At the beginning of every new relationship, a woman is bound to hear this question from me: what did you think of Eyes Wide Shut? Rarely do I receive an enthusiastic response. When I mention the film in a group of people the sentiments usually range from lukewarm to hostile. This is Kubrick’s most underrated and misunderstood film. It is also a very positive film, and this is unrecognized by most viewers because of the bizarre, and often macabre nature of the story. Like all Kubrick films, it is a surgical examination of humanity that does not shy away from any blemish, or necessarily embellish any decoration.
I will admit I am biased. I believe nearly everything Kubrick directed was brilliant, and his methodical approach still inspires me to strive for perfection in my own work. Kubrick’s ritual of seemingly endless takes, and encouragement of over-the-top performances produced a dream-like quality, almost as if the film contained something supernatural. Eyes Wide Shut is perhaps the best example of this kind of celluloid hypnotism. The entire movie feels like a dream, and the viewer has to question reality in every scene. The opening ballroom scene—shot with soft, diffused lighting and what looks like a telephoto lens—almost appears as an 18th century painting. This imagery, combined with the fluid movements of the actors, produces a sense of surreality.
Immediately, the film switches tone and becomes intensely real. When the girl overdoses in Victor’s bedroom the lighting is brighter, and the actors are frantic and candid. Shortly after this scene comes the bedroom scene where Kubrick uses a combination of the two styles—the lighting has returned to the soft haze of the ballroom sequence, yet the subject matter involves a distinct verisimilitude. This scene is perhaps what every man with a seemingly perfect life fears the most, and Cruise brilliantly captures the pain and shock Bill experiences. After Alice says, “but I could hardly move,” the look in Cruise’s eyes was as if his entire world had collapsed—as if he was dreaming the whole time, and now he was awake. Perhaps the opposite is true—he was awake before, and this is where the dream begins.
Bill sets out into the night to encounter souls that are as lost and confused as himself. The brief encounter he has with Marion is heartbreaking because he is essentially the same elusive sexual symbol to her that the Navy man is to Alice. When Marion’s husband comes home the story is over, and we are left with a fleeting image of a couple that could very well parallel Bill and Alice. Since the film is told through the eyes of Bill, we never see the resolution to this sub-plot, and it becomes the first potential dark alley that Bill evades.
Throughout Eyes Wide Shut, Bill continuously escapes dangerous situations. Just as in a dream, it is impossible for him to really be hurt. A telephone call from Alice prevents Bill from sleeping with a prostitute named Domino, who we later learn is HIV positive. This could perhaps be the first major omen in Bill’s journey, as if something was subtlety warning him not to seek the darkness in sexuality.
Nick Nightingale exists in the film as a devil-like figure, tempting Bill with a dangerous world. The mansion sequence is not so much a physical danger to Bill, as it is a danger to Bill and Alice’s relationship. Whether the sequence at the mansion is completely metaphorical, or simply theatrics (as Victor later describes it), it is nevertheless a perversion that Bill must experience so he can eventually find his way back to Alice.
At the mansion, the darkest depiction of sexuality exists—brutal, anonymous, dangerous, masochistic, and with no regard to emotion. This is, ostensibly, the antithesis of marriage and commitment, and it is ultimately the choice Bill and Alice have to make. It is, indeed, the choice we all have to make with regard to sexuality and relationships. The mansion sequence is simply a manifestation of a man’s deepest perverted fantasies depicted as the horrific nightmare it could be in reality. One has to choose whether they want this fantasy, or the love that has temporarily slipped away.
My favorite scene in Eyes Wide Shut is the sequence in the billiards room between Victor and Bill, where Victor explains that everything Bill witnessed at the mansion was an illusion. I have wondered many times while watching this whether or not Victor is telling the truth, but the ambiguity is necessary for concluding the story. Victor could perhaps have just told Bill what he needed to know to get him to stay away. In fact, as the scene progresses, Victor seems to get more and more agitated, like a lying child who is backed into a corner. It is plausible that Victor could have fabricated the entire story as an attempt to protect Bill.
When Bill returns home he finds the mask from the party on his pillow. This symbolizes that, despite whether or not the mansion sequence was real, the desires and fantasies were certainly real to Bill. The mask represents how everyone has to sleep with their darkest secrets, and choose whether or not to divulge those secrets to their lover. If Bill wanted to keep Alice, he could not hide his secrets, and the music accentuates this ultimatum. The one piano note is reminiscent of a clock striking twelve o’clock, as if the time in Bill’s journey had finally run out, and now it was time to come clean. If Bill did not tell Alice the truth, the secrets would always be there, looming over their relationship, and possibly causing its destruction.
The last word in the movie is probably the healthiest—“fuck”. I have talked to many people that considered this a cheap, smutty way to end the film, and I could not disagree more. What Alice is essentially saying is, “after all we have been through, what we need to do is go home and reconnect.” To act out these secret desires, frustrations, and journeys with the person you love is the ultimate conclusion to this story, and therefore the film has a positive attitude towards relationships. Kubrick himself was a family man, devoted to his wife for many decades, and believed whole-heartedly in the concept of monogamy. Eyes Wide Shut is simply an exploration of the other side.
One of the main points I got from the film was that our fantasies, while often seemingly harmless, can be very real and painful if they are not handled carefully. The film deals with prostitution, voyeurism, and casual sex in a way that accepts that these are intriguing and luring activities to the human mind, but they come at a price. Like Bill, we all have to choose what we want. Not just a choice between fantasy and reality, but perhaps a choice that involves making our fantasies a reality in a constructive way. Hopefully Bill and Alice learned from their journey, and their relationship grew stronger as a result. Perhaps they finally indulged in fantasy together.