Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

“The ornament is the élan vital

– Kumar Shahani (1)

The Australian actress, Nicole Kidman, as a pre-eminent Hollywood star has recently been mythified to the iconic status of the screen goddesses of the 1950s. It is however not this careful crafting of her star image (after Moulin Rouge [Baz Luhrmann, 2001] and The Others [Alejandro Amenábar, 2001]) that is a concern of this piece but rather her ornamental performance in Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999). I shall also discuss Mita Vashisht’s ornamentation in Kumar Shahani’s Kasba (1991). Vashisht, if not a star, is one of Shahani’s favourite actresses. By thinking these two films (from two quite different cinematic traditions and cultures) together, I shall sketch an idea on ornamentation as a temporal event, detailing its singularity in each instance; singularities which are coloured through a visible and invisible deployment of painting. The exploration of the link between a pre-technological art form, such as painting, and film is part of a larger cross-cultural project on synaesthesia or the conditions for the recharging of the human sensorium within the technosphere which we now inhabit. Painting and the other art forms, evolved over millennia, activate the human senses differently. And their ornamental address is used as virtual capital by Kubrick and Shahani (2).

Rose Hedge with Magpies and Molehill (painting by Christiane Kubrick)

Eyes Wide Shut

As Tim Kreider said, “critical disappointment with Eyes Wide Shut was almost unanimous and the complaint was always the same; not sexy.” (3) True, it didn’t show Tom and Nicole making love nor was the orgy orgiastic. But the film’s colour and light left me breathless, wanting more and more. My encounter with the behaviour of colour (and I insist on the activity of colour rather than its meaning which seems to me a more art historical concern) drew me into the film. Eyes Wide Shut is strangely animated by the colours of the vegetal/floral paintings done by Christiane Kubrick (the director’s wife). Strange because these colours seem to jump out of the frames on the walls, strewn with these paintings, creating an ornamented garden of artifice in the couple’s affluent New York apartment.

Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman), the wife of Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), is an out of work curator whose Soho gallery has gone bust. Her taste in interior decor is highly decorative, creating a richly layered, textured surface of materials, light and colour, the most conspicuous contributor to which are the paintings themselves. While her late twentieth century Central Park West apartment is expressive of the couple’s taste and status, it does evoke, as Virginia Spate pointed out (to me in a conversation), the intimate domestic interiors of the late nineteenth century Symbolist painters such as Felix Vallotton, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. This path into Symbolist art history is also made more mysterious by the briefly conspicuous presence of a Vincent Van Gogh coffee table book which Alice wraps up as a Christmas present, and also the painting of sunflowers on her bedroom wall.

The Symbolists experimented with colour and surface ornamentation around the same time that cinema was invented in 1895. It is evident that the Symbolist aesthetic was developed as a resistance to the mechanisation of perception (4). The importance of this moment for Kubrick, after 100 years of cinema (and consequent technologisation of the human sensorium), is encapsulated in the film’s title. The expressive use of what Van Gogh called arbitrary as opposed to local colour is facilitated by the garden of artifice created by the paintings (5). I would go further and say that painting forms a virtual sphere nourishing this film. The importance of colour over light is made possible by Kubrick’s refusal to use studio lighting in a film shot almost entirely on a studio set. Instead of the usual studio lighting he used the available light sources visible in the shot, such as lamps, Christmas tree lights and so forth. When this was not adequate he used Chinese paper ball lamps to softly brighten the scene. The colour was enhanced in an unusual manner in the lab where the film stock was “force-developed by two stops” in processing to bring out the intensity of colour. The cinematographer Larry Smith makes the point unequivocally: “There’s no question that with force-developing you get exaggerated highlights—they really blow out.” (6) This is a new kind of cinematic colour invented by Kubrick, working against the standardised norms of film lighting and processing.

