Arthur Schnitzler’s 1925 novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story) was Stanley Kubrick’s dream project, optioned by the director in 1970 and completed in 1999 just days before his death. Were the perfectionist Kubrick alive for the dismissive Eyes Wide Shut notices, trauma might have ensued. Many doubted whether the picture was even finished. Even Pauline Kael, from beyond the grave (in the recent Afterglow), proclaims the film “ludicrous from the word go.” Kubrick’s films benefit from multiple viewings, but in the strange case of EWS, the buzzards swooped early.
French academic Michel Chion begins his eponymous study of Eyes Wide Shut by comparing the varying lengths of pubic hair in the notorious orgy. “You’re not even looking at it,” Chion chastises, echoing Alice’s (Nicole Kidman) statement to Dr. Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise) as she preps her coif in the film’s first scene. He launches his volume with the same suggestiveness present in the EWS teaser, featuring the semi-nude then-soulmates hot ‘n’ heavy, reflecting on their own sexual relationship while mauling each other before a mirror.
Like Kubrick’s film, Chion’s book deliberately confounds these saucy expectations, but I come neither to disinter Kubrick nor to praise him. This provocative entry in the BFI’s invaluable Modern Classics series sets a new standard for head scratching. More controversial than the choice of the oneiric EWS as a classic—this series includes Independence Day—is Chion’s approach: that the work’s meaning should be discovered through repeated, open-minded viewings, since in EWS, as in life, “there is no signified, there are only signifiers.” This approach allows for multiple theses, slapped together like an amateur skin flick. Chion concludes, sounding like he’s seen 2001 2000 times too many, that “the subject of Eyes Wide Shut is the everyday life of a couple of mortal human beings, from the point of view of the vastness of history and the infinity of the world.” If that’s too vague, Chion also opines that EWS is “told from the point of view of a male individual conceived in a sexual act between the two main characters which takes place after the end of the film.”
And I hope my unborn children will provide insight into A.I. Kubrick fans will eagerly anticipate the evidence for Chion’s claim; critics will surely stop reading when he calls EWS “one of the best-acted films in the entire history of cinema.” More persuasive is the in-depth analysis of Kubrick’s precise editing, and of the dialogue, strewn with 46 examples of “parroting,” which reminds us of the “literality of speech” (e.g., “BILL: Once a doctor, always a doctor/NICK: Once a doctor, always a doctor”). The kicker is in the “negative parroting” in the last scene, where Dr. Bill doesn’t repeat the word “grateful.” By then, as Chion’s deconstruction has revealed, Bill’s own displacement by his unborn child has been foreshadowed in a comparison between two inconsequential sequences most viewers surely will have glided over as if piloting Kubrick’s Steadicam.
Chion’s “looking at it” hard, and he admits the odd fault: Kubrick didn’t know how to film an orgy, the Ligeti one-note thumping occurs one too many times. But he omits the social aspects of Schnitzler’s Vienna; some of EWS‘s nagging jokes stem from Kubrick’s fidelity to Traumnovelle, and its author’s view of social mores. In Peter Gay’s Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815-1914, the Yale historian uses the novelist as his master of ceremonies into the middle classes at a time when doctors—like Schnitzler’s father—were gaining communal respect. (Schnitzler himself practiced medicine, but used his office mostly to troll for virgins.)
Though Traumnovelle was one of Schnitzler’s later works, his depiction of decadent Vienna was pre-war, with horse-drawn carriages and increasing anti-Semitism; as Gay argues, modernity’s seeds lie in those Victorians, who could be as libidinous as their percolating Jazz Age counterparts. Schnitzler, who kept diaries of his conquests and orgasms, would have agreed. At times a pointed satirist (as in Reigen, the basis for Ophuls’s La Ronde), Schnitzler still found the bourgeoisie boring. And none are as tedious as Cruise, the ultimate empty signifier.
While converting Schnitzler’s Jews to Christmas-shopping WASPs, Kubrick admired the Austrian’s view of male-female relations, which complicated the Victorian double standard. Instead of the middle-class husband straying to the brothel to mitigate his wife’s frigidity, Gay claims that the proper remedy was upping the domestic carnality. As Alice says, “There’s something very important that we need to do as soon as possible: Fuck.” Needless to say, this one-liner is Kubrick’s addition, aligning the long-married director more with Gay than Schnitzler, who divorced in 1921.
The Freud of Fiction, Schnitzler introduced dream psychology into modern drama, and Dr. Bill’s night out, wherein he encounters more temptations than a Fox reality-show contestant—only to turn them down—intuits Freud’s belief in the value of repressing one’s fantasies. Gay reminds us that Freud undertook the rational analysis of irrational emotions, a description applicable to any Kubrick film—and to Chion’s volume. For him, Eyes Wide Shut was not meant to be decoded, but dissected; it’s a film where, per Schnitzler, “dream and waking, truth and lie flow into one another.” Though we’re left with Cruise’s exclamation that “no dream is ever just a dream,” Gay loves to remind us that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. He has found a strange bedfellow in a French post-structuralist.