Eyes Wide Shut is an enigmatic riddle, densely layered with all sorts of psychological themes and mysterious symbols. The puzzling structure of a series of bizarre events begs for interpretation and analysis and yet its bizarre circular logic prevents any semblance of a single coherent vision. Sort of like a dream, no? It is easy to get lost in the funhouse, just as Bill Harford does through the strange course of his dream narrative. But that’s the allure of Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece, this strange meditation on sex, the subconscious, and Christmas lights. Recently, the film’s critical landscape has been co-opted by conspiracy theorists, who have seemingly divined all manner occultist symbology within the intricately designed plotting and scenery. We will expand on the conspiratorial elements in the latter half of this review but for now consider: this film follows a dream logic, speaking to the irrational fears and outrageous fantasies that dwell within our subconscious. These are just the sort of prickly neuroses that can lead to crazed notions of bizarre conspiracy theories of secret cabals practicing witchcraft, ruling the world behind perceived masks and symbols. Our own fears are played out for us onscreen and we are given the dual designation of therapist and patient as our analysis of the events ultimately reveals more about ourselves than the confounding puzzles of the film itself. That Kubrick, eh?
In accordance with this dream sensibility, Eyes Wide Shut is visually surrealistic in hauntingly subtle ways. There is an element of bristling psychedelia that adds to the otherworldly sheen of the proceedings. Kubrick has been able to tap into that acid consciousness ever since 2001:A Space Odyssey, which managed to entrance the hippie generation and scare the hell out of stoned guys named Dave. This film has a similarly druggy feel, in the way the visual tricks and deeper psychological reverberations convey aspects of the psychedelic experience. Take note of the colored Christmas lights that appear in the backgrounds of so many scenes that they begin to nag at the consciousness, as a careful viewer will find that there is some combination of colored lights in some part of the frame of practically every scene in this movie. What’s going on there? Just imagine the maddening experience of seeing these colored lights over and over on a few tabs of decent acid – it’s the sort of visual trickery that could literally send a poor psychedelic voyager flying out of an open window in pure panic. The only time we don’t see those Christmas lights is the robed ritual scene at the Somerton mansion, which is hardly a respite from this sort of bizarre visual symbolism. In fact, this scene might be the scariest sequence ever committed to film except for perhaps that Beach Boys and Fat Boys “Wipe Out” video from the eighties. It is a viscerally frightening experience, with a dark, haunting atmosphere that creates this sense of foreboding – the backwards music, the shots of the masks, the leader with his menacing voice. I don’t even want to imagine the horrors of experiencing that scene under any sort of lysergic influence – just say no, comrades.
This is a dream story, as we know from the novella from which it was adapted. The original script – by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael – was also more overt in the delineation between dream and reality, but somewhere along the way this film went spiraling in all sorts of deeper, darker directions. The dream’s parameters have been purposely obscured, so we’re never sure what sections are real or not, or whether the whole thing may in fact be some sort of dream or a glimpse into a secret elite world. In addition, the visual symbolism offers more complicated reverberations, while the plot twists itself into ever more contorted circles of paranoia and suspense. This is not an easy film to disentangle, nor is it meant to be. My own analysis here is just a stab in the dark – so to speak – and merely an attempt to offer some semblance of coherence free from the overly conspiratorial interpretations that have bogged down some reviewers.
The basic plot begins with Bill and Alice Harford, an affluent professional couple with a fancy Manhattan apartment, shuffling off for a Christmas party. Well, actually the film begins with Nicole Kidman dropping her dress between two pillars for a view of her nude backside before a brief series of opening titles on a black background. This immediately sets a tone of playful sexuality that will be completely upended and put through a series of bizarre permutations. Things will get significantly weirder and darker through a vaguely circular sort of narrative that will ultimately end with a sexual invitation as clear as that opening scene. So this complex, often convoluted film is framed by moments of bare, honest sexuality. How do things get so complicated in between?
