Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Last Friday night, WHC showed two films based on works by Arthur Schnitzler. I went to see La Ronde (1950) because I've never seen a Max Ophuls film before, but I also stayed for Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) even though I've seen it on-screen at least three times before. Somehow I just couldn't not watch it again.

La Ronde was gorgeous to look at, which is what I've always heard about Ophuls, and the tone of the film was decidedly drôle, as the French say. The "master of ceremonies" who linked the action was arch and likeable, très amusant, très charmant, but his corny little French songs gave the whole a kind of mawkishness -- a way of poking fun without really poking fun too much. The "ronde" of a series of erotic encounters was diverting enough, but all the characters were deliberately types, deliberately playing out familiar roles, and, while there was some poignancy in the married woman's search for passion outside marriage, and in the street-walker's ready made insouciance, there was little in the way of friction against our comfortable appraisals of these types, all made fools by l'amour. C'est la vie. Olympian laughter at the nonsense that desire leads us into is all well and good, but I like my send-ups with a bit more bite.

Maybe that's why I had to stay for the showing of Kubrick's final film. Based on Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, which is much more engaged by the grip of passion -- in this case jealousy -- than the wry spoofing of La Ronde could manifest. I'll admit when I first saw Eyes, I was a bit disbelieving toward its central problem: that a man should be surprised that his wife has an interior sexual life, a world of fantasies and desires separate from him. It seemed indeed an insight that belonged to Schnitzler's world, the turn-of-the-century and the discovery of the unconscious and so forth. The knowing, man-of-the-world air that La Ronde so cleverly achieves would indicate that such a man is nothing but a fool, so why deliberate on his absurdity for well over two hours? That's not to say I didn't enjoy the film -- it was far too much fun for that -- but I couldn't quite accept its premise.

Subsequent viewings altered that situation, but even more to the point is the fact that I now simply watch it in delight, captivated by its relentlessly stately pace, its visual splendors of interiors, hallways, portals, streets as only Stanley could render them; its lovely women, nude, nearly nude, or simply alluring; its use of music -- especially that jarring piano theme plucked note by note; its engaging character-actor turns by the likes of Todd Field, Alan Cumming, Sydney Pollack, Rade Sherbegia; its color sense -- all that blue and orange and all those Christmas tree lights; in short, its sheer command of every aspect of cinema.

Finally, there's Nicole Kidman's Alice. Let me preface my comment by saying that one thing aging does is make one forget what it felt like to be young, not in terms of one's grasp of physical capacities, so much, as in one's recollections of how the world assailed and afflicted and inspired and amazed one. In other words, that sense of being above the fray and laughing at the delusions of those who desire suits the middle years, is in fact their main strength. But Kubrick, who was getting on when he made Eyes, manages, with Kidman's scene where she tells of her longing for the naval officer, to encapsulate not only the low, tremulous thrill that what she's saying gives Alice, but also captures how maddening, how detestable and delectable she is, as husband Bill Harford's object of desire, "sure thing," spouse and confidante and simply the woman on the inside of her husband's ego. Watching her I could remember, feelingly, how a woman -- not a woman, the woman -- can rivet you with a gesture, inhabit -- with a body at once too vulnerable and too invincible -- the very space of your abiding desire, desire manifest as her, not as yours any longer.

All the interruptions that intrude from the end of her monologue are Jovian jokes at the couple's expense, delay mechanisms to keep them apart, showing them, and shoving them into, a funhouse world of distorting mirrors, becoming gradually a nightmare world if they can't manage to (the last word of the film, wonderfully) fuck.

It's the difference between a masterful shrug at obsessions and a masterfully charted course through the potential abyss.

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