The Kubrick Connection: some Pre-Raphaelite references in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

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Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut, was first released in July 1999, only a few months after the director’s death. It quickly gained notoriety because of its strong sexual content and its unusually long shooting period which ran from November 1996 to Feburary 1998. On a more gossipy note its two stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, were still married at the time. Critics and audiences were left baffled; its deliberate languid atmosphere and slow pacing is mesmerising to some but frustrating to others, while it was (and still is) alternatively viewed as an art film or pornography, or both. More recently Eyes Wide Shut has been subject to various Illuminati theories, often focusing on the infamous ritualistic masked orgy which takes place in a secluded country mansion halfway through the film (heavily censored in US releases). When I re-watched the film a while ago, I noticed some interesting Pre-Raphaelite details and thought I’d share my ‘findings’. Caution: there will be spoilers, and some images may be NSFW.

As the film’s striking poster makes clear (above), Eyes Wide Shut is adapted from the 1926 German-language novella Traumnovelle (often translated into English as Dream Story) by the Viennese doctor and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler. To quote the blurb of the 1999 Penguin edition: ‘Like his Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud, Schnitzler was a bold pioneer in exploring the dark tangled roots of human sexuality.’ In adapting the novella Kubrick relocated the story from fin-de-siècle Vienna during Carnival season to modern-day New York during Christmas, though the central characters and narrative thread remain virtually the same. Kubrick’s reputation as an archetypal perfectionist director who controlled the details of every aspect of production, from sets to sound design, goes without saying. It is therefore intriguing that when Cruise’s character Dr Bill Harford (named Fridolin in Schnitzler’s book) enters a cafe near the end of the film, our attention is directed to two reproductions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings hanging on the walls. The first is John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia (1894) by the door when Harford walks in; the second is Rossetti’s Astarte Syriaca (1877) prominently placed over the table at which Harford sits (below).

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John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894. Private collection.
John William Waterhouse, Ophelia, 1894. Private collection.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877. Oil on canvas, 185 x 109 cm. Manchester City Galleries.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca, 1877. Oil on canvas, 185 x 109 cm. Manchester City Galleries.

Both paintings echo events in the film’s narrative, also reflecting its mood of sensuality, ritualism and exoticism. The cafe scene takes place the night after the masked orgy, during which Harford, having infiltrated a secret society, is unmasked and sworn to keep silent about what he has seen (below).

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During his inquiries into the strange events of the previous night, Harford is followed through the Manhattan streets by a man who is apparently keeping an eye on him — as a distraction he stops at a newspaper stand before going into the cafe. Kubrick’s mis-en-scène often reflects the psychological states of his characters, through the use of colours, camera angles and intertextual references. As a clear example of this, the black-and-white print of a reclining woman directly behind Harford when he sits down changes to what looks like a more chaotic, nightmarish image in the next shot (below).

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Knowing Kubrick this is far from being a continuity error. The second picture brings to mind the lustful revelries he witnessed the previous night, and foretells the newspaper’s revelation in the next shot — the masked woman who saved his life at the orgy has apparently been found dead of a drug overdose (below). As in Schnitzler’s Dream Story, Harford then visits the city morgue and sees her body. Unlike Schnitzler’s novella, it also transpires that this is the same woman Harford had encountered at a party at the very beginning of the film, a prostitute unconscious from an overdose in an upstairs bathroom. Are you confused yet? Waterhouse’s Ophelia, depicting the tragic moment before a woman’s death by drowning, is therefore an apt inclusion in the film’s decor.

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Rossetti acknowledged that Astarte Syriaca, one of his late monumental masterpieces, was influenced by Eastern mythology. Astarte, the ancient Syrian goddess of love more formidable than Aphrodite or Venus, looms large from a 6-foot canvas against a solar eclipse, symmetrically flanked by two torch-bearing angels. With her broad shoulders, long limbs and neck, heavy lips and abundant wavy hair, she is an imposing, Michelangelesque figure. Viewers who stand before the painting are placed on a lower level; ‘with the face removed to the top of the tall canvas,’ writes Prettejohn, ‘the viewer feels abject or subordinated, like a kneeling worshipper before a religious image.’ Jane Burden Morris’s facial features and bodily proportions were heavily stylised by Rossetti, almost to the point of abstraction, and we wrote a strange sonnet to accompany the picture:

Mystery: lo! betwixt the sun and moon
Astarte of the Syrians: Venus Queen
Ere Aphrodite was. In silver sheen
Her twofold girdle clasps the infinite boon
Of bliss whereof the heaven and earth commune:
And from her neck’s inclining flower-stem lean
Love-freighted lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the spheres’ dominant tune.

Torch-bearing her sweet ministers compel
All thrones of light beyond the sky and sea
The witnesses of Beauty’s face to be:
That face, of Love’s all-penetrative spell
Amulet, talisman, and oracle,–
Betwixt the sun and moon a mystery.

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It is possible that Kubrick intended the reproduction of Astarte Syriaca hanging in the cafe to refer back to the sensual ritualism of the masked ball, in which a man dressed in a red cloak and hood and carrying a staff and smoking censer paces the circle of women, in a large hall with Middle-Eastern architecture (below). The masked woman who sacrifices herself to save Harford is also symmetrically framed in a statuesque manner against a flattened, abstracted background from a similarly low vantage point — though this is a rather more tenuous link to Rossetti’s painting. In a more general sense, the inclusion of Astarte Syriaca is in keeping with the film’s dreamlike tone, which uses repetition (of locations, characters, music, colours, camera shots) to lull viewers into its slow rhythm.

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Eyes Wide Shut is also rich with references to the Viennese art of the 1900s which inflects Schnitzler’s original literary text. The paintings adorning the walls of Bill and Alice’s large apartment are reminiscent of Klimt and the Symbolists, and Kubrick’s continual, strategic use of mirrors, reflections and masks carry clear connotations of fantasy and identity. As a final point, for some reason one of the final shots of Kidman in the film reminded me of Rossetti’s Helen of Troy, or indeed any of the artist’s studies of  women with long feathery curls.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on panel, 31 x 27 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Helen of Troy, 1863. Oil on panel, 31 x 27 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle.
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One thought on “The Kubrick Connection: some Pre-Raphaelite references in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

  1. What a wonderful blog. Thank you so much for composing it. I feel that PRB influenced themes are incredibly relevent today and I have been deeply influence by these themes within my own work as an artist to be seen at http://www.seanodwyer.com where you can painting, film and sculpture that echoes aspects of symbolism and meaning that were of concern to the PRB.

    Do feel free to wander there if you have the time, it may be of interest to you to see that this is very much a living art form still. I noticed that many PRB influenced artists were painting well into the 1950’s and I am particularly fond of the work of William Godward. A catalogue of his work was handed to me by a dear friend many years ago and I am forever grateful for this kind gesture as it helped to show me an attitude towards making art that is certainly reaching for the higher levels of the awareness of Beauty.

    I look forward to your next insightful post. Please keep them coming… particularly contemporary references to their work as you helpfully drew attention to as apparent in Kubricks Eyes Wide Shut.

    With Thanks
    Sean O Dwyer

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