by Tim Kreider
“So… do you… do you suppose we should… talk about money?”
—Dr. William (“Bill”) Harford
Critical disappointment with Eyes Wide Shut was almost unanimous, and the complaint was always the same: not sexy. The national reviewers sounded like a bunch of middle-school kids who’d snuck in to see it and slunk out three hours later feeling horny, frustrated, and ripped off. Kubrick was old and out of touch with today’s jaded sensibilities, they said. The film’s sexual mores and taboos, transplanted straight out of Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-siecle Vienna—jealousy over dreams and fantasies, guilt-ridden visits to prostitutes, a strained discussion of an HIV test that echoes the old social terror of syphilis—seemed quaint and naive by the standards of the sordid year 1999. One last time Stanley Kubrick had flouted genre expectations, and once again, as throughout his career, critics could only see what wasn’t there.
The backlash against the film is now generally blamed on its cynical, miscalculated ad campaign. But why anyone who’d seen Kubrick’s previous films believed the hype and actually expected it to be what Entertainment Weekly breathlessly anticipated as “the sexiest movie ever,” is still not clear. The most erotic scenes he ever filmed were the bomber refueling in Dr. Strangelove and the spaceliner docking in 2001. He mocks any prurient suspense in the very fist shot of this movie; without prelude, Nicole Kidman, her back to the camera, shrugs off her dress and kicks it aside, standing matter-of-factly bare-assed before us for a moment before the screen goes black like a peepshow door sliding shut. (You can almost hear the director’s Bronx-accented voice: “You came to see a big-time movie star get naked? Here ya go. All right, show’s over. Can we get serious now?) The main title then appears like a rebuke, telling us that we’re not really seeing what we’re staring at. In other words, Eyes Wide Shut is not going to be about sex.
The real pornography in this film is in its lingering depiction of the shameless, naked wealth of millennial Manhattan, and of its obscene effect on society and the human soul. National reviewers’ myopic focus on sex, and the shallow psychologies of the film’s central couple, the Harfords, at the expense of every other element of the film-the trappings of stupendous wealth, its references to fin-de-siecle Europe and other imperial periods, its Christmastime setting, even the sum Dr. Harford spends on a single night out-says more about the blindness of the elites to their own surroundings than it does about Kubrick’s inadequacies as a pornographer. For those with their eyes open, there are plenty of money shots.
There is a moment in Eyes Wide Shut, as Bill Harford is lying to his wife over a cellphone from a prostitute’s apartment, when we see a textbook in the foreground titled Introducing Sociology. The book’s title is a dry caption to the action onscreen (like the slogan “Peace is our profession” looming over the battle at Burpelson Air Force Base in Dr. Strangelove), telling us that prostitution is the basic, defining transaction of our society. It is also, more importantly, a key to understanding the film, suggesting that we ought to interpret it sociologically—not as most reviewers insisted on doing, psychologically.
Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times tells us that Kubrick “never paid much attention to the psychology of characters, much less relationships between men and women,” and in fact “spent his career ignoring (or avoiding) the inner lives of people, their private dreams and frustrations.” 1 Unable to imagine what other subjects there could be, she, like so many critics before her, shrugs him off as obsessed with mere technique. She is, first of all, wrong; Kubrick examines his characters’ inner lives through imagery, not dialogue; as he said, “scenes of people talking about themselves are often very dull.” 2 (It could be argued that almost all of this film takes place inside Bill Harford’s head.) Secondly, and more importantly, she misses the point: Kubrick’s films are never only about individuals (sometimes, as in the case of 2001, they hardly contain any); they are always about Man, about civilization and history. Even The Shining is not just about a family, as Bill Blakemore showed in his article “The Family of Man,” but about the massacre of the American Indians and the recurrent murderousness of Western civilization.3
Reviewers complained that the Harfords were ciphers, uncomplicated and dull; these reactions recall the befuddlement of critics who complained that the computer in 2001 was more human than the astronauts, but could only attribute it (just four years after the unforgettable performances of Dr. Strangelove) to human error. The Harfords may seem as naive and sheltered as the Victorians in, say, Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, but to wish that the characters had been more complex or self-aware misses the point. To understand a film by this most thoughtful and painstaking of filmmakers, we should assume that this characterization is deliberate—that their shallowness and repression is the point. Think of Bill in the back of the cab, his face a sullen mask as he tortures himself by running the same black-and-white stag film of Alice’s imagined infidelity over and over in his head. (Anyone who doubts that it is the character, rather than the actor, who lacks depth and expressiveness should watch Cruise in Magnolia.) Or of Alice giggling in her sleep, clearly relishing her dream about betraying and humiliating her husband, only to wake up in tears, saying that she had “a horrible dream”; her repression is complete and instantaneous. (She’s like Jack Torrance in The Shining waking up shouting from “the most terrible nightmare I ever had,” about chopping up his family, about twelve hours before he actually tries to do it.) The itensely staged vacuity of the Harford’s inner lives should tell us to look elsewhere for the film’s real focus.
