Sex is something that has always been used for differing purposes in film. The saying goes that “sex sells” doesn’t it? If one were to look at the box office takes of the multitude of frat boy movies containing nothing but naked women and raunchy jokes they would have a hard time disagreeing. While these movies can be entertaining the problem with them lies in the way sex is portrayed. It has become a gimmick to get asses in seats and the most important and relatable elements of the act have become nothing but a distant memory. I believe Eyes Wide Shut is a film that attempts to treat sex as as both an emotional act and a physical one. The film tackles the issue of infidelity both in dreams and reality, and it presents the main characters with barriers and realizations that could alter the rest of their lives.
Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (EWS) is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1929 novel Dream Story (or Traumnovelle in German) and stars (at the time real life spouses) Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as William and Alice Harford a married couple with one child living in New York City. The film starts at an eerie party where opportunities for infidelity are presented immediately to each person and eventually creates circumstances which lead to Dr. William Harford experiencing a sexually charged and extremely dangerous night long journey through New York City. The night is very dreamlike because of the many things he encounters (both dangerous, random and sexual) and the way in which he is able to escape from the situations without any ill effects.
We will also be looking at the way in which masks are used in both the literal and emotional sense and how the characters use them to disguise their true thoughts and then shed them both to hurt others but liberate their own feelings. This is a film that takes two of the world’s biggest and most beautiful stars and puts them in roles which take advantage of their sexuality both to attract and repulse the viewer. More specifically the characters are involved in a few sex scenes (not necessarily together), but the situations in which they take place are rarely ideal or for that matter “pleasurable” to the viewer. I find that to be what is most fascinating about EWS. It was marketed with trailers and tv spots which would simply show Nicole Kidman undressing with credit cards saying “CRUISE, KIDMAN, A FILM BY STANLEY KUBRICK” along side Chris Isaak’s song “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing.” And while this marketing was smart from a purely financial point of view, it revealed absolutely nothing about the film. The film is loaded with sexuality but it is portrayed in almost every way imaginable; from a purely physical stand point to one of love and marriage.
I found that EWS felt like a group of episodes in which the main characters run into something that tests their dedication to each other. Symbolically each of these episodes is loaded with characters that challenge the constraints of marriage and the meaning of sex as an act or a bond. The first of these challenges comes when the couple goes to a friend’s lavish Christmas party and are surrounded by wealthy strangers. The two separate when Bill runs into an old friend (who will be discussed in much detail later) and they leave to reminisce. Although they agree to meet back up at the bar, William and Alice both embark on solo missions in the party. Alice, while waiting at the bar, is charmed by Sandor Szavost, a Hungarian man who wastes no time flirting, while Bill is seen canoodling with a couple of models. What I found most fascinating about Sandor Szavost are the things he says; he’s overly charming (I would say sleazy, but some girls have disagreed with me), handsome and extremely sexual. While they are dancing Alice spots Bill speaking with a couple of models, Sandor notices this and swerves his discussion into the topic of marriage. He tells Alice that women originally got married so they could lose their virginity and be free to have sex with anyone they wanted, but I found his most enigmatic line to be “Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” He certainly makes infidelity sound like a regular and enjoyable thing and while Alice is charmed, at no point does it look like she is about to partake in anything with him. It is as if he is trying too hard to be the serpent tempting Alice with the forbidden fruit. He continues to go on inquiring about why Alice is married. Sandor asks Alice why women like her would want to be married and she replies, “Why wouldn’t she?” and he simply says, “Is it as bad as that?”
Sandor is evidently a man who believes that sex is a purely physical connection (or at least a temporary mental one) in which both parties involved get their pleasure and then move on. Sandor moves with the confidence of a man who believes in himself and what he has to say, and it is interesting to note that we never see this man again. He is argued over by Bill and Alice but he is never heard from again. He is just one of those barriers that once passed over are quickly forgotten. While Alice is occupied with this man, Bill is having a drink with an old med school friend Nick Nightingale (who was the piano player for the band playing) and they briefly speak about Nick playing at a bar in the village before he has to leave. I found this party scene to be an excellent start to the movie because it sets the pace for some of the issues that are going to be covered. From the mysterious Hungarian man, to the models that are flirting with Bill, the party sets a tone and this “episode” of the film ends with Bill and Alice making love in their home.
