The roles of men and women are highly constructed by society, contributing to a general sense of responsibility for both sexes to conform to certain behaviors and expectations. Often, these are behaviors and expectations which diminish the individuality and impulse which inherently color human sexual fantasy. A subject which German physicist Freud would examine throughout the course of his life, it would also emerge as a poignant clue as to the impulses underlying social pressures in artistic and literary culture of the time.
An examination of the novel Dream Story and of its film adaptation, Eyes Wide Shut, separated from one another by more than 70 years, reveals that both films are primarily concerned with the tension between the real and fantasy lives of men and women. Indeed, in the 1926 novel by Austrian author and provocateur, Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story, we find a character in Dr. Fridolin who is suspiciously similar to Freud in his transition from a man of letters to one mystified in the jungles of the human psyche.
As Fridolin comes into contact with an underworld of human sexual congress, he finds that the desires which constrain men and women to pairing sexuality and courtship are in many ways constructed by social expectation. In actuality, the context of the masquerade ball which is the story’s conceptual climax demonstrates a sort of detachment from the social self in which individuals are free to act out fantasies of dominance, submission and collective eroticism.
This leaves individuals to deviate from roles both social and sexual as they pertain to gender expectation and the behavior which we find is promoted thereby. There is a disturbing unreal quality to that which Fridolin beholds, as it seems to suggest a most lurid actualization of the fantasies of men. In the film adaptation begun by Stanley Kubrick and ultimately released in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut pays perhaps an even greater focus on these ideas of courtship, relational construction and sexuality by focusing to pointedly on the marital relationship between his two central characters.
Fundamentally, this is a marriage which is invaded by the dangerous premise of fantasy. For Dr. Harford and his wife Alice, a trip to New York brings to the surface a heated eroticism between the two and, separate from this relationship, a sense of temptation and sensuality which is unrealized. Particularly in the words and behavior of Alice, sexual expectations are subverted under the glare of unsatisfied fantasy.
Though we do not believe for certain that she would betray that which she has found to satisfy her femininity in her husband, the film and the character make purposeful and consistent reference to the idea that monogamy is a concept which has been foisted upon her by her love, not necessarily by her absence of desire otherwise. She fantasizes of a chance encounter with another man, and her husband comes face to face with a woman who is wholly unfamiliar to him, suggestion something of the subversion of identity which occurs with subversion of fantasy.
In this case, it is sufficient even to undermine the idea of female submission within the confines of marriage. The conflict which arises from Alice’s fantasties sends the doctor into somewhat of an emotional tailspin that is made all the more bewildering by his encounter with the masquerade ball of Schnitzler’s design. Here, as the one man who is not masked and, additionally, one who is devoted to the social construction of his marital and sexual relationship, he is an intruder in dramatic danger.
This suggests that the construction to which he is committed is noted as a threat to the secret society here portrayed, with its proportions of fantasy suggestively vulnerable to the pressures of society. The implication clearly pertains, in both the case of the novel and the movie, to the concept of sexual fantasy as commonplace an obscured by social order rather than as deviant. The relationship between the novel and its cinematic adaptation is strengthened by their respective commentaries on the periods from which they have emerged.
In such narratives as those where the Fridolin wanders bewildered from one informant to another on the streets of Vienna, and where Harford is seen in a host of materialist settings belying a surreal and frightening version of New York City, fantasy is suggested even in the simple abstraction of one’s perspective In this regard, the respective settings play a significant part in suggesting that the exposure to this world of sexual fantasy has altered the view of the world at large.