u_topn picture
rub_pp picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Previously in Politics & Prose:

Most Valuable Player (July 1999)
Jack Beatty on Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, a new book examining the economic impact of his Airness.

All the Presidents' Man (June 1999)
Jack Beatty reviews Name-Dropping, the new book by John Kenneth Galbraith, and recalls the days when liberals were cool. Seriously.

Slaves' Wages (May 1999)
What price can be put on the exorbitant theft of labor that was American slavery? Jack Beatty looks at a new work of history that suggests an answer.

Playing Politics With the Planet (April 1999)
A forecast of the 2000 election predicts squalls and continued global warming.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Most Valuable Player

In reviews of Stanley Kubrick's last film, the critics' eyes were shut to its wider implications about modern society

by Jack Beatty

August 25, 1999

Imagine having a job the doing of which saps your judgment. I'm talking about movie critics. Spending much of your time drawing critical distinctions between, say, Lethal Weapon 4 and 5, or hazarding language on Julia Roberts's ineffable smile, must habituate you to movies that seek only to entertain. Eventually, entertainment becomes your only touchstone. Serious fiction reviewers, by comparison, rarely also review the latest Danielle Steele.

I'm being churlish because of my dissatisfaction with some of the reviews I've read of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's last film. My complaint: they bring the same threshold assumption to Eyes Wide Shut as to Armageddon. They assume that a movie is not about anything outside of itself. But movies made by accomplished artists like Kubrick, who have more or less complete directorial control, have more far-reaching meanings. These films comment on history, society, politics, and human behavior, holding the mirror up to the way we live now.

Eyes Wide Shut is such a movie. It depicts a society in which fathers prostitute their daughters; rich men staff orgies with beautiful women; and money, not desire, is the coin of sex. Writers on capitalism from Joseph Schumpeter to Daniel Bell have voiced fears that, through its restless dynamism the market economy will create a market society. Kubrick's movie is in that tradition of critique. It depicts a society where everything is for sale, one far gone in decadence, like Rome before its fall or the ancien régime on the eve of the French Revolution.

A poll of viewers emerging from theatrical showings found that 75 percent of them disliked Eyes Wide Shut. I'm not surprised. It's a tough movie to like. The foreground of Eyes Wide Shut is all sex, but sex in the head -- a strange place to find it, as D. H. Lawrence said. The pace is leisurely, revelations are few. Tom Cruise wears a mask for twenty suspenseful moments -- not a smart move commercially.

By now everybody has heard about the orgy that is the movie's dramatic crux. (The pulchritudinous models selected for the scene must have gone naked for days at a time while the exacting Kubrick filmed take after take.) For Tom Cruise's character, Bill Harford, a wealthy doctor who lives in a large and luxurious Manhattan apartment with his beautiful wife and child, the orgy is the end of a sexual odyssey that begins with a party that opens the film. The host of the party summons Harford upstairs to his bath chamber, where a naked prostitute lies draped over a chair in a drug-induced stupor that threatens her life. Displaying a compassionate bedside manner, Harford skillfully brings her back to consciousness and gently lectures her to stop taking drugs. Meanwhile, back at the party, Harford's wife (played by Nicole Kidman) has been dancing with a European lothario who tempts her with the illicit pleasures of adultery. Earlier, Harford himself was propositioned by two lithe models. Both Harfords leave the party with unfinished sexual business.

Later, while undressing at home, Alice Harford relates to her husband a disturbing sexual fantasy she has been indulging since she glimpsed a naval officer on their summer vacation. Jealous, Harford leaves the apartment in search of his own sexual fantasy. Eventually, this leads him to the orgy, held at a Newport-style mansion on Long Island.

Related Links:

These sites provide stills from Kubrick's films, filmographies, essays and interviews, and links to other sites on the director.

Kubrick Multimedia Film Guide

Stanley Kubrick: The Master Filmmaker

The Kubrick Site

From Atlantic Unbound:

Web Citation: Lifetime Achievement (March 17, 1999)
Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was a filmmaker who kept his distance from Hollywood. His vision appears ever more original -- and lonely.

What criticism of life is Kubrick making in this movie? The sets of the film provide a hint. The Harfords' home looks like nothing so much as one of the fantasy apartments of the upper-middle class featured in the Home section of The New York Times. The doctor and his wife share our dreams. The Long Island mansion is scaled beyond the longings of our avarice, to borrow from Dr. Johnson. The cavernous room where the orgy begins is reminiscent of the room where the court martial in Paths of Glory (1957) unfolds, or of the war room at the Pentagon in Dr. Strangelove (1964), or of the Marine barracks in Full Metal Jacket (1987). These rooms are all about power -- the dehumanizing power of the state in the century of totalitarianism, in the case of the earlier movies, and the power of money, in the case of Eyes Wide Shut.

As Harford enters the multi-level front hall of the mansion, a spooky ritual is underway. At the center of a crowd of costumed onlookers, a man in an animal mask and priestly vestments is casting incense at a circle of women around him wearing robes, grotesque masks, and ornate head dresses. The ceremony ends with the women disrobing and scattering with the guests to plush bordello rooms. One woman, her mask still on, selects Harford as her partner and whispers in his ear that his life is in danger and he must leave right away. Harford's erotic curiosity won't let him leave, and he is soon brought back to the priest, who tells Harford to remove his clothes. The priest is about to pronounce judgment on Harford, when the woman who had warned him calls from an upper gallery that she will be "sacrificed" in his place. She is led away; Harford is shown the door and told never to return.

Later, Harford finds out that the woman is dead: he identifies her body in the morgue. It is, of course, the prostitute whom he treated at the party. He realizes that she gave her life for him. "Call the cops!" I wanted to shout. Make those decadent murderers in the mansion pay for their crime. Yet, afraid of what the libertines, who know who he is, might do to him and his family, Harford does nothing. The movie ends with his confession to his wife, balancing hers to him. In the final scene he and his wife are shown in a fancy toy store with their little daughter, picking out wallet-busting Christmas presents, drowning (to reverse Yeats) the ceremony of blood with innocence. His wife gets the last word. She wants, she tells Harford, to go home and "fuck."

Eyes Wide Shut is a parable about end-of-century decadence. The Harfords hide in their private lives, letting the libertines get away with murder. Bill Harford is all eye, an uninvolved Yuppie spectator who uses a murder to strengthen his relationship with his wife. The libertines are so jaded with mere sex that they have to spice their erotic lives with voyeurism, debauchery, and human sacrifice. Kubrick shows us a world far gone in anomie, whose denizens are not only alienated from society but from their very bodies. The only passion in the film is in Kidman's fantasy, the last redoubt of individualism, about the naval officer.

The loss of human scale, the dehumanization of life in the twentieth century, was Kubrick's great theme throughout his career. Society, economy, and state crush the individual in Kubrick's work -- they wring the life out of him. Power in its cruel official forms fascinated Kubrick. He made it his enemy and, in some of the most orginal movies of the era, sought to open our eyes to the menacing surround. Eyes Wide Shut shows how dehumanization has colonized intimacy. Society has conditioned everything, including the pre-social instinct of sex.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More by Jack Beatty in Atlantic Unbound.

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. "Eyes Wide Shut" photo copyright © 1999 Warner Brothers.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search