Eyes Wide Shut

This post contains spoilers for Eyes Wide Shut, and I would recommend watching that before reading. 

In my last two posts on film, I’ve looked at films centred around romance, and their differing takes on it. Pale Flower and Phantom Thread both square their aim onto troubled relationships and aim to try and find the beauty within the unconventional couples upon which they focus. Neither of them, however, make much reference to sex, at least not traditionally. Pale Flower is perhaps more concerned with sexuality than Phantom Thread, but the central couple in that film never actually has sex, instead using violence and crime as a way to fulfil those desires. Today, we’re going to look at a film that seems, at least, to be more squarely tackling the subject of sex and its place in a relationship; Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut.

Eyes Wide Shut is perhaps one of Kubrick’s less appreciated films, something I properly noticed when I went to the Kubrick exhibition in London last month. Where some films received huge amounts of focus, Eyes Wide Shut had a small space, mainly dedicated to the film’s collection of Venetian masks and some of Kubrick’s plans for his New York City street sets. It’s easy to see why Eyes Wide Shut remains a divisive part of Kubrick’s back catalogue; it lacks the immediate hook of some of his other films; the grand space narrative of 2001, the striking visual design of A Clockwork Orange, the horror of The Shining or the wry satire of Dr. Strangelove. When the film was released, its marketing apparently sold it as Kubrick’s take on an erotic thriller, something that the finished product fails to live up to. However, at the risk of sounding patronising, there’s just as much depth in Eyes Wide Shut as in any of those films, especially if you know where to look for it.

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Although the film is ostensibly focused around sex, the sexual morals of the film seems a little dated, even for 1999. Eyes Wide Shut revolves around Bill and Alice Hartford, a wealthy New York couple. A fight they get into near the start of the film becomes the inciting incident for Bill’s nightmarish trek around the streets of New York that takes up the majority of screen time. In their argument, Alice reveals that on holiday she was struck by the desire to cheat on Bill with a naval officer she locked eyes with at in the hotel lobby. In that one admission, Alice reveals her own sexual fantasies in a way that haunts Bill; his thoughts throughout the film constantly turning to his self-created image of Alice fucking the sailor, an image that gets more and more sexually explicit as he continues to reflect on it.

I think it’s really easy to misinterpret this scene, something I only say because I did the first two times I saw it. On first glance, it appears that this contains Kubrick’s thesis statement; that (gasp) woman might also have sexual desires. The idea that Bill wouldn’t have realised this at all is a little unrealistic. I wasn’t conscious enough of the sexual world in 1999 to know how dated this was then, but watching 20 years later it certainly seems that way. Lila Shapiro’s excellent article on the film, however, helped me see it in a different light. It may well seem quaint that Bill doesn’t realise Alice has had any sexual desires of her own, but if anything, this serves as a tip-off for the viewer to look further. Eyes Wide Shut, as the title suggests, is a film about complicity with power; including that related to sex. Bill accepts the, still reasonably common, idea that men are simply more sexually inclined than woman. His acceptance of this one thought about women’s place in the world is challenged by the words of his wife, but his, and society’s, more deep-seated ideas about women are challenged by the later events of the film.

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The main one of these ideas is the commercialisation of women’s bodies, something highlighted in the film through several prominent prostitute characters; namely Domino, the prostitute Bill meets on the street while flirting with the idea of cheating on his wife, and Mandy, the prostitute hired by Bill’s friend Ziegler for both his party and the orgy. Bill is confronted with these ideas in some obvious ways. Women are bought and sold by those who have power over them in a way Bill hadn’t realised before. He’s disgusted, for example, by the revelation that the costume shop owner has been acting as a pimp for his own daughter, and he’s troubled by the revelation of Mandy’s death, suspecting that the cabal of orgy attendees have murdered her as a ritualistic punishment for Bill’s trespass.[1] As such, Bill is forced to come to terms with his own blindness to society’s treatment of women. As Shapiro notes in her piece on the film, Eyes Wide Shut has become not dated, but prescient in the wake of the #metoo movement, which saw men everywhere, like Bill, having to wake up to the reality of the way the powerful abuse their power over women, often in the form of exploitation for sexual favours.

