In her most recent piece for #intothecuttingroom, Lorna May analyses the dreamy visual treat that is Eyes Wide Shut (1999). In her analysis, Lorna May states with her usual assertive writing that beyond the overt eroticism this a telling visual discourse on “consumerist-centered New York.” Whether you agree or not to Lorna May, Eyes Wide Shut is a film that will emotively force you to react violently whether that is in dismay or sheer unadulterated joy.
Arthur Schnitzler, back in the 19th century, wrote the novella A Dream Story (1926) which was later brought to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick under the name Eyes Wide Shut. One of the many compelling things about Schnitzler was that his work was affected by Freud’s theories regarding the interpretation of dreams and the unconscious. This influence is more than evident in A Dream Story and subsequently the adaptation by Kubrick.
Schnitzler’s erotic fiction and Kubrick’s swansong.
In the Kubrick adaptation, 19th Century Vienna becomes 20th century New York, and Fridolin, (the protagonist of ‘A Dream Story’), is renamed Bill (played by Tom Cruise). These changes bring the story to a more familiar setting for Kubrick, allowing him to move on a deeper level, altering the central theme of the story. In New York, (the capital of consumerism), everything is for sale, and Bill is a potential buyer. Kubrick’s choice of Christmas as the backdrop for this surreal and visually mesmerising film is telling. Indeed, Kubrick once again shows his individual style and goes against the original leanings of the novella where the backdrop is the carnival.
While A Dream Story deals with sexuality, or rather the repressed sexuality in 19th century Vienna, Kubrick’s is an elegant critique of modern consumerism. And more significantly, through our main protagonist we witness the true face of “consumerist-centered New York”-a face hidden behind pleasant manners and expensive gatherings.
In the film, we are given two versions of society. In one version, those on the top, enjoying a life of unethical pleasures (orgy scene) somewhat close to a version of satanism (the ritual scene), or at least a hedonistic ritualism of some sort. This world of the few is directly contrasted by the one of the many – who also live immoral lives but in the name of ‘need’ and not ‘pleasure’. This world is indicated throughout the movie by the cheap dreamy Christmas lighting and trees that move the camera’s focus away from Bill. The cruelty of this world poignantly displayed when a father prostitutes his daughter without a second thought.
Bill precariously balances between these two worlds but clearly does not fit into any of them. As a successful doctor, he fits into an upper-middle-class setting. However, whenever he tries to join the club of the few standing at the top (in the ball in the beginning and orgy in the end), order is restored, and Bill is painfully reminded that he lives ‘under the rainbow’, not at its end. He is part of another world.
Schnitzler and Freud, Freud and Kubrick.
Arthur Schnitzler’s stories explored eroticism in en-fin-de-siecle Vienna, where psychoanalysis was born. Freud, the father of the newborn science, saw in Schnitzler his “doppelganger” as he called him in one of his letters to him. Freud, who attempted to uncover the world of dreams and even link daydreaming with the mind of the creative writer, had a significant influence on the work of Schnitzler.
Reading A Dream Story with this relationship in mind allows a more complete understanding of the novella. From a simplistic tale of erotic encounters, it is transformed into a dreamlike journey gazing at the hidden desires of the Viennese bourgeois world. An attempt to look behind the veil and into the unconscious of a society that has learned to be wary of its sexuality.
Eyes Wide Shut in effect becomes a tool of subtle cultural criticism. This may escape the attention of the unsuspicious viewer expecting a scandalous ‘sexy’ drama. Kubrick brilliantly subverts these expectations in the opening scene. Nicole Kidman is undressing in front of the mirror in a shot that lasts around 6 seconds. Kubrick gives his audience exactly what they expected, nudity and provocativeness. And right after these 6 seconds, he is free to move on with what matters.
Kidman quickly dresses, and the dream begins. Nudity will appear later in the film, (most remarkably in the Caligula excesses of the orgy scenes), but this time, the nude will be an organic part of the story-line and the psychosynthesis of society. This society is in moral decay, alienated from itself and its desire. Thus, the nude becomes a representation not only of the naked flesh itself but naked desire as well.
Kubrick may not have lived during the same time as Freud and Schnitzler, but Eyes Wide Shut is a dialogue with them. Kubrick captures and transfers the dreaminess of A Dream Story to the big screen and explores the dark sides of desire in a different context. In this context psychoanalysis is used to explore sexuality and the social relations within a capitalist society.
And who thought Eyes Wide Shut was just a chance to see Kidman and Cruise in the buff?!