Whether you consider Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut to be a flawed, misunderstood masterpiece or a pretentious, leaden exploration of… something, it does reveal a lot of sexual history.
The centrepiece of the film is a sequence in which the lead disguises himself and crashes an exclusive orgy for the ultra-wealthy. He wanders around the mansion, witnessing what is probably the most boring and unerotic orgy ever committed to film.
What interests me, however, is the choices of imagery, costume and music. While the robes and masks everybody wears are vaguely suggestive of Venice’s Carnivale, the sequence opens with a ritual that’s basically a black mass, the staple of anti-Catholic propaganda, right out of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. A red-robed official wafts incense from a censer over a ring of women in masks and g-strings, blessing them, who then perform a ritualized kissing in a circle. Sexual excess and perversity, not to mention disguised paganism, were common charges leveled against Catholics.
This particular scene features, as background music, incantations in Romanian, suggestive of the Eastern Orthodox church, taking us further from the Protestant West of rationality and sexual order.
Proceeding further into the metaphorical East, the subsequent orgy scenes are accompanied by a Tamil love song, part of Indian classical music. Strangely, some people are convinced this is actually Indian religious music.
The progatonist’s journey into the house of the orgy, where he never participates but remains a voyeur as he does in the rest of the movie, is a trip into the fantastical Orient, one that Westerners have been populating with their dreams and nightmares for centuries. It’s a place of where the rules of sex and gender don’t apply, which some may find horrifying and others exciting.
However, the party at the mansion is actually rather dull. Apart from the rituals and masks, all the action is vanilla and nearly all heterosexual. A brief glimpse of a woman in a tuxedo dancing with one of the masked woman is the most non-heterosexual thing to happen in the entire setting. Is this Kubrick’s lack of imagination, a concession to the MPAA’s rating system, or the suggestion that the exclusive parties held by the super elite really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be? One reading of the film is that it’s about the intersection of gender and class, and the orgy represents the extreme where powerful men can buy and sell (and possibly kill) women with impunity.
Either way, Kubrick’s mise en scene draws on two cultural traditions that have been common in pornography for centuries: anti-Catholicism and Orientalism. Themes like these last far longer than storytellers or even stories, and they exist in both legitimate culture and the low genres of pornography, horror and action-adventure.