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Eyes Wide Shut (1999): The Ghost of Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubricks’s costume drama Barry Lyndon, which dramatizes the rise and fall of a callow Irish social-climber, is a bit like a three hour tour through the Frick Collection. A meticulous recreation of the English ruling class during the Seven Years war, it is one of the most beautiful films ever made. However shallow and narcissistic Redmond Barry or Lady Lyndon can be, they move through a world where wealth and power manifest themselves as grace and style.

If Eyes Wide Shut is drearier and more unpleasant than Barry Lyndon, that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad film. Quite the contrary, what it means is that in both films Stanley Kubrick has accurately dramatized history. The American ruling-class in 1999 was a drearier, more unpleasant ruling-class than the English ruling-class of the 1760s. This is not to say that King George III’s England was any less repressive or immoral than Bill Clinton’s United States. But after the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Bolsheviks, and Mao Tse-tung, the rich have learned discretion, to hide their pleasures behind closed doors, and their faces underneath masks.

Eyes Wide Shut, which is based on the novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, is set almost entirely in New York City, and filmed almost entirely in England. Kubricks obsessive, meticulous recreation of Manhattan inside a studio gives the film a dreamlike air of unreal reality. Everything seems right. But something also seems just a little off. It becomes an effective way of dramatizing a sense of paranoid uncertainty, the kind of paranoid uncertainty a man would feel, for example, if he’s investigating a murder after just having had a severe quarrel with his wife. It’s also a way of dramatizing a sense of possibility, the idea that you’re on the verge of some important, perhaps horrifying discovery about the society where you live.

As the film begins, Bill Harford, Tom Cruise, and his wife Alice, Nicole Kidman, are getting ready to go to a party given by Victor Ziegler, Bill’s wealthy patient played by Sydney Pollock. If Bill, a successful physician who owns a fabulous apartment on Central Park West, represents the upper reaches of the upper-middle-class, then Ziegler is the 1%. We’re never told exactly what he does, but Kubrick makes it clear that he’s a man of great power and influence, not simply another guy with money. Bill and Alice are thrilled to be asked to go to his parties. It’s a glimpse of a world they know exists, but haven’t had as much contact with as they’d both like.

Ziegler’s party is also a projection of their debauched imagination. The American upper-middle-class is obsessed with and is controlled by sex, or, to be more accurate, obsessed with and controlled by prurient fantasies about sex. Ziegler’s mansion is dreamlike, drenched in a coarse fantasy of lust and easy sexual gratification. As with Kubrick’s vision of New York as a whole, everything about Ziegler’s party seems right. But everything also seems just a little bit off.

A Hungarian man named Sandor Szavost all but drags Alice upstairs for a quick fuck. She turns him down. Bill flirts with two high-fashion models. They talk to him as if he’s the most desirable man they ever met, but he resists giving into the temptation. Ziegler himself, rather than playing the gracious host, is upstairs fucking a junkie prostitute in his bedroom. When she overdoses, a panicked Ziegler calls Bill, who talks her back to consciousness, an act that probably saves his life later in the film. Bill runs into an old friend from medical school, a professional musician who was hired to play the piano.

Later, when Bill and Alice return home, they’re still thinking about sex. Do either of them ever think about anything else? Alice baits Bill into a quarrel. Bill loses his cool. Alice taunts him with a fantasy of an extramarital affair with a naval officer. He gets a call from the daughter of a dying patience and uses it as an excuse to spend the rest of the night away from home. The dead patience daughter confesses her love for Bill, who she barely knows. Later, after he gets harassed by some thuggish frat boys from Jersey, Bill runs into a prostitute, who coaxes him upstairs to her apartment. High class street walkers in the Village in the late 1990s? Yet again, everything seems right but something is also just a little off. Bill, who’s not interested in sex, decides to look up Nick Nightingale, the musician he met at Victor Ziegler’s party. They have a brief conversation before Nick announces that he has another gig.

When Nick Nightingale tells Bill that he plays the piano blindfolded for a secret society, Bill is intrigued, mainly because of the description of all the beautiful, available women. We wonder why? Didn’t Bill turn down two beautiful models at Ziegler’s party, his wife, the daughter of his patient, and a beautiful hooker? One would think the last thing Bill wants to see is more available women, but, in spite of Nick’s protestations, Bill is now as determined to infiltrate the secret society as Barry Lyndon was to live among the aristocracy. Even after Nick tells him he needs a costume and a mask, Bill manages to find a store run by a very strange Eastern European — who’s pimping out his 14 year old daughter to two Japanese men — to accept a bribe to get him the outfit he wants. Now dressed in a mask and a cape, Bill flags down a a cab, and heads out to the great estate on Long Island and headquarters of the Illuminati.

