Movie review: Eyes Wide Shut



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by Jack Cashill, ©1999
News Talk 980 KMBZ
Posted on Cashill Newsletter
July 21, 1999

I still don’t see what that baby was doing floating around in space at the end of 2001: A space Odyssey. And I’m not sure I care. Those who would read too much into the works of their favorite “auteurs” strike me as the same sorts who talk too much about their favorite Merlots. I have never paid much attention to either.

That said, allow me to violate my own good judgment and go deep on America’s auteur of choice, the late Stanley Kubrick. Whether consciously or not--and it’s too late to ask which, given Kubrick’s death and the typically torturous provenance of the screenplay--director Kubrick has recreated a chilling, contemporary version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story, Young Goodman Brown. Despite the fact that Kubrick’s new film, Eyes Wide Shut, was realized more than 160 years after Young Goodman Brown and set in time 300 years later, the parallels are striking.

With one profound exception, but more on that later.

In each tale, a decent young man--Goodman Brown in the story, Tom Cruise’s Dr. William Harford in the film-- leaves his wife behind and embarks on a surreal, soul-searching, night time journey. Both wives are troubled by their dreams and ask their husbands to stay behind. But they don’t. They can’t. Each feels an almost instinctive compulsion to venture blindly through the literal forest, deep into the metaphorical darkness of his own heart.

En route, Brown and Harford meet a variety of presumably good citizens who prove to be not at all what they seem. Brown’s tempters are explicitly demonic, implicitly sexual; Harford’s are explicitly sexual, implicitly demonic. Both men shy from engaging in any overtly sinful behavior. Each thinks he can flirt with his personal demons without yielding to them.

These demons, within and without, lead both men to a stunningly similar climactic destination: a black mass deep in the forest, celebrated by a cryptic anti-Christ and attended by the area’s leading citizens. The wife that Young Goodman Brown abandons to get here is the symbolically named, Faith. The password Dr. Harford must yield to enter is “Fidelio,” a Latinate equivalent. Each mass reverberates with satanic hymns, and each man is issued warnings by an unidentifiable female participant.

As it happens, neither man joins the unholy communion: Brown wills himself away; Dr. Harford is exposed and rejected but would likely not have indulged in any case. It was obvious that he did not “belong.” Both men hurry home, desperate to regain normality, their innocent wives, their “Faith.” But both encounter physical evidence--a ribbon in one case, a mask in the other--suggesting that their young wives may not be so innocent, that the women may well have been engaged in the rituals they themselves just fled. Neither Harford, nor Brown is sure whether that participation was real or merely dreamed. But it almost doesn’t matter. In the willful exploration of their own id, both will have forever sacrificed some level of confidence not only in their wives but in humanity.

Now, back to that aforementioned “difference.” In Kubrick’s universe there is no God, not a hint of one. This absence seems to diminish the film. What Brown experiences in the forest is a repudiation of everything he knows. What Harford experiences is an extension of everything he’s suspected. The temptations Harford confronts along the way are everyday stuff in 1999 New York; the evil he faces in the forest would seem foolish were it not so dangerous. He does not risk his “Faith” as Brown does, just Alice (Nicole Kidman), his frustrated, yuppie wife. If the loss of innocence leaves Goodman Brown in a perpetual state of despair, it barely slows Harford down. He hopes to bounce back.

But Kubrick knows better. On reflection, I believe his removal of God to be purposeful. Tellingly, the film is set at Christmas time. The Christmas the viewer experiences is as garish and Godless as a contemporary Christmas can be. This is no accident. At critical junctures, Dr. Harford has no recourse to Christianity as Brown did. He can only flash his medical license, as though scientific curiosity can override human passion. It can not. Nor does Harford’s marriage provide any kind of bulwark against the forces of darkness. It was shaky and insubstantial even before the seeds of sexual ambition had been planted in Alice’s mind early in the movie. This sex does nor reinforce their love. It undermines it.

At the film’s end when Dr. Harford proposes to Alice that they forget about what has happened and focus on their marriage, she proposes that they just go home and “fuck.” “Fuck” is the last word of the movie and the last of Kubrick’s career.

That’s all that’s left, Kubrick warns us, and it isn’t enough.



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