The allure of infidelity in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

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In Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the dark cloud of infidelity looms over its characters, lurking in every nook and corner and waiting to consume them at the most opportune moment. So strong and potent is its allure that even the most faithful of men seem helpless and have a tough time trying to not succumb to its charms. Like an unpleasant, hazy mist, it seeps into their consciousness and tempts them to make a wrong decision. Just like he did in The Shining, Kubrick once again created a really unsettling atmosphere and used the right kind of music to accompany each scene.

Kubrick’s final film, like any of the master’s previous films, was hugely misunderstood upon release and takes a little time getting used to. There are people who called it his weakest film and believed that he had lost it in his final years and equated it to a Tinto Brass film. To this, the Kubrick fan in me says, “What an ignorant statement!” Yes, the film is slightly bizarre (which Kubrick film isn’t?), and yes, it has a fairly heavy amount of nudity and sex but this doesn’t automatically make it a pornographic film. Despite the presence of some well-shot erotic images, the film doesn’t even fit the proper definition of pornography because none of these images are meant to titillate the viewer. This is no exploitation film, and if you think it is, then I invite you to reassess it.

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Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle, which was set in early 1900s’ Vienna, Kubrick cast the then real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Dr.Bill Harford and his wife Alice, the film’s two main characters living in present-day New York. They are the guinea pigs upon whom Kubrick conducts his fascinating and surreal experiment to seek and provide some profound insights on sexuality, fidelity and, above all, the ever-changing nature of the human mind. It’s possible that Kubrick may have found his answers but it may not be necessarily the case with the film’s viewers. While some may have found the film’s ambiguities confusing, others may have come up with their own interesting answers.

The entire film has the feel of a dream and one isn’t quite sure when the dream begins, if it is indeed really a dream. However, there is nothing confusing about the film’s fundamental message – that a strong marital bond and genuine intimacy can fix a lot of problems. Kubrick’s script follows the novella closely and begins at a lavish party to which the couple is invited. It is here that our old friend infidelity makes its grand entrance and immediately starts looking for potential victims. Everyone is flirting with somebody. Two models are hitting on Bill and he returns the favor, while a middle-aged Hungarian gentleman lusts after Alice. But it soon becomes clear that both Bill and Alice are not the sort of people to ruin their relationship with silly and short-lived flings with random strangers.

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Things take a perilous turn when, during a fun, harmless and weed-induced bedroom chit-chat, Alice counters Bill with her suspicions about his behavior the previous night. She is seemingly relieved when he tells her that he was called away on account of a little “incident” upstairs with Mr. Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), their host. The married Mr.Ziegler doesn’t seem to share Bill and Alice’s views on fidelity. His young mistress had just OD’d in his bathroom and Bill was called to revive her. When Alice confesses to Bill about a momentary impulse she once had to sleep with a naval officer, he is shaken.

There are slight differences between the Bill and Fridolin, the protagonist in the novella. While the latter is an amorous and chauvinist man who has had numerous sexual encounters, Bill is exactly the opposite. However, after hearing Alice’s confession, he is tempted to cheat on her, even though she hasn’t – even fantasizing about it is, for him, tantamount to actually committing it. This sets off a chain of events – real or imagined – in which Bill has several bizarre encounters with mysterious strangers. Bill and Alice’s disturbing conversation is interrupted by a phone call from a lady who kisses him in front of her father who had passed away just a while ago.

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This scene is then followed by a small tense moment in the street when a couple of punks call him a faggot. This is then followed by Bill accepting an invitation from a hooker. But none of this goes anywhere. At alternate moments, he sees upsetting visions of his wife indulging in steamy sex with that naval officer. His curiosities and dark thoughts compel him to visit a secret orgy attended by the city’s famous (and dubious) aristocrats. This is my favorite sequence from the film because it has the feel of an eerie nightmare, and I’m not really sure if it is taking place inside reality. Bill’s experience here is terrifying and deeply embarrassing and resultantly, he becomes paranoid. But despite this, he resolves to get to the bottom of it all.

Kubrick shot the film at London’s Pinewood Studios and what you see is not really New York but a recreation of it. This city looks unreal and I’m sure this was intentional. The artificial and dreamy look is further accentuated by all the Christmas lights and decoration. It is believed that Fridolin was Schnitzler’s mirror image and he wrote the novella to conduct a self-analysis of sorts. Schnitzler treated Fridolin’s encounters as if they were taking place in a dream and it is quite possible that everything is a dream, both in the novella and the film. Bill’s thoughts and encounters, all of which are of sexual in nature, lead him to more threatening situations. Here, sex carries the smell of death.

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Why Kubrick cast Cruise and Kidman is perfectly understandable. He wanted to take good advantage of their chemistry and the effect Bill has on the female characters in the film is the same as the one Cruise has on his female (and male) fans. This is evident in the early scenes itself. Almost every woman he meets desires him, even an under-aged girl. But Kubrick rips apart this image later when he puts Cruise in the aforementioned embarrassing situations. By the end of the film, what we see is a different man, who breaks down like a child in front of his wife when he realizes that he had made a small mistake. The film ends in a very optimistic manner when Alice suggests that they do something immediately to fix things between them: “Fuck.”

There is one small thing in the film that I found particularly fascinating: the use of the word Fidelio as the password that gets one admitted to the orgy. Fidelio is the name of an opera written by Ludwig van Beethoven and I think there is a good reason why Kubrick chose this particular piece. The opera is about a woman called Leonore who rescues her husband from a prison by dressing up as a man called Fidelio. In the film, when Bill is subjected to a humiliating and potentially dangerous experience, he rescued by a woman wearing a disguise. Or perhaps this could also be an allusion to Alice “rescuing” Bill in the end from all his troubling thoughts and encounters.

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