One place to look is not at them but around them, at the places where they live and the things they own. Most of the film’s sets, even the New York street scenes, were constructed on sound stages and backlots, just like the Overlook Hotel, which was as central to The Shining as its actors. Precision of visual detail is as integral to the meaning of Eyes Wide Shut as is the use of gorgeous faces famous from the covers of glossy check-out-aisle magazines to play a conspicuously attractive high-society couple (not unlike his choice of handsome, bland-faced Ryan O’Neill to play eighteenth-century social climber Redmond Barry.) Even the street sets (criticized by the uniquely provincial New York press as “inaccurate”) are expressionistic, with newspaper headlines (LUCKY TO BE ALIVE) and neon signs (EROS) foreshadowing and commenting on the action. In Kubrick’s work, nothing is incidental.
Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post mentions that the Harfords’ apartment “must have cost $7 million,” but only to make fun of Kubrick’s apparent disconnection from contemporary America.4 But the meticulously rendered setting of the film, the luxurious apartments and sumptuous mansions, are meant to raise eyebrows. Kubrick and his collaborator, Frederic Raphael, discussed exactly how much money a New York doctor like Bill Harford must earn per year.5 The Harfords’ standard of living raises questions about their money, and where it comes from—from Bill’s sparsely scheduled private practice, or the sorts of under-the-table services we see rendered upstairs at the party? Dr. Harford is on call to that class of person who can afford not to wait in emergency rooms or die in hospitals—people like his friend Victor Ziegler, whose name denotes him as one of the world’s winners. Bill uncomfortably tries to compliment the prostitute Domino’s apartment by calling it “cozy” (and her use of the standard joke “maid’s day off” to excuse the leftovers and mess only draws further awkward attention to the class gulf between them), but his own place looks cramped and cluttered compared to Victor’s. Ziegler’s house is reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, with its vast ballrooms and grand staircases, its mirrors and gilt, its bedroom-sized bathrooms. And even Ziegler’s place seems modest compared to the opulent Moorish palace of Somerton, where the secret orgy takes place (in Schnitzler’s novella it is “a one-story villa in a modest Empire style.” 6)
To some extent, the fact that no critics recognized this as deliberate is excusable; we’ve all learned to overlook the fantastic affluence of the sets and wardrobe in most movies and TV shows, just as black audiences had, for decades, to try to ignore the oppressive whiteness of everyone onscreen. But make no mistake: this is not a film about the “private dreams and frustrations” of what Victor condescendingly calls “ordinary people”; it is about really rich people, the kind that Lord Wendover in Barry Lyndon and Mr. Ullman in The Shining call “all the best people.” And it shows us that these people are empty and amoral, using their social inferiors as thoughtlessly as if they were possessions, ultimately more concerned with social transgressions like infidelity than with crimes like murder—just as the film’s audience is more interested in the sex it was supposed to be all about than the killing that is at its core.
There’s no reason to assume we’re expected to like Bill and Alice Harford (in fact, Kubrick once told Michael Herr he wanted to make a film about doctors because “everyone hates doctors.” 7) They don’t, like typical Hollywood villains, literally slather or speak with foreign accents. The Harfords are what we think of, uncritically, as “nice” people—that is to say, attractive and well-educated, a couple who collect art and listen to Shostakovitch. But evil among our elites is more often a matter of willful ignorance and passivity—of blindness—than of any deliberate cruelty. And Kubrick emphasizes that culture and erudition have nothing to do with goodness or depth of character; in this film they have more to do with the exhibitionistic display of imperial wealth.
The paintings that cover the Harfords’ walls from floor to ceiling (painted by Kubrick’s wife Christiane) almost all depict flowers or food, making explicit the function of art in their environment as mere décor-art for consumption. Most of them probably come from Alice’s defunct gallery, which brokered paintings like any other commodity. (Helena, the Harfords’ daughter, helps her mother gift-wrap a massive collection of paintings by Van Gogh—the icon of an artist who died in obscurity but whose reproductions on calendars, ties, and coffee mugs now make quick millions for the canny marketers in the museum industry.) The Harfords aren’t the only art—lovers in the film; the apartment of Bill’s patient Lou Nathanson is decorated with even more expensive objets d’art (and his bedroom, like the hall outside the Harford’s apartment, is wallpapered with imperial French fluers-de-lis); Victor Ziegler has a famous collection, including antique china arrayed in glass cases, a soaring winged statue of Cupid and Psyche in his stairwell, and, reputedly, a gallery of Renaissance bronzes upstairs; and the house in Somerton is hung with tapestries and oil portraits of stern patriarchs, and decorated in appropriated historical styles from Medieval to Moorish to Venetian to Louis XIV. Like the trashed mansion of the renowned playwright and pedophile Clare Quilty in Lolita, these people’s houses are tastefully stacked with the plundered treasures of the world.
