Alice has finally made it clear: she will not be sleeping with Sandor. Why she isn’t is an immensely complex question, which I’ve begun to answer and will continue to once I finally arrive at the epic Bill-Alice throwdown the night after the Christmas Ball. But first, she says goodbye, placing her finger to her lips and then to his.
Before I got into film theory and general cinephilia, I couldn’t understand the appeal of movie-watching from a detached, observant perspective. What’s the fun in that? Without sheer visceral immersion, wonderment and world-building, the surrender to pure emotion, what’s the point?
Maybe I was ignorant to think the theoretical approach worked like that, or maybe it does work like that and I’m just bad at it. But my own critical eye has never required me to surrender my pure love of movie magic. It’s a dialectic between the two: the visceral hints at the intellectual, which in turn provides greater weight and resonance to the visceral. As I mentioned in my Best of 2013 post, cinema dissolves theory into ether, but it’s still there, hidden like a Trojan Horse within film’s sensory impact. So my “reading” of a movie is constantly being interrupted by the “watching,” and vice versa. Those are the Movie Moments, when a thought and a feeling occur to you at the exact same time, and your consciousness shudders for a split second as you reconcile the two, only to find that the movie has cheekily moved on to the next one without you. My favorite directors from David Lynch to Apichatpong Weerasethakul are less storytellers (“mythmakers” would be closer to the mark) than they are experts at creating these moments, over and over, until your brain and heart stop fighting it out and make sweet beautiful Monkey Ghost love.
So I’m humming along through the opening passages of Eyes Wide Shut, the scenes in Victor’s bathroom providing plenty of grist for both social and psychological interpretations, the Kubrickian Big Picture unfolding in my mind’s eye…when Alice puts her finger to her lips, and then Sandor’s, and that eye goes wide shut. (Couldn’t resist.) My critical faculties fall away, and I’m left with the sexiness and melancholy and beauty, my god, beauty of the Moment. I am hyper-aware of each ticking second, my eyes and ears straining to catch every detail before the Moment vanishes, as it must, the passage of time being the implicit subject of every movie ever made.
And then Kubrick cuts to something (which I’ll get to in a moment) that immediately re-engages my interpretive instincts, brings the Big Picture rushing back with more clarity and more complexity (complication, not complexity, is the opposite of clarity), and breaks the spell–only to immediately recast it. Film is the most effective of all propaganda media for a reason: it imposes itself upon you in a manner unlike any other art form. It’s blatant artifice that somehow manages to convincingly present itself as a window on reality, and Eyes Wide Shut finds Kubrick operating in both arenas at peak capacity.
Take that cut. Alice touching Sandor’s lips (metaphorically silencing him, enforcing the secret of their almost-dalliance?) is so charged a moment that it seems to break the film, producing such a jarring edit in both image and sound that you almost expect to hear a record skip. We leap from Alice fully clothed to Alice bare naked, from her refusing sex to her accepting it–yet also from aroused to seemingly bored. The shift in music from background, diegetic, live orchestra to forefronted, non-diegetic, recorded blues (Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing”) is even more unexpected, given Kubrick’s reputation for stodgy classicism. His music selections alone, given the lush instrumental arrangements providing much of the emotional backbone of 2001 and Barry Lyndon (not to mention the synthesized Bach establishing the stately nightmare that is A Clockwork Orange), would seem to validate that perception, but the director’s later works find him eagerly engaging with pop culture. Adapting a pulpy Stephen King bestseller (The Shining) and filling it with references to Johnny Carson and Bugs Bunny, opening and closing Full Metal Jacket with pop songs, casting Hollywood’s most tabloid-ready couple as a thinly veiled version of themselves in Eyes Wide Shut…these decisions do not speak to a man walled off from the world, as the conventional wisdom suggested of Kubrick, and this early-film edit arguably mocks the intensely Old World feel of the Christmas Ball by denying it elegant closure. All that filigreed set design and fraught emotional tipping points and grim sociological analysis is gone in an instant, as if characters and audience alike have woken from a dream. Kubrick ends the Ball just short of drawing explicit conclusions, leaving us to reach our own while processing this new short scene, which presumably takes place that same night after the Harfords arrive home, but looks and sounds and moves as if it’s occurring entirely within Alice’s head.
She is swaying before her mirror, naked, removing her earrings–seemingly dropping the pose of Doctor’s Wife, returning (like so many Kubrick characters before her, though usually in a much more violent context) to her unfettered, unmediated state of being. Yet even now, the mirror prevents her from escaping the Meta entirely. That keys into the basic psychic-social contradiction at the heart of Eyes Wide Shut: is what we’re seeing and hearing meant to be a pitiless, objective construction of reality? Or have we been locked inside the characters’ heads by a director who means for us to filter the movie through their blinkered perspective? The answer is “both,” of course, but many of the film’s most entrancing and memorable moments come when it hovers on the knife’s edge between the two, as it does here.
