Eyes Wide Shut is probably my favorite film, but it didn’t acquire this distinction until quite a long time after I had first watched it. A second viewing was followed by the nuances of the film creeping up in my mind and demanding a share of my daydreaming. When I watched it a third time, and the rest was history.
I am in some pretty good company – Stanley Kubrick considered it to be his greatest contribution to the art of cinema. Before the film was released, Kubrick died, leaving this enigmatic film for viewers to ponder without its creator to chime in. But the film was not a sudden act of inspiration that came to the auteur, but a culmination of decades of meditation and influence that provided Kubrick with a capstone that ultimately summed up his vision as a filmmaker. Kubrick had been envisioning a film about sexual relations since early in his career, and upon reading the early 20th century novella Dream Story, he decided to buy the rights to it in 1971. For almost 30 years Kubrick held the rights, and the ideas that were to become his final masterpiece took shape throughout that time.
Kubrick’s exploration of the dream world of the film that the audience is part of is ultimately manifested in Eyes Wide Shut. The diegesis of Kubrick is a dream in which the audience is invited to take part in. Kubrick stated early in his career,
The representation of reality has no bite. It does not transcend. Nowadays I am more interested in taking up a fantastic and improbable story…. I always enjoyed representing a slightly surreal situation in a realistic way. I have always had a penchant for fairy-tales, myths and magical stories. They seem to me to come closer to our present-day experience of reality than realistic stories, which are basically just as stylized.
To this end, Kubrick’s films walk the line between the dream and the reality even within his films. Mixture of the diegetic and non-diegetic sounds are a tool used throughout his filmography, at least since 1957’s Paths of Glory, over four decades before his final film. We hear a non-diegetic percussion piece when the soldiers are sent into No Man’s Land from the trench. Later, when being executed, a percussion piece plays again, only this time, we learn that the drummers are in the reality of the film. In A Clockwork Orange, the main character Alex is both the main character and the narrator; he is both the gaze and the object of the gaze. By walking this line, Kubrick recognizes that dream-state of film that always exists in the medium whether creators intend or address it or not. Films are necessarily believable and internally consistent absurdities that echo the mental filtering of reality. In a film, characters are funnier than reality; the passing of time is more perfect than reality. This is because our gaze is restricted to the narrative that is relevant to the auteur’s vision. In real life, our idea and memories of our friends are funnier than reality. Our idea of Christmastime is more wonderful and cozy than can be. Our real life gaze conserves details by only cataloging those details that are relevant to our personal narrative.
In Eyes Wide Shut, we follow Dr. Bill Harford’s adventure and see two dream worlds through his gaze. The everyday world is one of a familiar city Christmastime. People are going about their business, going through their schedules, making ends meet, and enjoying the fleeting but routine holiday atmosphere. Colorful Christmas lights are ubiquitous; their rainbow glow creates a cozy haze permeating almost every scene in this reality. In this lesser dream-state, Bill is a physician living a comfortable life with his wife and daughter. Only when his basic assumptions about sexuality are challenged by recurring images of his wife being ravished by the sailor is he shocked out his familiar dream and into a deeper kind of dream: a dream of the unknown. Bill sees an opportunity to experience something more sexy, exciting and mysterious than his predictable world, a something that can be likened to the affair that his wife attested to having desired. This opportunity is followed with single-mindedness to a secluded mansion of the ultra-elite, and the multicolored glow is gone.
The contrast is stark, and the atmosphere is perfectly somber. Bill blends in perfectly with his matching costume, and he is, for a time, a part of this dream. It is just as dark, beautiful and mysterious as he had hoped, with masked faces that are more perfect than can be in both their uniformity and their decadent self-expression. An alien and dangerous-sounding backwards chant fills the cavernous room where unknowable rituals are shown to Bill in all their exquisite choreography. The beautiful naked bodies of all the women and unrestrained, anonymous sex flatter the novelty-seeking male gaze of Bill. But it could not last long, not someone like Bill who isn’t a member of the elite. He is brought before an ominous red-robed authority figure, and the entire room watches. An equally ominous and extradiegetic-sounding sequence of notes is played on the piano by a pianist that we see in the film, in the room with the other characters. This exact piano piece appears again, in sober daytime, when Bill returns to the mansion in search for answers, but this time it actually is extradiegetic. The piano player is gone, and only the audience experiencing the film can hear it to help experience Bill’s trepidation. It continues playing as man ominously hands Bill a note, not stooping to the level of engaging in a real conversation with him.