The film’s elegant, antique appointments, its opening waltz, and its cast full of European characters (Sandor Szavost, the models Gayle and Nuala, the Nathansons, Milich, the maitre d’ at the Sonata Café) all blur the distinction between Millennial Manhattan and fin-de-siecle Vienna, another corrupt and decadent high culture on the brink of an abyss. In the champagne haze of Victor’s party the 1990s and 1890s become one, just as the ’70s and the ’20s merged in one evening at the Overlook Hotel. But the comparison is not only to the European capitals of the Gilded Age; a broad sweep of references establishes America’s continuity with a number of previous imperial periods. Sandor Szavost, Alice’s would-be seducer, inquires whether she has read Ovid’s Art of Love, a reference fraught with sly implications. Art of Love is a satiric guide to the etiquette of adultery, set among the elite classes of Augustus’s Rome, full of advice about bribing servants, buying gifts, and avoiding gold-diggers. (Szavost’s drinking from Alice’s glass is a move lifted right out of Ovid’s pick-up manual.) And the fact that Ovid was an exile from his own center of empire further links him to the expatriate Hungarian. Szavost’s extraordinary skill at the Viennese waltz, and his offer to show her Ziegler’s collection of sculptures, extend the instances of imperially—sponsored high art from the Latin poetry of Rome to the ballroom dance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the plastic arts of the renaissance, bringing them all up to date in New York’s glittering, art-encrusted façade.
While Alice resists Szavost’s courtly come-ons, her husband is called away to the scene of a less polished assignation, where Kubrick shows us what lies behind that façade: unadorned exploitation and death. Behind the scenes at Ziegler’s party, in an upstairs bathroom, Bill Harford finds the same thing Jack Torrance finds in room 237 of the Overlook, and that Private Joker confronts at the end of Full Metal Jacket: a woman’s body. Banal dance music echoes from downstairs as we see the call girl Mandy sprawled naked in a narcotic stupor, while Victor hurriedly pulls up his pants, his use of her having been interrupted by an overdose. (Or has it?) After Bill brings her around, Victor impresses upon him that this near-scandal has to be kept “just between us”—but Kubrick, our own contemporary American artist-in-exile, in his own bitter Art of Love, tells all. With every detail and allusion he exposes the base, exploitative impulses behind imperial high culture: the erudite Szavost uses the classics, ballroom dance, and Renaissance sculpture as so many lines and props to seduce another man’s wife, while Victor, looking distractedly down at Mandy as she lies naked and twitching, is framed by a painted nude. Asked about Alex’s fondness for Ludwig Van in A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick answered, “I think this suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Many top Nazis were cultured and sophisticated men, but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good.” 8 This point is reprised overtly in Eyes Wide Shut when we hear the title of a Beethoven opera used as the password to an orgy.
As omnipresent as the art in the film’s backgrounds are its Christmas decorations. It isn’t incidental that the story is set at Christmastime; Schnitzler’s book, which the script follows closely in most other particulars, is not (it takes place “just before the end of carnival period”). 9 Stanley Kubrick seems to have gotten seriously into the Yuletide spirit in his last film. Hardly an interior in the film (except the Satanic orgy) is without a baubled Christmas tree. Almost every set is suffused with the dreamlike, hazy glow of colored lights and tinsel. In the film’s first scene, the Harfords’ daughter Helena wants to stay up to watch The Nutcracker on TV. And its denouement takes place in the toy section of a decidedly upscale department store, where they’ve taken Helena Christmas shopping. Eyes Wide Shut, though it was released in summer, was the Christmas movie of 1999.
There is a chain of allusions to the Judeo-Christian fall-and-redemption myth throughout the film: Alice’s allegorical dream about being “naked,” “terrified,” and “ashamed,” and fucking “in a beautiful garden,” the Harford’s Edenic apartment crammed with plants and paintings of gardens, the two temptresses at Ziegler’s party, twined and undulating like serpents, practically molting out of their glittering skintight gowns, the picture of an apple with a single vaginal slice cut from it on the wall of the prostitute’s kitchen, and the self-sacrificial “redemption” ritual at the orgy. This all seems like unexpectedly old-world symbolism coming from a famously atheistic director whose films all take place in a modern, Godless universe. (The most memorable Christian imagery in Kubrick’s previous films are Alex’s ceramic chorus line of can-canning Christs and his Hollywood-epic daydream about being a centurion who gets to flog Him in A Clockwork Orange. And in that film it’s clear that Christianity is just a less effective version of the sadistic, Skinnerian Ludovico treatment.) But these Biblical references only serve to show us how bankrupt the Christian ethic is in America by the end of the second millennium A.D., how completely it’s been coopted and undermined by commerce. As Ziegler angrily tells Bill in their final confrontation, “That whole play-acted ‘take me’ phony sacrifice had absolutely nothing to do with her real death!” No, her death had more to do with the cult of secrecy and power at the heart of wealth—in other words, just business.
