Although plenty of Stanley Kubrick’s films did not receive critical acclaim upon release (The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey), history has been immensely kind and regarded them as classics. Then there’s Eyes Wide Shut, the enigmatic thriller that Kubrick finished right before his death. Reviews at the time were mixed to say the least. Just take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes page, where one critic calls it “mesmerizing” and “unforgettable,” while another calls it “minor Kubrick,” and yet another “empty.” Most times the film is talked about today it’s either about Kidman and Cruise being naked or the infamous cult orgy and some incredibly bizarre conspiracy theories involving Kubrick’s relation to it… but we’re not on that part of the internet.
Let’s talk about why Eyes Wide Shut is a great film, one of Kubrick’s best. As always, if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading and come back, because I’m going to be jumping around a lot and spoiling the whole thing. Second, while most reviews on this site are probably safe for everyone, Eyes Wide Shut deals with overtly sexual themes and features strong language, and I’ll be talking about both, so I’m effectively giving this review an “R” rating. Make of that what you will, and I promise I won’t be (too) offended if you don’t read.
By the end of his career, Stanley Kubrick made films at whatever pace he felt like. His last three films were made in 1980, 1987, and 1999. Since he used to work as a photographer, he was a visual perfectionist, and films often took years to complete.
Kubrick had wanted to adapt Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novel Traumnovelle (Dream Story) for a long time, and even bought the rights so an English version wouldn’t be published until after the film was released. The lead is named Bill Harford, because Kubrick viewed the character as a Harrison Ford type, and he even for a time considered Ford (and Steve Martin of all people) for the part. In the end, he cast Tom Cruise as Bill, and Cruise’s wife Nicole Kidman as Bill’s wife Alice.
Under the Mask
From the opening scene, we immediately get a feel for this movie’s approach to perception. Shostakovich’s “Waltz No. 2” plays over the opening credits, perfectly capturing the film’s madness and atmosphere, but then Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) turns it off. It immediately breaks the wall between what’s happening on screen and what’s happening in the studio.
The first act is all about a facade, an illusion. Bill and Alice (Nicole Kidman) are clearly sleepwalking through life. Even before the classical music is turned off, we see Bill tell Alice she looks great without even looking at her. They make their way to a lavish Christmas party that Bill’s patient Victor (Sydney Pollack) is throwing.
Just like Bill and Alice’s marriage, the party is beautiful and decorated on the outside, but completely empty on the inside. The guests are all dressed impeccably in their nicest clothes and jewelry, but they interact with each other in the fakest of ways. Just watch the conversation when Bill and Alice walk in. They basically run the gamut of small talk, going from “Merry Christmas” to how nice Alice looks to “Thanks for sending me to that doctor” to fake laughing.
Bill has a painfully fake conversation with two women who flirt with him and promise to take him “where the rainbow ends,” but he is soon called away to treat a girl who went unconscious during sex with Victor. Alice meanwhile gets hit on by a very upfront Hungarian man (Sky du Mont), but she listens to him without either being all that interested or leaving. In fact, the only real human connection that seems to come at the party is when Bill meets his old med school buddy Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), who dropped out and pursued piano.
Compare this to the orgy where everyone is masked, but they are free to be themselves in whatever bizarre sexual manner they wish. There isn’t small talk or niceties, they all know why they are there, and they don’t hide it from anyone. No one needs to have sex in an upper room in private like at Victor’s party. People all throughout the house are having various kinds of sex with various numbers of people.
It’s also interesting that Nick is the pianist at both parties and that in both instances, Victor hired him, which leads me to…
Is It A Dream?
One of the major themes of Eyes Wide Shut—perhaps the major theme—is what is real and what is a dream. Now, it can be debated whether or not certain portions are a dream, but I don’t think the movie is trying to offer a definitive answer. Whether or not Bill is dreaming, he is affected the same way, so it’s not like the movie is ruined if something is/isn’t a dream.
The events that happen throughout the film are very dreamlike indeed, but we also get the reverse of this. Alice’s fling with the soldier was merely a fantasy, but Bill and Alice both seem to remember it as if it actually happened. Bill has a clear memory of it that is shown multiple times, even though it never happened, and even if it did he wouldn’t have (hopefully) been watching.
However, there are definitely some clues that Bill’s tryst through New York City is merely a dream. Along each step of the way, he actually finds himself in the middle of a commonly occurring dream.
After the aforementioned party, Bill and Alice smoke pot, which has clearly been laced with something, and get into a huge argument. It does lead to Bill saying “This pot is making you aggressive,” which to be fair is a pretty hilarious line. After their spat and Alice’s confession about the naval officer fantasy, Bill gets a call from Marion (Marie Richardson), one of his patients whose mother has died.
