bill pops in with a rapturous “forever!” The mood shifts. “Don’t use that word,” she says, “it frightens me.” She gets the aforementioned last word in the film, telling Bill that one activity they should do immediately is “fuck.”

Bill’s desperation to make things right is almost gross, but his panic at having potentially fucked up his relationship is palpable. Alice, forced to decide how to move forward with her husband, eventually insists upon a physical resolution—sex—as well as an emotional moratorium on the heady romanticism of “forever.” She sees an erotic reconciliation as a potential method for restructuring their relationship along more equitable lines rather than an opportunity for romantic excess.

Casey Ireland is a 26-year-old writer, currently getting her PhD in English.

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