Readers Write In #227: Kubrick ends on a high!

Posted on July 24, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

Stanley Kubrick’s last film before his death, Eyes Wide Shut released 21 years ago. It struck a deep chord inside many audiences then, even though it is still not rated as one of his best. But just like every other work of him, even if it works on and off at the surface which probably explains its lack of universal acclaim, the film comes alive in its own rhythm and stays true to it throughout.

Bill Harford, the well-to-do doctor protagonist settled in New York could belong to a middle-class society in Mylapore and there would have been very less necessity to alter his character sketch accordingly. He is probably in his late thirties but still passionately committed to his beautiful wife Alice played by Nicole Kidman.

The film, it could be argued works throughout only as a dream-like journey undertaken by Bill where the sexual opportunities that abound in front of him are nothing but manifestations of his own underlying temptations to overstep his marital bounds while the threats that immediately accompany them are open to be interpreted as his deep-rooted moral fetters that sub-consciously bind man to morality and spiritual well-being. This is a fine example of what one could call a purely surrealist film that describes an atmosphere that is very close and plausible to one’s own subconscious but appears totally alien and incomprehensible at a very general level.

When Alice Harford describes her crush on a military officer she met post-marriage and her success at having averted an affair with him, Harford is triggered to embark on an ‘avenging’ spree which forms the crux of the story. When he unwittingly admits that his faithfulness to Alice is anchored only to his binding commitment to the marital ‘contract’ and not certainly to his love for her, his lurking temptation to dally with other beautiful women is also unpleasantly revealed.

Harford however is a typical 20th century male whose empathy for Alice is completely precluded by his male ego-driven hypocrisy that blinds him to the natural possibility of even Alice harbouring similar ‘scandalous’ feelings for other men as well. He uses the ‘confession’ of his wife solely as an excuse to feed his overpowering desires, allowing himself  a visit to the house of a prostitute followed by his act of slipping secretly into a forbidden midnight orgy whose entry is virtually prohibited to outsiders like him.

One can argue that the secret orgy is nothing but a sub-conscious theatre where Harford’s repressed sexual impulses are at last being given a free rein, given the numerous opportunities that arise for him to indulge in. However he is constantly warned as to look over his shoulder and is thrown out shortly, after being threatened gravely by the organizing ‘jury’. These threats could be interpreted as purely his own inner calling to ‘conform’ and stay faithful to his ‘sanctioned’ relationship with his wife.

But when Harford returns home only to listen to his wife’s dream of being inside an orgy similar to one he attended barely a moment ago, Harford’s frustration and inability to avenge her reach an animal peak. He visits the prostitute’s house once again only to meet an even more attractive woman but this time he is repelled by a shocking revelation that the woman he met the day before had been tested positive for a fatally threatening sexually-transmitted disease.

Later when he learns about the death of one of the women he met at the orgy, his emotional devastation is complete that literally purges him of all his lecherous impulses.  Kubrick addresses here man’s innate tendency to closely associate sex with death which suddenly reminded me of the stories I have read in old epics such as the Mahabharata. King Pandu is the husband of Kunti as well as that of one of the most beautiful women in the country, Princess Madri. However he soon acquires a curse that a sexual act with one of his wives will immediately result in his untimely death. He is continuously being tormented by his attraction towards the irresistible Madri and eventually loses his life in the end, failing to adhere to his self-imposed celibacy in the forest.

Kubrick’s characterization of Harford explores this dimension of man’s troubled relationship with his sexuality, something that formed the basis of Freud’s path-breaking discoveries in psychology. Man’s brain is often described by neuroscientists and experts world over as a literal treasure trove which unfortunately is still, nowhere near being fully unraveled. The brain is supposed to contain within itself memories and impressions and influences that are more than a million years old which in turn inform the strange, many-sided behaviors and instincts of today’s all-powerful man.

Kubrick’s exploration of the male psyche by the end acquires a fulfilling moral denouement wonderfully brought about by Alice at the supermarket. She, in a beautifully written piece of exchange, suggests to Bill to forget what happened the night before and be grateful to destiny and themselves for having successfully managed to survive the crisis and still be able to love one another, truly as before.