The party is an upscale holiday affair with lots of lights and undertones of wealthy debauchery. Bill and Alice are separately shepherded into confrontations with this seamier side: Alice flirts with a creepy lecherous aristocrat while Bill is called away from his own flirtation with two highly sexual young models to find upstairs a nude overdosed prostitute in the company of Dr Victor Ziegler, the patron of the whole scene. Bill helps to revive her and for his troubles he’s given a warning by Ziegler not to share any knowledge of the incident. The next evening, Alice rolls a joint and they discuss the party, although Bill’s guarded reticence leads to an argument in which Alice offers admissions about her sexual desires. Her impassioned confession culminates with a particular memory about a stranger she glimpsed from afar while on vacation with the family. Her delivery of what might seem like a reasonably honest confession is what really drives the knife in, as she communicates her complete abandon to her lust, so much so that she admits she would have run off with the stranger if given the opportunity. Kidman strikes just the right tone in her performance – Alice is angry, sexually frustrated, and high, and she’s trying to invoke a reaction. Bill doesn’t take this well, and so he promptly falls asleep.
That last plot detail is an important one, as thematically contentious as it may be. Because we are actually not told that he falls asleep and begins to dream, but it’s at this point that I believe the film veers off into the dream narrative. We can see this through the elements of a recursive surrealism that takes on pieces from the shorter scenes of waking life we have seen thus far. So in that first act, Bill was confronted with two key scenes with underpinnings of considerable psychological themes: social morality and sexual inadequacy. We are then shown just how his subconscious attempts to navigate these issues through the complicated dream narrative that itself appears to span several days and nights. It’s an ambitious sort of storytelling – we are getting a glimpse here of what goes on behind the mask of social conformity, of what happens when all of our defenses are gone and our greatest fears are played in elaborate dramas that are often forgotten once we open our eyes.The dream incorporates echoes of all sorts of elements from the waking section – the lights, the party, Alice herself – woven in visually and thematically. Every viewing will reveal to the watchful eye another connection – part of the appeal of this film has been in working out just how the various puzzling details connect.
The dream itself begins with a phone call informing Bill of a house call for a deceased patient. He rushes off, still quietly seething with the image of Alice’s admission. At the home, the grieving daughter – who bears a certain similarity to Alice – admits in a moment of passionate candor that even though she is about to be married, she is madly in love with Bill. “But we hardly know each other,” he tells her, adding, “You’re upset, you’re not thinking clearly.” The situation perfectly mirrors Alice’s admission, so much so that it strains the credibility of the narrative with its seemingly improbable coincidence. As it should – this is the beginning of Bill’s dream, in which the reverberations of the argument are still echoing. As if to further this surreal aspect, the woman’s cuckolded boyfriend arrives at the apartment, bearing a striking similarity to Bill himself. They meet with the image of the deceased father lying in the bed, although by all appearances he might as well just be sleeping. “I was just on my way out,” says Bill, shaking hands with his doppleganger. On his way out indeed.
as I lay sleeping
So begins the dream narrative proper. For all the darker psychological elements at work, it’s actually great fun in trying to puzzle out all the clues and references scattered about this whole section of the film. The constructed replicas of the streets of New York have an artificial glow, which may be just an example of artistic serendipity but work quite well within the dream context nonetheless. As Bill is walking through the city streets he is suddenly accosted by a wandering group of teens who push him down and shout out jabs at his masculinity. Now – all Tom Cruise jokes aside – there is really no explanation for that sudden and specific torrent of insults from this group of strangers other than that they are manifestation of Alice’s revelation which has caused him to question his own sexual potency.
