Notes on Eyes Wide Shut
Because all of the galleries are closed for the holidays, I thought I might take this opportunity to talk about everyone's favorite Christmas movie, Eyes Wide Shut. For "fun" I've been doing some research over the last couple weeks, reading reviews and Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle to see what I could learn, but very little of the analysis I've seen is satisfying. Jonathan Rosenbaum's review is still the most thoroughly perceptive piece I've seen, which is impressive considering it was published a week after the movie was released.* Still, his focus is mostly tertiary and dedicated to Kubrick's career and temperament as a whole, which is relevant but leaves the question of what the movie is actually "about" unaddressed. I usually think of pinning a central thesis on a work as a pointless exercise because it does nothing to clarify the content of the work, but in this case so much energy has been devoted to trying to decode the film that it begs addressing.
Aside from the dull "Eyes Wide Shut is a documentary" Epstein hype that's not much more than a quaint meme, the most common idea in the discourse seems to be that the movie is not actually about sex, but about money and power, which is not quite wrong or right. First of all, attempting to disassociate sex from power is a fool's errand, and secondly Bill Harford doesn't seem all that interested in the pursuit of sex and not at all in the pursuit of power. Certainly he's almost constantly being propositioned for sex, but he's more interested in where these interactions might lead him than in the prospect of sex itself, and similarly he uses his authority as a doctor and disposable income to get his way, but this is only to grease the wheels of his own forward movement. Towards what? My good friend Libby Rothfeld happened to write a short piece earlier this week that frames it well in the terms of a desire to "know." What he wants to know is ambiguous, but that's of little importance because his desire is what is integral. The movie is not about sex or money or power because those are the objects of desire. Desire itself is the subject, the libidinal undercurrents that propel us whether or not we lead a normative or socially transgressive existence, and it's this that makes this (I apologize in advance, bear with me) the most Deleuzoguattarian movie I know.
The narrative is a perfect example of the line of flight as laid out in the chapter of A Thousand Plateaus on Henry James' In The Cage: Disturbed by his wife's confession of thoughts of infidelity, Harford wanders the streets apparently "aimlessly" but driven by the angst caused by the disruption of his apparently placid home life. This disruption liberates his mindset for the night from the restrictions he usually feels as an upstanding faithful husband, and furthermore he's enabled by his authority and alibi as a doctor with a disposable income to pursue this narrow window of freedom to its own conclusion. This unlikely but precise chain of events culminates in the ritual orgy, the antithesis of his domestic reality, but as an intruder he cannot integrate, or reterritorialize, into this reality and is rejected. His rejections continue through the second day because that briefly open door into a different world has closed. His being an intruder or an outsider is characteristic of his entire journey, each step a push or pull from himself or someone else into a situation he would never find himself in on any other night. This is why his professional but vacuous non-personality is so important: only a slightly vain self-entitled rich guy could convincingly fake his way through all these situations, perhaps internally surprised but composed enough by force of habit and privilege that he takes it all in apparently unfazed.
More integral to the film than the line of flight narrative arc, though, is the section of A Thousand Plateaus on the dynamics of secret societies. (I can't cite anything because I read the book years ago and gave my copy away not long after.) Simply put, the power of the secret society comes not from the possession of secret knowledge, which always ends up being a series of inane truisms, but by virtue of the secrecy itself. We are given too little information on the orgiastic secret society in the film to go further with this idea regarding the society itself, but the idea is the same as applied to sex, which can then be reapplied to the orgy. Sex is irrevocably tied to transgression; this is easily laid out in the well-worn tradition of affairs. An affair, generally speaking, doesn't happen because one had believed they married the love of their life until a number of years later they meet the real love of their life, who they would marry if they had not made their previous commitment. Affairs happen precisely because they are affairs. The transgressive excitement of a forbidden tryst gives the spark to a relationship that the normative relationship lacks, a sense of the possible that often dissipates against the realities of domestic partnership. The classic cheating husband's "Oh my dear, if we could only leave all of this behind we would be so happy. But my children! It's impossible!" whether said in earnest or not, is the decisive energy of the affair because the prolonged fantasy of a possible life maintains its allure where reality does not. This plays out in one of my favorite scenes from the film which almost no one ever talks about, the daughter of the recently deceased patient. Her confession of love for Bill in spite of his protests that they hardly know each other belie the suppression of her desires by reality, an engagement to a stuffy professor with a teaching position in the Midwest. He symbolizes what she wants, which in the end has very little to do with how accurate her mental image of him is. But of course, this sort of romantic transgressiveness is of little relevance to the rest of the sexual dynamics in the film. Prostitution, swingers at the Christmas party, and ritual orgies have little romanticism to them, but they do operate under similar mechanics. For instance, the Hungarian Lothario who tries to seduce Alice at the party is clearly someone interested in sex as conquest, someone fully rehearsed in the methods of seduction. (He asks her if she has read Ovid's Art of Love, a book on that subject, and his move of boldly drinking her glass of champagne is taken directly from that work.) Smooth-talking a married woman into bed is a game with rules that require discretion and technique in execution, just as an affair does with its coordination of lies and overtures of promises to leave one's wife. There is excitement in the dangers of transgression and the employment of methods to elude punishment for the breaking of those societal rules. Even as those methods become familiar and ritualized, they reserve their charge by the force of their being forbidden by an outwardly normative society, which brings us back to the secret society and its orgy. The strict ritual order required to keep such an event a secret is immense, and that degree of discipline is concomitant with the levels of ritual perversion that upend the normative symbolic order, which results in what is presumably a near psychotic level of libido in the participants, as seems to be implied by the figure of the crass and drugged-up hooker-fucking Victor Ziegler. As outsiders we are excluded and alienated by the orgy, which is sterile and mostly weird, particularly emphasized in the brief scene where Bill is escorted through a room filled with naked and clothed men and women ballroom dancing in various combinations to "Strangers In The Night," a blink of surreal weirdness that recalls the famous dog costume blowjob shot in The Shining. The ultra-rich, not so much concerned with their power or even sex itself, amuse themselves by building their secret society that is not beholden to society as a whole, because when one already has access to power and sex the only thing to do is to play dangerous games that arouse desire, hence Epstein, etc., the orgy cult as aphrodisiac.