The viewer of the film, however, is perhaps expected to cotton on to more of this than Bill is. Take, for example, the role of Alice in the film. Alice serves to push Bill to seeing what he’s been blind to and to send him off on his journey. Her emasculation of Bill through the revelations of her sexual fantasies and dreams may give the impression that Alice is an independent agent in the film’s plot and an equal with Bill in their relationship. However, there are multiple allusions within the film that equates Alice to the prostitutes Bill encounters. Kreider writes that ‘Alice’s role as a voyeuristic object is defined by her first breath-taking appearance and by her first onscreen line: “How do I look?”’. She’s almost only ever seen within the context of the house, mainly in the bed. The one time she’s let out, it’s at Ziegler’s party where she’s lusted after by an older Hungarian man who suggests they retreat upstairs to have sex. Kreider also notes the visual parallels between Alice and Mandy; that both are tall redheads who are regular drug users, and the dream Alice has of being fucked by hundreds of men is what eventually happens to Mandy in the orgy scene.

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Bill never gets as far as realising that Alice is just as trapped in the patriarchal system as the lower-class prostitutes, because he is incapable of looking at his own place in society. He’s perfectly able to accept that those poorer than him would engage in activities like pimping their own daughter and he’s also able to see that the rich use and abuse women for their own needs, but he isn’t particularly inclined towards self-reflection. As I mentioned earlier, what Bill is more than anything is complicit, but the reasons for this complicity lie in his attitudes towards money; he’s complicit because he wants more than anything to have the power that the rich have. Indeed, although he condemns the exploitation of women by both the costume shop keeper and the secret society, in the end he’s actually perfectly able to accept Ziegler’s weak explanation for Mandy’s death, because he’s fundamentally unable to let go of his desire to be a part of the upper class.

That final scene with Ziegler is one of my favourites; a much clearer encapsulation of the film’s themes than Bill’s confrontation with Alice. The staging in this scene is really fantastic – the two men circle around a red velvet pool table. While Bill has just had much of his world view upended, for Ziegler, this is just a trivial game, no more serious to him than knocking around a few balls as he had been doing before Bill entered. He offers Bill a case of expensive whisky, which Bill declines. Ziegler laughs at this because a present like that means nothing to him, but also because Bill’s refusal to be bought is meaningless, when he’s already in Ziegler’s pocket. Bill’s house and lifestyle is the sort of thing that a New York doctor and his unemployed museum curator wife probably wouldn’t be able to afford, even in 1999. This isn’t a FRIENDS style inaccuracy for the sake of a nicer set, however; it’s a decision that reflects Bill must make his money elsewhere, probably in helping out rich men like Ziegler when they get into trouble with drugs and prostitutes.

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Throughout the film, Bill constantly flashes both his cash and his doctor’s certificate. The latter brings to mind a detective flashing his badge and echoes the film’s shift into a kind of police procedural in the final act, but it also shows Bill’s obsession with his own status. He smugly[2] tells people he’s a doctor in the hope that this will earn him respect as a member of the educated elite, while the constant flow of money from his wallet shows his desire to be viewed as financially well-off. When he gives Domino money even though he doesn’t sleep with her, this can be viewed as a kindness, but the underlying motivation is one of proving his own wealth and status to himself. His insecurity around money probably comes from his own realisation that this money comes from being a pawn of the upper class, so he must assert himself on those below him.

Returning to the final confrontation with Ziegler, then, this insecurity allows him to accept what Ziegler tells him. Even though Bill has found enough in his investigation that he can constantly make Ziegler backpedal his argument, as long as Bill doesn’t have definitive proof of the cult’s guilt, then he will always slip back into his bad habits. Ziegler’s words of ‘let me be frank with you’, give Bill the illusion that he’s being accepted into some secret. We’ve seen this very exchange before; at the start of the film Ziegler asks Bill to keep quiet about the overdosed Mandy lying in his bathroom. We assume then that Bill agrees to do so because he’s Ziegler’s friend, or because he’s being paid. The truth is only revealed here; Bill agrees because he enjoys being part of the secret. His pleasure comes from being enveloped into the folds of power, even in a small way.

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Sex, then, does indeed play a large part in Eyes Wide Shut, but not in the way of an erotic thriller. None of the sex we see in the film is shot in a particularly arousing manner. In the most sexually explicit scene in the film; the orgy, there is of course a lot of writhing naked bodies, but the camera drifts, nonplussed, over them. It lingers more over the ritual, but when the women kiss in that, they kiss through masks. It’s more about the symbolism of it than the actual physical contact. Sex in the film is often used as a symbol for patriarchal power, rather than human intimacy.