Through the looking glasses – at the dining table

Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut

Stanley Kubrick

What Dorothy Parker said many decades ago – “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” – is still more or less true within Hollywood generic coding. Why then does Alice wear glasses, especially when she is naked? Does Alice/Nicole play the age-old role of nude model to Kubrick the artist or is she simply a naked woman who in wearing glasses creates a slight difference. If so what might this little ornamented difference be? Something funny is going on here between Kubrick and Kidman that develops into a little joke, the kind he liked to make at the expense of Hollywood codes of editing for continuity. Alice is helping her daughter, Helen, do her homework at the dining table which is shot at an angle and framing strongly reminiscent of the Nabi paintings of such intimate domestic scenes. At this point Bill comes home, sees them, goes into the kitchen, gets a beer from the fridge and begins to hear (in his head) his wife’s confession of the previous night, about her desire for another man. As this imaginary voice torments him he comes over to the dining table and Kidman smiles at him, her gaze slightly above her glasses but crucially directed at us/the camera/at Kubrick, though ostensibly it is narratively directed at Tom. This look directed at the camera (common in early silent film but proscribed with the formulation of the classical Hollywood codes of editing by the 1920s) gains another dimension if one sees a photograph of Kubrick by Christiane, taken during the production of Eyes Wide Shut. There, Kubrick, wearing his glasses, looks at the camera with the same gaze and expression as Alice and even has his eye brows shaped just like hers in the film. So what are they up to these two, playing little games, having some fun at Tom’s expense? Is Kubrick making a pass at his bespectacled model or more interestingly are they involved in what Gilles Deleuze called a “double becoming”? Does Alice permit Kubrick to become a little girl, playful, while Kubrick gives Nicole a chance to go slow, really to unwind time and make time itself play little games?

Bathroom – Gaseous Blue

In the “bedroom scene,” the couple get stoned; Bill begins a bit of foreplay while Alice starts questioning him about “the party last night.” She gets querulous and begins to talk about “last summer” which leads to the disclosure of her desire for a total stranger, to Bill’s stupefaction. Bill wants to have sex, while Alice wants to unravel time; “last night…last summer” and their whole past collapses into the present. Bill doggedly goes looking for sex while Alice hangs out at home and travels in another dimension that Bill can sense exists but does not know how to activate. From now on Alice and Bill operate two different series. Bill is driven by images and Alice surfs the sonic like a surfer a wave.

The development of time as series (7) is one of the crucial means of temporal ornamentation in this film. What I perceive as the virtual crack in the mirror (scene), separating Tom/Bill from Nicole/Alice, as she turns her head away from the kiss, is a sign (and there are several such signs) of the bifurcation of time into these two series, the audio and visual. The blue that fills the bathroom quite “arbitrarily,” behaves as if it were a gas because it does not obey gravity, seems to go any-which-way just like Alice’s speech at moments heightened by champagne, dope or the memory of a desire. A great deal could be said about Kidman’s extraordinary performance but briefly, the main point to be sketched is that, in her speech, she stretches syllables and vowels to a point where their semantic values are displaced by musical values. The consequent unpredictability of what she will say, of how her words will turn out, creates a correspondence between her speech and this blue. In this scene Alice/Kidman, with Van Gogh’s and Christianne’s mediation, enables Kubrick to draw out the power of colour as a transformative force.

Alice (who is figured as a Symbolist woman; the red head a sign of sexual potency for them) stands framed by this blue, wearing her Calvin Klein-like underwear as though in a modern-day portrait but evoking some of Van Gogh’s vibrant ones. Beyond a mere correspondence, the colour and sound act on each other creating a synaesthetic vibration that wafts Alice out of the genre of the intimate “chamber play”. What is wonderful to see here is the agility of Alice/Kidman bifurcating time (creating multiple micro-series), ornamenting it at each instant, creating a range of micro-affects, sensations and emotions while poor Bill sits high on the bed frozen in a catatonic stare. Alice’s impulsive, girlish bursts and waves of laughter (her response to Bill’s assertion that women don’t have wild sexual fantasies), is one such micro-movement which even the stately Kubrick camera gets infected by, moving around to capture her impulsive convulsions on the bedroom floor.

Cinematic ornamentation here is not the same as a painterly plastic ornament because what is ornamented is movement and time. Alice’s ornamentation of time is not about harmonious effects created by synaesthesia (the traditional take on the relationship between sound and colour) (8) but rather her sonic ornamental line is aberrant, unpredictable, now humorous, now sad, now something else, difficult to name, but always moving like a gas, any-which-way. This is what Bill senses and wants to access in order to get out of his solid and stolid perceptions but the only ornamentation he can achieve is to simply repeat the last word or phrase from another’s speech, a mere repetition with little capacity to create a different move, a dogged marking of time. In Deleuzean film theory, the non-anthropomorphic vision of the camera enables three kinds of perceptions; solid, liquid and gaseous (9). I contend that Kidman in her sonic performance accedes to a gaseous perception with the aid of colour. The blue responds actively, merging with the red of the curtains; becoming a purple halo around her hair.