Dream 1: Death of a Loved One
We’ve all had this dream at least once where someone close to us dies. In a Huffington Post article here, psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber says that dreams of death represent something coming to an end and also anger at oneself. This sums up Bill about perfectly. Whether or not his marriage is coming to an end, his period of sleepwalking through his marriage is clearly over. He can’t just assume his wife will be faithful anymore. She may not have actually cheated on him physically, but if the opportunity was there, she would have taken it. He’s mad at her, but surely he’s mad at himself for living like this too.
When Bill arrives at Marion’s house, they exchange niceties about her father, and they soon get to talking about Marion and her fiance moving away. She is clearly not thrilled about the life ahead of her, so she makes a move on Bill. Just like Alice with the naval officer, Marion is willing to throw away her entire life and future in that one moment for a passionate encounter with Bill. This is already a reflection of Bill and Alice’s relationship, with actress Marie Richardson displaying more than a passing resemblance to Nicole Kidman.
Interestingly, Jennifer Jason Leigh was originally supposed to play Marion, and she looks enough like Nicole Kidman that they played sisters in Margot at the Wedding.
We then meet Marion’s fiance Carl (Thomas Gibson), who is more overtly a reflection of Bill and Alice. Carl has the exact same haircut as Bill, and their actors were born on the same day of the same year.
He also wears round glasses very similar to the ones Alice wears.
Their relationship is clearly headed down the same safe, passionless road that Bill and Alice’s has. If this is a dream, this is Bill subconsciously viewing his marital problems from a third person perspective.
Not long after he leaves Carl and Marion, Bill soon runs into Domino (Vinessa Shaw aka that actress from Hocus Pocus you always thought was Hilary Swank), a prostitute he decides to throw it all away for.
Dream 2: Right Before the Big Moment
As Bill and Domino are about to begin, Bill’s cellphone rings. Alice is calling to ask if he still at Marion’s. He lies and tells her he is, but he does decide to not continue things with Domino. Still trying to be kind, he pays her anyway.
Often in a dream, we are woken up immediately before the highest point of action. Right before the story comes to a head, we are knocked back into reality. Similarly, Bill is immediately reminded of his real life. Interestingly, it doesn’t stop him completely as he still continues his night, but it “wakes him up” (in a matter of speaking) for a short moment.
Dream 3: Running Into an Old Friend
Bill ends up next at the Sonata Cafe where Nick is playing piano, and this is what ultimately leads him to the infamous orgy. Now, Bill has already run into Nick before at Victor’s party, but they have more of a conversation here. Nick tells Bill that he has another gig that night, at an undisclosed location that you can only get into with a password.
The dream of running into an old friend has many interpretations, depending on the content of the dream. However, a common interpretation is that you’re awakening a part of yourself that has been dormant for a long time. Nick represents the carefree, seat-of-your-pants lifestyle that Bill has rejected. It’s no coincidence that someone with such an improvisational life is a jazz musician. Bill is again acting like a young man, caring only about himself and longing for his friend to take him on a wild adventure like surely they used to.
Dream 4: Hair Falling Out
Bill is told he needs a cape and a mask for the party, so he makes his way to a costume shop owned by a patient. However, that patient has moved away, and the shop is now owned by Mr. Milich (Rade Šerbedžija).
Milich tells Bill that his hair is falling out in large clumps. Dreams of hair loss can represent fear of aging, which someone who looks like Tom Cruise will never have, but Bill’s counterpart in Traumnovelle did. It can also represent fear of losing sexual virility or of being powerless, both of which Bill does have. He is in a situation trying to regain power in his marriage by one-upping his wife and cheating on her.
Milich’s costume shop is lit very similarly to Victor’s party.
Upon walking in, Milich comments that the mannequins in costume are very lifelike. Victor’s party also contained people dressed up in fancy tuxes and dresses, a costume under which they hide themselves. They stood around exchanging small talk and dancing, but they were ultimately no more than nicely dressed mannequins.
In a really strange scene, Mr. Milich discovers two men fooling around with his teenage daughter (Leelee Sobieski). He kicks them out of the room and yells at his daughter, who makes a pass at Bill.
Dream 5: The Pure Nightmare
Bill finally makes his way to the party Nick is playing at. Everything about the masked orgy/cult meeting just screams nightmare. There’s the expansive, creepy house, the crowd of people in black cloaks and masks, the bizarre ritual performed by the man in the red cloak, and the dreamlike music.
These are the scenes that almost got the film an NC-17 rating, and yet nothing is sexy at all about them—rather, it’s all very unsettling. Eyes Wide Shut is often deemed an “erotic thriller,” but really? I hope this isn’t doing something for anybody.
The nightmare concludes with the recurring dreams of being unprepared and being naked. Not surprisingly, both of these dreams represent feelings of vulnerability. When Bill is asked for the second password, he is completely floored. He is not welcome at this party, and everyone knows it. He is asked to remove his clothes, but a mysterious girl intervenes on his behalf, redeeming him. She is presumably led to her death, and Bill is told he is free to go, but not without first being threatened to keep his mouth shut.
