Analysis of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

Eyes Wide Shut is a 1999 erotic thriller produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, his last film before he died. It was also written by him and Frederic Raphael, based on the novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler. It stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (actually married at the time), who play Bill and Alice Harford, a doctor and his wife who, just before Christmas, struggle with jealousy and temptations to adultery.

The film follows Schnitzler’s novella closely, changing only the setting (from early 20th century Vienna, during the Carnival, to late 20th century New York City, pre-Christmas) and characters’ names (Fridolin to Bill Harford, Albertina/Albertine to Alice, Nachtigall to Nick Nightingale [played by Todd Field], Mizzi to Domino, etc.), and adding more erotic or quasi-erotic content (i.e., more nude scenes). A 1969 German TV movie, with English subtitles, of Traumnovelle can be found here.

Here are some quotes:

“Don’t you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?” –Sandor, the Hungarian dancing with Alice

“Sex is the last thing on my mind when I’m with a patient.” –Bill, to Alice

Bill: Uh… look… women don’t… They basically, just don’t think like that.
Alice: Millions of years of evolution, right? Right!? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s just about security, and commitment, and- and whatever the fuck else!
Bill: A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that.
Alice: If you men only knew.

“I first saw him that morning in the lobby. He was- he was checking into the hotel and he was following the bellboy with his luggage… to the elevator. He… he glanced at me as he walked past; just a glance. Nothing more. And I… could hardly… move. That afternoon, Helena went to the movie with her friend and… you and I made love. And we made plans about our future. And we talked about Helena. And yet, at no time, was he ever out of my mind. And I thought that if he wanted me, even if it was only… for one night… I was ready to give up everything. You. Helena. My whole fucking future. Everything. And yet it was weird because at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever. And… and at that moment, my love for you was both… tender… and sad. I… I barely slept that night. And I woke up the next morning in a panic. I don’t know if I was afraid that he had left or that he might still be there. But by dinner… I realized he was gone. And I was relieved.” –Alice, telling Bill about the naval officer she was tempted to have an affair with during the family vacation at Cape Cod

Mysterious Woman: [at the masked orgy] I don’t know who you are or what you think you’re doing, but you obviously don’t belong here.
Dr. Bill Harford: I’m sorry. I think you must have me mistaken for someone else.
Mysterious Woman: [whispering] Don’t be crazy. You are in great danger.

Red Cloak: [pleasantly] Please, come forward. May I have the password?
Bill: Fidelio.
Red Cloak: That’s correct, sir! That is the password… for admittance. But may I ask, what is the password for the house?
Bill: The password for the house…
Red Cloak: Yes?
Bill: I’m sorry. I… seem to have… forgotten it.
Red Cloak: That’s unfortunate! Because here, it makes no difference whether you have forgotten it, or whether you never knew it. You will kindly remove your mask. [Bill removes mask] Now, get undressed.
Bill: [nervously] Get… undressed?
Red Cloak: [sternly] Remove your clothes.
Bill: Uh… gentlemen…
Red Cloak: Remove your clothes. Or would you like us to do it for you?

“If the good doctor himself should ever want anything again… anything at all… it needn’t be a costume.” –Mr. Milich

“Listen, Bill, I don’t think you realize what kind of trouble you were in last night. Who do you think those people were? Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names… I’m not gonna tell you their names, but if I did, I don’t think you’ll sleep so well.” –Ziegler

Bill: There was a… there was a… there was, uh, a woman there. Who, uh… tried to warn me.
Ziegler: I know.
Bill: Do you know who she was?
Ziegler: Yes. She was… she was a hooker. Sorry, but… that’s what she was.
Bill: A hooker?
Ziegler: Bill, suppose I told you that… that everything that happened to you there… the threats, the- the girl’s warnings, her last minute intervention, suppose I said that all of that… was staged. That it was a kind of charade. That it was fake.
Bill: Fake?
Ziegler: Yes, fake.
Bill: Why would they do that?
Ziegler: Why? In plain words… to scare the living shit out of you. To keep you quiet about where you’d been and what you’d seen.

Bill: The woman lying dead in the morgue was the woman at the party.
Ziegler: Yes.
Bill: Well, Victor, maybe I’m missing something here. You call it fake, a charade… Do you mind telling me what kind of fucking charade ends up with somebody turning up dead!?
Ziegler: Okay, Bill, let’s cut the bullshit, alright? You’ve been way out of your depth for the last twenty-four hours. You want to know what kind of charade? I’ll tell you exactly what kind. That whole play-acted “take me” sacrifice that you’ve been jerking off with had nothing to do with her real death. Nothing happened after you left that hadn’t happened to her before. She got her brains fucked out. Period.

