Machines, Mirrors, Martyrs and Money: Prostitutes and Promiscuity in Shame and Eyes Wide Shut

Book Chapter, Conference Paper

Both Shame (2011) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) are films that focus on a male lead on a sexual and psychological journey to the edge. Similarities in both films are the effects of alienation on the male psyche, the inability to connect on an interpersonal level with others, and the mechanics of paid for sex and promiscuity, outside normative, monogamous intimate relationships. Both men spend time with prostitutes and late at night pound New York’s streets searching for new thrills in its seedy, sexual underbelly. However, it is the fear of female passion and promiscuity that cannot be bought or contained that sends both of these men spiraling out of control.

In Shame we see Brandon (Michael Fassbender) shocked by Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his sister’s, sexual behavior and wild, self destructive lifestyle. In Eyes Wide Shut the mere thought of Bill’s wife Alice (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) having sexual fantasies about another man causes him to question his marriage and his own sexual desires. Female sexuality in both films is depicted as being more open ended and imaginative whereas the male protagonists try desperately to control their sexual fantasies and urges. They cannot understand true female desire unless it is in service to men and the realization that it runs deeper than their own desires sends them both into shock. Each protagonist experiences a close brush with danger, death, and violence and are reigned in by their fear. In both films the difference between reality and fantasy, and the crisis this rift evokes, is central to the narrative.

This chapter focuses on the role of women, particularly prostitutes, and female sexuality in both these films by looking at the metaphors of machines, mirrors, martyrs, and money that are used. Evidence from primary research in the Stanley Kubrick Archives as well as behind-the-scenes information on Shame gathered from interviews with cast and crew and the screenplay gives us an insight into the possible meanings. By focusing on the important female characters we can discuss the ways in which these films that may appear to be about male sexuality are perhaps more about male vulnerability and the fear of female sexual power.

Making Movies: The Figure of Money On and Off Screen. The 2013 Film and History Conference. The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club. Madison, United States.

20-24 November, 2013

Selling Sex on Screen. Eds. Karen Ritzenhoff and Catriona McAvoy. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Publication 2015

Catriona McAvoy and Karen Ritzenhoff

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Link to book details on publisher’s website




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