Friday, 12 December 2014

1999: A Sexual Odyssey

I've been doing a lot of articles about action movies lately, so I think it's time we shift gears and look at something a bit different. It's the Holiday season, and that's the time of year when lots of things start happening. It's that time when stores become battlefields, the shows you actually want to watch get taken off the air in favor of whatever cheap Christmas specials their networks can get the rights to, and blizzards come in to make sure you can't leave your house. Naturally, it makes sense to discuss a holiday film, and there are many great classics. It's a Wonderful Life is a great movie, and maybe this year I'll finally get to see White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

Still, Christmas movies can be a bit formulaic. They're generally very upbeat, light-hearted films. Some might be heavier than others but in most cases things turn out okay in the end. They're also in most cases family films. Perhaps you're a bit sick of this kind of thing. Far too many movies to count approach Christmas in the form of a quirky comedy or a light-hearted drama about family relations. We need something different, and there are a handful of movies that deliver. The Lion in Winter is a Christmas movie that centers around several characters, most of them members of the British Royal Family, scheming against each other and stabbing each other in the back. Die Hard is an action movie that happens to take place around Christmas. You could also read H.P. Lovecraft's The Festival if you like your Christmas stories with a dash of cosmic horror.

But perhaps that's not good enough for you. Maybe we need something more adult, more sexual in nature. Well it should only make sense for such a film to be made by one of the greatest directors who ever lived, Stanley Kubrick. Working from a novella titled Traumnovelle, Kubrick made quite possibly one of the strangest and most arousing Christmas films ever conceived by a human being. It is a bizarre film to say the least, with sexual themes, scenes filled to the brim with nudity, a haunting orgy sequence, and Tom Cruise actually displaying some talent as an actor. The result was his final movie, Eyes Wide Shut.

I suspect there may be some influence from David Lynch on this film. Kubrick and Lynch had something of a mutual respect for each other's work. Lynch has on multiple times voiced his admiration for Kubrick's work, particularly Lolita, though that was probably not the only film that influenced him (it doesn't seem too far-fetched to assume Lynch borrowed some ideas from A Clockwork Orange when he was making Blue Velvet). Likewise, Lynch has an anecdote in his biography Catching the Big Fish where he mentions an incident that happened while he was making The Elephant Man.

According to Lynch, he was approached by a couple of men who had recently met Kubrick, and were invited to his house to see his "favorite film". Lynch was naturally excited when he learned that Kubrick's favorite film turned out to be Eraserhead. Eyes Wide Shut certainly has that dream-like atmosphere that characterizes Lynch's movies, and even some similar ideas to Blue Velvet in the idea of a seemingly ideal world that is revealed to have a hidden darker side. Really, it's a shame the two of them never actually met, since a collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch could have been amazing.

I have this cynical theory that true love is impossible. "Love" is just something we constructed to give ourselves hope in our miserable lives. There is no such thing as "love" in any sense, or is there? What does it mean to be in love? Is it merely a matter of sexual interest, or is it something far more? These questions are raised in Eyes Wide Shut, and it seems to very much personify my own theory.

William "Bill" Harford (Tom Cruise) is a doctor in New York, married to a former art museum curator named Alice (Nicole Kidman) and together they've had a daughter, Helena (Madison Eginton). They claim to love each other, but from the opening scene it already seems that there is a certain strain in their relationship. In the movies, marriage is often depicted as a romantic and glamorous experience, complete with a "happily ever after". Well, here we get to see the aftermath of that "happy ending", which turns out to be very mundane.

The first time we see Alice (not including the opening shot of her taking off her clothes) is when she's sitting on the toilet and presumably defecating. Most Hollywood films would skip this part, and generally they tend to stay out of the bathroom unless it's essential to the plot. The audience is ordinarily expected to infer that the characters occasionally have to relieve their bowels but just do it off-screen in between key moments of the film. Stanley Kubrick was not like other Hollywood filmmakers, and instead decides to show us this moment in great detail. It doesn't even affect the story, Alice sitting on the toilet is just one of many things that happen in this scene, but the fact that Kubrick shows her seated, as well as wiping her anus and washing her hands helps to show just how dull their relationship can be.