“And no dream is ever just a dream.” –Bill

Themes pervading both Eyes Wide Shut and Traumnovelle include jealousy, temptation, and the blurry distinction between dream/fantasy and reality. Also, there’s a close relationship between sex and death, between Eros and Thanatos.

One night, Dr. Bill Harford and his wife, Alice, go to a Christmas party hosted by his wealthy friend and patient, Victor Ziegler (played by Sydney Pollack). Both husband and wife are assailed with temptations almost from their arrival: a handsome Hungarian named Sandor makes moves on her, while Bill has two beautiful young models charming him. Already tipsy Alice, while dancing with Sandor, sees Bill with the two women and feels a pang of jealousy.

Soon after, Bill is to be subjected potentially to more temptation when Ziegler needs him upstairs to take care of a beautiful and naked prostitute who has overdosed on speedball. Now, Bill can easily resist thoughts of lust for her, since his love and commitment to Alice is…so far…unshaken by any fears of unfaithfulness from her.

Indeed, the whole time Bill is examining the nude prostitute, he looks only at her face, asking her to open her eyes and look at him. He never gives in to the temptation of looking down at her body. He asks what her name is (Mandy, played by Julienne Davis), showing further that he, as a responsible doctor and family man, has no interest at all in treating her like a sex object.

He tells her that she’s lucky she hasn’t died…this time, but she mustn’t do these kinds of dangerous drugs ever again. To Bill, she’s a human being, though to Ziegler, her rich client, she’s a human commodity to be enjoyed. In this scene, we see the first example of sex juxtaposed with death, or at least the danger of death.

Bill, as a middle class bourgeois, is content with what he has, since he feels no threat of losing it. But when Alice, stoned with him on marijuana the night after the party, tells him of the temptation she had of having an affair with a naval officer while she and Bill were on vacation in Cape Cod the year before, he wonders if she’s told him the whole truth, or if she’s concealing an actual affair she’s had with the man.

Bill’s fear of having been cuckolded is a symbolic castration of him, an unmanning. The resulting lack gives rise to a desire for other women he hitherto hasn’t had. A further unmanning occurs when Bill is walking the streets of New York that night, after making a sudden house call (during which a woman, the daughter of a man who has just died, declares her love to Bill…more temptation for him). A group of college-age men, one of whom bumps into Bill, taunts him with homophobic slurs. Like Fridolin in Traumnovelle, Bill feels like a coward for not challenging them to a fight.

Soon after, as he continues walking the streets, moping, and ruminating about Alice’s suspected adultery, a pretty young prostitute named Domino (played by Vinessa Shaw) comes up to him and invites him up to her apartment. Here we see how his symbolic castration, his wounded sense of manhood, his lack, gives rise to his desire.

Though he doesn’t go through with having sex with Domino (a phone call from Alice ruins the mood), the point is that he has seriously considered the sex. He even pays her the full amount.

Bourgeois, middle class Bill is liberal in his thinking: smoking pot with Alice, respectful to women when they are undressed, and therefore repressing his darker desires. But when the security of his world is threatened, those darker impulses of his start to come to the surface.

In The Liberal Mindset, I described the psychological conflict the liberal has between his id impulses towards pleasure (sex, drugs, etc.) and his superego-influenced sense of morality about responsibility to social justice issues. Since Schnitzler and Freud thought very similarly about sex and psychology (they even exchanged correspondence), it seems appropriate to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to my interpretation of this movie.

Bill, as a doctor and devoted husband (and as a bourgeois liberal), has a strong superego that normally prevents him from indulging in any temptations to adultery or to objectifying women. As long as all that is his is secure, he will be a good boy; but if the security of what is his is threatened, his superego will no longer restrain his id.

Similarly with the liberal, as long as his or her class privileges are safe, he or she will be generous and have a kind attitude towards the disadvantaged. He or she will make endless pleas for peace, and will speak out against such problems as income inequality; but elect the wrong presidential candidate, and the liberal will bang the war drums against any country accused–without a shred of evidence–of having aided said candidate to win, and he or she will have no qualms about voting in a candidate equally right-wing as this wrongfully elected incumbent, no matter how unsympathetic this new, desired candidate is to millennials or to the plight of the poor…as long as he is a Democrat.