The end of the film may present a slightly different view of sex, depending on how it’s read. Deleyto sees the final lines of the film, in which Alice tells Bill that they need to go and ‘fuck’, as sex being used here to express marital love. Alice has opened up her extramarital desires to Bill at the start of the film, but only after his confrontation with Ziegler does Bill finally break down in tears and confess his own desires. Now that the couple has confessed to one another, they’ve gained an intimacy they previously didn’t have, and sex is the act that will express this. I think it’s true that the two have gained some deeper sense of intimacy through their mutual confessions, but viewing the ending only in this way might lead to thinking, as Ebert did in his review of the film, that the final scene was an act of traditional moralising.

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When you take into account the premise that Bill, despite the horrific sights he’s seen, has now knowingly accepted his own complicity within the system, and bought his wife into this complicity, the ending takes on a slightly more nuanced tone. Yes, the couple has gained a greater intimacy through the film, and perhaps the act of sex has been reclaimed for them as an intimate act. However, they remain trapped within the same system as before. There is no real sense that anything has changed regarding Alice’s role as a kept woman, nor that society will be any different for their daughter, who is a focus of the scene.[3] Bill and Alice may now be more aware of the system in which they exist, and they may well have found some happiness within it, but they’re still both trapped pawns at the beck and call of the rich. Alice describes them as having woken up, but they choose to keep their eyes (wide) shut.

I can’t finish my notes on the film there, however, because I’d like to talk a little about how the film also communicates these ideas visually. The main visual motif of the film is of course, that of dreams. There’s the literal recurring dream Bill has of his wife in bed with the naval officer, a sequence cast in an ethereal blue light. That blue light also denotes dreams in how it floods Bill and Alice’s bedroom when Alice describes the orgy dream she had. While it’s clearest here, the blue light pervades the film; the light out of windows at night is often more blue than black and it gives the impression that Bill’s entire journey may well be a dream.

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It’s not just the blue lights; many critics have pointed out the film’s scenes are often lit solely by the Christmas lights in the background, which softly glow in almost every location except for the orgy and Ziegler’s pool room. The Christmas lights, simultaneously warm and commercial, are just as hazy and dreamlike as the stronger blue light. The structure of the film, which drifts sometimes aimlessly from set-piece to set-piece, each one almost tailor-made to communicate something to Bill about sex and power, feels like a dream.

The orgy scene is the film at its most strikingly dreamlike. A secret sex cult is perhaps the most obvious Freudian realisation of the super-rich. Illuminati like organisations holding strange rituals is how conspiracy theorists have forever imagined the rich and powerful to control the other 99%, even if the reality is slightly more mundane (although no less scary). Kubrick’s visualisation of the orgy is mesmeric; unlike anything in any other film I’ve seen. Much of this is due to the music; a slow backwards Latin chant, so obviously referring to Satanic rituals. This Satanic influence continues through the red robed figure with the staff at the centre of the ring of women. The masks every participant of the orgy wears are disfigured and twisted interpretation of the human face. Bill’s reasonably standard mask stands out amongst the others, and it adds to how out-of-place he is. As Ziegler points out at the end of the film, it wasn’t not knowing the password that gave him away; he got that right. It was the symbols of the lower class; the receipt stuck in the pocket, the taxi waiting for him outside, that made him recognisable even under the mask.

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Deleyto notes that Kubrick was well aware of his own revered status as a film-maker, and that with each film he desired to make the definitive statement on each topic; The Shining as the definitive horror movie, Full Metal Jacket as the Vietnam movie to end all Vietnam movies. With Eyes Wide Shut, it’s of course impossible to say Kubrick made a definitive statement on sexuality within films – it is still, obviously, very heteronormative, and its statements on men and women extremely sweeping. However, as Shapiro states, it has also been surprisingly prescient in its themes, despite being viewed as dated when it released. When I first watched Eyes Wide Shut I was immediately captivated by its hazy, dreamy qualities, but on each subsequent watch it reveals a more layered understanding of its subject. As I watch it more, I look forward to being able to see what else lies beneath its shiny exterior.

[1] Whether they murdered her or not is left unclear but is also irrelevant; whether she was literally killed by them or overdosed after having her ‘brains fucked out’, either way they were responsible for her death. (Kreider)

[2] Tom Cruise is generally excellent in this, but his smug smile is probably the smuggest face I’ve ever seen a man pull. Truly incredible what you can do when you’re that self-secure. He gets to flash it a lot as well, given that almost every man and woman he encounters throws themselves at him, to the extent that the fact he never actually has an affair is almost a joke in and of itself.

[3] You can apparently see the daughter being taken away by two men from Ziegler’s party in the background to the scene. It’s not something I spotted, but given Kubrick’s famous attention to detail, it’s hard to see it being a coincidence.

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