Things get even weirder when Bill does some investigating the next day. Nick has been forcibly removed from his hotel room, and Mr. Milich is suddenly in dire financial straits, suddenly willing to sell his daughter for sex. Bill of course finds out that the girl from the party has died, leading him to the morgue.
So Bill’s a good guy, right? He never cheats, and the very end, he does come clean to Alice. But is he really? Whether or not this is a dream, he is clearly ready to cheat at many different times, and he is only stopped by outside events. He even calls back Marion, not because he has any feelings for her, but because he just wants to get a fling in. He’s only stopped because Carl is there.
Frankly, if it is a dream, Bill is an incredible narcissist. There’s someone coming on to him in practically every scene, whether it’s Marion, Domino, Milich’s daughter, anyone at the orgy, Domino’s roommate, heck even the hotel clerk played by Alan Cumming seems to be flirting with him. Does Bill view himself as this guy everyone wants? Does he think he’s a guy who can withstand all temptations? Regardless, he’s gotten himself in too deep, and this leads him to Victor’s home.
The Anti-Exposition Scene
I’m afraid the conversation scene between Bill and Victor is drastically misunderstood. Many will tell you it’s the film’s weak point, and at least one critic theorized that Kubrick would have cut it altogether had he lived. Traumnovelle does not have such a scene, but I think this scene not only serves a purpose, but it’s one of the best scenes in the film.
Before this scene, Bill believes he has basically figured the whole thing out. He’s discovered the girl who is murdered, and he’s visited the morgue to verify that it is the body. Bill has been told by the red cloaked man to not inquire anymore, and when he returned in the daytime, he received a threatening letter with the same message.
Victor needs to have a very serious conversation with Bill, but they find it hard to shed the forced pleasantries they always begin with. The fake banter of the opening scenes is now painful. When Victor insists on sending over some of his scotch, Bill politely and then forcefully refuses. Their conversation is slow and awkward, which I think is what turned some people off from this scene, but think about it. This is one of the most uncomfortable conversations in cinematic history. If it’s going to be realistic, it’s going to be slow and awkward.
After the pleasantries are over, and both have decided not to play pool, Victor, with one hand on the pool table and one behind his back, ironically says “No games.”
He admits he was there at the orgy and that he was the one who had Bill followed. The cult, unsurprisingly, consists of the ultra-rich and famous, of which Victor is one. Okay, this does answer a couple of questions, but Bill already knew the cult had someone follow him.
Victor continues on that the girl’s sacrifice was merely a facade to scare Bill. Bill, thinking he has the upper hand, shows Victor the paper reporting her death. Victor points out that it’s the same girl Bill treated at the party, and that she was a junkie.
So was it all a facade? Did the girl actually get killed to redeem Bill or did she just happen to die of an overdose? My initial thought was that Victor is clearly lying, but think about how much he’s honest about in this scene. I’ve gone back and forth on this, until I realized that’s the point. Whether or not the girl was killed at the party, we the audience, like Bill, will never know for sure. Victor holds all the cards, because only he and the people at the party truly know what happened. Before this, Bill thought he had it figured out, but now the water is muddied. There is no way to prove either possibility, and even if Bill tried, it would cost him dearly. He will be perpetually in a state of not knowing. Heck, this could have been the ending, but that would deprive of the fascinating final scene.
What Does That Word Mean?
When Bill returns home, he finds his missing mask on his pillow. This breaks him down to tears, and he confesses everything to Alice. They take their daughter Christmas shopping and have one final conversation about their marriage.
Alice suggests they should be thankful they survived, and that they will be together “for a long time to come.” Bill suggests forever, but Alice says “Let’s not use that word. It frightens me.” Is this the sign of a marriage falling apart, or is it just two people being completely honest with each other for the first time in a long time? She says she loves him and there’s one thing they need to do as soon as possible—”Fuck.” Roll credits.
Is it a joke? I know I’m not the only one who’s synced it up with the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme. Just like the mysterious endings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, we really have to break down the rest of the film to begin to understand the ending.
Every time Alice has used the word “fuck,” it has been out of disgust. She asks Bill about the girls at the party “Did you by any chance happen to fuck them?” In her dream, everyone around her was “fucking,” and she was “fucking” other men.
Conversely, she only uses the phrase “make love” twice, both in reference to the naval officer. On vacation, she and Bill “made love,” but she was thinking about the naval officer the whole time. In her dream, she “made love” to the naval officer, but every other sexual encounter in the dream was “fucking.”
If the movie ended with Alice saying “Make love” instead of “Fuck,” it would be a hopeful ending. However, her use of “Fuck” suggests that there is nothing left of their marriage except animalistic sex, the thought of which she finds grotesque. As she points out, they’re “awake now.” They will probably try to work things out, but the sleepwalking is over, and they are going to find out soon that they are not holding onto anything worth saving.