In Eyes Wide Shut, much as in the real world circa 1999, Christmas is less a religious observance than an annual orgy of consumerism, the ecstatic climax of the retail year. MERRY CHRISTMAS banners hang in places of business alongside signs reading NO CHECKS ACCEPTED and THANK YOU FOR YOUR CUSTOM. Rows of Christmas cards are on display in Bill’s office below a not particularly merry sign saying, “Payment is expected at the time of treatment unless other arrangements have previously been made.” These juxtapositions undercut the supposed significance of the holiday and reveal the real nature of the season, its ostensible warmth and sentimentality belied by the bottom line. Even Milich, the Scroogelike owner of Rainbow Costumes, calls holiday greetings to the two men who have just come to “another arrangement” concerning the use of his daughter. The whole movie is brimming over with the spirit of the season. The equation of Christmas with crass desire is made explicit by the song heard in the Gillespie Diner: “I Want a Boy for Christmas.” The Nutcracker is the story of a little girl whose toy comes to life and turns into a handsome prince, which the Harfords’ daughter Helena wants to stay up to watch. “Christmas shopping” with Helena turns out to mean letting her run around picking out items she wants exclusively for herself.
The Harfords themselves (like most of the film’s reviewers) don’t really see their surrounding mise-en-scène—their wealth, their art, the ubiquitous Christmas glitz. They’re preoccupied instead with their own petty lusts and jealousies. But again and again Kubrick visually links his characters to their settings, indicting them as part of the rarefied world in which they live and move, through which his relentless Steadicam tracks them like an omniscient presence. At Ziegler’s ball, the starburst pattern of lights on the walls is echoed by the lace edging of Alice’s gown and by the blue stelliform ribbon on Szavost’s lapel. Bill is haunted wherever he goes by the colors blue and gold, the color of the wallpaper outside his apartment. Domino first appears in a black-and-white striped fur coat, a pattern repeated in the zebra skin stool at her dresser and the coat of the plush tiger on her bed. These people are as much commodities as the art and décor-that is, everyone can be bought.
Alice’s obvious resentment of her husband, which she only expresses when she’s dreaming or drugged, is motivated by her unconscious recognition that she is a kept woman. We know Bill’s supporting her, her art gallery having gone broke. She tells Szavost that she’s looking for a job, but we don’t see her looking; mostly we see her being looked at. Alice’s role as a voyeuristic object is defined by her first breathtaking appearance and by her first onscreen line: “How do I look?” (And it rankles her that her husband doesn’t see her anymore—he tells her that her hair looks “perfect” without even looking, and asks her the babysitter’s name about twenty seconds after she’s told him.) Everyone she encounters in the first fifteen minutes of the film compliments her appearance; Bill dutifully tells her she always looks beautiful, the babysitter exclaims, “You look amazing, Mrs. Harford,” and she’s also flattered by such admirers of beauty as Victor Ziegler and Sandor Szavost. Ziegler tells her she looks “absolutely stunning—and I don’t say that to all the women.” “Oh, yes he does,” retorts his wife—a joke that resonates unfunnily when we find out who “all the women” associated with Ziegler are.
Being beautiful is Alice’s job, as much as it is the former beauty queen and call girl Mandy’s or the hooker Domino’s. During the quotidian-life-of-the-Harfords montage, in which her husband examines patients at the office, we only see Alice tending to her toilette: brushing her daughter’s hair, regally hooking on a brassiere, applying deodorant in front of the bathroom mirror. Hers is the daytime regimen of a courtesan (or an actress), devoted to the rigorous maintenance of her looks. She’s associated, more than any other character, with mirrors; we see her giving herself a critical once-over before leaving the party, and look of frank self-assessment in the medicine cabinet when she decides to get stoned. Her expression in the mirror as she watches her husband making love to her (the film’s iconic image) begins as bemusement, giving way to fondness and arousal, but in the last seconds before the fade-out it becomes something more ambiguous, distracted and self-conscious; this is her moment of clearest self-recognition, an uncomfortable glimpse of what she really is.
Alice’s real status is unmistakably suggested: the wife as prostitute. She’s identified with the hooker Mandy through a series of parallels: they’re both tall redheads with a taste for numbing drugs, we first see them both in bathrooms, and Mandy’s last night “being fucked by hundreds of men” is distortedly echoed in Alice’s dream. Alice is also associated with the streetwalker Domino by the purple of her sheets and Domino’s dress, and by their conspicuous dressing-table mirrors (the essential accoutrement of anyone who lives by her looks). Mandy and Domino are connected, as in dream-associations, by the identical consonants of their names, just as Alice is connected with Domino’s roommate Sally (their names being aural anagrams). When Domino disappears, she’s replaced by Sally the next day, just as in dream-logic one person may turn into another yet remain the same. In a sense, there is only one woman in the film. Lee Siegel sees the various prostitutes that Bill meets as different incarnations of his wife, the woman he’s really seeking all along.10 But the similarities between them are more revealing (if less romantic) when read the other way—as insinuating that Alice is just another, higher-class whore. When we last see her in the film, in that toy store, she’s surrounded by shelves full of stuffed tigers like the one on Domino’s bed. (Kubrick also used tiger and leopard-print patterns in Lolita as a code to connote Charlotte Haze’s predatory sexuality.) Even in this scene, as she delivers the film’s ostensible moral, Alice is visually linked to a doomed hooker.
