‘Tis the season for Grinches and Gremlins, for leg lamps and Clark Griswold, and for the annual debate over the quality (or lack thereof) of Love, Actually – an argument that has grown more boring (and annoying) than the annual declaration that Die Hard is actually a Christmas movie. But in this house, ’tis the season for Stanley Kubrick; be it the wintry and claustrophobic familial terror of The Shining, or the harrowing yuletide sex odyssey taken by Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s final film hardly needs justification for its place in the Christmas movie canon (many others have successfully argued for this classification). What could – and will – be argued, however, is that Eyes Wide Shut is the best Christmas movie of our lifetime.
Among other things (Jesus, trees, Amazon lightning deals), Christmas is a time for generosity and thoughtfulness – two concepts that Dr. William Hartford (Cruise) certainly lacks when it comes to the notion of female sexuality. His myopic view begins to come into focus after returning home from the Christmas party he attended with his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman). Spurred by their respective flirtations that evening – his with a pair of models, hers with an older, wealthy man – husband and wife make love. Bill approaches Alice from behind and places his hand on the back of her neck; she is a possession, an object – no longer one of desire, but designated to the sexless gender role of “wife” and “mother.” The viewer perceives them in duplicate as they stand in front of a mirror. Alice glances up at her reflection, her eyes implying a skeptical question through the looking glass: why does Bill desire her now, in this moment? There are two sides to this narrative, but there are three sides to every story – the viewer makes three (a number we will meet again).
It’s only later, when Alice tries to spice things up with some pot, that Bill’s narrow-minded view of sexuality is blatantly expressed. He tells Alice that the older, wealthy man is like any other man – he just wants to fuck her, or any attractive woman, really. Bill claims he is exempt from this because Alice is his wife and the mother of his children; because he loves her. His wife is righteously indignant at Bill’s overly-simplistic assertion that “women… basically just don’t think like that” – that being in a lustful manner. “If you men only knew,” Alice warns before telling Bill about the time she almost had an affair, planting a tiny seed that will grow malignant in the doctor’s mind. By uttering those words, it’s as if Alice has cast a spell over her husband, who is subsequently doomed to a nightmarish odyssey that calls his masculinity and ego into question – while forcing him to confront the terrifying truth of individual female sexuality.
Bill is the stereotypical male doctor archetype – an egocentric narcissist who believes his powers over life and death have made him godlike. His psyche is an ouroboros of ego feeding narcissism feeding career feeding ego, and so on. Bill’s sexual pursuits – be they flirtatious or actual – are designed entirely to please him, with no thought given to a woman’s agency or pleasure, except that which he provides or projects. But what follows on this fuck-odyssey through New York upends everything Bill has come to believe in his reductive view of men and women, who may as well be from Mars and Venus, respectively, as far as he’s concerned. It could also best be compared to that enduring holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, which makes Bill something of an Ebenezer Scrooge – a selfish figure with archaic views, concerned only with his immediate pleasure.
Film critic David Ehrlich described it best in a 2015 piece for Rolling Stone, in which he cleverly draws comparisons between the Charles Dickens story and Kubrick’s film – noting that Bill has become “haunted by the Ghost of Carnal Knowledge Past,” which ultimately drives him to a ritualistic orgy at a monstrous fuck-palace where he bears witness to the “Ghost of Orgies Present.” These parallels are evident throughout the film, particularly in moments when Kubrick winks at the viewer directly – as he does in this moment:
(As Ehrlich also notes in that excellent Rolling Stone piece, Eyes Wide Shut clearly evokes It’s a Wonderful Life.)
But there’s more Christmas spirit to Eyes Wide Shut than the Dickensian narrative framing. Bill encounters numerous women acting out their sexual urges and fantasies on his journey through fuck-wonderland – women whose lustful agency appears to simultaneously repulse and confound Bill, who believes that the fairer sex could never get this horned up without the help (and will) of a man such as himself. It’s as if he believes that in order for a woman to be turned on, she must literally have a switch flipped – one that can only be operated by a human with a dick.
But what’s Christmas without a little holiday miracle? So Bill learns what Ebenezer and George and the Grinch and all those other selfish men learned before him: he learns the true reason for the season – or one of them, anyway: selflessness. And more specifically, the selfless act of accepting that his wife is a fully actualized, sexual being, and that she is not merely desired because men are horny dogs who can’t control themselves; she is desirable. He learns what his wife wants most in the world, and after a harrowing night in which he has been confronted with the ghosts of fucks past, present, and future, he’s ready to give her what her heart truly desires. And what does Alice want? The final moment in Kubrick’s film makes it abundantly clear when Alice says, “I want you to fuck me.”
God bless us, every one.
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