The Orgy

In Eyes Wide Shut, the encounter between painting and film is staged within a self-conscious aesthetic awareness of the simulacral commodity form of the cinematic image. This awareness is structural, that is, internal to the composition of the film, which is why the film is shot on a set; a simulated Symbolist New York and this is also why Kubrick wanted a married couple to play Bill and Alice. The distinction between Bill and Alice and Tom and Nicole becomes imperceptible, simulacral. In Eyes Wide Shut, there are 12 perfect female nudes and only one naked woman (Alice). The dozen nudes are interchangeable commodities both because they are prostitutes and because they are of an identical body type rendered anonymous by being masked in the high-class orgy. Their speech, gestures and movements, their breasts, hips and legs, are all standardised. The expected eroticism of the bodies is transposed into the cinematic image. The very substance of Kubrick’s film is erotic, while, despite their promise of happiness, the perfect nudes remain disenchanted commodities, plastic bodies, moulded to the desire of late twentieth century mediatised beauty. Kidman’s Alice, whether naked or clothed, because of her Symbolist affiliations is able to take us elsewhere even in the shopping mall.

Eyes Wide Shut

The central orgy takes place in a palatial house whose interior decor consists of Islamic arches and decorative motifs. As well, the orgies staged as tableaux are accompanied by South Indian vocal music associated with erotic traditions within Indian culture. The complex montage and modulation of multiple rhythms in this sequence occurs within a context where the perfect orgiastic bodies are de-eroticised by being subjected to a mechanised rhythm of copulation, while in contrast, the vocalisation intimates a highly flexible rhythm marked by the microtones of that musical tradition. It is my contention that Kubrick uses decorative motifs from an Islamic visual aesthetic tradition as well as a South Indian (Hindu) aural tradition, to function together as critique (“Is this hell?…lovers…” is heard sung in Tamil) and lamentation of the commodification of bodies and the consequent loss of sensuality, but simultaneously to open up a multiplicity of rhythms. In combining two traditions of ornamentation (visual and sonic) in Indian culture that both Hindu and Islamic fundamentalisms would want to eradicate, and using it not only as critique but also as intimating other temporal potential beyond the chronometric time of the pulsed bodies, Kubrick makes a transnational gesture with the kind of care and precision one expects of him. The traditional pre-industrial ornamentation he deploys here now returns as a form of pastiche, made possible by technologies of mass reproduction. It is evident that Kubrick does use the familiar bag of tricks of postmodern pastiche – citation, irony, parody – quite liberally in this film: in his use of music, in the highly melodramatic hocus-pocus dialogue at the orgy and in the very construction of the plot; assuming urbanely that these examples of postmodern pastiche constitute a contemporary realism of sorts. But something qualitatively different happens with the South Indian music because at that moment there is a multiplicity of differential audio-visual rhythms: those of the copulating bodies; Tom’s slow walk; the floating camera; and the rhythms of the song. Through these, Kubrick creates a rasa (aesthetic sentiment) of sadness (10). This sadness is highly abstract, and precise, a function of the music; it is not achieved through a depiction of a sad scene. In fact there is one word that modulates that particular rasa – viraha – which may be translated as a melancholy yearning associated with erotic loss.

Toy Shop

Kubrick’s film ends in a toy shop, a place of artifice unlike Schnitzler’s Dream Novella which ends in the conjugal bed room with a beam of sunlight streaming in with bird song mingled with the child’s laughter enhancing the happy resolution of marital conflicts. I think the film ends there for the same reason that the orgy is mechanised and for the same reason that the film as a whole is shot on a set (all be it a Symbolist New York). They are perfectly controlled environments of late capitalism where all things and relations are under the reign of standardised exchange of commodities as signs.

In this space of exchange, as if remembering Dorothy Parker’s comment, Alice wearing her looking glasses doesn’t wait, she makes a pass, (at her husband), but in an unusual manner, with a deadpan expression. She uses an infinitive: “There is something very important we need to do.” “What?” “Fuck”, thus virtualising the actual. Throughout the film, Alice has conjugated the “dark precursor”, the nonsense word “Fuck”, to replenish her conjugality with a light and perhaps also therefore terrifying humour. This is not the Freudian dirty joke that rouses loud laughter through exclusion of the other. There is no self or other to exclude in the infinitive which has no subject, a pure virtuality in language. If indeed one smiled loudly at this ending, as I recall doing the very first time I saw it three years ago, the absence of the reverse shot leaves one wondering if Bill was man enough to smile? Or would he still have that mildly appealing obtuse look and posture of being quite out of his depth? Anyway in refusing us the grammatical reverse shot, Kubrick is once again calling the shots, giving Alice (in the wonderland of the late capitalist toyshop) the power to toy with time, to multiply micro series, which I have called the ornamentation of Nicole Kidman.