She’s also grooming her daughter Helena (named after the most beautiful woman in history) to become a high-ticket item like herself. During the montage of their day at home, we see Helena alongside her mother in almost every shot, holding the brush while her mother gathers her hair into a ponytail, brushing her teeth at the mirror, learning to groom herself. When we overhear her doing word problems with her mother, she’s learning how to calculate which boy has more money than the other. We hear her reading a bedtime story aloud, reciting the line, “…before me when I jump into my bed.” In this film, a line about “jumping into bed” can’t be innocent. Her mother silently mouths it along with her, echoing and coaching her. At Bill’s office, we see a photo of Helena in a purple dress, like the one worn by the girl her father paid for sex the night before.
Like his wife, Bill Harford is defined by his first line: “Honey, have you seen my wallet?” She is a possession; he is a buyer. (“Doctor Bill,” as both his wife and Domino call him, is a pun, like Jack D. Ripper or Private Joker.) He flashes his credentials and hands out fifty- and hundred-dollar bills to charm, bribe, or intimidate cabbies, clerks, receptionists, and hookers—all members of the vast, compliant service economy on whom the enormous disparities of wealth in America are founded. Including (unconsummated) prostitution, costume rental, assorted bribes, and cab fare, his tab for a single illicit night out totals over seven hundred dollars. He does not seem fazed by the expenditure. His asking Domino “Should we talk about money?” his repeated insistence on paying her for services not quite rendered, his extended haggling with Milich and the cab driver—all these conversations about cash are too frequent, drawn-out, and conspicuous to be included in the interest of verisimilitude. They do not occur in the novel. Doctor Bill is nothing if not a conspicuous consumer; he even tears a hundred-dollar-bill in half with a smirk.
Bill’s nocturnal journey into illicit sexuality is, more importantly, a journey into invisible strata of wealth and power. Money is the subtext of sex from the very first temptation of Bill; the two models who flirtatiously draw him away from his wife at Ziegler’s ball invite him enigmatically to follow them “Where the rainbow ends.” At that moment he’s called away, saying to them, “To be continued…?” After he’s gone, the two models exchange a cryptic, conspiratorial look. The exchange foreshadows Bill’s finding himself at Rainbow Costume rentals—”to be continued,” indeed. We never find out exactly what the models meant, but everyone knows what lies at the end of the rainbow.
The colorful arc of Bill’s adventure does lead to the pot of gold, Somerton, the innermost sanctum of the ultrawealthy where the secret orgy is held. The orgy scenes in particular were singled out by reviewers for disappointment and derision. Listen to the groans of critical blueballs: David Denby called it “the most pompous orgy in the history of film.” 11 “More ludicrous than provocative,” said Michiko Kakutani, “more voyeuristic than scary.” 12 “Whose idea of an orgy is this,” demanded Stephen Hunter, “the Catholic Church’s?” 13 Again they misunderstood Kubrick’s artistic intentions, which are clearly not sensual. When Bill passes through the ornate portal past a beckoning golden-masked doorman, we should understand that we are entering the realm of myth and nightmare. This sequence is the clearest condemnation, in allegorical dream imagery, of elite society as corrupt, exploitative, and depraved—what they used to call, in a simpler time, evil. The pre-orgiastic rites are overtly Satanic, a Black Mass complete with a high priest gowned in crimson, droning organ and backward-masked Latin liturgy. What we see enacted is a ceremony in which faceless, interchangeable female bodies are doled out, fucked, and exchanged among black-cloaked figures, culminating in the ritual mass rape and sacrificial murder of a woman.
The haunted ambiance here recalls that of the film’s other big exclusive party, Zieglers; the opulent surroundings, the mannered, leaden dialogue, the camera afloat like the disembodied point of view in a dream. A ballroom full of naked, masked couples dancing to “Strangers in the Night” recalls not only Ziegler’s party but the Overlook Hotel, whose ghosts also danced and coupled in costume. (Remember the quick, surreal zoom shot in The Shining of someone in a bestial costume fellating tuxedoed millionaire Horace Derwent in an upstairs room?) The two occasions, the party and the orgy, are conclusively linked in the back room of Rainbow Fashions, a sort of antechamber to Somerton, where we see a row of masked and costumed mannequins posed in front of the same cascade of glittering white lights that hung from the walls at Ziegler’s.