At the party, the relationship between Bill and Alice is further brought into question. They claim to be happy together, but already some of their sexual urges are coming around. Alice gets roped into a dance with an elegantly dressed but seemingly perverted Hungarian. From the moment he drinks from her glass it is clear that this man has nothing but sex on his mind. Meanwhile Bill gets called upstairs after an emergency. It seems that his friend Dr. Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) has been sneaking off from the party to have sex with a local prostitute in the bathroom. We even see him desperately tryingto put his pants back on as fast as he can . Said prostitute, who we learn is named Mandy (Julienne Davis), took a "speedball" (a mixture of heroine with cocaine) and overdosed. Bill is able to save her, and tries to encourage her to stop taking drugs.

Back at the party, Bill sees his wife dancing with another man. Later the two of them begin having sex, ironically while smoking pot despite the events of the previous scene. What starts off as a romantic moment quickly erupts into a confusing argument in which neither side is thinking straight and aren't entirely sure what they're disputing. Things get heated and it leads to Alice confessing that she has experienced sexual fantasies about a guy she saw at a hotel this one time. This begins a recurring image throughout the rest of the movie, in which Bill is haunted by images of what his wife's fantasies might look like. As the story progresses these images become more explicit, with the man gradually stripping his clothes and climbing on top of Alice.

The tension is somewhat mediated when they are interrupted by a phone call and Bill is informed that one of his patients has just died. He goes to his house and meets the patient's daughter, who is waiting for her boyfriend. She is understandably grief-stricken and not thinking entirely straight, which leads to her acting on her own sexual impulses. Bill tries to resist, and leaves when her boyfriend arrives, but he is affected by the experience. His sexual urges are getting out of control, and he finds himself desiring some form of experience. It doesn't even need to be with his wife, in fact because of how haunted he is by her confession perhaps he'd rather it not be. He simply tries to find something.

At this point, it starts to become clear that Bill's sexual urges aren't something he can control. They aren't so much a conscious decision on his part as they are instinct, human nature. He has no control over his own body's desires. He isn't driven by any form of love or even attraction to other women. He is simply driven by a biological process.

Enter Domino, a prostitute who intercepts and seduces the vulnerable Bill on the streets. She provides a means to satisfy Bill's urges, inviting him into her apartment for sex. He almost goes through with it as well, agreeing to a very large fee. The two of them begin to kiss before he gets a phone call from his wife. He assures her that everything is fine and has a moment of realization, breaking off the encounter with Domino but showing his appreciation for her efforts by paying her anyway.

Bill then encounters his old friend Nick Nightingale from medical school, now working as a pianist. He arrives at a club where Nick was performing just in time to see the band finish their set, but spends some time with his friend. The two take some time to catch up before Nick gets pulled away to a mysterious gig. According to him it always happens at 2:00 A.M. in a different location, and he has to play blindfolded. Nick also mentions that the last time he played the blindfold wasn't put on properly and he glimpsed something really strange. Bill finds himself interested in this party, but also learns that everyone who attends is costumed and masked, so he has to find one.

To accomplish this end, Bill visits Rainbow Costumes, run by Mr. Milich (Rade Serbedzija), a totally unsuspicious businessman who is most definitely not involved with any shady business operations. Milich agrees to find Bill a costume and mask in exchange for a higher than normal fee, but they are disrupted by another strange encounter. It seems Milich's daughter (Leelee Sobieski) invited two Japanese businessmen over for sex. She is every bit as sexually active as Bill is, possibly even more. Milich begins yelling at the two men, telling them that they will have to answer to the police. Meanwhile, his daughter is displaying a curious attraction towards Bill as she hides behind him, to the point where they almost look like they are about to kiss. This is especially curious given she is clearly underage, though the businessmen insist that she invited them which raises a few odd questions.

Now that he has the mask and a costume, Bill can attend to the party. Having learned the password from Nick he is able to get through the gate and arrives at a large mansion only to find something really odd. What we have is a haunting sequence involving a bizarre sex-themed masquerade party. Bill puts on his mask and begins wandering around, and witnesses some kind of ritualistic event in progress.

The "party", if you can call it that, includes a man in a mask and a red cloak walking in a circle, surrounded by naked women in masks. They then proceed to kiss each other, providing a somewhat twisted demonstration of how men are aroused by seeing two women have sex. At this party, it seems anyone can have sex with anybody, anonymously. It's very ritualistic, and almost feels like some sort of cult. They even have the mysterious red-cloaked figure chanting something in another language, possibly Latin.

The fact that every single person is masked, right down to the guy that takes Bill's coat, makes this part especially unnerving. With two exceptions, we never learn the true identities of any of the men and women behind the masks (though it's hinted that many of them are people of power who would not want to be seen in such an environment). We hear the voices of characters but their faces remain static. Some of them remain blank, others have disturbing expressions (there's one guy who looks like he's screaming). Either way, the inability of the actors to express themselves visually makes it harder to tell anyone's motives.

