Why is there a Christmas Tree in every scene of Eyes Wide Shut? What does the title mean? Is Aliceís invitation to her husband to "fuck" positive or negative? Roland Barthesís reading of Loyola, Sade and Fourier will help us read this complex filmmaker. Kubrickís movies have fascinated me ever since I saw A Clockwork Orange in college. A recluse who seems to go against the standards of Hollywood closure, and yet the big studios sign his films. He paints an absurd world where our best plans go haywire. The beautiful machines that should help us dehumanize us. Kubrick himself seems the opposite of what he films. His last film portrays a marriage threatened by infidelity and illicit sex, and yet, he had a stable marriage and family life for 40 years.
According to Barthes,. Sade, the evil writer, Fourier, the great utopian, and Loyola, the saint are "logothetes," founders of languages. Barthesís notion of "text" is meant here, and not language as linguistics or a means of communication. Like Kubrick, the three logothetes isolate themselves, are concerned with detail, cut up the Body of Christ, the human body, and the passions, and are "ordinators," scenographers, and directors. At a monastery retreat, Loyolaís exercises establish a language to access the divine. Fourier, at the phalanstery, creates a utopia based on wealth and money, by developing a detailed language of the passions. Sade creates a language to explore the possibilities of desire, and what language has to say about social classes, the victims and the exploiters, or libertines. "Text" cannot be summarized. These languages are processes where we live at a deeper level. Barthes accuses Loyola of ulterior motives. His language system, "through trickery, produces, or tries to produce semantic indifference, equality of interrogation, a mantic art in which a lack of response involves absence of the respondent."(Barthes, 7). Is Barthes saying Loyola is trying to be God? For Sade, Barthes says, "there is something that balances the language and makes it into a centered metonymy, but that something is fucking (All immoralities are connected and the closer we come to the immorality of fucking the happier we will necessarily be") i.e., literally dissemination." (7). How we understand this "fucking" might help us interpret the last scene of the film.
Sade serves as the foundation to read all three writers. The site of Sadian debaucheries is a solitary chateau (Silling or Chateau Durcet). One voyages to shut oneself away. The solitude is not only to be safe from punishment, but to de-socialize. A new society is set up where libertines, along with their aids, torture, debase, and debauch their subjects or victims. There is usually a central ordinator (ordained person) who directs the narratives. The subjects are in various booths where the audience (libertines too) can watch or listen. The ordinator presents as many "postures" (28) as he can. Postures consist in all the imaginable positions that you can have sex. These postures become a "tableau vivant." The tableaus are called "figures" if they are pictorial, and "episodes" if they are more diachronic, and tell a story. The episodes are "scenes" and combine to bigger scenes. Episodes are punctuated by 2 ejaculations. The libertines and their subjects exchange roles, but the libertine always have control of the language. The sentences they form create the "crimes" which are the debaucheries, tortures, and sex acts. Barthes describes their use of language as "metonymic violence." "Papal passion, ministerial spanking, prime manipulation of the pontifical ass, sodomize his teacher"(34) are examples where language transgressions do violence to the language itself. When nobles speak like this, social classes are overturned. "Criminal" contamination touches every style of discourse: novel, lyric, moral, maxim etc." (34). Sade Ďs language can join incest, adultery, sodomy, and sacrilege. "He buggers his married daughter with a host"(33).
Sade is condemned for the represented crimes he commits and not his discourse where he imagines crimes with words. Society condemns him for the real and its representation which fill this audience with aesthetic disgust, or, at least monotony (36). Real fear of Sadian storytellers is when their stories are not "conceived" by their subjects, not believed to be imagined. Barthes concludes:
Kubrick is a Sadian ordinator who directs the actions of his "crime" film Eyes Wide Shut. The film follows Bill and Alice Harford during a four day struggle for their up till then stable nine year marriage. At a wealthy upper class party, a web of events makes life tense. Alice is provoked into teasing Bill about a desired liaison followed by Billís night on the town of almost sexual encounters ending up at an upper class orgy. After Billís attempts to retrace the events, the couple reconciles in a toy store. We are in a Sadian society with Bill in the role of the victim much of the time. Alice and Victor Zeigler, the rich party-giving friend, are libertine storyteller-ordinators. We will look at them first before turning to the film director himself.