Bill approaches from Alice’s right. He is also naked. He does not glance at the mirror, not even for a second; their roles are reversed from the opening scene, which saw Bill admiring his own handsome mug while ignoring his wife. Now he can’t look away from her, as if he wants to lose himself in her. Is he trying to banish guilty thoughts of Gayle and Nuala? Or is he fantasizing about them, and so keeps his eyes away from the (necessarily circumscribed, literally skin-deep) truth in the mirror? Worse yet: how to answer those questions in terms of Mandy? Does he care about the helpless position he left her in, completely vulnerable with a man who has already raped her at least once? (“You can’t keep doing this.” “I know…”)
Or did seeing her there, naked, unconscious, turn him on? Is Bill no better than Victor, deep deep down? None of these questions are ever answered explicitly, but Bill’s behavior later in the story will provide clues. For now, it’s worth noting that Bill is yet again avoiding self-examination. His flirtation with Gayle and Nuala was completely free of the shame that kept Alice from surrendering to Sandor; he only didn’t go through with it because Victor called him away (sociological status trumping psychological desire). His brief conversation with Nick marked the first cracks in his glass-menagerie life, evoking as it did a wilder (and terrifyingly/thrillingly uncertain) lifestyle, but Bill doesn’t seem fully aware of it until he sees Mr. Nightingale again, after he’s absorbed a few more shocks to his system and has escaped high society for the literal descent into the Sonata Cafe. Bill was pure bedside-manner with Mandy and played the willing toady with Victor; he is, at his possibly empty core, the man who forgot the babysitter’s name approximately 15 seconds after his wife told him. Eyes Wide Shut is the story of Bill Harford finally doing what Jack Ripper and Alex DeLarge and Redmond Barry and Jack Torrance and Private Joker failed to do: really look at himself. To his credit, he’s increasingly horrified by what he finds (weakness, deceit, selfishness, culpability in rape and murder), but when Alice turns Lady Macbeth at film’s end and offers him a one-word solution to all the pain and confusion and guilt (“fuck”), he not only eagerly accedes, he falls right back into the smug, sentimental ego-sustaining language (“forever”) that Alice, Void-aficionado that she is, mournfully sees right through.
So he has a beautiful gilded mirror in his beautiful gilded apartment (with his beautiful gilded wife?) because he’s a rich asshole who caters to other rich assholes. What matters at a human level (the one Kubrick supposedly could not access), however, is that he is refusing to look into it. But Alice isn’t. The camera slowly tracks in as he kisses and fondles her. The rest of the world slowly vanishes, and we are left alone with the mirrored image: not reality, but its presentation, reality’s representative, as with all the characters (Victor, Red Cloak, Bill) and institutions (apartments, cafes, hospitals) who have servants to front for them. Bill is gone, fallen into ego-surrender-bliss, the positive flipside of the restless Void to which Alice belongs (and where he will soon join her). Then Kubrick cuts in, closer, into Alice’s perspective. His eyes are closed, hers open and facing the mirror: the movie’s signature image. Except when it’s reproduced on posters and DVD covers, Alice seems to be looking at us, demanding some kind of moral and philosophical response to what we are being shown–and what is being hidden. In context, she’s clearly looking at herself, a cold moment of self-awareness (clarity being the only gift Kubrick, or the Coens, or the Dardennes, ever grants his characters) killing whatever erotic buzz she might have left over from her almost-dalliance with Sandor. She knows what she is: a kept woman, with an easier but no more meaningful or free existence than Mandy (both of them tall redheads with a taste for numbing drugs, to steal a phrase from Kubrick superfan Jeffrey Scott Bernstein). Bill will learn. Oh yes, he will.
A couple more structural items to note:
We do not see Bill and Alice return home from the Ball. As mentioned, Kubrick cuts straight from Alice and Sandor ending their dance to Alice and her mirror, beginning a new one. Most scenes in Eyes Wide Shut (and Kubrick clearly conceived of his final movie in terms of paralleled set pieces) have an establishing shot or a quick blur of a taxi ride sandwiched between them, so as to set the pace and maintain the mood of an otherworldly New York. When Kubrick instead jumps between interiors, he intends for us to notice, and think on What It Could Mean. Here, it means that even as the characters try to put what they’ve learned and felt (about themselves, among others) that night behind them, the audience is meant to subliminally link the two scenes, as if on a single emotional/aesthetic/thematic continuum. The (last?) temptation of Alice has been “collapsed” into this cozy domestic womb, thus tainting the latter and the lovemakin’ therein. Already, the wall between Inside and Outside has begun to crumble. Who knows what spooks will worm their way in? (Again, early shades of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.) Sandor will not be among them; his point made and purpose served, we will never see him again. That cut is an apt way of bidding farewell to his caricatured character–sealing him within a night that must already feel, to both Harfords but in different ways, like a dream.
And then there’s the soundtrack: “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” its rumbling guitar and sea-spray snare setting the mood perfectly. I won’t bother hunting for intertextuality between Kubrick and Chris Isaak, who generally bores me, but I remain haunted by his delivery of a single line in the song. It comes right after he warbles, “You ever love someone so much you thought your little heart was gonna break in two?” His voice drops to a low, quiet sneer, and he chuckles: “I didn’t think so.” So much of Eyes Wide Shut is about the idea of love, the proper look and ritual of it, the routines we arm ourselves with to bolster our ego against the Void. This is where the movie tiptoes into suburban-exploitation American Beauty territory, but Kubrick thankfully doesn’t linger on alienation, being far more interested in the physical and mental spaces alienation forces us to inhabit. And there are so many more of those to come…