Excerpt – “A Masque in Disguise”

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut


When Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut appeared in 1999, it was titillatingly billed as a film about sex and jealousy starring a genuine Hollywood couple, and the element of the film to stir the greatest pre-opening excitement was generally dubbed “the orgy.” Once the film opened, some critics hailed it as a masterpiece, but far more called it a catastrophe, and the scene that embarrassed even the film’s most positive critics was in fact the “orgy.” Yet it was not the fornication vignettes or even (in the American version) their digital revisioning that were most troubling; it was the scene’s alarming “staginess,” which critics such as Richard Schickel of Time described as “risible.” This staginess was seen by harsher critics to plague the entire film–in its mannered dialogue, the artificiality of the New York set, the implausibility of Cruise in his role, the sheer ludicrousness of the plot. Most critics either rationalized or critiqued the film’s tone and plot by declaring it, as Philip Hensher does, a “scrupulously faithful adaptation” of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle. But Kubrick did not adhere to Schnitzler as closely as most have assumed; the film is just what the credits assert: “inspired by” the novella. Precisely how the film departs shows Eyes Wide Shut to be more mischievous and playful than many at first saw, and hints at another dream-story that may have inspired it as well. The “orgy” itself, in both its faithfulness to and deviations from Schnitzler, provides a clue to the film’s larger strategy.

First, a look at how Kubrick departs. Both novella and film present a comfortable young couple with a child; the husband, whose point of view we follow, is a doctor; soon after attending a party he and his wife have a discussion that leads to revelations of adulterous fantasy; he then sets out for a series of wanderings, meeting along the way a patient, a prostitute, and an old friend; ultimately he goes (uninvited) to a party, where he becomes involved with a masked woman, who tells him that his presence endangers her and will be discovered; later he learns, or thinks he learns, that she has died. This, roughly, is Schnitzler’s plot, and to this Kubrick roughly adheres.

Even in its opening shot, though, the film shades away from Traumnovelle in atmosphere and detail. The novella begins with a fragment of a story read aloud by Fridolin and Albertine’s daughter (“‘Twenty-four brown slaves rowed the splendid galley that was to bring Prince Amgiad to the palace of the Kalif. But the prince, wrapped in his crimson cloak, lay alone on the foredeck under the dark-blue, starry night sky . . .’”). The film, however, opens with a celebrated shot of Alice, or Kidman, stepping nude from a black evening dress. Both book and film deal with what is “cloaked” and what is not, what is “real” and what is not, but from the outset the film exchanges the novella’s opening note of fantasy and dark quests for one of erotic revelation. More seemingly prosaic changes that are at once apparent include setting the story not in early-1900s Vienna but in contemporary New York, not during Carnival but at Christmastime, with most of the characters’ names changed. Of course the story had to be set sometime and somewhere if, for some reason, it was not to adhere to its model–but each change was a decision. And the next striking decision was to front the film with the scene of the Christmas party.

In the novella, this first party is a Carnival masquerade briefly summed up after it has taken place, not presented as a scene; the action proper begins the following night, with Fridolin and Albertine discussing the party. Upon entering it, Fridolin had been approached by “two red dominoes [zwei roten Dominos]” (8), who had led him off to what promised to be a dalliance, but then had disappeared; a “Domino” in Schnitzler’s sense is someone in a domino, a cloak worn, with a mask, at masquerades. Albertine, meanwhile, was approached by a foreign man who at first interested and flattered her but then frightened her. The couple found one another after these misadventures and sat together, “husband and wife, essentially glad to have escaped a disappointingly banal Maskenspiel [masque or masquerade]” (8). The rest of the night they behaved like new lovers, and only the following evening do they discuss all this and fall into the argument that leads to her (and, in the novella, also his) revelations of adulterous fantasies. The party in Schnitzler is thus an economical means of launching the story.

Kubrick, though, has not only developed this brief sketch of the first party into a full scene but added critical characters and episodes. First the couple, Alice and Bill, prepare for the party–dress, move through their elegant apartment, have words with the sitter, say goodnight to their child–and then step from this realistic zone into one that approaches the fantastical: Victor Ziegler’s lavish party, where the atmosphere is suspended and drunken, illumined by glowing curtains of Christmas lights, gleaming like the set of a Hollywood musical. As in the novella’s brief outline, two seductresses appear to tempt the doctor, as does the European seducer to tempt his wife. But so too appears Nightingale (one of the few characters whose name is not changed but simply translated from the German, Nachtigall, but who, in the novella, appears only later, once Fridolin has begun his wanderings), as well as Victor Ziegler and the drugged Mandy, neither of whom exists in Traumnovelle. The sequence of events at the party is almost entirely invented and is so mannered that it gave many critics their first opportunity to judge the film harshly. The seducer’s lines seem absurd, Alice’s responses stunningly strange, Bill’s fraternal greetings with Nightingale hollow, his performance as a doctor laughable–given that the film could have glided along with Schnitzler’s text and done without this sequence, why do it? What is accomplished by making a scene of the party and adding characters and episodes?

