Eyes Wide Shut poses an interesting question: do we have to wear a mask, to sleepwalk and dream, to keep our “eyes wide shut” in order to live a happy, “normal” life? Here’s our take on how the Stanley Kubrick classic is still hauntingly relevant, 20 years later.
Eyes Wide Shut opens on an image that captures what this film is all about. To the spying viewer, this is clearly an erotic image. Yet, to the woman’s husband who’s theoretically the person observing this view, the sight is mundane, and that’s signaled in the quick, casual nature of the shot.
Everything that follows in the story of the woman, Nicole Kidman’s Alice, and her spouse, Tom Cruise’s Bill, elaborates in the ideas embodied in that opening image.
The focus of Eyes Wide Shut is the scary connection between the erotic and the anonymous. It explores the role that fantasies of strangers play in our sex lives, and it suggests that married people are, ultimately, also strangers to each other.
Stanley Kubrick’s final film was one of his rare box office successes, but it’s among his more underrated works, and that’s perhaps because on first viewing, it’s a little difficult to put your finger on exactly what it’s saying.
If you revisit the film, though (and now is a perfect time to do that, for its 20th anniversary) Eyes Wide Shut is powerfully terrifying. It takes Kubrick’s trademark skill for putting human nature under a microscope, and does that very close to home, peering without bias at the lies that underlie any marriage.
“Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?”—Sandor Szavost, Eyes Wide Shut
The film asks whether our safe, happy, normal lives require us to, essentially, keep our eyes wide shut: to sleepwalk and dream, wearing a mask that helps us ignore our raging, roaring ocean of feelings, lest they overwhelm us if given the chance.
The film begins with a couple getting ready for a Christmas party. Their good looks, vast apartment, and interactions with the babysitter signal these two have it all. Yet almost the first thing of substance we’re really told is that Bill is sleepwalking, with his eyes wide shut.
Alice: “How do I look?”
Alice: “Is my hair okay?”
Bill: “It’s great.”
Alice: “You’re not even looking at me.”
Bill and Alice attend a Christmas party, but after the obligatory first dance together, they split up and get picked up by new, temporary partners. Their separation starts with a lie.
Alice grabs her opportunity to quickly get as drunk as possible and indulges a dizzying flirtation with an older man, while Bill enjoys the charms of two young women.
Both seem genuinely tempted by their delicious strangers, but they just about manage to resist, at least for the time being.
Then they go home and get down to business while we hear the lyrics: “They did a bad, bad thing.” What was the bad thing they did? Well, both of them imagined being unfaithful. Both of them wanted to cheat. And now, their sex life is totally invigorated by the specters of the strangers they’re bringing back into the bedroom with them. Alice takes off her glasses, suggesting that she’s willfully no longer seeing her husband in focus, so that she can imagine him to be anybody she wants.
When the daylight life resumes, vignettes of Alice’s and Bill’s domestic life show how sexuality has been contained and sanitized into something unthreatening. Our third conspicuous shot of a nude Alice is surrounded by scenes of Bill going about his day as a doctor, which again, as at the party, involves a beautiful topless woman whose breasts he ignores with professionalism.
“So when you’re feeling tits, it’s nothing more than just your professionalism, is that what you’re saying?”—Alice
Alice’s physicality is mixed in with shots of a mother’s familiar, unsexy home life. Yet after the day of respectable adult role-playing is over, Alice breaks out the pot and decides, for once, to get honest with her husband.
And this is where the trouble begins. Alice starts to strip away the glib falsehoods upon which a successful marriage depends.
When both Bill and Alice turn down invitations to cheat, their reasoning is, more or less, “I can’t because…marriage.” They haven’t really thought deeply about what that means to them, what fidelity is, and whether it matters that they desire others.
“Do you realize that what you’re saying is that the only reason you wouldn’t f—BEEP those two models is out of consideration for me, not because you really wouldn’t want to.”—Alice
Alice kicks off all these questions when she decides to make her husband jealous by divulging her fantasy about a stranger.
Later, the climactic orgy scene full of masked figures encapsulates the connection between anonymity and sex drive.
Yet this uninhibited, impersonal sexual urge is dangerous, and the orgy scene is infused with peril. As Lee Siegel wrote for Harper’s, “The risk is that if we surrender ourselves absolutely to our anonymous animal side, we slide helplessly toward death, the absolute anonymity.”
Whenever Alice and Bill don’t act on their naked desires, they feel relieved.
What we’re seeing in this movie is that the Hartfords, and all couples, veer between two poles. On one end is sex without intimacy, and it’s kind of terrible, a sinister means of enslaving and abusing others. On the other end is total intimacy, which can breed boredom and snuff out lust altogether. The challenge of marriage is to somehow navigate these two extremes, of mysterious, erotic danger and comfortable knowing familiarity, to find that ideal of sex with love.
Earlier, Alice makes the curious observation that while fantasizing about her stranger, she felt even more tender love for her husband. So Kubrick raises the possibility that maybe this duality of the erotic and the mundane actually works somehow, what if fantasies of strangers from time to time might just be beneficial for a marriage?