The mask of the superego slips off, and we see the face of the id. Speaking of masks…

After the failed encounter with Domino (already proof of Bill’s willingness to exploit the poverty of prostitutes to satisfy his desires), Bill finds a night club where he knows his old friend, Nick Nightingale, is playing jazz piano. The two men chat after the end of the gig, and Bill learns of Nick’s next, far more exciting one: in the mansion of a secret society whose members are masked and cloaked, and where there will also be a bevy of beautiful, nude women!

By the end of the movie, we learn that Ziegler is one of the masked men in the mansion, as is Mandy, according to him, anyway (though she, also masked, and the one who warns Bill to leave immediately, is played by a different actress–Abigail Good). These nude, masked women are obviously prostitutes meant to satisfy the lust of the men of the secret society, men of wealth, power, and influence. By an interesting irony, the men’s masks give them their power, the power of anonymity; the prostitutes’ masks strip them of their power, by making them faceless, robbing them of their individuality, making them mere commodities instead of letting them be human beings.

Bill–the man whose superego kept him from objectifying women before, kept him from ever dreaming [!] of exploiting prostitutes, now, with his suspicions of Alice’s infidelity (and the password to the house is Fidelio!)–is letting his id run wild. He eagerly insists that Nightingale give him the password and address to the mansion.

Given the outrageous nature of the goings-on in the mansion, the pagan, seemingly near-Satanic rituals, and the orgies, as well as how unlikely the members of the secret society would just let Bill in, him having arrived in a taxi cab instead of in a limo, it seems less likely that Bill has really experienced the orgy scene than that he has just dreamed it, or at least fantasized about it.

Traumnovelle means “Dream Story”; Eyes Wide Shut seems to mean “eyes wide open while seeing a dream” (i.e., with one’s eyes shut), or it could mean refusing to see reality, preferring to see one’s fantasies. In other words, one is so preoccupied with seeing the fantasies used to gratify the pleasure principle (id), and is so preoccupied with the accompanying guilt (superego), that one’s eyes are shut to the reality principle (ego).

Along with the controversy of the sexual material in much of Schnitzler’s writing, he was also known to have been a highly sexed man, given to many a dalliance with women. Added to this was his chauvinistic attitude, most prevalent at the time, of course, that his female lovers ought to have been virgins. Only he was permitted to have a multitude of lovers.

There is much of Schnitzler in Fridolin (and therefore also in Bill, though in a more muted form, thanks to Kubrick’s and Raphael’s rewrites), and so his sexual double standards are reflected in the protagonist’s attitude; though, to be fair, Fridolin and Bill have their share of guilt over their sexual venturings. Indeed, on some level, Traumnovelle seems to have been Schnitzler’s purging of his own voracious sexual appetite.

So, has the whole, wild night really happened, is it just Bill’s imagination, or is it somewhere in between? A dream is the fulfillment of a wish, as Freud originally observed; or, as he observed two decades later in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, with his theories of the death drive and repetition compulsion, sometimes one engages in patterns of self-injury, or acts out unpleasant experiences over and over again. In other words, sometimes one has self-destructive urges, as Bill’s refusal to heed the Mysterious Woman’s warnings of the danger that the secret society poses to him–were it all a dream dramatized in his mind–would seem to indicate.

Recall that Bill has just smoked weed with Alice before going out for the house call. I don’t think his being stoned has detracted from the fantastic aspects of his experiences that night. He could easily have nodded off in his cab a couple of times–the ride to the house call and back–and he could thus have dreamt all, or at least part, of the more extreme experiences.

Certainly his encounter at the costume rental, with Mr. Milich (played by Rade Serbedžija) and his sex-kitten teen daughter (played by Leelee Sobieski), her being caught undressed with two Asian men in that awkward incident, seems wild enough to have been part of a dream. Then again, maybe much of it really did happen, for such is the blurred line between fantasy and reality in this film.

So, when Bill arrives at the mansion, we can interpret the meaning of the ritualistic, orgiastic goings-on inside in two ways: as having really happened, or as a dream/fantasy of his. Let’s consider the former interpretation first.

Like the authoritarian power of priests in ancient religion, we can see the ritualistic elements in the mansion as symbolic of the religious awe one might feel in the presence of such powerful people. In Traumnovelle, the masked men wear monks’ hoods and cloaks, and the masked prostitutes wear nuns’ habits.

As for the orgiastic aspect, the prostitutes’ nudity represents their powerlessness as have-nots (consider Shakespeare’s use of naked, as meaning ‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), as contrasted with the clothed men, the haves, the rich and powerful. Their threat to strip Bill of his clothes is thus to deprive him of his power, too. The women’s powerlessness is a lack of their own, giving rise to the desire for such things as drugs (i.e., Mandy’s speedball), a manic defence against the depression they must feel from always being sexually exploited.