Of course his mind would then move quickly to the seductive girls from the party and the opportunity therein, so he is then conveniently propositioned by a pretty prostitute named Domino. Interesting: she is named after a reflexive object made of two halves, and looks quite similar to the two girls who propositioned Bill at the party. After the ignominy of Alice’s admission, it would make sense that he would revisit that encounter in his dream. There is an even more obvious clue in bedroom: just as the girls at the party were inviting him to find out “where the rainbow ends,” Domino is situated with a string of colored lights that end just behind her.
the rainbow girls
Now we’re back to those lights again. They crop up so frequently that they have to be a major clue to unlocking some layer of meaning behind the film. The screen is always permeated with subtle detail, connecting and corresponding with all sorts of subtle themes. These are subconscious clues to parsing through the thicket of twisting plotlines. My interpretation is that the lights are elements from the waking sections reflecting into the dream narrative. Here’s one of many examples of that sort of repetition, in which we see both light patterns on both sides of the screen, first from the waking section and then from the dream:
dreams and mirrors
So the tryst with Domino is interrupted by a phone call from Alice, which makes sense as Bill is so patently inhibited that he cannot even dream without guilt. He pays her off anyway, as Bill is never want for cash, seeming to enjoy a status on the lower tier of New York’s elite at odds with the family practitioner vibe of his modest practice. His clientele must include the sort of rare scoundrels who haunted Ziegler’s party, whose shady ethics may force even the uptight Doctor Bill to question his own. We saw this with the overdosed girl with Ziegler, when Alice’s question to him as they are dancing – “Why does he invite us to these things?” – was answered for him. Bill is just on the outer edges of this rich circle, a highly paid servant whose most valuable skill seems to be his obedient silence. Only then in his dreams is he burdened by some semblance of morality.
His next destination in his dream is another convenient discovery, as he arrives at the Sonata Cafe where his old friend Nick Nightengale is playing jazz piano. They met briefly at Ziegler’s party, where Bill was overjoyed at finding an old acquaintance. This contrivance allows for another display of colored lights inside the club, but more importantly an invitation to the private party where Nick will be playing later that night. The party is quite the exclusive scene, requiring a password and a costume. Bill’s visit to a costume store allows for one of the more bizarre moments in which the owner’s teenage daughter is discovered mid-tryst with two older Japanese men. The darker implications of this relationship are confirmed later in the film when Bill returns his costume and the owner essentially offers the girl’s services to him. The scenes are played for a sort of dark humor, although there’s nothing particularly funny about the situation. A more reasonable explanation is that this sequence represents Bill’s fears about his own daughter. In his world, female sexuality is exploited lustfully and monetarily by powerful men, while a healthy sexual woman like Alice remains frustrated, unfulfilled. Bill’s participation is this system has manifested itself in his dream with this sequence of the costume store owner and his prostitute daughter.
Accordingly, Bill arrives next at the Somerton mansion with its bizarre orgy of kept women and masked powerful men. This whole sequence is a representation of Bill’s reaction to the underlying hedonism of Ziegler’s party. We recall that he was invited into the inner sanctum of that gathering in order to treat the overdosed girl, and witnessed quite literally the darkness hidden beneath the fancy disguises. He examined Mandy, the naked girl in the bedroom with a painting of a nude on the wall, all while Ziegler stood over him with quiet authority. He helped the girl, saved her actually, sharing then a moment of real connection in which he imparted to her the seriousness of the overdose. Perhaps his quick treatment and assistance in covering up this problem for Ziegler will further ingratiate him into that world, but a moral man – as we can deduce Bill to be – would find something rather repellent in this exchange.
Similarly, the orgy scene bears the trappings of a hidden world into which Bill has stumbled. Like the painting on the wall, the figures are shot in posing gyrations, becoming illusionary elements of the background rather than actual physical manifestations. Bill is led into an inner circle where a dark ritual is underway, complete with his blindfolded friend Nightengale playing haunting backwards organ intonations. The red cloaked leader could represent Ziegler himself or perhaps just that possessive male sense of sexual entitlement that Alice encounters at the party as well; regardless, his presence is played up to darkly surrealistic proportions in this sequence. The robed girls surround the leader, capitulating to his every move, dropping their robes at his command. We may, upon first viewing, be too creeped out to recall Alice dropping her black robe in the same manner in the first scene.