Victor Zeigler is a the party impressario who ignites all the plots and happenings in the story. He is a multi-millionaire whose palace-like mansion reminds us of The Overlook Hotel with people in it. An orgy director in his own right he creates many postures. Alice dances and flirts with the over-suave Hungarian Sandor Zaust. Bill flirts with the two women impressed by his doctor status. Bill revives an overdosed naked girl in Zeiglerís private room and bathroom. Bill also meets a former medical student now pianist Nick Nightengale who will later give him the password to the orgy, at the Greenwich Village Café Sonata where he plays. Zeigler will also summon Bill back to his house to put a closure on the orgy story after Billís day-after search of the reality of what he experienced. It is Zeigler who had him stalked and threatened to keep from further inquiries.
Alice also plays a director or libertine role in the film. Libertines and their victim-subjects to reverse roles, but the libertine always controls language. We see her naked derriere in the opening shot of the film. One could accuse Kubrick of the male gaze, but I think she is really the torturer here. Throughout the film Bill will be obsessed with her making love with a naval officer. We also will see her doing bathroom things like urinating and putting on deodorant. We are intimate with her in the most intimate room of the house. Why the focus on her body?
She teases the Hungarian flirter and responds "maybeÖ not" to his invitation to go to a bedroom and check out paintings. Her character does a real about libertine face while discussing their flirting at Zeiglerís party. Bill says he understands why Sandor would want to fuck her, because she is beautiful. She protests "So the only reason a man would want to talk to me is to fuck me?" This instigates a conversation on women and men about sex. Billís belief in his non-jealous attitude provokes the marijuana influenced Alice to tell her Cape Cod Fantasy while dressed in a skimpy body shirt sitting below a window frame, a place usually for one who is being dominated, but here there is a reversal. Her fantasy is running away with a Naval Officer who caught her eye while they were vacationing at Cape Cod. The irony was that Bill and their 9 year old daughter were as dear to her as ever, and yet she was willing to give it all up if the Naval Officer came on to her. This fantasy, accompanied by Jocylyn Pookís haunting score sets Bill on his night of almost sexual encounters. Saved by the bell from this argument and tension, a phone call beckons him to the luxurious apartment of a patient who just died. Seduced by the daughter in front of the corpse, Bill narrowly escapes. He then is humiliated by a few young student-types calling him a faggot. Propositioned by a prostitute, he is saved by cell phone call from Alice. He runs into Nick Nightengale at the café Sonata and is given the password to an orgy where Nick plays blindfolded. He buys his costume, at 1AM, from Mr. Milich, whom we will see the next day as a pimp for his own daughter, he goes to the orgy, is spotted, but saved from humiliation by a mysterious woman. Upon returning home he sees Alice dreaming and laughing. She then closes this segment of the film telling him her dream in which she was being fucked by the naval officer and many others and enjoying the fact that she was humiliating her husband who was watching. Awake, she is upset as the scene ends. Her two narratives are very similar to the woo ejaculations that punctuate Sadeís episodes. Libertines can have verbal ejaculations. Bill spends the next day backtracking all the places he visited to verify what happened, and to try and find out if a dead girl in the newspaper story was the girl at the orgy. After Zeigler tells Bill about the orgy and the rich people who want discretion, Bill returns and sees his mask on Aliceís bed. She knew it all, and like a true libertine she is both hurt, and forgiving. The reconciliation and invitation to fuck in the toy store is real love or depersonalized sex? Letís look at the other libertine director, the filmmaker himself.
Kubrick, in his dual role as libertine director and victim subject, produces a Barthian "writerly text." Barthes distinguishes between a tableau vivant (figure) and a scene. The former is for the spectator, and is a visual figure for fetish viewing. When there is movement, a plot etc., the audience can join in and the tableau vivant is transformed into a scene made to function (154). The same distinction exists between a photo stills and the moving film." The photo is a "figure" and the film "functions"(154). The Sadian audience joins in and participates in the tableau vivant-turned scene (or play). The text changes from "readerly" where the audience is read to, to "writerly" where the audience makes the text their text. Mallarmé Book has to reach the stage where the public will preseve it. Barthes adds the notion that the audience participates in the writing of it. A writerly text is where we enter it and appropriate it as our text, as if we actually wrote it. Kubrickís characters have been criticized for lack of human depth and real honest to goodness dialog. The tableau vivant quality of Kubrickís style causes this effect. He is very photo oriented giving us a kind of Sadian tableaus. We participate and turn these figures into scenes. We enter and travel with the steadicam. We pass from figure to labor (156), from TV to film text.
