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  • Writer's pictureDr John Breadon

staying on the sofa of stability? kubrick's 'eyes wide shut' at 20.

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

My inspiration for this my first foray into human sexuality (but essentially male heterosexual experience, just to be clear), is the twenty year anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's final movie, 'Eyes Wide Shut' (hereafter EWS). For those who've not seen it, or heard about it, here's the basic story as far as it involves the main characters' emotions and interactions (so yes, I think a spoiler alert is required!).

For a movie that plays up its dream-to-nightmare moodiness, its 'realist' setting is modern day New York. Our two main characters are Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise), a rich and successful doctor in Manhattan and Alice, his wife (Nicole Kidman), who works in the art world. They have one child, Helena. We learn early in the movie that Bill's sexual and erotic feelings are conventional, his desire to transgress or test the edges of his marriage is not strong; he loves his wife and he loves making love to her. But Alice's inner sexual life is not so placid. She cannot cast from her mind an erotic encounter - but mental and imaginative only, never enacted - with a younger man from some years past. But the meeting was never forgotten and returns often as part of her fantasy life. She eventually opens up to Bill about it. Alice describes what she is feeling, and its inherent tensions, without any personal judgement:

'Just the sight of him thrilled me ... and I thought if he wanted me, I was ready to give up everything I had, you, the child, my whole future, and go to him. And yet at the same time - if you can understand it - you were dearer to me than ever, and I stroked your forehead and kissed your hair, and at that moment my love for you was both tender and sad.'

Bill is shocked and surprised. His subsequent feelings are disquieting, because they are new to him: to be jealous of other men firstly, and then to seek to 'get his own back' on his wife through his inhabiting and experimenting with, for a while, his own rather neglected sexual fantasy life. This inhabiting takes the form of a night journey through Manhattan. Here he meets all manner of women, and men, and temptations. All are resisted come the light of the new day.

The film makes a great deal of sense as part of the director's overall work. Simply, Kubrick loved to go big. The great existential subjects of life were his passion: violence, power, sex, evil, destruction and creativity. His view of 'mankind' was a rather bleak one, Darwinian and Freudian to the max: we are self-interested, unpredictable, emotionally volatile and anxious a lot of the time. The question begs to be asked though: is this his objective take on 'humanity' or on men? The 15 films that preceded EWS would suggest that his real subject is men - and heterosexual men at that. I've used scare quotes at times throughout this blog to draw attention to both contested or controversial ideas and a recurrent, often troubling aspect of Kurbrick's work: his less-than-rounded portrayals of women. For some his reputation as a great modernist is overdone; he is essentially an art-house sexist. From 'Lolita', to 'A Clockwork Orange' and concluding with EWS, Kubrick consistently reduced women to their bodies and threw much of his creative energies into dissecting men's obsessions - not least their obsession with women's bodies. And yet it's important to state that Alice breaks the mould (somewhat) here. She is more complex, more autonomous, more rounded than many of Kubrick's previous female lead characters.

Another important aspect of the film's moral (or immoral) heart is its overall message. It's clear to most reviewers that if we are willing to reduce complex art to moral statements than EWS's is rather a conservative one. Bill does not 'commit adultery' on his night walk. The couple recommit to each other by the end of the film. The bliss of married sex is the film's last word no less. And then there is the evidence, or covert message perhaps, from Kubrick's own life. He was married to Christiane for 41 years and enjoyed, for the most part, being a father to two daughters. But here we may have to take into consideration Kubrick's own life stage and age when he came to - finally - make the film. Christiane Kubrick has said that, 'I think it was a very good film for an older person to make with quite a lot of hindsight and you become softer and more honest with yourself as you grow up and I think Stanley was much more pessimistic, much more cynical as a young man. Most of us become nicer as we grow older, even more mellowed, and he was certainly more optimistic than I sometimes was.' (Quoted in Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick And The Making of his Last Film, Kolker & Abrams, 2019)

But because it is, I think, good art for most of its long running time, there is considerable therapeutic potential in EWS. It can be a useful tool for self-challenge, an imaginative space laid down through which we might begin to peer into our own Shadow, and most people's sexuality lives partly in their Shadow. Exploring their Shadows is what Alice and Bill do in the film, painful and disruptive though it proves to be. By the end, their increased self-knowledge has made them deeper and richer as individuals and more together as a couple. But choosing to abide over splitting is not always how the story ends, as we all know. Sometimes a night journey for a man or a woman will culminate in the breaking of long held vows, sex with strangers, the full release of desires that one decides cannot be welcomed or experienced within an exclusive relationship. Perhaps in this sense EWS would be a good movie to watch for someone thinking of breaking away from, and thereby breaking up, a settled domestic life. For movies like novels can help us make an ‘as if’ leap: to speculate on how it might be to live a life so very different from the one we're actually living. I often meet with clients burdened, even tormented, by conflicted feelings over some big decision they feel cannot be put off any longer. And so to inhabit their lives 'as if' they had already made a decision can be a useful exercise. Such imaginings - with a therapist who will invite you to really dwell in alternative spaces - can bring sharply into focus one's essential choices. For some this thought experiment is as close to cause-and-effect reality as they want to get. If nothing else they will now know better the difference between sexual repression and sustainable sexual suppression. But some decide otherwise, in spite of the inevitable pain their decision will cause. If this interests you as a subject I recommend another movie, Hanif Kureishi's 'Le Weekend'. In the written preface to the published screenplay of the film, Kureishi writes: 'I can recall a student of mine, a women in her mid-forties, telling me a long, moving story about being awakened emotionally, sexually, and intellectually, when she fell in love with a friend of her husband. Their love caused a huge trauma for both families, but it was worth it, she said. There would have been more suffering all round - wasted energy, unused love, umemployed passion - had she remained in the status quo.'

So what might one get from watching the EWS today, 20 years on from its first release? Well, it might help you move a few things out of your unconscious and into the analytical light, should you feel it's time for a bit of internal rearranging and reordering. And if you're currently in a long-term relationship it may help you broach the subject with your partner of how to hold cherished domesticity and unavoidable passion in some sort of creative tension. I'll leave the last word to Kubrick himself:

'Married sex, you know ... nice parents who read bedtime stories and then change into strangers to each other that they need to be if ... there always has to be some unfinished business in a marriage, doesn't there? If it finishes ... there's nothing to be continued, except niceness, or resentment.' (Kubrick quoted in Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick And The Making of his Last Film, Kolker & Abrams, 2019)



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