Bill's presence manages to draw the attention of one couple, a man with a mask designed with a tricorn hat, and a woman wearing a jester's mask. We never find out for certain who these people are. We never even hear them speak, and with the masks it is impossible to discern their expressions. What is clear is that they have seen Bill, and acknowledge him silently with a simple nod. There is one possibility of who one of them might be, but I have a different idea about where he fits in. We'll discuss that in more detail later.

At this party, Bill witnesses sex in progress. We never learn quite how it operates, but appears to be based on a group of female participants selecting men with whom to engage in sexual intercourse. Whether the people at the party take turns or simply enjoy watching people have sex is not clear. All that seems to be clear is that intercourse with anyone is fair game (Frank Booth and Alex DeLarge would enjoy this). The whole thing seems rather alien, otherworldly even.

Any uneasiness the audience might be feeling upon witnessing this ritual seems to be enforced when a mysterious woman tries to stop Bill from participating. She keeps telling him it is dangerous and he needs to get out, but refuses to say way. From what she describes, these people don't take kindly to uninvited guests. At one point Bill even tries to remove her mask, which she refuses to let him do, almost as if it is considered a crime to expose your face in the house.

Finally, Bill is confronted by a servant who claims the driver of his taxi wants to see him, but instead of being led to the gate he is brought back into the large room and confronted by the red-cloaked man (because he does not have a name, I shall identify him as the "Inquisitor" for the purposes of this article). The Inquisitor asks Bill for the password, but claims there is a second one which Bill was not told about. Bill is then told to remove his mask, exposing him to the intimidating crowd. The fact that he remains the only character in this entire sequence whose face is seen in the mansion makes him feel more like an outsider.

The Inquisitor delivers a speech that seems to imply he has something horrifying in mind for Bill. It's suggested that Bill may have ended up dead, but he is told oddly enough to "take off his clothes". It almost seems that forced sex was part of the plan. In other words, from what Bill is told, it sounds as though the Inquisitor intended him to be raped. Considering Bill has been searching for some form of "sexual encounter", the Inquisitor could therefore be seen as technically granting his wish in the form of an ironic punishment for intruding on the party.

Before any kind of forced intercourse can happen, the woman who tried to warn Bill stands up and claims herself as a "sacrifice". Precisely how this works is not clear, though from what is described it sounds as though she will die. Bill is released, although not without warning to keep quiet about everything he has seen and experienced. It's hard to tell whether the threats are genuine or purely psychological, but either way it is disturbing. Bill is finally able to leave, and returns home. He finds his wife asleep, and laughing. When she wakes up she claims that she actually had a nightmare in which she had sex with a number of men while Bill was watching.

The next day, the first thing Bill does is find Nick's hotel, and arrives only to learn that his friend has checked out. According to the clerk, Nick was scared, and being escorted by two very large men. He tried to pass the clerk an envelope but it was intercepted. The obvious implication is that Nick was killed to prevent him from talking about the party.

His next stop is the costume shop, where he tries to return the costume. Strangely enough, the mask seems to have been misplaced, though Milich agrees to put it on Bill's tab. His daughter emerges, with both the Japanese businessmen, who seem to suddenly be on good terms with Milich. Bill is confused, as is the audience, based on Milich's reaction to their presence when we first saw him. He claims that "other arrangements" were made, ones that apparently involved him selling his own daughter into prostitution. He shows no remorse for allowing a minor to be treated this way, and even offers Bill "other services" besides costumes, which is implied to include sex with his daughter.

Bill then decides to visit Domino's apartment, arriving with a gift for her. Domino is nowhere to be found, but he is invited in by her roommate. The two flirt with each other but she begins to open up about Domino's whereabouts. It turns out she got a blood test that registered her as HIV positive, or to put it more simply, Domino had AIDS. Seeing as that virus is sexually transmitted, Bill was nearly in a position to receive AIDS himself, and might of had Alice not called him when she did.

Later on, Bill obtains a newspaper while trying to evade someone who seems to be following him. The paper in question refers to the death of a beauty queen. When Bill finds her body, he recognizes her as Mandy, the prostitute he saved at Ziegler's party. This in turn leads to a new development that comes when Bill receives a call telling him Ziegler wants to see him.