Although they both saw each other at the party with other people, they do no make mention of it until the following night when they are in their bedroom relaxing and smoking a joint. This is the scene (eerily similar to the many blow ups in Revolutionary Road) in which the entire pace of the film changes and the “happy” looking family starts to fall apart. The conversation starts innocently enough with them joking about the people they saw each other with, but quickly turns into a full fledged fight when Bill tells Alice (continuing in the joking tone) that it is understandable why the Hungarian man would want to sleep with her, “…because [she] is a very, very beautiful woman.” This comment pushes Alice over the edge and she starts flipping out on Bill, saying things like, “So…because I’m a beautiful woman the only reason any man wants to talk to me is because he wants to fuck me!” And then she accuses Bill of speaking to the models only to sleep with them. I found this discussion particularly painful because (maybe it is because I am a male) I truly felt like Alice was picking a fight with Bill. She brought his work into the fight by all but accusing him of getting sexual kicks out of checking out his female patient’s bodies, and goes on to say that the females are probably getting kicks too. While this is not necessarily an obscure concern, in a perfect world Alice would trust Bill in the way he trusts her. Being a doctor is his profession, and really there is nothing he can do if his patients enjoy going to him for more reasons than his professional skills.
Bill is not exactly innocent in this argument either because he is somewhat naive when it comes to his thoughts on women. Now it is entirely possible he is saying this for her benefit, but Bill tells Alice that most men mainly approach women because of the possibility of sex and that women more or less just don’t think that way. Alice again takes offence to this comment and does her best to make Bill jealous by telling him a story which (while at the time she may not realize it) changes everything in their relationship. She can’t understand why Bill is never jealous for her and in a final effort to make him jealous she tells him a story of something that happened during one of their summer vacations at Cape Cod. She tells him of a young navel officer who glanced in her direction for a moment and she could “hardly move.” She says that she would have been willing to drop her husband, her daughter and everything if the officer had wanted her even for just a night. Alice showed off a strange satisfaction in knowing that this story was upsetting Bill and it did in fact leave him speechless, with the beautifully shot images of his face doing all the talking necessary.
This night is very much a shedding of disguises for both characters because this is a story that Alice has never told Bill before because she knew how much it would hurt him and yet she let her emotions get the better of her. In Alice’s eyes Bill has been revealed as a man who is stereotypical in his thoughts towards women and thinks that Alice is much more innocent than she is. Before Bill has a chance to come up with an incredibly difficult rebuttal to Alice’s story, fate intervenes and the phone rings with the person on the other end telling him that someone he knows has died. This seemed like too perfect timing because I can’t even imagine the conversation which would have followed this revelation by Alice. As you can see, the idea of “episodes” in EWS does not seem so far fetched and the one that follows has Bill caught in a constant onslaught of sexual desire, temptation and maybe even fate.
The next scene starts with William in the back of a taxi, letting his jealousy finally overcome him with fantasies of his wife and the naval officer having passionate sex. These fantasies occur multiple times throughout the film and are in black and white. The interesting thing about the fantasies are that they somehow manage to make sex between two beautiful people hard to watch; it is as though we are so aligned with Bill’s character that seeing Alice have sex with another man is just as hard for the viewer to deal with. Once Bill arrives at the home he gives very warm and sincere condolences to the deceased’s daughter Marion and they sit down to talk. They talk about family and that she is moving away with her soon to be husband. Bill shows genuine happiness towards her and somehow this pushes Marion over the edge because she lunges at Bill declaring her love for him. After a short but passionate kiss (on Marion’s end anyway) Bill gently pulls her off him and tells her that she needs to re-evaluate what she is saying and that she is very upset right now. I was somewhat surprised that Bill didn’t back off immediately after she started kissing him and I thought of two reasons why he may have taken his time. The first may have been out of pure spite for Alice, in some way convincing himself that he is just as capable of infidelity as her, and the second may have been so he wouldn’t have shattered Marion’s heart more than it was already. Whatever the reason may have been, the awkwardness was quickly shattered by a ring of the doorbell by Marion’s boyfriend. Bill takes this as his cue to leave and heads outside for a walk.