There’s a genius level of sinister atmosphere at work here that itself masks these underlying themes in favor of a purely visceral experience. So we are not allowed as viewers to sit back and try to puzzle out the various clues at work, at least not without having to negotiate the sensory confusion of the moment. I think Kubrick’s focus was conveying the erratic, often absurd dream sense rather than creating specific connections with the waking sections of the film. There is none of that Wizard of Oz puerility in this dream – “and you were there, and you and you…” No, we are going deeply into this man’s subconscious, into a dream that has followed several significant emotional dramas, therefore we should not expect a nice, neat package that can be easily extrapolated. Besides, the whole thing is just too frightening to really intellectually process – there is a moment when two figures turn to Bill and seem to recognize him that has given me a chill every time I’ve seen it.
This whole Somerton mansion sequence is the real centerpiece of the film, with the bizarre iconic imagery itself masking the difficult puzzle at its core. The masks worn by the audience at the ritual are darkly evocative of the hidden mysteries of the soul: fear, pain, outrage, confusion. In a psychological sense, this is the repressed core of Bill’s psyche, a cinematic version of Freud’s essays on sexual neuroses. He walks through the naked gyrations of the orgy with careful abstraction, led in fact by the masked woman who has picked him out of the crowd. But her intentions are not sexual – she warns him of the dangers of the this strange crowd he’s infiltrated. Here the sexual elements are transposed with social fears; we recall that his exposure to the darker underside of Ziegler’s party was infused with a subtle threat. There is also a reflexive element to his relationship with this masked woman, as she offers to save him just as he saved Mandy from Ziegler’s party.
The third act is the least effective, meandering about with moments of real suspense alternating with clunky narrative choices. We are given a lot of information as Bill tries to piece together the puzzle: Nightengale has been abducted, Domino is HIV positive; Mandy the naked girl is dead; creepy trenchcoated thugs are following him all about. We veer about from one suspenseful chill to another with such frequency that the overall effect is deadened, and the confusion is tiresome rather than stimulating.
We also have the somewhat muted climactic encounter with Ziegler in which we are given a clear clue as to his identity at the party:
“The whole thing might have been a charade…”
But this particular scene doesn’t really work either. We are still within the dream narrative section, as Bill’s efforts to investigate the events of the previous evening have resulted in mounting suspense: abductions, deaths, warnings. Ziegler discloses to Bill that he was in attendance at the party and offers some conflicting explanations about these events. But there aren’t any real shocking revelations here nor any of the truly dangerous atmosphere that had been building to this point. Part of the blame may unfortunately go to Sydney Pollack, a fine actor and director who nonetheless doesn’t seem to convey that element of menace that this role seemed to require. Perhaps I’m simply misreading or just plain missing these contextual issues, but it seems like this is one of the few scenes lacking that wild, unpredictable energy that pervades the film as a whole. His explanations are clunky: first, the whole party is explained as a big charade, then Mandy’s actual death is just shrugged off with heartless chauvinism, and finally Bill’s own life is not so subtly threatened should he continue with his investigative efforts. But Ziegler doesn’t seem to commit to any of these explanations, and Pollack delivers his lines like he’s discussing the weather while waiting to tee off at the golf course. I’ve thought about the idea that Ziegler’s end of the conversation could be related to his own party and not the illusionary Somerton mansion sequence, but this doesn’t quite fit either. I’m still not sure about this, and I hesitate to critically question the effectiveness of this scene, as with all things Kubrick there are often many more elements at play that are not immediately apparent. We are ultimately left as utterly confused and deflated as Bill himself.
So Bill finally returns home to finally unplug the Christmas tree and from this mad dream as well. He is confronted with a final suspenseful shock that serves as the iconic image of the real puzzle of this film – his mask from the Somerton party is lying face up on his own pillow beside his wife. Now I think this is a fairly clear indication of his psychological state: literally sleeping, metaphorically masked. His wife offered him an honest admission of her sexual fantasies and he responded by falling asleep, thereby refusing to share his own sexual imagination that he has been forced instead to endure alone in the dream narrative. This is important for the final scene of the film, the wryly optimistic ending which truly marks this as the work of insightful genius, but we will first consider the alternative. Perhaps the mask itself is real and has been placed there by the secret cabal as a warning to Bill?