Kubrick uses Sadeís "inundation" style of writing. In Sadeís theater 3 libertine women can satisfy 10 men subjects at the same time by saturating their sexual openings. The same goal applies to the sentence. Sade tries to saturate every part of the body and the sentence with complete eroticism Ė a system of catalysis (loosening down or saturating) (128-30). Kubrick and Sade are catalysts inundating every sentence to the hilt with blood, sperm, excrement and voice. The combined meanings and sounds of a sentence form an ultimate erotic state Ė the sublime legato of the phrase. Musical "phrasing" is literally swimming in the flow of sounds and images. The combined music, images and narration of Aliceís fantasy take Bill and us to erotic fits of jealousy or desire (maybe Bill wants to join in). Kubrick is the catalyst and we are the analysts (loosening back) reflecting on the saturated sentence after having experienced it.
In the orgy sequence, we have a combined musical, pictorial saturation. Bill is ushered into a great hall of walls, ceilings, balconies, and columns in white marble. The crowd of people wears black capes and full-faced Venetian carnival-style masks of varied designs. In the center there is a circle of kneeling figures around a leader in a Red Cloak who is waving incense and carrying a staff. Nick Nightengale, blindfolded, accompanies the scene playing eerie devil worship type music (Jocylyn Pook) that resonates all through the hall. With consecutive commands of pounding his staff the figures disrobe, and start a chain kiss. In Sadian writing, violence and lust do not reciprocate Ė no payback. There is a continuous spiral going out. In writing it parallels crossing nothing out, continuing to explore,and keeping your total text of desire in account. The women then choose partners, with a "Mysterious Woman" choosing Bill. Bill has been spotted as an outsider and she warns him as she takes him down corridors of rooms with people fucking in all sorts of positions surrounded by voyeurs, accompanied to a Jocyln Pook classical composition reminding me of an Arabian caravan. Then, through another corridor of fornicating people we hear "Strangers in the Night." Irony accompanies this scene as Kubrick mixes genres of music overturning this classic aristocratic society. Classic Romans have an elegant reputation and seemed to have high aspirations in art and culture, but who, most of the time, were really interested in getting it on in doggy style, or at least watching it. Bill is redeemed by the "Mysterious Woman." She takes over as victim saving him from being humiliated in front of the whole crowd. Is she the prostitute he helped at Zeiglerís party who turned up dead? Does it matter?
Philosophical reflection is part of the libertine game as well as Kubrickís. It is up to us to do the analysis of their catalysis. Barthes does not label Sade as didactic, but he does expose human nature as a struggle between the aggressive and non-aggressive types. There is a division of languages which separates the classes, the subject-victims from their libertine exploiters. The gay hotel clerk tells Bill that two big guys, well spoken and well dressed, had escorted Nick Nightengale away. They apparently roughed him up for giving Bill the password. Zeiglerís society is well spoken, even the servant thugs are polite and well educated.
The themes of dehumanization and depersonalization abound in both writers. Sex can be pretty monotonous in Sade, taking place on a conveyor belt with workers being supervised by their voyeur superiors (125). In the orgy sequence we follow Bill with the steadicam and it gives the impression of a conveyor belt accompanied by Jocelyn Pookís Arabian caravan score. The protocols of debauchery are also very detailed like a surgical operation (140). Al;ice wonders if Bill can look at a womanís body other than with a clinical view. Doctors themselves can be pretty cold human beings in general. Kubrick does not flatter them much. Bill flashes his doctor ID card to get into places and impress people. Milich, the costume man, would have been impressed if Bill had been a hair specialist. Is Kubrick taking shots at the medical professionís commodified specialist aspect, and commodified sex which has lost its eroticism? In a voyeur world all is for the eye. Frederic Jamesonís term reification is a postmodern experience where all senses of reality have been reduced to the eye in order that we may consume reality. Photos are more important than the real thing. In The Shining, Jameson sees the protagonist as a consumer writer who wants to buy the title of writer without really like to do the writing itself. This voyeur non-participating attitude is present throughout his last film.