When Stanley Kubrick centered Eyes Wide Shut around a secret society, an orgy, and a murder at a palatial estate out on Long Island, there’s no question that it was good marketing. Not only does Eye Wide Shut still get reviewed by right-wing conspiracy theorists — the secret society is very obviously and intentionally modeled on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the “Illuminati.” — it also played well in the sex drenched climate of the years after Bill Clinton was impeached for getting a blow job from Monica Lewinsky. While the film might not have been a huge hit — and never entered the popular consciousness the way Fight Club or The Matrix did — people who did pay to see it in its original theatrical run went mainly for the satanic, Illuminati sex orgy at the masked ball. That it’s the most boring satanic sex orgy ever filmed is no accident. Kubrick was no amateur. Every detail in Eyes Wide Shut rings true, right down to the way he cast hard looking 30-year-olds as hookers and more traditionally beautiful 20-year-olds as high fashion models.

The point is not that Kubrick’s Illuminati are secretive or that they’re perverse sexual sadists. They are, of course, but pointing it out still begs the question. Why? Why does Kubrick’s secret society threaten to kill Bill Harford and do in fact kill a woman who offers herself up as a “sacrifice” in his place? After all, what exactly does Harford catch the Illuminati doing? Plotting a coup? Planning 9/11? Covering up an attempted assassination on the President? Running drugs? Stealing vast amounts of money? Fixing the interest rate at the Federal Reserve? No. All Bill Harford catches the Illuminati doing is throwing a debauched — and incredibly boring — orgy. My initial reaction would be “big deal?” Isn’t it something that goes on in frat houses at every major university every weekend? But that’s entirely the point. The ruling class may be secretive and perverse, debauched and sadistic, but there’s really nothing there. Bill Harford manages to infiltrate the highest levels of the Clinton era 1% and finds nothing but empty, mechanical perversity masquerading as sex.

Tom Cruise is not very convincing as a doctor. He has none of the nerdy obsessiveness, for example, of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House, a man who would have kept investigating Victor Ziegler until the truth popped, or until it killed him. But Cruise doesn’t have to be convincing. In fact, it’s better that he, and Nichol Kidman, aren’t convincing, that they’re both empty, wooden actors who read their stilted lines without a trace of real emotion. Harford’s being a doctor is merely a way for Stanley Kubrick to signal that he’s upper-middle-class, that he has deep pockets, and a credit card with a seemingly bottomless limit, but also that, like Barry Lyndon, he wants something more. He’s a social climber. He wants more, more access, more status, and, above all, more sex. He still wants into the ruling class, even though he’s already seen that Victor Ziegler’s world is joyless, without a trace of genuine eroticism.

Redman Barry Lyndon may have ended up back in Ireland with a missing leg and a stingy pension, but at least he got to live in a gloriously beautiful baroque castle where he go to fuck Marisa Berenson every night. The orgy that Bill Harford discovers is more like a red masque of death, the final stage of a society that’s about to collapse under its own hollowness. There must be something more, he thinks. There has to be. But there’s not. That’s all there is.

If the Secret Society’s leader, Ziegler, seems to go through an extraordinary amount of effort to scare Bill Harford away from the black hole of nothingness at the center of the American ruling class, he’s protecting, not a secret, but a culture of secrecy, sex, power, and intimidation, the way the 1% keeps the upper-middle-class in line. The American 1% keeps the American middle-class under control through sexual repression, puritan shaming, sex drenched advertising, fake scandals — like Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky —and the promise of more and better orgasms. But by brainwashing the middle-class into an obsession with sex, the 1% guarantees that the one and only thing the middle-class cares about, will get outraged about, is sex. Had Ziegler’s secret society actually been plotting a coup, planning 9/11, covering up the Kennedy assassination, running drugs, or stealing vast amounts of money, nobody would have cared. Remember, Gary Webb brought out his book Dark Alliance — which documented how the CIA profited off of crack dealing in South Central LA — and, after an initial sensation, people forgot about it. They yawned.  That’s what government does. But after Bill Clinton lied about sex, the country went into a spasm of moral outrage that lasted for two years.

Victor Ziegler had little choice but to terrorize Bill Harford into staying away from his estate on Long Island. That he took such extreme measures, killing Nick Nightingale to shut him up and forcing a prostitute to OD, to cover up so little, testifies to the precarious position of his class. His authority, built on nothing, offering nothing to the middle-class or the working class, still has to be defended at all costs. Power exists only for the sake of power. Stanley Kubrick has pulled a fast one, not only on the sex-obsessed, but also on anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. The promise of sex got the vapid upper-middle-class into the theaters. The promise of uncovering a great mystery keeps the conspiracy theorists writing about and analyzing the movie again and again. Surely somewhere in the film is some, any hint as to why WTC 7 came down. But no, there really isn’t. There is no real mystery in Eyes Wide Shut any more than there is any real eroticism.

Eyes Wide Shut, in spite of the murders and in spite of the way Harford discovered the rot at the core of American society, ends on a happy note. Harford, like most middle-class people, decides that he can do without political power, live without the truth, as long as gets to live a normal life. Zielger goes back to his place in the ruling class. Harford goes back to his wife and child, retreats into apolitical domesticity.

“So what should we do?” he asks his wife.

She gives him just the answer that he’s wanted all along.

“Fuck,” she says.