So what, if anything, does Bill get out of this strange experience? As Libby noted, he wants to know, but everything he learns raises more questions than answers or is simply disillusioning. His only revelation, the only true revelation, is that there is no revelation to be had. Shot off on an odyssey exploring the depths of desire due to his wife's confession of her desire, he only learns that we are inalienably governed by that desire. Rosenbaum quotes Deleuze on Kubrick from Cinema 2: "In Kubrick, the world itself is a brain, there is an identity of brain and world," citing the war room in Dr. Strangelove, HAL in 2001, and The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Rosenbaum suggests that the brain of Eyes Wide Shut is Bill and Alice's marriage, which may be true in the sense of a literal symbol in Deleuze's labeling scheme, but what's more important is that these examples are symbols of larger systems. The war room stands for the intrigues of international politics, HAL stands for the looming power of technological progress, The Overlook Hotel stands for the history of violence. Likewise, Bill and Alice's relationship stands for the subterranean field of desire that suffuses our reality (a serviceable image of a body without organs, by the way). The awareness of this, then, is the result of the events of the movie, and what Alice is referring to in the final scene when she mentions them being "awake." Even more crucial than their being awakened, however, is the final exchange of the movie: "And you know, there is something very important that we need to do as soon as possible." "What's that?" "Fuck." Just about any interpretation I've seen that addresses this line has been woefully misguided, variously reading it as a nihilistic resignation to consumerism(?), some sort of ominous implication of embracing the evil of the cult, or the general sentiment that the scene is scary or disturbing. Likely this is due to a childish idealism that refuses to acknowledge the systems of our society are inescapable, but if one accepts that arrangement the statement takes on a profoundly different meaning. Alice has seen into the bottomless pit of desire and, instead of recoiling in a vain attempt to preserve her upper middle class illusions, has accepted it as truth. This is the eternal return, an affirmation of the Real that makes us see the world anew, the opposite of nihilistic resignation. If her statement is not joyous it is only because sex is not positive. Desire requires a negativity, a danger, a relationship to the infernal energy of the death drive to sustain itself, and this will always be the case no matter how picturesque one's outward existence is. There's a dialectic between the repressive denial of desire in normative society and the dissolute indulgence of desire in transgressive society, and these final lines point to a sort of synthesis of that dialectic, a non-repressive normativity with a full awareness of desire that avoids the damaging excesses of an actually transgressive lifestyle. It calls to mind another Deleuzian idea, that of becoming imperceptible, hiding in plain sight, a secret liberation from the yoke of society that succeeds because what cannot be perceived cannot be policed. To unleash desire is always a risk, and to systematize that force is almost inherently to systematize exploitation, as the rich and powerful do to the rest of society. What is unique about Bill's adventure is his skating along the edges of transgression, toeing the line and seeing it all without implicating himself in the process and reemerging unscathed. This is the only reason he and Alice are allowed to escape, to return to their lives as though unchanged but in fact changed irrevocably.**
* More or less my only bone to pick with his piece is his estimation that Traumnovelle is a masterpiece. All I got out of it was an appreciation for Kubrick's talent for adaptation. It's a very interesting plot and the movie is remarkably faithful for the most part, but every change is a distinct improvement. The party that takes up the first half hour of the movie is covered in the first two pages of the book as a hurried recollection, both the husband and wife confess to sexual fantasies on their vacation which makes the husband's jealousy even more juvenile, and much of the narration spends its time on his internal monologue that only serves to expose him as a narcissistic asshole. However, Rosenbaum read the book before seeing the movie for the first time and I've had the whole movie memorized for years, so I'm biased.
** None of this touched on anything I thought about when I watched the movie earlier this month, which was pretty much exclusively technical, a close reading of lighting, colors, minor details and resonances, etc. That would be boring to write into an essay though, you'd have to watch the movie with me if you want to get that breakdown. I will say the scene where Bill is being followed does reward a close look, though.