The next challenge to Bill’s sexuality comes in the form of school boy taunting. As he is walking down a sidewalk a group of students start mocking him saying he plays for the “pink team” etc. Then one of the boys purposely bumps Bill into a parked car, temporarily knocking him over. This scene is hard to watch knowing everything that Bill has been through the past couple of hours and knowing that in reality some people really are jerks like that. It is as though William’s sexuality is being tested in every step he takes, and it is nothing but bad luck that Bill happens to walk by these jerks when he does.
Having just gotten over that scene with the boys Bill is waiting at a cross walk when a pretty young woman stops to talk with him. She starts casually by asking the time and then asks if he’d like to “have some fun.” As it turns out she lives just a couple houses ahead of them and while he doesn’t necessarily verbally agree, Bill goes inside the woman’s house. I was temporarily in a state of disbelief while watching this scene because I really did not want Bill to go inside. Okay he just found out his wife almost had an affair, but come on man, a prostitute? Luckily I was not forced to watch Bill make this mistake because once again fate intervened and his phone rang, with Alice on the other end. I feel as though it is necessary to jump closer to the end of the movie for a moment and explain the significance of Bill not sleeping with this woman. Later in the film he returns to the apartment with a gift for her but is greeted by her roommate. Having some sort of new found confidence, Bill starts caressing this new woman’s breasts and although she looks to be enjoying it, she stops him and reveals that she has news he needs to hear. As it turns out the woman that Bill almost slept with just tested HIV positive and well, if Bill had slept with her……I believe there is no need to explain any further. This is just another way in which EWS shows off the many different aspects of sex, in this case the possible ill effects if not done carefully.
Earlier when discussing the party that Bill and Alice went to, I briefly mentioned that Bill ran into an old friend, Nick Nightingale. The two went to med school together, but Nick dropped out and became a concert pianist. As fate would have it, once Bill left the prostitutes home he happened by the bar that Nick is playing at and went in for a drink. Once Nick finished his set Bill called him over and they had a drink. After catching up for awhile Nick revealed that every night (including later this same night) he plays piano blindfolded for people he doesn’t know at a constantly changing venue and of the one time he actually caught a glimpse of what was going on. He described the place as being nothing like he had ever seen and that it had incredible amounts of beautiful women. Of course after Bill heard this he wasn’t going to let Nick go on without him, so after some convincing he got the entrance password, the address and the helpful tip that you must wear a costume in order to get in. The password for the party was “Fidelio,” interesting both for its obvious connotations to the word “fidelity” and because “Fidelio” is the name of Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera. The opera is about a man who finds himself locked in a dungeon under a fortress and, in an attempt to free him, his wife dresses as a man, takes the name Fidelio and goes to work in the fortress (Beethoven’s Opera Fidelio). It is not hard to spot the similar theme of disguising oneself between Fidelio and EWS, but I would have to watch the opera in order to do a proper comparison.
Another very strange but hilarious sexually driven episode happens when Bill goes to rent a costume for the party that night. Once Bill manages to convince the owner of a costume shop to let him in at so late an hour, they go through the store to the cash register, where the shop owner (after first consulting the doctor about his recent balding issue) hears a sound coming from a nearby room. Upon investigation he finds his young daughter in her underwear with two older Japanese gentleman who are basically naked except for wigs and makeup. He threatens the Japanese gentleman with legal action and says to his daughter “You little whore! I’ll kill you for this! I promise, I’ll kill you!……I’ll kill you!” While this scene may not seem anything but a brief dose of comedy, I found it to be another fitting sexual event for Bill. The situation itself was obviously incredibly awkward for him, but the fact that the daughter ran behind him for protection, whispered something (which we’re to assume is sexual, but in the screenplay is anything but) into his ears and looked at him as if she wanted to sleep with him, all seemed fitting with the way his night has been going. Once receiving and changing into his costume, Bill heads towards the party and pays an insanely high cab fair.