Mita Vashisht as Tejo in Kasba

Kumar Shahani’s Kasba, based on an Anton Chekhov short story, In the Hollow (1900), is about a trading family in a small town set in paradise – the foothills of the Himalayas in the northwest Kangra region of India. Shahani’s film, like Kubrick’s, also has striking paintings (murals) on the walls of the merchant’s house. The folk murals of birds, animals and decorative motifs were already there when Shahani chose the house as a set for the film. This incorporation of the accidental is an aspect of Shahani’s practice, but a happy coincidence demonstrating Ananda Coomaraswamy’s insight about the continuity between the folk and the classical in Indian art as a living tradition (11). Indian painting, specifically the Kangra miniatures, which are precisely choreographed into the film’s mise en scène establishing a correspondence between Kubrick’s use of Symbolist painting in Eyes Wide Shut, and Shahani’s Kasba. The proto-cinematic qualities of the Kangra miniatures are intricately worked into the composition of space, gesture, speech, and performance in Kasba. Here I shall sketch just one major ornamental motif as it is transposed by Shahani from the painterly realm of the miniature to the cinematic – that of the Nayika and the Sakhi.

The Nayika & The Sakhi

The Sakhi is the maid or confidante of the leading lady (Nayika) in the Moghul tradition of miniature paintings in India. Shahani takes this motif from the Kangra miniatures (a regional style which appealed to him for its sense of humour and lightness of touch in contrast to the stately imperial Moghul style) and constructs his two female characters as doubles. But in terms of the quiet realism of the narrative the two daughters-in-law, Tejo and Nandini, stand opposed to each other within the norms of feudal familial relationships in the film. Mita Vashisht as Tejo is married to the simple-minded son of the shady merchant Maniram. She treats her husband like a child, while assisting Maniram in his business, “like a son.” When the other daughter-in-law Nandini’s infant son inherits Maniram’s fortune, leaving Tejo dependent, she kills the baby and lives to become an enterprising businesswoman. Sketched baldly it sounds like a melodrama where evil triumphs but in Chekhov’s hands it is a very quiet story on which Shahani embroiders a fragile sense of a sacred (with no official religious affiliation) inclusive of all nature.

Stepping out of a miniature

Tejo’s walk, stance, gesture and speech are all seemingly naturalist, fitting in with her role as an efficient business woman and loyal daughter-in-law, and yet her clothes seem more like costumes, too ornate, too mysteriously beautiful in colour, so that one begins to observe that her walk is also similarly ornamented, as are her other movements and especially her poses. The pose, a dynamic equilibrium in Indian dance and sculpture, is animated in the miniature tradition to bring into focus everyday gestures as well. Shahani taps into this dynamism of the pose and brings it into play in contemporary everyday gestures and movements. Kubrick and Shahni’s visual surfaces are highly decorative; they integrate the human with the non-organic surfaces of everyday objects and spaces and in Shahani’s case, with nature as well. Shahani fashions Tejo, his realist character, as a Nayika, the icono-mythic leading female figure, usually Radha in the miniature tradition. What is odd however is that there is no Krishna (Nayaka) in Kasba to match this Radha’s desire. Her object of desire is money.

Restlessness of Love, a Kangra miniature painting with Radha and Krishna as witnessed by two Sakhis

Shahani says that the function of the Nayika and Nayaka (which literally means female and male leader) is to lead the viewer to the enjoyment of the rasa. Shahani uses this aspect of classical Indian aesthetic theory to abstract or rather extract a virtual story from the actual Chekhov tale, which he does however follow with great care and tenderness. By costuming Tejo as though she has stepped out of a miniature painting (originally they appeared in portfolios as illustrations of classical texts; their mode of address intimate) what is Shahani up to? Why is Tejo’s killing of the infant, her rival to the family fortune, done as if it were a vigorous movement fragmented from a dance? She bends and picks up a large pot of boiling water, in mid-long-shot, swinging it at the sleeping infant. Why is there no reverse shot to show the burnt child or the bereaved mother? This is no melodrama. The mother’s cry, “ a yell like none ever heard in Ukleyevo…” (12), is played over a highly ornate building, one of the few extant in that region from the period of the miniatures, 1780-1823. This audio-visual editing creates a montage of at least three rasas difficult to conjoin – Bibbatsa (disgust), Karuna (pathos) and Santha (calm). The narratively unrelated ornate building and the duration of the shot are both important in this complex process. Then unfolds a brilliant scene which transposes into a modern register and idiom a Kangra miniature image of Radha and Krishna as witnessed by two Sakhis: “Entangled in love, the nayika is behaving like an acrobat, running up and down from the attic of her house…” (13)

