Eyes Wide Shut

Though Stanley Kubrick's genius had given birth to some of my favorite movies-most notably A Clockwork Orange (1971)-it was with some trepidation that I went to see his final film.

Eyes Wide Shut

Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Frederic Raphael
From the novella Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler (Warner Books, 1999)

by Michael P. Aanavi, Ph.D.

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Though Stanley Kubrick's genius had given birth to some of my favorite movies-most notably A Clockwork Orange (1971)-it was with some trepidation that I went to see his final film. After all the post-mortem, pre-release hype, I feared Eyes Wide Shut would be long and boring and pointless, the last gasp of a director whose most recent work (Full Metal Jacket, 1987) I'd found disappointing. I was, to say the least, pleasantly surprised at the psychological depth of this film in which subtleties abound: the sociology textbook in the lower right corner of the screen as Dr. William Harford (Tom Cruise) receives a cell-phone call from his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) while standing in a prostitute's bedroom; "Lucky to Be Alive," the headline on the newspaper Bill buys while a threatening-looking man follows him through the streets of Greenwich Village; "Fidelio," the title of the Mozart opera, used as the password to a bizarre sex-world-a deft allusion to the counterpoint of the film: faithfulness, fidelity…

Bill and Alice Harford are apparently an enviable, affluent young couple: he's a successful physician, she's beautiful, artistic, and attentive to their young daughter. In the opening sequence of the film, Kubrick teases us with allusion to Cruise and Kidman's real-life relationship as the Harfords prepare for a Christmas party at Victor Ziegler's (Sidney Pollack) spectacular Manhattan home. Alice, both sweet and seductive, unceremoniously wipes her bottom as she gets up from the toilet. Her last act before leaving for the party is to remove her eyeglasses, foreshadowing the denial she and Bill will use to maintain the illusions upon which their marriage is founded. At the party, both Bill and Alice apparently enjoy their power as desirable objects as they flirt-she with Sandor, her vulpine would-be seducer, he with a pair of fawning models. Despite her intoxication and obvious titillation, Alice chooses to leave the arms of her Hungarian dance partner. Bill's choice, however, is made for him: he is called away to minister to Ziegler's overdosed lover Mandy (Julienne Davis)-the first in a series of incidents in which Bill almost, but not quite, arrives at a position of consciousness.

The critical moment of the film is the Harfords' pot-induced argument in their bedroom, wherein she angrily tries to disabuse him of his naïve perception of women while he remains painfully clueless. They argue about the events at the party the previous evening, Bill defending his belief that, unlike men, women have evolved as creators of home and hearth and child. Bill believes Alice will be faithful to him simply because she is his wife and the mother of his daughter. When Alice accuses him of being "sure of himself," he tells her, simplistically, "No, I'm sure of you." Alice, taken aback, attacks, revealing her lust for a passing naval officer during their summer vacation on Cape Cod, her willingness to throw their relationship away, her relief at the stranger's absence the following day. Bill, shocked by Alice's revelation, tries desperately to hold onto his belief that she desires only him. One exchange seems to sum up the entire conversation, perhaps even their entire relationship: Bill says, "Alice, this pot is making you aggressive." She responds, "It's not the pot, it's you." He has no concept of the real lust and anger which writhe merged below her surface, while she apparently cannot express her anger except within the context of lust. For her part, Alice does seem to look beneath the surface of her impulsive desire to throw away their relationship for a man she's never met-but only for a moment, and only in an altered state. Bill and Alice have no real relationship because they are apparently not able to relate inwardly to themselves, to their shadows, to their desires and fears. This problem is the dominant theme of the film: sex without Eros; relationship without relatedness; lack of self; projection of Other.

When Alice once again tries to break through Bill's calcified persona, questioning him about his intimate contact with his women patients, he cannot conceive of the fact that despite his role as a physician he might have sexual feelings while examining a woman's breast. He cannot understand the possibility, as his wife tries to point out, that a woman whom he examines might have carnal feelings for him. Once again, Bill's duties as a physician interrupt a moment of potential consciousness as a telephone call summons him to the bedside of a just-deceased patient. Tortured by fantasies of Alice with the naval officer, he rushes to comfort Marion (Marie Richardson), his patient's vulnerable and grateful daughter. With her father's body lying on the nearby bed, Marion suddenly kisses Bill and professes love for him, but Bill maintains his professional stance, not revealing his shock. Once again he is saved by the bell-the doorbell announcing the arrival of Marion's fiancé. Nevertheless, Alice's revelation and Marion's confession have fractured his sense of reality, and he stumbles out of his formerly safe, conventional world into a night of dream-like imagery.

Bill spends the rest of the night encountering the darker side of desire. He repeatedly retreats to his professional persona, and as the evening progresses he delves into realms that become increasingly dark and archetypal. Wandering through the Village, he is assaulted by a group of young men who shout homophobic slurs at him, and is shocked that they would think him homosexual-perhaps a reference to another facet of his psyche so deeply buried it must come out in action against him rather than in conscious image. He goes to the room of Domino (Vinessa Shaw), a young prostitute-and the owner of the sociology text-and seems on the verge of having to truly encounter his own desire. At the crucial moment, though, a call from Alice on his cell-phone summons him back to his persona. He visits a bar where Nick (Todd Field), a medical school friend turned musician, reveals that he has been playing blindfolded at mysterious late-night parties with beautiful naked women. Bill impulsively insists on attending, and despite Nick's warnings he manipulates the password and location from his friend. On a magnificent Long Island estate, Bill enters a world of masked, robed figures, naked women, and orgiastic rituals. Still he seems clueless, desperate, not believing in the seriousness of what he has undertaken. Despite the ominous appearance of the world he has entered, despite the warnings of a naked masked woman, he cannot quite believe that his life is in danger.