Many recent reviews have focused on the conspiracy themes, seemingly parsing out the smallest obscure details in an attempt to connect them to a larger context of hidden global politics. And that’s putting it nicely. In reality, the world of Kubrick criticism is fraught with sheer lunacy. Witness the recent documentary Room 237, in which a dubious collection of “experts” offer their wide ranging opinions on the intricacies of 1980’s The Shining. Certainly that tremendous film is full of layers of dark, subtle themes, but to suggest through stop motion analysis that Kubrick hid his own visage in the clouds is pushing it. And it gets worse: there’s actually a contingent that believes the fastidious director was involved in “faking” the Apollo 11 moon landings. Of course there are so many things wrong with that “theory” that it’s not even worth discussing, but it’s out there nonetheless – literally.
So there is a school of criticism that has divined all manner of conspiratorial elements within the densely layered imagery of Eyes Wide Shut, including variants on tiresome themes like Satanic cults, mind programming, and the good ol’ Illuminati. It’s no surprise that the conspiracy crowd would be attracted to the visually symbolic work of Stanley Kubrick, and while he often bemoaned critical misinterpretations of his work, he certainly loaded this one with enough bait to suggest a complicity. The Somerton ritual sequence is loaded with meticulously detailed occultist references, and the general paranoia of the film is palpable and hauntingly contagious. There has certainly been no shortage of confrontational political ideas in Kubrick’s work, from the “new psychedelic facism” in A Clockwork Orange to the US Army-as-Mouseketeers ending of Full Metal Jacket. So the idea that there are deeper conspiratorial elements encoded within the film cannot simply be dismissed out of hand.
While there is certainly merit in discussing Kubrick’s possible political agendas, to do so at the expense of the larger contextual elements is to miss the thematic crux of the film. More precisely: the dark world that Bill glimpses behind the curtain is a representation of his own fears and insecurities about social and political power. These are totems of fear, of a mysterious power that Bill doesn’t understand. But they are manifestations of his own insecurities. Rather than taking a strong moral stand against Ziegler’s behavior with the prostitute at the party, Bill chose to cower from his perceived power; later, rather than disclosing this secret to his wife, he tacitly lied to her by shrugging off her question about his disappearance. All of this business of conspiracies and secret cabals are elements of his fears and his guilt, manifesting themselves in overtly scary forms within his dream narrative. The framed structure of the film may be teaching us something about those fears, suggesting that we should value real physical connections over the tangled web of anxieties that can complicate our interactions with elements of immorality and corruption.
But some people have to learn the hard way. Many current reviewers have latched on to certain petty themes with a wide ranging array of conspiratorial lunacy. Most reviewers like to point out the fact that Stanley Kubrick passed away “under mysterious circumstances” shortly after screening the film to executives. Of course, there’s no evidence or even the hint of an explanation of exactly what this would mean, but I suppose it just seems kind of spooky. It adds to the vibe. Like one of the masks in the mansion? Here’s a line from a review from vigilitantcitizen.com: “Regular people are lead to believe that these elite rituals are nothing more than goofy meetings of people with too much time on their hands.” Well, first of all let’s assume the author meant “led to believe,” unless he is attempting to perform some elite ritual with poor grammar. But that sentence also encapsulates the shallow rhetorical fallacies that litter these reviews. And as far as “too much time on their hands,” well.. Another one on trivisonno.com at least tries to offer a slightly different angle by suggesting that Kubrick himself was in the Illuminati and made the film as a psy-op to demystify the organization. Or at least that’s what I think the author is saying: “In fact, the entire movie exhibited glacially slow pacing; almost as if Kubrick was trying to hypnotize us,” writes Matt Trivisonno. I don’t know about that, but I suspect Kubrick knew how to use a semi-colon. Or did the Illuminati change the rules of punctuation?