There is a class of people that can afford to be permanent residents of this fantasy other-world, and Bill is not part of it. They can live their lives seeking novelty, playing elaborate games with the lives of others, blurring the line between theatrical diversion and deadly conspiracy. Everyone else must spend their time in the real world, worried about down-to-earth utilitarian matters. Tim Kreider writes,
For all his flaunting of his money and professional rank, Bill Harford is ultimately put back in his place as a member of the serving class. Recall how he’s summoned away from Ziegler’s party in the same polite but perfunctory manner as his friend Nick, the pianist; like him, Bill is just hired help, the party doctor, called upon to repair (if possible) and cover up (if necessary) human messes like Mandy… When Bill persists in his inquiries, Ziegler loses his temper and resorts to intimidation and threats. He reminds him of their respective ranks as master and man: “You’ve been way out of your depth for the last twenty-four hours,” he growls. Of his fellow revelers at Somerton, he says, “Who do you think those people were? Those were not ordinary people there. If I told you their names–I’m not going to tell you their names, but if I did, you might not sleep so well.” In other words, they’re “all the best people,” the sorts of supremely wealthy and powerful men who can buy and sell “ordinary” men like Bill and Nick Nightingale, and fuck or kill women like Mandy and Domino.
Indeed, Bill is a frustrated Tom Cruise. It begins to make sense why such an actor would be cast in such a great film. It’s clear that he took the role for the sake of working with a prestigious director, and thus flattering his own ego in a way that is oh-so-Tom Cruise. It’s less clear why Kubrick chose Tom Cruise for the role. After all, Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise in every one of his films, right? Oh… right. In Eyes Wide Shut, the character Bill Harford is perhaps an alternate Tom Cruise, where his life took him down the less glamorous path of the doctor. Not content with his lot in life, Bill spends his days pretending to be someone like Tom Cruise – that is, until he is unmasked, both literally and figuratively. Christmastime in the real world will have to suffice for Bill and the rest of us, where we find comfort in routine and the mundane pleasures that come our way. And if we are lucky, we can have a brief escape to the sexy, beautiful and inscrutable world of the powerful, where the satisfaction of every exciting impulse is within reach and without the cost or consequence that comes along with being part of the real world. But for the most part, there are consequences for such behavior. For Bill, the consequences are threats to his family. Domino made a living by engaging the type of sex that the elites indulged in, and was diagnosed with HIV. Mandy was robbed of her life. What normally exists only in fantasy, such as a movie, actually does exist in the other-world. The piano piece that I mentioned before sounds like a film score, and indeed is when we’re outside of the mansion.
The other-world has much more concentrated aspects of a film than the Christmastime reality, and this is recognized in the exchange between Bill and Victor. Victor explains that the whole thing was theatrical; any apparent danger that Bill had experienced was simply for show. The grandstanding sacrifice of the masked woman was, according to Victor, completely staged in order to instill fear and the illusion of danger. Bill was simply being shown a movie, and can never truly be part of the world that he escaped to for a short night of novelty. Whether or not there was any danger, whether there is a grand conspiracy or whether the prostitute was truly sacrificed is a mystery that is now outside of the realm of possible understanding. Just like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a short stint of escapism leads to dozens of varying explanations, none of which will ever be truly satisfying. This openness to interpretation was acknowledged by Kubrick himself, who said:
You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.
Bill wanted to bear witness to a different world, and this conspiracy or show was exactly what he was looking for. He is gripped on a deep level by the display that he saw, and obsessively seeks an explanation to it. He chased a beautiful rainbow only to find nothing conclusive at the end, just like the audience. He returns to Christmastime in his real world and accepts that he will never be satisfied, as he is not a privileged member of the fantasy that so enthralled him.
There can be no answer to a mystery that is as enthralling as the mystery itself. Just like the subject matter of the film, Eyes Wide Shut itself, and many Kubrick films, are questions that Kubrick had no intention of answering. Kubrick was a filmmaker that simply tried to make films, and to this end, succeeded with flying colors. Eyes Wide Shut is a worthy last page in the book of Stanley Kubrick’s life that helps us understand the previous chapters.