The secret society’s exploitation of the prostitutes reminds us of Jeffrey Epstein‘s and Ghislaine Maxwell‘s prostituting of underage girls to satisfy the hebephilia and ephebophilia of all those implicated in the scandal. Their gargantuan amounts of wealth buy them the power needed to silence or kill anyone who may squeal, just as Bill is threatened by the Red Cloak (played by Leon Vitali).

So much for the interpretation that the mansion scene really happened. Now let’s interpret the scene from the point of view that Bill has imagined, or dreamed, the whole thing. Now, the goings-on in the house are a dramatization of the thought processes of Bill’s unconscious.

What we have here is a dream that is a wish-fulfillment of Bill’s desires (an orgy of anonymous sex), as well as a fulfillment, on some level at least, of his self-destructive urges (the threats). Sex meets death.

Many of the goings-on represent unconscious ego defence mechanisms: denial (Bill’s mask; his pretence that he’s a member of the secret society), projection (the members of the secret society indulging in the naughtiness instead of him), reaction formation (in Traumnovelle, the monks’ and nuns’ clothes, symbolizing the secret society’s wish to seem virtuous rather than sinful; in the original script, they were supposed to be monks’ cloaks, and actually, the cloaks and hoods we see are still rather similar to those of monks), and turning against oneself (Bill is threatened, though he hasn’t indulged in any of the sex: he’s only been watching).

Since much of the ego and superego are unconscious, the defence mechanisms tend to be activated unconsciously, too: “…the ego also contains complex unconscious defensive arrangements that have evolved to satisfy the demands of neurotic compromise, ways of thinking that keep repressed impulses out of conscious awareness in an ongoing way. Unlike unconscious id impulses that respond with enthusiasm to the prospect of liberation in making their presence felt in the analytic hour, unconscious ego defenses gain nothing from being exposed…The ego, charged with the daunting task of keeping the peace between warring internal parties and ensuring socially acceptable functioning, works more effectively if it works undercover.” (Mitchell and Black, page 26)

The password, Fidelio, represents Bill’s wish that his wife be faithful to him, even though he, like Schnitzler, wishes he could get away with being unfaithful to her. The fact that he is tricked into thinking there’s a second password means that his id is fulfilled by being allowed in the house, while his superego‘s unconscious wish to be punished for his thoughts of infidelity is also satisfied.

If the mansion scene is all a dream, the Mysterious Woman can easily be Mandy, who can also know that he is Bill, the doctor who helped her get through her OD ordeal, which she can see as him having saved her life. (In his narcissistic imagination, Bill can then think that this nude beauty likes him.)

Her offer “to redeem him,” a perversely Christ-like moment amidst orgiastic activity that some may deem Satanic, can be seen thus as Mandy wishing to repay Bill for having helped her at Ziegler’s Christmas party. If the mansion scene has really happened, though, her willingness to take the punishment (presumably death) for a man she apparently doesn’t know could come from her hatred of her life as an exploited prostitute, a kind of suicide.

As the focal point of Bill’s dream, the secret society is, on the one hand, an intimidatingly powerful, wealthy, influential group, and on the other hand, an envied group whose indulgence in forbidden pleasures is something Bill would love to join. They could, in this sense, be seen to represent the NWO of the conspiracy theorists (many have tried unconvincingly to associate the secret society with such things as the Illuminati), that is, in his imagination, in his dreams, as opposed to reality.

The secret society could also represent–again, in Bill’s imagination only–the “corporatists” that the right-wing libertarians accuse of perverting the “free market.” The corporatist NWO is both feared and unconsciously admired and envied, since they have a power and influence that their detractors would gladly wield, were the detractors as rich and successful.

Bill is conflicted between his id wanting to join the big club we aren’t in and participating in their lewd indulgence, and his superego‘s moral condemnation of their wickedness, hence his leaving the house unscathed and sexually unfulfilled, with a prostitute dying for him. The right-wing libertarian similarly condemns the corruption of the bourgeois state and its super-rich beneficiaries, imagining that this corruption has nothing to do with “real capitalism,” when it is easy to believe that, were he to rise up to the level of the elite, he too would be defending his and their opulence, claiming they’d got there through ‘hard work, gumption, and talent,’ rather than through the merciless exploitation of the working class. Just look at the libertarian Koch brothers to see what I mean.

The liberal has similar repressed desires, including his wish to preserve his class privileges, though his loftier ego ideal would have him pretend to care for the exploited, as Bill consciously does Mandy.

