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  • Grotesque Caricature: Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as the Allegory of Its Own Reception
  • Stefan Mattessich
Eyes Wide Shut. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael. Perf. Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Sydney Pollack. Warner Brothers, 1999.

Such was the fashion, such the human being; the men were like the paintings of the day; society had taken its form from the mould of art.

—Charles Baudelaire, “Some French Caricaturists”

It is a historical fact that irony becomes increasingly conscious of itself in the course of demonstrating the impossibility of our being historical.

—Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality”

“He was like a father.”

—Nicole Kidman1

Stanley Kubrick’s final movie was released last summer to almost universal disappointment.2 Except for those accounts that read like copy produced by a hired public relations firm, the critical appraisals were more or less the same: Eyes Wide Shut is a “decorous gavotte... more studied than a fashion shoot” (J. Hoberman in The Village Voice, 59); “portentous” and “bizarrely devoid of life” (David Denby in The New Yorker, 86); “the work of an artist who long ago stopped paying attention to the world around him” (Stuart Klawans in The Nation, 42); “generic and hokey, like a tendentious art house version of a holiday television commercial” (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, 22). The film has been variously called ponderous, soporific, passionless, sex-phobic, sexist, frozen, and dead. These varied sources of critique all claim that Kubrick has violated an organic principle—linked to metaphors of sexuality, development, internal consistency, and verisimilitude—in the choices he makes. This trope of a violated organicism remains active especially when the critic understands Eyes Wide Shut in the context of Kubrick’s other work. For the claim is not that Kubrick has made another cold or lifeless, sterile or impersonal film and demonstrated once more his disinterest in psychological realism (this has always been in evidence), but that the trait of coldness in this case fails to live up to the Kubrick standard: Eyes Wide Shut fails because it is not internally consistent with his corpus as a whole. Thus Michiko Kakutani can center her critique on the bad choice of an “intimate, emotional material fundamentally at odds with the director’s cool, visual intelligence and lapidary style.” The two principal characters, Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman), are “not meant to be caricatures like the blackly comic characters in ‘Strangelove’ or faceless cutouts like the astronauts in ‘2001.’ They’re supposed to be fairly ordinary, albeit privileged, New Yorkers: a doctor and his wife who live in an art-filled apartment on Central Park West—yuppies who like to smoke a little pot before bed.”

The problem with Eyes Wide Shut, in other words, is that it imports the techniques of caricature into the intimate space of realism, and this grotesque conjoining both offends sensibility and exposes as a precondition for sensibility itself that the two modes remain distinct. The film doesn’t “work”; it proceeds, as David Denby says of Cruise’s Bill, “without purpose,” wandering aimlessly through an “indistinct” landscape where “everything seems wrong,” because of a fatal hesitation between the merely stereotypical and the three-dimensional, the type and the person, dream and reality, and also between the abnormal and the normal (86). Denby, for instance, writes that watching it “we experience no special violation of the normal—the normal is vaguely and dispiritedly ‘off’ from the beginning” (86). This “off” quality resembles neither drama nor comedy; it denies not only the norm, and not only deviation from the norm, but also the “special violation” of the normal that disciplined art is said to give us.

I’d like to start with this “special violation” as I explore the curious way that Eyes Wide Shut prefigures its own (mis)reception precisely in the “bad” choices Kubrick makes. That Kubrick expected his final filmic caricature to be misrecognized, I argue, can be inferred even from the film’s title, in which a failure to see is inscribed within perception itself. A sensibility that accepts caricature as a mode only if it clearly cues the reader to...

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