Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was not only a revolutionary film director, he was a truly visionary artist. His movies are uniquely intense, always intelligently and aesthetically shot. Kubrick movies push boundaries, Kubrick movies think. His final work Eyes Wide Shut (1999), is movie of exceptional direction and represents one of his strongest cinematographic statements through the use of color. Yet he uses it – especially a rich warm red and a harsh mechanical blue – not in an absolute form of expression, but always within the narrative of the film. His colours suggest.
The film tells the story of the New York City upper middle class couple, doctor Bill Harford and his wife Alice. The story of their sexual oddesey is based on a Freudian novella, which Kubrick relocated from turn-of-the-century Vienna to New York City in the current day. At a decadent party hosted by one of Bill’s patients, we see Alice and Bill flirt separately with other guests. Bill is called to take care of an overdosed prostitute, invited by the host. The unconscious exposed woman lies naked on a red armchair. Reduce this image for a moment to a color composition, and the arm chair bursts open like a wound. The chair stands for a happy and satisfying, jubilant sensual sexuality. The woman’s nude body is exposed to Bill, yet by covering her with a symbolically blue blanket, it is obvious that he shows no sexual desire for her, seeing her only through a doctor eyes. Red is associated with warmth, desire, pleasure and sex. Blue, in its constant opposition to red, represents Bill’s day-to-day life. Blue is associated with coldness, truth and chastity.
Many of Kubrick’s films derive meaning and metaphors from color. In A Clockwork Orange (1971) a powerful combination of red and blue is used in the bold graphic opening titles and interior design, lighting and clothes. Several scenes are created in a bright artificial lighting style that is closer to a television studio set than a real location: the Korova Milk Bar, the protagonists home and the prison interrogation room, providing a bright and exaggerated array of color. In contrast to such a violently lit setting, Kubrick’s period romp Barry Lyndon (1975) possesses a naturally dynamic lighting. The sunlight, moonlight and candlelight scenery create a fluxional movie, evocative through soft harmonic colors.
In Eyes Wide Shut the dominant colour at night is a dazing faux blue. The Harford’s Manhattan apartment is completely suffused in it from outside. Kubrick push-processed (a chemical technique for oversaturating color in photography and cinematography) the film reels for an extremely intense colour spectrum. Highly unsual and noticable in nature, Kubrick put it there to provide deeper meaning and in this film it stands for domestic life. Bill’s apartment and office doors are dark blue. He is trapped in his daily routine and the stability of his life as a respectable doctor.
On the follwowing day, Alice confesses that she almost cheated on Bill during their last holidays in Europe. Driven by jealousy Bill attends a masked ball orgy held by a secret society: a bizarre fest of picture-perfect women with occult postmodern music and cult-like rites, a place where anyone’s secret sexual desires can be fulfilled. Here Kubrick celebrates the power of female flesh and we reminisce over erotic entanglements, jealousy, beauty and lust. Here the dominant colour is red: carpets, curtains and items of furniture all impart Bill’s desire to have sex with another woman. Red stands for dreams and sexual pleasure, and danger – as in Kubrick’s science-fiction milestone 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Here red becomes a foreshadowing threat: HAL 9000′s lucent puzzling iris and interior is red. It stands for intelligence, domination and exposure. In 2001 Kubrick connects red, black and white. Black is the color of the monolith and the depths of space. White is the colour of technology and the future, the space craft and space station. And at the end when Bowman travels through space, a full spectrum of colours is revealed: added to the ‘absolute black’ of space is an incredibly colourful alien spectacle.
Kubrick uses a triumverate of color again in Eyes Wide Shut, employing red, blue and black. At the masked ball, the group’s chief dons a red frock, whilst all others wear black costumes. When they discover Bill is an interloper, a young woman saves him from an unknown punishment. There is no solution if the woman’s death is only pretend, or the whole orgy is an illusion in Bill’s head. Some critics say half the movie is not reality, but a dream in Bill’s head. Through an alien richness of colours – similarly intense to 2001 and A Clockwork Orange – and a few minor goofs, we get a total feeling of disorientation and derealization.
Bill goes to the orgy as a man eager for sexual adventure and leaves as a man puzzled and awe-struck by what he has seen. For Kubrick, eros is an uncompromising matter of female flesh and nudity, but the film is never pornographic; erotica is always presented as art. Returning home, again the bedroom is drowned in deep blue color falling against red curtains. Bill wakes Alice up from a nightmare. She tells him she has dreamt of having sex with hundreds of men. Blue light on her pale skin demonstrates to us she is telling the absolute truth. This illumination is of such surrealism, we wonder in what kind of world Alice and Bill live when dream and reality are both so imperfect.
Throughout Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick takes us across a tightrope between reality and fantasy and his red and blue color play is apparent in almost every scene. Time, culture and context become significant factors in his color meaning and Kubrick knew exactly what he was doing. In his hands, light is used to provide a pictorial representation of his symbolism and emotive-affective colour association. The bitter-sweet story of Bill and Alice Harford ends with their reconciliation and the realisation that “no dream is ever just a dream“.
TEXT by Lukas von der Gracht