So, a combination of Bill’s jealousy over Alice’s suspected infidelity, his smoking of weed intensifying that jealousy and fogging his mind, his fatigue throughout the night, his presumed napping in the cabs, and his own guilt over his near-succumbing to temptation has all blurred the boundary between fantasy and reality for him.

The stress he has felt–Was the Mysterious Woman murdered by the secret society? Was she Mandy? Did she just OD one too many times? Will the secret society have him and his family killed? Did he just dream/imagine it all?–is at least to a large extent just a dramatization of his own conflict.

Projecting onto a murderous, rich elite helps Bill to forget that he, too, has at least wanted, and has the money, to exploit prostitutes, just as Milich, the owner of the small costuming business, prostitutes his own daughter. Whether petite or grande, bourgeois are still bourgeois.

Bill has the same desires as Alice, who definitely dreams of being in an orgy with men and laughs while dreaming, then weeps about it after waking up. Here we see the difference between the indulgent unconscious and the censorious conscious mind. Bill also has the same desires as Ziegler, whose Christmas party, with the constant flirtation among the guests, is a double of the mansion orgy, as well as its inspiration for Bill’s dream. Alice’s orgy dream is also a double of the mansion orgy dream.

If the mansion orgy is a dream, so is every following scene associated with it. These scenes include Bill’s return to the house gates to receive the warning letter, his fortuitous discovery of a newspaper article about Mandy’s death by drug overdose, his seeing her body at the morgue (his id ogling her nude body like a necrophile, though his superego mourns her death and his ego fears for his and his family’s lives), and Ziegler’s explanation that her “sacrifice” was staged. All of these scenes thus are unconscious wish-fulfillments, expressions of Eros, as well as expressions of the death drive.

Finally, Bill breaks down and cries in his bedroom, waking Alice up, because he sees his mask on the pillow beside her. Is this because the secret society’s muscle have been following him everywhere, or has he, because of all the stress he’s been enduring, hallucinated it? (Alice doesn’t seem to notice it.)

After all, he returned to Domino’s apartment with a gift, hoping to finish what he started the last time; and since she wasn’t home, but her pretty roommate was there instead, he was tempted to cheat with her. The news of Domino being HIV-positive reinforces the sex/death link. Domino’s bedroom walls are also covered in masks, inspiring the mansion dream as well as linking his guilt feelings with seeing (or hallucinating) his mask lying on his pillow.

He tearfully confesses everything to Alice, and the last scene shows them Christmas shopping with their daughter in the toy section of a department store. Their discussion of the matter doesn’t seem to be so much about the threats of a secret society as about his guilt feelings. This would explain why, as a solution, their focus is on loving each other, and why Alice says that, as soon as possible, they should “Fuck.” It’s all about dealing with their temptations to adultery, not a fear of being murdered.

Meanwhile, Christmas lights and decorations have been seen throughout the movie, except for the ‘Satanic’ mansion scene, of course. Christmas in this context should not in any way be confused with the Christmas spirit. In line with the commodification of women (symbolic of the exploitation of the working class in general) seen from beginning to end, Christmas here should be understood only in terms of consumerism, the fetishization of commodities, hence the final scene of the Harfords doing their Christmas shopping.

The point is that ending the elite’s exploitation of prostitutes, and of all of the working class, must include those lower-level bourgeois, like Bill, also no longer exploiting other people. One cannot stop at overthrowing those at the very top; one must overturn the entire capitalist system, and those among the petite bourgeoisie can be a great help, provided they join the workers’ cause. As Mao once said, “Our closest friends are the entire semi-proletariat and petty bourgeoisie.” (Mao, page 7)

Consider the opening of Traumnovelle, when the daughter of Fridolin and Albertine is reading the story in which “brown slaves” row a prince’s galley to a caliph’s palace. The narration’s concern is with the prince meeting the princess once he reaches the shore; the slaves, however, are as faceless, as anonymously disposable, as the nude masked women in the mansion.

Bill has shown all that concern for Mandy, but he has done so from the hypocritical point of view of a liberal. As with his condolences for Domino over her having tested HIV-positive, his empathy for Mandy is a thin disguise–a mask–covering his desire to have both women in bed.

The proletariat is always “ready to redeem” the bourgeoisie, suffering and dying so the rich can continue to live well. “Someone died,” Ziegler says to Bill, referring to Mandy. “It happens all the time. Life goes on. It always does, until it doesn’t.” The eyes of the bourgeoisie are wide open to the pleasures they can see, but shut to the suffering of those they pay to give them that pleasure. Life is a dream story for the wealthy, but a nightmare, a trauma novella, for the poor.

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