I know it seems as though the build up for this scene has been long, but it was an entirely necessary one because what follows is (in my mind) the most important scene in the movie and the critical point of this essay. Once Bill gives the password and is granted access to the mansion he is greeted by two butlers in gold masks (from this point on everyone is wearing a mask and all the men but the butlers are in hoods) who take his coat and show him through to the next room. Once he enters the hall it is not hard to imagine the sensory overload Bill likely encounters. The very strange synthesized music (played by Nick Nightingale who can be seen blindfolded in the background) is being played loudly along with a strange ritual taking place. Everyone in the hall is dressed the same as Bill (except for differing masks), with strange and often frightening Venetian carnival masks and black cloaks. In the center of the room is a circle of kneeling masked figures and in the center of them is what looks to be the leader of this “cult”; a red cloaked man walking around the circle with a pot of burning incense in one hand and a staff in the other. This man controls the ceremony and upon hitting his staff on the floor each figure stands up and removes their cloak, revealing incredibly beautiful women wearing nothing but a mask and g-string. After another hit of the staff one of the women kisses the one to her right and the sequence follows through the entire circle. In my mind kissing has always been a very passionate action, but seeing these masked women kiss each other with their mask lips is a very strange and unattractive scene. While watching the ritual Bill notices two sinister looking figures eyeing him on the balcony. The shot of the two masks is very much like a painting and is truly mesmerizing. The mask on the left is of a woman wearing a red and gold hat and she has a white face with red lips, cheeks and eyebrows; the mask is crying and has a tear running down its right cheek. The mask on the right is almost completely opposite to its counterpart. It is of a man wearing a tricorn hat with a face that is showing absolutely zero emotion and does not even have lips. The masks of these two figures look as though they know that Bill is an outsider and is in danger.
Masks in films have always had an unusual effect on emotions because even though they never change their shape, they are speaking thousands of words. Another example can be seen in the film Vanilla Sky, in which the main character temporarily wears a prosthetic mask which has a completely neutral expression on it, yet is still very effective when coupled with the character’s voice and actions. Many of the Venetian Carnival masks in this hall are showcasing emotions like laughing or crying, but the effect they have on the viewer changes with each new issue that Bill faces. The laughing could, at times, be seen as comical and at other times frightening. After another hit of the staff the women one by one go out and what looks to be by random, choose men in the crowd and exchange kisses with them. As fate would have it one of the women chooses Bill, but instead of taking him somewhere where they can become better acquainted she very theatrically states, “You’re in great danger. And you must get away while there is still a chance.” Before she has a chance to further explain herself a man takes her away and leaves Bill to continue his exploration of the mansion. What he encounters is a labyrinth of rooms containing countless men and women having uninhibited animalistic sex in front of sometimes dozen of voyeuristic onlookers. Women are laid out on tables while men violently thrust themselves inside them, while other women engage in a pseudo “69” position on each other. All these emotionless acts of sex are not in the least bit attractive because each member involved is wearing a mask and showing no true feelings. Compared to the other onlookers Bill manages to make himself look somewhat confused and out of place and it is as if everyone around him knows this but isn’t saying anything. Every mask seems to stare a hole through him and he is left utterly clueless to this. The woman from before eventually does come back (now completely naked except for the mask) and again warns him of the danger he is in. As opposed to just leaving, Bill attempts to take off the woman’s mask and find out her identity but she again disappears before she is caught helping him.
Unfortunately before Bill has a chance to leave, one of the butlers stops him and tells him his cab driver would like a word. They walk through a dance hall with gay, lesbian and straight couples dancing to “Strangers in the Night” and into a room which definitely does not contain the cab driver. I found the brief walkthrough of the dance hall to be oddly amusing because it was playing a strangely “normal” song for the kind of place they were in and for the fact that this was the only place in which the masked people seemingly showed any emotion. Something about them embracing each other in a more civilized manner humanized them when compared to the infinitely more sexual scenes from earlier. Instead of going towards the front door the butler leads Bill back to the hall where the original ritual took place, and there in the center (surrounded by dozens of cloaked figures) is the man in the red cloak with two cronies wearing blue on each side of him. As Bill makes his way closer to the man in red, the cloaked men surround him on every side and all their masks look as though they are laughing hilariously at him. Almost as if singing along with the score the man in red demands the “other” password and when Bill reveals he does not know it the entire crowd starts whispering as if perfectly on cue. Bill is then asked to remove his mask and clothes, but upon removing his mask, the woman that tried to warn Bill appears on the balcony. In one last attempt to save him the woman yells, “Stop! Let him go. Take me, I am ready to redeem him.” Keeping with the same tone she used to warn him with earlier, the woman speaks very theatrically and the zoom shot used to introduce her into the scene works perfectly to capture the moment. Before Bill manages to find out the woman’s fate he is rushed out of the mansion with these words of warning, “….if you say a single word to anyone about what you have seen here, there will be the most dire consequences for you and your family.”