The orgy makes the metaphor of sexual objectification visually literal. The prostitutes wear masks that render them anonymous and identical. Their nude bodies are unnaturally perfect, smooth and immaculate as mannequins, lit under a chilling white spotlight and photographed with that Kubrickian detachment that somehow desaturates them of any real eroticism. The ritualistic kisses exchanged are spooky and sterile, the sculpted white lips of one mask touching another’s. The sex consists of static tableaux of spectators posed around mechanically rutting participants. A masked and tuxedoed valet on all fours serves as a platform for a fucking couple, a piece of human furniture like the tables at the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange. One might remember, with a shudder, the Lugosian-toned Szavost inviting Alice to have casual sex upstairs, among the sculptures.
The masks worn by the revelers (Venetian—an allusion to another mercantile empire) serve a similar symbolic purpose: the transformation of the wearer into a soulless object. They certainly aren’t expressive of ecstatic self-annihilation, as some critics suggested; they’re creepy as hell. We see a bird with a scythe-like beak, a cubist face fractured in half, contorted grimaces and leers, a frozen howl, painted tears, blindly gazing eyes. These revelers have “lost themselves” not in erotic abandon but in the same way that the recruits in Full Metal Jacket lose their Selves, along with their hair and their names. The utterly still, silent shots of staring masks at Bill’s “trial” are images of empty-eyed dehumanization, faces of death. Note that when Ziegler first sees Bill enter the ceremonial hall, even though they are both masked, he gives him a knowing nod. He recognizes him. Here the guests at Ziegler’s party are unmasked for what they really are.
Masks and mannequins are a recurring motif in Kubrick’s work: think of the fight with mannequin’s limbs in Killer’s Kiss, the anthropomorphic furniture at the Korova, the grotesque masks worn in The Killing and A Clockwork Orange. In Eyes Wide Shut we see them not only at the orgy but throughout the film, always as harbingers of death. A stone Greek mask keeps vigil by Lou Nathanson’s deathbed. African masks gaze down, like the masked spectators silently watching the sex acts at Somerton, at the bed where Bill has his interrupted trick with the HIV+ hooker Domino. A “domino” is itself a kind of mask.
They also serve as metaphors for women being treated like possessions. Costumed mannequins surround Bill and Milich in the back room at Rainbow Costumes. “Like life, eh?” says Milich, just before he catches his daughter consorting with two men in wigs and livid makeup. Milich’s daughter, for all the coquettish depravity at play in her face, looks somehow as eerily inanimate as the Grady twins in The Shining—her skin is smooth and white as the mannequins in the back room, her painted lips and glittering eyes flawless as a china doll’s. In a carefully composed shot in the scene when Bill returns his costume, we see Milich and his daughter paired on the right side of the frame opposite Bill and one of the mannequins (seen through the door to the back room) paired on the left. “If Doctor Harford should ever need anything else,” says Milich, hugging his daughter close beside the cash register, “Anything at all… it needn’t be a costume.” The line only reinforces the visual equation of the girl with the store’s more legitimate merchandise. And the three times we see Mandy her face is always a mask: in Ziegler’s bedroom, her eyes are lit to look like empty black holes in her face; at the orgy she is literally masked; and on the slab at the morgue her face is slack and white, here eyes wide open but sightless.
Although Bill doesn’t actually fuck or kill anyone himself, he is implicated in the exploitation and deaths of all of the women he encounters. (Like the sign over the Sonata Café says… “The customer is always wrong.”) He didn’t give Domino HIV, but she contracted it servicing someone like him. Milich alternates with hilarious aplomb between berating the men he’s caught with his daughter—”Will you please to be quiet! Can’t you see I am trying to serve a customer?”—and unctuous apologies to Harford, conflating the two exchanges. (After all, Bill isn’t just paying for a costume but for the illicit opportunity it affords.) And does it really make a difference whether Mandy was ceremonially executed by some evil cabal or only allowed to O.D. after being gang-banged again? Given Kubrick’s penchant for blackly humorous literalism (think of “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here—this is the War Room!” or “I said, I’m not gonna hurt you—I’m just going to bash your brains in”), when Ziegler explains that Mandy wasn’t murdered, “she got her brains fucked out,” the contradiction should be obvious.
Bill learns about Mandy’s overdose in a café whose walls are covered with antique portraits of women, while Mozart’s Requiem plays. The setting and the music make the moment timeless, universal. Kubrick’s last three films form a sort of thematic trilogy about our culture’s hatred of the female. In The Shining, Jack Torrance despises his wife and child and tries to murder them, just as the previous “caretaker” murdered his wife and daughters. (We also hear, on a TV news bulletin, about a woman who’s “disappeared while on a hunting trip with her husband.”) In Full Metal Jacket, the institutionalized misogyny of the Marine Corps is pervasive, and the absence of women (we see only two hookers and a sniper) is so conspicuous it becomes a haunting presence. The film’s climax is the execution of a fifteen-year-old girl. The requiem in the Sonata Café isn’t just for Mandy but for all the anonymous, expendable women used and disposed of by men of Harford’s class throughout the ages.