Sade would have liked phones to connect exploiters and exploited. The phone is a motif in the film sometimes showing Bill in control, sometimes being controlled, and sometimes, just helping him out. Nick is called away to get the password from his employers. Bill is saved by the phone call from further torture by his wifeís fantasy. He is also called to Zeiglerís house to get him off the track of the dead prostitute. And, he is saved from being unfaithful when Alice cell phones him at the prostituteís apartment. Kubrick is very ambiguous about the phone. A helpful device, but a dangerous one. Like Balzac before him, he shows how we create things which turn around and create and control us. AOL is now trying to link with Time-Warner. Kubrick sees the danger, but has to work in this absurd condition.
We saw how Sade creates crimes with his syntax with sentences like "He buggers his married daughter with a host (167). He surprises us when crimes transgress usual family and moral semantics. Kubrick also shows reversal of family values. Bill finds out that Milichís daughter was not being raped the night before, but that it was a play set up by her father.
Kubrick creates Christmas as a "crime" by inserting a Christmas tree in every scene. The Christmas sign attached to all this debauchery and betrayal and cruelty seems to be sacriligious. Bill and Alice reconcile in a toy store while Helena their daughter looks at dolls and a baby stroller. Christmas as metaphor of a consumer society where the rich control their desires with money and exploit those who have to submit. All commodities, like phones, are toys. Buying them disseminate our desires (Sadeís word for fucking). Her invitation to Bill to fuck has both good and bad connotations depending on how we experience it.
I originally read Barthesís book to find out about Loyola and the Jesuits. Being a St. Peters College graduate, I am interested in how he compares the Loyolian exercises with Sadeís. The Loyolian exercises are taught to monks who in turn teach novice monks during a four week retreat. The monks imagine themselves as Christ and see everything from this point of view (62-67). Through this controlled improvisation the real Christ should be somewhere. A discourse of images is created through which the exercitants try to let the divine communicate. Loyola goes against the primacy of hearing preferred by the Middle Age mystics. The Jesuits believe in the articulation of mental images as the way to deeper knowledge. They are known for being confessors, too. The rationale for confessing your sins to another person is to go through the articulation of sins in a visual manner, and thus be prepared to see the world as Christ does. There is a losing of your own "I" which goes up in smoke like Baudelaireís hashish smoker who is caught up in the pipe smoking itself. A sensitive scale is set up where you balance your objective human "I" with the divine "I." Kubrickís films are Loyolian exercises. Just as the Jesuits create mental images to articulate their sins, and to see how Christ would live and hear His voice, Kubrick creates mental images to explore our artistic selves with the everyday plain depersonal selves. He keeps his eyes wide shut before he edits all the images his camera eyes takes.
We swim in the beautifully flowing images edited with music that alternates moments of tension and relaxation. The Shostokovitch waltz "Jazz Suite" is a mixture of classical waltz music and jazz linking perhaps a dominant class being subverted by the up and coming working classes. We think the music is non-diegetic when it introduces the titles, but it is coming from Billís radio, a part of the story. Later the tune is used non-diegetically as it links Billís office with his home and wife. The director shows that he is in charge and is joining these people who will be separated. The waltz also starts up when the two reconcile and the music escorts us to out of the theater preparing our eyes to the outside lights.
We have had our eyes wide shut most of the time, never sure of what we were seeing or hearing. For example, we watch Bill and Alice make love via a mirror to Chris Issakís "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing." At first I thought the bad thing was the sex act as in getting "dirty." But the song is really about a lover tormented by the betrayal of his lover.
You ever loved one so much you thought your little heart would break in two?
Ė I didnít think so
Did you ever try with all your heart and soul to get your lover back to you?
-I want to hope so.
Did you ever pray with all your heart and soul, just to watch her walk away?
Baby did a bad bad thing (3 times)
I feel like cryin. (2 times)
A subversive rock song sings about a deep jealous moment while some of the more "classical" compositions accompany proper people playing dirty games. The password to the orgy is Fidelio, which is also the name of Beethovenís opera response to Mozartís opera Cosi Fan Tutte about everyone doin it. Kubrick keeps faithful to the watch for the forces that help us and hinder us from keeping our eyes open.
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of the Visible. London. Routledge, 1990.Kubrick, Stanley and Raphael,
Frederick. Eyes Wide Shut: a Screenplay. New York: Time Warner Books,
1999. (followed by Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler,
Trans. J.M.Q. Davies.
Eyes Wide Shut, Film. Stanley Kubrick, Director, 1999.