It helps to view the events of the party schematically. Alice is tempted by an unknown man; Bill is tempted by two women; Nightingale appears and offers an invitation; Bill–switching roles suddenly from guest to doctor–is pulled by his host into a drama involving a naked young woman endangering herself; and he is asked by his host to keep this drama quiet. But what happens after the party–that is, in the narrative adhering more closely to Schnitzler’s? Alice reveals being tempted by another man; this in turn impels Bill’s being tempted first by Marion and then by the prostitute; he meets Nightingale and receives an invitation of sorts; then, switching roles again, from doctor to uninvited guest, he enters the costume ball with its drama of a naked young woman endangering herself; ultimately he finds himself in Ziegler’s private rooms having his knowledge of this drama nullified. The Christmas party scene invented by Kubrick thus neatly prefigures the rest of the film up until the final scenes at Ziegler’s and then in the toy store, both also entirely invented by Kubrick; in the film, therefore, invented scenes frame an adaptation of Schnitzler’s narrative. The opening framing scene, the Christmas party and preparations leading to it, functions as a “preview” to Schnitzler’s narrative proper, presented in a curiously suspended atmosphere.

As if pointing to just such a linear relation between this party scene and the subsequent narrative, Kubrick soon makes another alteration that seems minute but is pivotal. Upset by Alice’s revelations, Bill is summoned to a patient’s death bed and then begins his night wanderings, the story here following Schnitzler. But when Bill goes home with a prostitute, as Fridolin does, here she is named not “Mizzi,” as her counterpart in Traumnovelle calls herself, but “Domino”–Schnitzler’s word for the pair of temptresses at the first party. Domino’s cluttered room, moreover, is decorated with masks. Not only does this subtle name-change draw a connection between two moments in the narrative, the party and this scene, but the word in question, meaning both costume and masquerader, begins to plant hints. Another change soon after does the same: when Fridolin goes uninvited to a masked party, he must utter the password Dänemark, which is the site of Albertine’s adulterous fantasies. But when Bill in turn goes to a party, the password he must use is not the obvious counterpart, Cape Cod, the site of Alice’s fantasies, but Fidelio. This is the name of a Beethoven opera, whose full title is Fidelio, or Conjugal Love; by making this the password, Kubrick casts the question of faithfulness, about which the film is ostensibly concerned, upon the operatic stage, and he does so slyly. Another invention soon after does more of the same: the costume shop from which Bill acquires his cloak and mask is named the “Rainbow,” and it was “to the end of the rainbow” that the seductresses at the Christmas party had promised to take Bill. Again, a thread tugs scenes together self-consciously; and again the story is briefly illuminated by the hues of another staged fantasy, now The Wizard of Oz. Sly stage-references thus begin to accumulate.

Having visited the prostitute, met with Nightingale (over a drink and a Wizard-of-Oz crystal ball), acquired his costume, and been taken a long way by hired car (throughout all of which he shells out a vast number of “bills,” which Fridolin does not), Bill reaches the infamous party in the Long Island palace. Described as a “triumph of theatrical fustiness” (Hoberman), as a scene that “flirts with ridicule” (Maslin), and as “melodramatic” and “phoney” (Walker), the event depicted is called by most critics an orgy, by others a Black Mass or a Satanic ritual. Louis Menand in The New York Review of Books shakes his head at its “true bathos,” claiming that “none of this is in Schnitzler,” but indeed much of it is. Men and women in the novella are masked and dressed as monks and nuns, moving somberly to religious-toned music; at a change in the music, the nuns reappear with their cloaks gone but still masked, and the men, now in white, yellow, blue, and red “Kavalier” costumes (58), rush upon them. It is true that all the film’s fornication is invented, but Kubrick only makes explicit what are, in the text, Fridolin’s imaginings. Inflamed by the sight of the women’s white bodies clasped to the men’s colorful silk cloaks, by all the previous events of the night, and by the masked woman accompanying him, Fridolin does not believe that all this ends with “a polite kiss of the hand” (60); he is convinced that there are secret chambers for coupling. Likewise he imagines intensely what is behind the masks and tries to remove his companion’s, only to be told that doing so could endanger their lives. As the drama progresses, he begins to believe he has stepped into a Carnival comedy or “Mummerei” (67); when he is ordered by his hosts to remove his mask, he refuses, fearing that to do so would be even more revealing than if he were to drop his clothes. Upon being told that the unknown woman will “redeem” him, he tries to “unmask” the entire scene: “What, my unknown gentlemen, can it matter to you whether you play this Carnival comedy out to the end or not . . . ? Whoever you might be, gentlemen, you do lead an existence other than this” (67).

So one of the central motifs of Traumnovelle is the mask, the play, the charades and poses of society. Fridolin often longs to don his doctor’s smock and mask and be safe behind this shielding identity; later he dwells on his inability to recognize the young woman who has poisoned herself when he had seen only a woman masked at the ball; by extension, he dwells on his inability to “know” his wife, who reveals secrets behind her contented married face; and so on. Likewise the mask is a central motif in Eyes Wide Shut–but bearing such psychological Ernst, such symbolic weight? “Strangers in the Night” plays as the Mysterious Woman warns Bill to leave; surely, then, the thematic content of the mask here is closer to kitsch. Given the accumulating stage-references and the fact that the mask-related elements–the costume shop, the costume ball, the lost and found mask itself–are so lavishly handled in the film, it seems that the mask is not meant to stand for psychological or sociological issues of identity and posturing and so on, but, simply, for the stage itself. Why not, then, look at Kubrick’s masquerade scene not as a Black Mass, Satanic ritual, or orgy, as critics have interpreted it, but as exactly what Fridolin calls the party he himself attends–a Carnival play, a Mumming Play, a masque?

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