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 he goes to his patient Lou Nathanson’s apartment, he’s met by their housemaid, Rosa, who’s also dressed in black with a white collar, in a perfectly symmetrical entry hall where every object is in a matched pair. The shot makes the doctor and the maid doubles; they’re equals here. When Bill tries to infiltrate the orgy, he’s given away by telltale class markers—he shows up in a taxi rather than a limo, and has a costume rental slip in his pocket. His real status at Somerton, as an outsider and intruder, is spelled out for him the next day when he returns to the estate, only to be dismissed with a terse typed note handed him through the bars of the front gate by a tight-lipped servant. (This isn’t the only time we see Bill through bars—he has to bribe his way past the grated door at Milich’s.) When Ziegler finally calls him onto the carpet for his transgressions, he chuckles at Bill’s refusal of a case of 25-year-old Scotch (Bill drinks Bud from the can), not just because this extravagance would be a trifle to him, but because Bill’s pretense of integrity is an empty gesture—he’s already been bought. Bill may be able to buy, bribe, and command his own social inferiors, and he may own Alice, but he’s Ziegler’s man.
Although Ziegler has a credible explanation for everything that’s happened—Harford’s harassment, Nick Nightingale’s beating, Mandy’s death—we don’t ever really know whether he’s telling the truth or lying to cover up Mandy’s murder. The script carefully withholds any conclusive evidence that would let us feel comfortably certain either way. But Ziegler does have suspiciously privileged access to details of the case: “The door was locked from the inside, the police are happy, end of story! [dismissive lip fart.]” He also claims to be dropping his façade and coming clean a few too many times to be believed: “I have to be completely frank,” “Bill, please—no games,” and finally, “All right, Bill, let’s… let’s… let’s cut the bullshit, all right?” And notice how he introduces his explanation: “Suppose I were to tell you…” [emphasis mine]. He’s not being “frank”; he’s offering Bill an escape, a plausible, face-saving explanation for the girl’s death to assuage his unexpectedly agitated conscience. (And it’s one of the few things that Bill has a hard time buying—watch the way his hand adheres to his cheek and slowly slides off his face as he rises to his feet and walks dazedly across the room, trying to absorb the incredible coincidence Ziegler’s asking him to swallow.) Ziegler’s “no games” plea notwithstanding, this entire conversation is a game—a gentlemanly back-and-forth of challenges and evasions over a question of life and death, throughout which the two opponents circle each other uneasily around a blood-red billiards table.
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. The “you might not sleep so well” is also a veiled warning, and it isn’t Ziegler’s last. His final word of advice—”Life goes on. It always does… until it doesn’t. But you know that, don’t you, Bill?”—proffered with an avuncular, unpleasantly proprietary rub of the shoulders, sounds like a reassurance but masks a threat. (We immediately cut from this to a less friendly warning, the mask placed on Bill’s pillow.) Bill’s expression, in the foreground, is by now so tight and working with suppressed and conflicting feelings that it’s hard to read, but one of those feelings is clearly fear for his life—he looks as though he might burst into tears or hysterical laughter, and when Victor claps those patronizing hands on his shoulders, he flinches. In the end, he chooses to accept Victor’s explanation not because there’s any evidence to confirm it, but because it’s a convenient excuse to back down from the dangers of further investigation. He finally understands that he, too, no less than a hooker or a hired piano player, is expendable.
So the questions remain: did Mandy just O.D., or was she murdered? Was Bill’s jeweled mask left on his pillow by Alice as an accusation, or by Ziegler’s friends as a third and last warning, a death threat like the horse’s head in the bed in The Godfather? These are crucial questions, ones that Kubrick deliberately leaves unanswered. And yet most reviewers didn’t even seem to notice that they were questions, instead automatically projecting their own interpretations onto the story—most assuming that Ziegler was providing redundant exposition, that Mandy’s death was the coincidence Ziegler claimed it to be, and that Alice put the mask there herself. (Dream Story does not even include the character of Ziegler, or any final confrontation with a member of the secret society, and it also makes it clear that it was the protagonist’s wife who placed the mask on the bed.) But Kubrick bends over so far backward to preserve these ambiguities that they become glaring, demanding of us that we, like Bill, consciously decide what we’re going to believe. Bill’s reaction when he sees the mask in his bed could be interpreted either as shame and relief at having his lies exposed, or as the terrified realization that his wife and daughter could have been murdered in their sleep. When Alice wakes up to Bill’s sobbing, her expression doesn’t betray whether she’s startled to see the mask beside her or already knows it’s there. When we cut to her the next morning, her eyes swollen and red-rimmed with weeping, we don’t know whether she’s crying because her husband almost cheated on her or because he’s endangered their family. And the final dialogue between Bill and Alice is so vague and allusive (“What should we do?” “Maybe we should be grateful,”) that it could as easily refer to Mandy’s murder and the implied threat to their lives as to Bill’s indiscretions. If we choose to believe the former, then the Harfords aren’t just reconciling over their imagined and attempted infidelities; they’re agreeing to cover up a crime, to be accomplices after the fact to a homicide.