In this sense, the film takes on a Rorsarchian aspect through which critical analysis becomes a revealing form of metafiction. In expanding on the minor details of a scene symbolically representing human fears about power secrecy, these fringe reviewers reveal elements of their own paranoia which are then manifested in more and more absurd forms. So while it’s difficult to take any review seriously that mentions the inner workings of the Illuminati or Kubrick’s supposed involvement with the “faked” moon landings, they do seem to prove out one of the themes of the film which is that we often harbor deep fears that take on bizarre forms in our subconscious. The issue becomes then the delineation between dream and reality, which is a struggle not only for our protagonist but many of these reviewers as well.
These critical reverberations are similar to those of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1964 pseudo-novel Pale Fire, which satirized the overly personal, pedantic, and even invasive nature of literary criticism through which the critic essentially attempts to outwit the artist. Accordingly, that novel then spawned a small following of criticism that has pored every tiny – and quite intentional – detail in an attempt to “solve” the mystery. It’s a real testament to the genius of artists like Kubrick and Nabokov in the way they were able to tap so deeply into human psychology that the criticism itself has become something like a coda to the work itself, proving out its clever insights.
So we end up with the final sequence of the film, in which Bill offers his own admission to Alice in a scene that pointedly occurs offscreen. What does he tell her? A literal interpretation would say that he details his association with this secret cabal that now threatens their future; if so, Alice’s reaction is one of muted concern, which suggests that she may not entirely accept this explanation. Indeed, she consoles him by discarding the notions of dream or reality to focus instead on their own relationship. But perhaps then his admission was more personal, mirroring her own earlier in the film, and that by disclosing the dream fantasies he has matched her effort at real psychological honesty. Her final answer resonates beyond all the riddles and symbols of the whole mess: “There is something we need to do as soon as possible – fuck.”
Nicole Kidman owns this line, and indeed the role of Alice the slightly bored housewife, imbuing the character with equal levels of wayward carnality and loving fidelity. We can see quite clearly in an early scene as she looks at her reflection in the mirror before making love that she’s imagining someone else in her arms, with her pangs of guilt easily outweighed by the illicit excitement of the moment. She loves her husband but lusts for other men, yet her performance is so full of assured sexuality that she makes the more inhibited Bill seem like the real problem in the marriage.
Tom Cruise’s best role is that of the outmatched man struggling to survive – upwardly mobile, slightly inhibited, clearly outwitted but pressing on nonetheless. It makes for the perfect sort of protagonist for a smart, suspenseful thriller like The Firm, in which his confusion at spiraling events is right in tune with the audience. I don’t believe Tom Cruise as a terrorist-thwarting world saving action hero, but I do believe him as an outclassed professional trying to maneuver beyond his limited capabilities. He is clearly outmatched here at every turn – socially, professionally, even sexually by his own wife. But he is very good in this film, delivering more of a blank psychological slate than a distinctly shaded character portrait. Bill Harford is not quite the everyman, but he’s as close we’re likely to get in this glimpse of the elite class he serves.
Eyes Wide Shut is an extraordinarily complex film. The title itself is evocative and emblematic of any manner of interpretations. Does it refer to the emotional honesty of our dream lives or our willful ignorance toward darker elements of society? This concept of a dream narrative is only one aspect of its thematic layers – there are countless other themes and reverberations that I’ve neither mentioned nor probably even discovered. It really is a magical film that entrances the viewer into the very dreamlike state that many its various sections attempt to replicate. I know I’ve picked apart some of the conspiratorial interpretations in this review, but they have their place here too – such is the level of artistic and intellectual freedom at work. Go ahead and pick this film apart, that’s what it’s there for, just go easy on the whole “Kubrick faked the moon landing” bit, okay? Or maybe we all just need to follow Alice’s advice.