Schnitzler, Kubrick, and "Fidelio"

Article excerpt

Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut gives a constructive, pro-feminist thrust to Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, heightening its critical dialogue with the myths and conventions of male mastery as well as capturing and enhancing, with its audio and visual capacities, the original's self-conscious critical dialogue with its own artistic tradition.

S.K. What's the problem? F.R. Underlying assumptions. Which are dated, aren't they? About marriage, husbands and wives, the nature of jealousy. Sex. Things have changed a lot between men and women since Schnitzler's time. S.K. Have they? I don't think they have. FR. (After thought) Neither do I. --Frederic Raphael, Eyes Wide Open

As the twentieth century neared its end, director Stanley Kubrick completed his long-planned film adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, a 1926 narrative set, albeit ambiguously, at the fin-de-siecle with which Vienna has become so mythically associated. The release of Eyes Wide Shut in the summer of 1999--starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, with a Schnitzler-inspired screenplay co-authored by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael--initiated a welcome upsurge of interest in Traumnovelle, a work to which even Schnitzler specialists have accorded scant attention, despite its evocations of themes and structures of several prominent turn-of-the-century works that likewise reflect critically on myths of male mastery and on that convention's narrowly defining treatment of women. Kubrick's film retains the basic plot line of Schnitzler's novella, with the young doctor, his confidence shaken by his wife's confession of erotic fantasies, journeying through the night. Yet it transposes those events to present-day New York City. Also, the film broadens its source's impressive intertextual and intermedial scope to include further literary, also filmic, musical, and visual allusions--to Ovid and Homer, to Beethoven and the Bhagavadgita, to Klimt and Modersohn-Becker, and to films such as Paul Mazursky's Blume in Love (1973) and Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988)--all in a way that carries on Schnitzler's questioning of both heroic identity and narrative authority.

With this, the film has also opened a provocative chapter in the debate about how film adapts literary works. We argue against an initial wave of negative responses, which faulted Kubrick's alterations as capricious, his use of nudity as anti-feminist (e.g., Decter; Denby; Saur; Siegel), and his attempt to set dated Freudian issues in contemporary New York (e.g., Decter; Denby), and in line with later, more positive analyses (Borchardt; Kreider; Leeman; Pocock; Siegel; Taubin). We do so by calling attention to the ingeniously constructive role that the film's major changes play in intensifying the original story's critical dialogue with the myths and conventions of male mastery and in giving the original's portrayal of female figures a markedly more (which is not to say entirely) feminist thrust.

We begin by emphasizing how the film, by portraying men in charge struggling to maintain their "cover stories" while women are laid bare, intensifies the original story's critical dialogue with the conventional male narrative. In this context, we emphasize how Kubrick's change to the orgy scene--his move to have the protagonist unmasked--is central to a broader pattern of altered echoes that signal how the film takes up and intensifies essentials of Schnitzler's critical portrayal of conventional masculinity. We then go on to focus on the film's inventive fidelity to the original text in the way it uses intertextual and self-reflexive elements to participate subversively in conventions of heroic art and authorial control. In this context, we argue how especially the film's alteration of the orgy password from "Danemark" to Beethoven's "Fidelio" is central to a broader pattern of citations and allusions that intensify the original's questions about heroic identity and narrative authority, with the scenes involving the invented figure Victor Ziegler flanking that central change to inscribe into the film a controller and director of events who, by evoking the film's author or director, expresses visually the original text's tendency to reflect on its own narrative authority. …