This entire scene has sex being used very much in the same way that Sandor Szavost appeared to prefer it, a purely physical experience. He was willing to have sex with Alice after having only known her for moments and these people are willing to have sex with each other without actually knowing a single thing about one another, they do not even share their faces. I also find it difficult to actually think less of these people, because while the actions in which they are partaking are not quite what I am into, it is not as though they are murdering anyone. Nothing about the roots of the ritual are ever revealed, so for all Bill and we the viewer know, this could be an ancient religious act. I guess the main issue is the fact that sexually transmitted diseases are probably running rampant throughout the mansion, as I am assuming no one is using protection.
Finally able to go home, but visibly exhausted, the final episode we will analyze takes place when Bill arrives at his apartment. It is very late at night (or early in the morning, whichever makes more sense) when Bill arrives home, and on his way to his room he checks in on his daughter and then locks his costume up in a cabinet. When he enters his bedroom he is greeted by the hysterical laughter of Alice lying in her bed having a dream. He wakes her and then lies down, asking her what she was dreaming about. The dream she describes is probably the last thing on the planet he wanted to hear. Alice dreamt that the two of them were naked in a deserted city and that when Bill went to look for their clothes the officer from Cape Cod appeared and the two of them started have sex and then people started surrounding them, all having sex. Alice went on to explain that she started having sex with many different men and then when Bill showed up from his excursion she pointed and started laughing as loud as she could at him, that is when it ended. Nothing is said by Bill after this story as he is left with a perplexed look similar to when Alice first told him of her feelings for the Officer. What terrible timing for Alice to have a dream like the one she had, but from personal experiences the contents of dreams partially occur from events that happen throughout the day and sex/the officer were hot topics earlier in the night.
I feel it is necessary to sum up the journey that Bill went through in this night because lined up side by side it is somewhat humorous. The night started with Alice and Bill having an argument over what each other are thinking in relation to sex and led to Alice revealing she was willing to have an affair with someone. It then moved on to Bill being mauled with kisses and love by the daughter of an acquaintance of Bill’s who died earlier in the night. Upon leaving her Bill was verbally and physically assaulted by a group of young students on the street and then picked up by a prostitute (who was eventually revealed to have HIV) who he almost slept with. He then witnessed a very young woman get caught with two older men by her father and after that travelled to a dangerous sexual cult meeting in the suburbs (wracking up a huge taxi bill every step of the way). What I found to be interesting and in keeping with the dream theme of this film, is the fact that Bill got himself into trouble many times throughout this night, but was always saved in the nick of time by some sort of divine intervention. In dreams nothing can truly harm you because you are imagining it and in this dream-like night that Bill had he came so close to being in real trouble but was always saved by something. Is that not what dreams are all about? Being able to let yourself become truly uninhibited with the realization that nothing harmful will truly come out of it.
The only enemy in writing this has been time, there are so many different things to talk about in reference to Eyes Wide Shut, but just so little time. I would have also liked to compare and contrast this film to “Dream Story” but perhaps that will have to be saved for another time. This is a movie that I found to be directed, shot, scored and acted in as excellently as it was written. Kubrick adapted “Dream Story” into a modern, contemporary story which initially mocks the viewers with all but one small sex scene between Cruise and Kidman, but then makes them forget about their initial lusts and takes them to places which they did not expect in the least. In retrospect I believe that is what was so excellent about the way this film was marketed. It was able to attract casual viewers with the promise of sex and then bombarded them with an incredibly deep and at times disturbing film.
Just to get this out there, the final word uttered in the film is fuck.