There’s even a suggestion that on some level the stranger we’re fantasizing about is our partner. We just have to think of them as this mystery in order to remember the excitement we once had for them.
By the end, Alice and Bill feel as if they’ve dodged a bullet.
“I feel grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our… adventures.”—Alice
The film indicates in various ways that they came very close to a ruin they’ve miraculously escaped. But on the deepest level, the disaster they averted was really infidelity. Despite very much wanting to, and seriously considering it, neither partner actually sleeps with someone else. The secret society’s password is “Fidelio,” a reference to Beethoven’s only opera, which is about a faithful wife. When Mandy sacrifices herself for Bill during the ritual, and we hear that this has sealed her fate , the concept of the choice that can’t be undone might make us think of an act of infidelity. Once fidelity is violated, it can never be restored.
Doubles and mirrors recur throughout this film. It doesn’t feel like an accident that Alice bears the name of the character who goes through the looking glass. And Bill and Alice are mirrored by other couples in the film. When they walk into the Christmas party and greet their hosts, the Zieglers, the pairs perfectly reflect each other in the shot. The Zieglers are a richer, more powerful version of our couple, representing the class and status aspect of their lives. A little later we meet Marian and Carl. In this pair, the man wears glasses instead of the female, but they have the same hair colors and vaguely similar looks. Marian has fallen desperately in love with Bill, someone who looks just like her husband, but is vastly more exciting precisely because he’s not her husband.
There may be an element of autobiography in this film for Kubrick. He used the furniture from his apartment with his wife to create the interior of the Hartfords’ home, and he added a dose of real-life by casting Kidman and Cruise, who in 1999 were not only two of the world’s hottest movie stars, they were a real-life couple with a private life viewers were dying to know more about.
Given Kidman’s and Cruise’s eventual separation, there was something prophetic in this film’s message that the private truth is never as it appears, and might shock us, both for its depravity and for its banality.
There’s a lot of talk in film theory about the fact that cinema is dominated by the male gaze, and in recent years that’s prompted the question of what a female gaze looks like. Some even speculate that a pure female gaze is impossible, because in our society women can’t help internalizing the male gaze and seeing even themselves through men’s eyes. At the end of his life and career, Kubrick is here very interested in the female gaze, which is expressed visually through Alice’s glasses, which turn her into someone who looks with agency.
Kubrick tracks how the male’s stable narrative, which props up his comfortable life, is utterly threatened by the very existence of this female gaze.
What sets this whole drama in motion is Alice revealing her lust for a naval officer she saw on vacation. She shatters Bill’s assumption that, because she’s a woman, she’s less interested in sex and doesn’t actually want to be unfaithful, whereas a man naturally has desires that he suppresses.
Alice: “Men have to stick it every place they can, but for women—women, it is just about security and commitment and whatever the f—BEEP else!”
Bill: “A little over simplified Alice, but yes.”
The film, like Kubrick’s 2001, takes inspiration from the Odyssey, Homer’s epic about Odysseus’ journey back to his loyal wife Penelope, who is besieged by suitors. As Siegel writes, quote, “Just as every enchantress Odysseus meets on his voyage home is an echo of his thralldom to Penelope, every woman Bill meets is a version of Alice.”
The question of Penelope’s unbesmirched virtue, of whether she gave into her suitors—or wanted to—haunts Odysseus and Bill, all of literature and film, and really, it seems, men in general.
The female’s desire and the male’s inability to possess or contain it is the central anxiety and crisis of the movie.
“If you men only knew.” –Alice
What’s subtly revolutionary about this film is that it’s telling men: your wife has the same feelings and fantasies and temptations as you. All of these perverse, dark, difficult human impulses are universal.
Yet a man like Bill can’t handle this. The erotic femininity she exudes as she describes her true feelings strikes him as confrontational. And the desperate, long adventure he goes on in search of a sexual thrill is ultimately just an attempt to live up to Alice’s fantasy.
A recurring idea in Eyes Wide Shut is the impulse to go where the rainbow ends. The film has images of rainbows, and the custom store Bill goes to is called Under the Rainbow. So the suggestion is that, in this night of chasing his desire, Bill is trying to find the end of the rainbow.
Bill: “Ladies, where exactly are we going? Exactly?”
Gayle: “Where the rainbow ends.”
Of course, the end of the rainbow is a place that’s impossible to reach. Likewise, Eyes Wide Shut illuminates the immense false promise of desire, and the way that when we get what we covet, it’s disappointing, maybe because the real void or hunger we wanted to fill can’t be satisfied.
As Lee Siegel wrote, “Desire is like Christmas: it always promises more than it delivers.” Eyes Wide Shut has been called a Christmas movie for grownups. In this adult’s version of a Christmas movie, instead of the latest cool toy, the thing characters very badly want is anonymous sex. But what doesn’t change no matter your age is this feeling that getting what you thought you wanted, doesn’t make you happy. Notably, the secret ritual gathering is lacking a Christmas tree, while the rest of the film is dominated by Christmas tree lights everywhere Bill goes.