Ornamentation of the Double: Returning to Alampur

Shahani transforms this scene (set in the city of Alampur, with its famous geometric architecture and undulating hills) by eliminating Krishna and creating a composite character out of the Sakhi and the Nayika. Through a dance-like walk and holding several poses at a series of large windows, moving her body out of the frame, Tejo observes something below, as though she were Radha looking for Krishna. The camera picks up some falling leaves and floats down to pick up Nandini walking out with her dead child bundled in her alms. Thereafter an urgent, rapid camera movement creates a vertical concatenating barrier of the series of windows splitting the screen in half, into the inside and the outside of the house. And Tejo’s movement outside the window, holding a pose evocative of Indian dance; the falling of leaves; Nandini walking away; the movement of the camera attentive to each of these; all create a delicate sensation transposing the mythico-iconic duo into the worldly woman and the motherly; torn halves of a composite, jagged, modern entity.

Alice at the dining table framed by her glasses or in the bedroom framed by the bathroom door and the blue; Tejo leaning out of the window (from which at various times we have seen the snow-capped Himalayas, a highway, railway tracks and industrial work) as though she were dancing, suspended outside the frame, in a pose; Nandini walking into the world with her dead child, asking for a ride to Alampur from two truckies: all are seen through frames, as in the miniatures with their geometric frames within frames. These elaborate, intricate, unpredictable, thoroughly contemporary cinematic frames of Kubrick and Shahani (fashioned with the help of two traditions of painting) mobilise ornamentation to create femininity as a metamorphic force, at once violent, compassionate and humorous.

I wish to thank Kumar Shahani, Geeta Kapur, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Madhava Prasad and Rimli Bhattacharya for their intellectual generosity and the friendship offered me during an unforgettable week in 1999 in Pune viewing and discussing Kumar’s films. Those discussions have been vital in providing me a point of entry to write on Kasba. My thanks also to Suhanya Raffel for her assistance in writing this piece.


  1. Unpublished interview with the writer, October 2000, Kerala. Élan vital is Henri Bergson’s concept, usually translated as vital force. Shahani in his Bergsonian formulation of the ornament has provided me with my sensory and theoretical orientation for this piece in considering ornamentation as a temporal event. This in turn has helped me to bypass much of the Western modernist and postmodernist debates on the ornament. As well, Wilhelm Worringer’s Form in Gothic (London: Alec Trianti, 1957) is of fundamental importance for my understanding of the vitalism of the ornament, through his differentiation of the Gothic from the Classical ornament. Also Gilles Deleuze’s Bergsonism (New York: Zone Books, 1988), is indispensable for its formulation of the élan vital as “movement of differentiation” (ch.v). Happily, Shahani’s and Deleuze’s thoughts converge on this point.
  2. Virtuality is the name for a particular theory of time as pure memory in the Bergsonism of Deleuze. I have combined this idea with a notion of mimetic capital developed by Michael Taussig in Mimesis and Alterity: a particular history of the senses (London: Routledge, 1992).
  3. Film Quarterly, 53/3, Spring 2000
  4. Henri Dora, Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, (California: University of California Press, 1994)
  5. See The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (London: Harmondsworth, 1996) and Judith Bumpus, Van Gogh’s Flowers (New York: Universe Books, 1989)
  6. Stephen Pizzella, “A Sword in the Bed”, American Cinematographer, 33, 28 October 1999
  7. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: Time Image, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989) 275. Time as series is a major concept in Deleuzean film theory.
  8. John Gage, Colour and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), Chapter 21
  9. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: Movement Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 71-86
  10. “Rasa” or aesthetic sentiment in classical Indian aesthetics has been codified in the Natyasastra of Bharata according to which there are nine rasas and karuna or pathos/sadness being one of them. See Some aspects of Literary Criticism in Sanskrit or Theories of Rasa and Dhvani, A, Snkaran, (Madras: University of Madras, 1973), 18.
  11. Introduction to Indian Art, Munishiram Manoharlal, Delhi 1969. The classical in this instance is a tradition of courtly.
  12. Anton Chekhov, “In the Hollow” 179, in The Oxford Chekhov, vol. IX, London: Oxford University Press, 1975
  13. M.S. Randhawa, Kangra Paintings of the Bihari Sat Sai, 50-51, National Museum of New Delhi, 1966

About The Author

Laleen Jayamanne taught Cinema Studies at the University of Sydney. She wrote Poetic Cinema and the Spirit of the Gift: In the Films of Pabst, Parajanov, Kubrick and Ruiz (Amsterdam University Press, 2021) and directed the film A Song of Ceylon (Australian Film Commission, 1985). Her recent writings on art and politics in Sri Lanka for The Island newspaper are being translated into Sinhala.

Related Posts