Eyes Wide Shut/Dream Story

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was shrouded in secrecy and hype for so long (compounded by Kubrick’s unexpected death last March) that it was probably destined to disappoint critics and moviegoers. Predictably, the film had a stupendous opening weekend, but the few positive reviews it garnered weren’t enough to overcome the bad word-of-mouth that sent the box office grosses plummeting 70% within two weeks.

Warner Books has now published the screenplay (by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael) in a paperback edition that also includes a new translation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, Dream Story, upon which Eyes Wide Shut is based. While it isn’t likely to revive the film’s moribund box office numbers, this is nevertheless the kind of snazzy little volume that one wishes were published more often. It’s wonderful to have a copy of Schnitzler’s novella, which heretofore hasn’t been easy to obtain, and having the opportunity to compare it closely with the screenplay should be a treat for any Kubrick film buff.

The book is being marketed as a fast-buck "movie tie-in" and includes 16 pages of cheesy black and white production photos, with particular attention given to the slinky shots of Nicole Kidman that have been reprinted ad nauseam.

Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) was an Austrian playwright and novelist who wrote about lust and adultery among the bourgeoisie in turn-of-the-century Vienna. A man of prodigious sexual appetite, Schnitzler kept meticulous diary accounts of his female conquests, as well as a monthly tally of his orgasms. He was preoccupied, if not obsessed, with sex, and this is the landscape he wrote about in his plays and fiction. It’s not surprising to learn that Freud was fascinated by Schnitzler’s work and that the two men corresponded off and on over the years. Peter Gay, in his magisterial Freud: A Life for Our Time, writes that Schnitzler "secured Freud’s unequivocal applause for his penetrating psychological studies of sexuality in contemporary Viennese society." [Editor's note - see also: La Ronde.]

Kubrick reportedly was interested in making a movie of Schnitzler’s Dream Story as far back as the late 1960s, but the project didn’t begin in earnest until 1994 when Frederic Raphael was hired to write the script. Raphael has recently published a memoir about working with Kubrick, Eyes Wide Open, which is comprised of the screenwriter’s self-absorbed journal entries and unlikely "transcripts" of telephone conversations with Kubrick. The memoir shows all the cut-and-paste signs of having been written quickly and rushed into print. (Its publication was timed to coincide with the release of the film, which Raphael had not yet seen). Unfortunately, there’s just enough worthwhile and interesting information in Eyes Wide Open to make it required reading for anyone curious about the process of adapting Schnitzler for the screen.

The novella and the film derive some of their similar flourishes from other genres such as murder mysteries and melodramas, not to mention James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a hugely influential Victorian study of arcane religious folklore and fertility cults. The degree to which Eyes Wide Shut is faithful to Schnitzler’s Dream Story is remarkable. The film’s narrative is updated from fin de siecle Vienna to modern-day New York, yet the shape and story line of the novella remain intact. In both stories, a wife taunts her husband with a sexually charged memory of her desire for another man. The jealous husband then embarks on a late night smorgasbord of urban erotica in a futile attempt to assuage his hurt pride and to satisfy his own unfulfilled urges.

Dream Story reads like Kafka with sex, and this is precisely the disorienting and eerie tone that Kubrick brings to the film. Even the truly odd masked orgy scene that critics like Michiko Kakutani have labeled "ludicrous" in the film, is taken wholesale from Schnitzler. In the novella, the protagonist Fridolin (Tom Cruise’s Bill Harford in the movie) wonders to himself: "Have I strayed into the gathering of some religious sect?" The novella’s orgy – just like the film’s – mingles mystical music, cult rituals, hooded figures, and naked women.

In some respects, Dream Story goes further than Eyes Wide Shut. When Fridolin returns home from the bizarre orgy, his wife Albertine (Kidman’s role of Alice) wakes up from a dream that curiously parallels Fridolin’s unnerving experience. The nightmare that Kidman tearfully relates in the film – involving intercourse with an endless crowd of strangers – is only a fraction of the elaborate 10-page dream that unfolds in Dream Story and which culminates on a chilling note: Albertine laughs while an angry mob prepares to torture her husband and nail him to a cross. Of course, the notion of Tom Cruise as a sacrificial Christ-figure is probably more than any movie audience would wish to endure, so perhaps Kubrick was wise to dispense with this.

A rumor circulated prior to the film’s release that there was a scene of Cruise kissing a woman’s corpse and being titillated by the "forbidden" allure of necrophilia. In reality, the morgue scene in Eyes Wide Shut doesn’t go this direction; instead Cruise seems to express a sort of mute compassion toward the dead woman who may have lost her life in order to help save him. Schnitzler’s novella does indeed go the more lurid route of necrophilic attraction: "[He] intertwined his fingers with the dead woman’s as if to fondle them, and, stiff as they were, they seemed to him to be trying to move and to take hold of his; indeed he thought he could detect a faint and distant gleam in the eyes beneath those half-closed lids, as if trying to make contact with his own; and as if drawn on by some enchantment he bent down over her."

Undoubtedly there will be arguments for years to come over the artistic merits of Kubrick’s film. Where Schnitzler is overheated, Kubrick is clinical. One could almost imagine that Eyes Wide Shut was directed by Freud himself. Yet both Schnitzler and Kubrick are effective at suggesting something primal and unsettling lurking beneath the surface of middle-class complacency. As long as human beings have the capacity to be haunted by dreams of lost love, and nightmares of inexplicable compulsions, then Eyes Wide Shut and Dream Story will have the power to disturb and move us.