Bill is unmasked as one who does not belong there and is ordered to undress. Yet again he is "saved," this time by the masked woman who offers herself in his place. Bill, relieved at the prospect of saving his own skin, asks what will happen to her, and is told, "No one can change her fate now." This again is a crucial moment, a possibility for engaging depth, a chance for initiation and transformation which Bill avoids. He accepts what he is told, accepts her sacrifice; in fact, he does not appear to understand that the consequences of his actions could be very real and very dangerous. As he quipped in an earlier scene-during his flirtation with the two models at Ziegler's party-"That's the kind of hero I am." Bill is an uninitiated hero who is willing to offer a clean handkerchief to a model with something in her eye, but who leaves another to pay the price for his acts, running from the real risks of descent and individuation.

Upon his return home, Alice tells Bill she's had a dream of fucking countless men and of making fun of him while she does it. While Bill's journey takes place in the external world, Alice's process emerges from within but is used as a weapon to humiliate and wound her husband. At some level, though, his experience at the Long Island estate is the same as hers in the dream garden, for despite reversed roles in their unconscious worlds they are both presented with the opportunity for transformation. In her dream story, Alice is presented with the possibility of becoming conscious of herself, of her hatred of Bill; this time, though, Alice is the one who is prevented from the completion of her journey by external circumstances when she is awakened by Bill. Like Bill, she apparently cannot reflect on her experience, and so it remains unintegrated.

Despite warnings to the contrary, Bill returns to the estate at which he was unmasked the night before. Still apparently unable to recognize danger, he receives another warning, is pursued by an ominous stalker, and reads in the newspaper that Mandy-the woman who overdosed at Ziegler's party-has been hospitalized. He uses his medical license to gain access to the hospital, and then to the hospital's most shadowy reach-the morgue. He sees, finally, the reality of what happens when one attempts to sever the shadow, but he cannot quite bring himself to kiss her corpse. Throughout the film, he relies on his persona as a physician to gain access to others, to privilege, to information, yet he cannot gain access to himself. He has severed himself from anything below the impersonal level of doctor, husband, father. He is naïve, and cannot touch the reality of the people around him, nor can he conceive of the real danger in which he has placed himself and others. This danger-punishment at the house, Mandy's death, ominous warnings, Domino's HIV status-must be real in order to afford any possibility of true transformation; in his denial, Bill denies himself the possibility of moving toward wholeness.

Bill is called once again to Ziegler's home, and during a conversation over pool and Scotch he learns the "truth"-or, at least as much as Ziegler is willing to reveal. We cannot know what remains untold, although it seems clear that all is not as neat and tidy as Ziegler would have Bill believe. Psychologically, however, Ziegler quite clearly tells Bill what has happened: "You've been way out of your depth for the past twenty-four hours." Bill buys the package he is being sold because it allows him to make sense of the events of the past day within the context of his persona, but returns home to find that Alice has, literally, unmasked him. Terrified of her rejection, tearful, he tells her all.

In the final scene, after his confession, the couple returns to persona-Christmas shopping with their daughter in New York City. In a crowded store they allow their daughter to wander out of sight so that they can have a private conversation. Bill asks Alice what they should do, in his child-like way placing the responsibility for decision in her hands. The "happy" ending which ensues covers up their mutual eruption, returning them to denial, to lack of depth, to lack of relatedness. Again child-like, he says "forever," projecting his naïve love onto her; she demurs at "forever" by telling him she wants to go "fuck," and so she too avoids inner struggle and the possibility of a real relationship. For ultimately, despite all their opportunities, Bill and Alice never develop a relationship beyond the superficial-a superficiality mirrored in the consumerist setting of the final scene. Once again ignorant of real danger, the couple here allows their daughter, the Child, to disappear into the crowd, symbolically losing both the possibility of transformation and the capacity for depth. Bill remains intransigent in his naïveté, while in Alice's final expression of desire she once again sexualizes her anger. Their lack of relatedness to self and other truly remains unchanged.

The title of Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut, tells us of the struggle within and the struggle between. Alice's revelation is enough to open Bill's eyes wide with shock, yet he still cannot see into himself. He cannot dream, so the outer world becomes his unconscious and intrudes upon his fragile ego position. And, throughout the film, he sees the women around him-Alice, Mandy, Marion, Domino-as part objects, women who in their lack of wholeness are not truly erotic, but are instead hooks for his naïve projections. Alice, for him, must be the sweet wife/mother of his child, faithful and trustworthy; Mandy plays the role of prostitute and junkie; Marion is the grieving daughter, dutiful and relegated to the realm of professional superficiality; and Domino too is a prostitute. But Bill cannot see the wholeness possible in each one, cannot integrate them, cannot see the Mandy in Alice, the Alice in Marion, the sociology student in Domino. Alice's anger remains equally as unintegrated, and both are doomed to be trapped by their shadows; both remain in danger of acting out their psychic splits because they cannot reflect upon them. And so, Kubrick's final film is about the dangers inherent in the futile attempt to repress the shadow and to lead a life of persona, however desirable that may appear. Eyes Wide Shut is, finally, a film about the necessity of facing the imperfection of reality so that relationship can move from fantasy and projection to true relatedness.

Aanavi, M.P. (2001). Eyes Wide Shut [Review of the film Eyes Wide Shut]. San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, 19, 71-76.