So while the lovely, glittering illusion exists elsewhere, there the cold, hard truth is undecorated. And this bare, ugly reality is perhaps the true meaning of where the rainbow ends.
Nuala: “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?”
Bill: “Well now, that depends where that is.”
Bill and Alice may strike us as a pretty upper-class couple, but they’re small fish, at the outer edges of a ruling class that’s operating in the shadows of this society.
Many have read Eyes Wide Shut’s sinister power elite as a message from Kubrick implying that similar groups do operate in our real world, as the ritual incorporates imagery that might evoke the Illuminati, Freemasons and others. But whether there’s any basis to this or not, the movie appears to make a subtle connection between Bill and Alice’s marriage and this power structure. The elite depends on people like the Hartfords keeping up their clichéd performance of respectable married life.
Ziegler is a dark mirror of the worst parts of Bill and of powerful men in general. That’s underlined visually in these two shots which look like inversions of each other. Ziegler stands in front of a nude portrait, while Bill stands behind the naked, passed-out prostitute Ziegler has just exploited. Soon after, this shot of Bill presenting a nice face to Mandy, while Ziegler’s groin is behind him, expresses the idea that Bill’s pleasant manners paper over and legitimize the baser urges that drive Ziegler and his ruling class
We already get hints at the Christmas party that there are two layers—two worlds—operating here: the surface, Christmas-light filled world of appearances, and the deep, dark, bottom-line underworld. The camera frequently shows the eight-pointed star on the walls of Ziegler’s house, and this resembles the Star of Ishtar, a symbol of fertility and sexuality.
Later, the orgy has striking visual similarities to the Christmas party. Meanwhile key details are inverted, first faces are unmasked and bodies covered; then faces are masked while the female bodies are naked; first Bill saved Mandy, then she saves him; first he turns down a proposition, then he tries to have sex but fails.
All these parallels make it apparent that the reality beneath the hazy, dreamy lights of the first party was actually this one all along. The same people were there. Prostitutes were pleasuring important men and taking drugs. There’s a hint that Ziegler may himself be the Red Cloak character, as later when he talks with Bill, the way he taps objects twice on the pool table echoes the way Red Cloak taps his staff. And while their faces were visible, the people in the first party were wearing even more impenetrable masks, as they do all day long, even with their loved ones.
The comparison reminds us, too, that as lovely and civilized as the original socializing looked, we should make no mistake: there is an evil that holds the rich and powerful in place, and this evil will do whatever it takes to maintain this hierarchy.
What makes the men truly powerful is that they get to be invisible. To do whatever they want, unseen, with impunity.
“I’m not gonna tell you their names but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well.”—Ziegler
Bill is not important enough to be invisible. He’s shamed and put in his place by having to take off his mask, to be seen by others he can’t see.
This powerful society’s dominance is everywhere, even a toy in the very last scene alludes to the magic circle of the ritual.
Eyes Wide Shut takes loose inspiration from an Austrian novella called Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler, and throughout the film, there’s this question of whether some or all of this has been a dream. You could even read all this action as Alice’s dream.
In the daytime, when Bill returns to the costume store, everything is different. What we saw under the moonlight, we question under the sun.
And this is how Ziegler tries to convince Bill that everything he saw and felt wasn’t real. His society concocts a rationalization to dismiss Bill’s experience.
“Suppose I said that all of that was staged.”—Ziegler
However unbelievable it is, it gives Bill a story to hold onto, to let go of what he’s learned and go back to docile obedience. In the end, Alice concludes that the whole truth doesn’t lie in the dream, or in the waking reality. Both are real.
Alice: “Only as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a lifetime, can ever be the whole truth.”
Bill: “And no a dream is ever just a dream.”
Over the course of the movie, these two confront their unconscious desires and, at least for a time, snap out of their trance. Yet is all this awareness and soul-searching honesty even good for their relationship? The movie doesn’t necessarily indicate that it is. In fact, it’s downright dangerous.
As the movie goes along, we sometimes get the feeling that Alice needs to stop being so transparent with her spouse.
By the end, they’ve both made forthcoming confessions to each other of all that they wanted to do and almost did. Their eyes are more open, for better or worse. They’re obviously unsettled, not sure whether they like being less oblivious.
“We’re awake now. And hopefully for a long time to come.”—Alice
The last dialogue in the movie is Alice saying there’s something they need to do as soon as possible. What’s going to heal this marriage isn’t communication, it’s sex.
Sex is the very force that set them off on this hazardous journey, and a marriage counselor might find this a simplistic relationship fix, but who knows? What if the good old-fashioned practice of having sex with each other is the foundation of a marriage that lasts?
All these two struggling, blind individuals can know for sure is that there is love here, and though the future is uncertain, they choose to keep that love alive another day.