Ziegler is very calm and casual when Bill arrives, offering him a drink and even inviting him to join in a game of pool. Eventually, Ziegler gets down to business and reveals why he really wanted to talk. It turns out he knows about everything that Bill has been through. He was at the mansion. The question is where. Since everyone was cloaked and masked we can't really say, but he said he was watching Bill. The most obvious candidate is the mysterious tricorn-masked figure who spotted Bill immediately, but I have another, slightly more interesting theory.

The idea that I propose is that Ziegler was in fact the Inquisitor, not just present at the party but actually running it. He claims to have seen "everything", which would make sense as the leader, and of all the people in this group the leader would be the one most likely to know about its members. After all, everybody is masked, but Ziegler seems to know their identities. As he puts it, "I'm not going to tell you their names, but if I told you I don't think you'd sleep so easy". It sounds as though a lot of the people are politicians or people who otherwise would not want to be seen in this kind of environment. Who else but the leader would know this information? Also, why would any one member of such a secret group of people risk talking about it outside the party without fear of consequences? Unless they were the leader and thus had no one to answer to.

Ziegler claims that the whole thing was staged, simply meant to scare Bill into keeping quiet. According to him, Bill's friend was taken from his hotel but simply put on a plane to Seattle, and while Mandy was the mysterious woman who "sacrificed" herself for Bill, that was all just for show, and her death afterwards was a mere coincidence. Bill remains unsure of it, as these explanations make sense. Nick never actually saw anything, so it's not like he would be able to tell anyone about what happened, and it was already established that Mandy was hooked on drugs. On the other hand, from what we have seen, it might not be unreasonable to assume that Ziegler just wants to put Bill's mind at ease and cover up what really happened.

That evening, Bill returns home to find Alice sleeping, with the mask next to her. The obvious assumption is that Alice found the mask and put on Bill's pillow as a way of confronting him, but in a Stanley Kubrick film you should never take anything at face value. If you pay attention, the mask is never actually touched by any of the characters during the scene, and it may not actually be there. For one thing Alice doesn't seem the kind of person who would be comfortable sleeping next to a mask like that. The mask here is used more as a symbol of Bill's guilt over his actions during the film, and how it will haunt him for the rest of his life. Seeing this reminder finally causes him to break down and confess to Alice.

In the following scene, Bill has told Alice everything that happened to him, possibly even including the weird sex party he attended. Once he has opened up, it allows them to finally reconcile. Their marriage seems to be back on track, and the film ends on an optimistic note, but this is hardly a "happily ever after" situation. Bill and Alice may have gotten through this situation, but that is not the end of the road for them. It's very likely that they will have other problems in the future, ones that will force them once again to question whether they truly love each other.

In the end, love was never a driving force behind anything. Everyone in Eyes Wide Shut is driven purely by sexual urges, just as it is in all of us. Apart from Helena, there was not a single character in the film that was not sexually active, male or female. Almost every single person was driven by a desire for some sort of sexual experience, with the only thing that changed being how they got it. Emotions had nothing to do with it. Everyone is driven by a biological desire for sexual interaction, and ultimately it seems that there is no such thing as true undying love.


  1. Very cynical, indeed. Don't remember enough about this movie to comment on if I think it supports your views or not. I've only seen it once years ago and didn't really enjoy it despite all the nudity. It's probably time for a rewatch as I'm a much different viewer now than I was then.

    1. It's definitely a film that requires you to be in a certain mindset, and considering it's almost three hours it does require a bit of patience, but if you can manage that you should be fine. I remember you mentioned not being a fan of 2001, but if you enjoyed any of Kubrick's other films you should be okay.

    2. I enjoy plenty of his work...just not 2001. Run time is no issue as long as the material warrants it. I'm guessing I just didn't "get it" first time I saw EWS. We'll see if that's changed.

    3. Well, since it's technically a Christmas movie this would be a good time to watch it. I'll have to keep an eye out for that review, it should be interesting to hear what you have to say on it.

  2. Different choice for a Christmas film:) I agree with you about all the TV shlock out there (Jenny McCarthy in Santa baby comes to mind and I am thankful for never having seen it). I have not seen Eyes Wide Shut yet because I was fearful of having to see Tom Cruise naked. I think Kubrick found the dark side of nature, especially sex, intriguing. It is hinted at in The Shining. The furry going down on a "respectable" guest. People even get turned on with defecation and peeing which, to me, is gross but they are out there. I have not yet been in the right mind set to see this yet but I think I will wait until after Christmas. I have to watch White Christmas this year still and be grossed out by how thin Vera Ellen is. Your presentation of Eyes Wide Shut has made me more interested in seeing the film

    1. Well, it's good to know I've gotten someone's attention with this movie.