Not so very long ago, sex in the movies took place off camera, if at all. But the swinging ’60s put an end to pudeur, and most Hollywood films now contain at least one scene in which the male and female leads are shown in a state of undress, engaging in an elaborately choreographed pantomime meant to represent what in a more decorous day was known as the act of love. As a rule, such scenes do little or nothing to advance the plot (they are more like music videos), and rarely tell us anything we don’t already know about the principal characters. So why bother? What is it that filmmakers think their audiences get out of seeing two superstars pretending to have sex, especially since it is a truth universally acknowledged among aging film buffs that movies were sexier back in the good old days when couples had to keep one foot on the floor?
Part of the answer is that those old movies really weren’t “sexier”: They were more romantic. Of course, you had a pretty good idea of what was going on during the fadeouts—Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman weren’t just schmoozing about Paris in Casablanca—but you also knew there was much more to the grand cinematic passions of yesteryear than mere organ-grinding. Not so contemporary bedroom scenes, which are usually intended to be “sexy” in the literal sense of causing the viewer to become sexually aroused. They are, in short, a species of high-class pornography, rather like the “feelies” about which Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World (a book that, unlike Nineteen Eighty-Four, is looking more and more prescient with every passing year).
You’d think Hollywood film-makers would have figured out by now that sex scenes ought to have some dramatic purpose beyond that of pure titillation, but most of them haven’t a clue. The late Stanley Kubrick thus deserves partial credit for the fact that the sex in Eyes Wide Shut isn’t titillating at all— indeed, it’s positively emetic. Perhaps he decided it would be all right to make a sexually explicit film so long as none of the characters had any fun; certainly goodness had nothing to do with it. Any movie in whose first shot Nicole Kidman strips to the buff had to have been made by a director whose intentions were less than pure, and Eyes Wide Shut, for all its pretense of being a serious artistic statement, actually plays both sides of the street from start to finish, with results that are, not surprisingly, neither sexy nor serious.
Kubrick’s final film is a sluggishly paced adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, in which a doctor (Tom Cruise) learns that his wife (Nicole Kidman) once fantasized about leaving him for a young military officer. Stunned by the discovery, he wanders by night through an unreal city that has become totally sexualized—everyone he meets seems a possible partner in adultery, thus reminding him over and over again of his wife’s imagined unfaithfulness—and eventually stumbles upon an orgy whose participants are masked. His own attempt to take part inadvertently brings about the death of a beautiful girl; appalled, he confesses everything to his wife, who reveals that she has been dreaming of the same orgy. They realize that to become obsessed with each other’s sexual fantasies can only lead to disaster and resolve to rebuild their marriage on a basis of mutual acceptance.
“It is a great danger for everyone,” says a character in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, “when what is shocking changes.” Even in this highly compressed summary, you can see how Schnitzler’s 1926 story might easily have served as the basis for a gripping film. But Kubrick has made the fatal mistake of updating Traumnovelle from turn-of-the-century to Vienna to end-of-the-century Manhattan without simultaneously finding a recognizably contemporary equivalent for its author’s sexual preoccupations, and now that MTV airs condom ads in prime time and hard-core porn can be auditioned in the comfort of your hotel room, it is perhaps inevitable that a black mass served by a roomful of nude models and accompanied by spooky organ music should be greeted by jaded twentysome-things not with gasps but jeers.
Few poseurs, to be sure, are as tiresome as the blasé prig who claims not to be shocked by something that sent his jaw crashing to the floor, and I have no doubt that some people will be genuinely horrified by the omnisexual orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut. I also understand that part of the point of the movie is to show that there is no lasting pleasure to be obtained from lust alone. But surely there must be some credible on-screen acknowledgment of the power of sensuality to lure unwitting humans into the dark labyrinth of obsession, and this is something Kubrick and his high- priced cast are altogether incapable of supplying. In the end, that’s the only shocking thing about Eyes Wide Shut: All those breasts and buttocks, and not a single responding echo of desire.
But then, is it possible even under the best of circumstances to depict sexual intercourse on screen in a manner other than pornographic? Explicit representations of sex in the movies, after all, necessarily detract from the profound mystery of what John Paul II has so beautifully described as “the communion of persons.” This is something ordinary Americans understand instinctively—otherwise, they’d leave their bedroom curtains open—though it never seems to occur to them that their natural instincts might have some relevance in the world at large. Yet there can be no question that in the hands of a great artist, on-screen sex can be used to morally serious effect. Such is the case, for example, with Erick Zonca’s The Dream-life of Angels, the only new film I have seen in the past four or five years that I would not hesitate to describe as a great work of art, and one that contains a brief but very explicit sex scene (it lasts no more than ten seconds) that has ten times the impact of all two hours and 39 minutes’ worth of Eyes Wide Shut.
The Dream-life of Angels tells the story of Isa (Elodie Bouchez) and Marie (Natacha Regnier), two poor 20-year-olds who have come to Lille to make their way in the world. Isa is a lively, sweet-natured waif who is intensely aware of and concerned for the people around her; Marie, toughened by harsher experience, is barely able to respond to Isa’s unselfconscious affection. The two nevertheless become friends and live together briefly, but Marie becomes enmeshed in the desperate pursuit of Chriss (Gregoire Colin), a rich boy who senses that she is more than just another working-class girl but still chooses to treat her as a sexual plaything. His indifference devastates Marie, and Isa proves tragically incapable of breaking through her companion’s hard shell of self-loathing to fulfill her own angelic mission.
At the center of this simple but breathtakingly poignant tale is a lone sexual encounter between Marie and Chriss. Though we see them naked in bed, Chriss is all but anonymous, a man preoccupied with his own coarse gratification, while the anguished expression on Marie’s face tells us mutely but eloquently that she knows her “partner” cares nothing for her: To him, she is only a receptacle. No written description could possibly rival the fearful intensity of this searing image, which for all its brevity lingers indelibly in the mind’s eye like a half-remembered nightmare, reminding us that there is no sin greater than the “pulverization” (the pope’s word) of another person’s individuality. To dismiss it as pornographic is to completely misunderstand the nature of human desire. I don’t know that I necessarily think such things should be shown in public—there is more than one way to make a point—but anyone incapable of immediately seeing the vast difference between the sex in The Dream-life of Angels and Eyes Wide Shut needs to retake Morals 101.