This is the film’s final test—a projection test, like the ambiguous cartoons with blank word balloons shown to Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange to determine whether his conditioning has been broken. His lascivious and violent interpretations of the images proves that it has. But has ours? The open-ended narrative forces us to ask ourselves what we’re really seeing; is Eyes Wide Shut a movie about marriage, sex, and jealousy, or about money, whores, and murder? Before you make up your own mind, consider this: has there ever been a Stanley Kubrick film in which someone didn’t get killed?
In the film’s upbeat but dissonant denouement, the Harfords have taken their daughter Helena Christmas shopping, but they respond to her wishes only politely, distracted by their own inner children. Like many reviewers, they’re still wrapped up in psychology and sex, missing the sociological implications of what’s onscreen. But, as in so much of Kubrick’s work, the dialogue is misdirection; the real story is being told visually. As poor Helena flits anxiously from one display to the next (already an avid little consumer) every item she fondles associates her with the women who have been exploited and destroyed by her father’s circle. Helena’s Christmas list includes a blue baby carriage (like the blue stroller seen twice outside Domino’s apartment), an oversized teddy bear (next to a rack of tigers like the one on Domino’s bed) and a Barbie doll (reminiscent of Milich’s daughter) dressed in a diaphanous angel costume just like the one Helena herself wore in the film’s first scene. She herself has already become a doll, a thing to be dressed up with cute costumes and accessories. Another toy, conspicuously displayed under a red ring of lights, is called “The Magic Circle”; the name is an allusion to the ring of ritual prostitutes at the orgy, and the bright red color of the box recalls the carpet on which they genuflected to the high priest, as well as the felt of the pool table over which Bill made his own bargain with the devil. The subplot with Milich and his daughter is clearly echoed here, in another place of business, as the Harfords also casually pimp their own little angel out to the world of commerce.
ALICE: And, you know, there is something very important we have to do as soon as possible.
BILL: What’s that?
As Eyes Wide Shut closes, this final exchange between Bill and Alice suggests that all the dark adventures they’ve confessed (“whether they were real or only dreams”), and all the crimes in which they are complicit, have occasioned nothing more than another kinky turn-on, no more enlightening than the flirtations at the ball that inflamed their lovemaking when they got home. For all their incoherent talk about being “awake” now, their eyes are still wide shut. Reconciled, they plan to forget all this unpleasantness soon in the blissful oblivion of orgasm. (Try keeping your eyes open during orgasm.) Maybe, in the end, it is a film about sexual obsession after all; about sex as an all-consuming distraction from the ugly realities of wealth and power all around us. Maybe the customer is always wrong.
Certainly a subtler psychological reading of the film than has yet been attempted would be possible. But to focus exclusively on the Harford’s unexamined inner lives is to remain willfully blind to the profoundly visual filmic world that Stanley Kubrick devoted a career’s labors to creating. The slice of that world he tried to show us in his last—and, he believed, his best—work, the capital of the global American empire at the end of the American Century, is one in which the wealthy, powerful, and privileged use the rest of us like throwaway products, covering up their crimes with pretty pictures, shiny surfaces, and murder, ultimately dooming their own children to lives of servitude and whoredom. The feel-good ending intimates, in Kubrick’s very last word on this (or any) subject, that the Harfords’ daughter is, just as they’ve resigned themselves to being, fucked.
Acknowledgements: The seven hundred hours I spent in conversation with Rob Content about this film were invaluable in developing my argument. Bart Taylor of Giotto Perspectives pointed out some of the Christian imagery in the film to me. I am also indebted to Boyd White, guitarist and singer for The Sores, and to Ann Martin, editor of Film Quarterly, for their editorial acumen.
1. Kakutani, Michiko. “A Connoisseur of Cool Tries to Raise the Temperature.” The New York Times, 18 July 1999. p. 22.
2. Michel Ciment, “Second Interview” in Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, translated from the French by Gilbert Adair (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1980) p. 171.
3. Bill Blakemore, “The Family of Man.” San Francisco Chronicle Syndicate, 29 July 1987.
4. Stephen Hunter, “The Lust Picture Show: Stanley Kubrick Stumbled with his Eyes Wide Shut.” The Washington Post, 16 July 1999, p. C5.
5. Raphael, Frederic, Eyes Wide Shut: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick (New York: Ballantine, 1999).
6. Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story. Translated from the German by Otto P. Schinnerer (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995) p. 128.
7. Michael Herr, Kubrick (New York: Grove Press, 2000), p. 13.
8. Ciment, Michel. “First Interview” in Kubrick, p. 163.
9. Schnitzler, Dream Story, p. 4.
10. Lee Siegel, “Eyes Wide Shut: What the Critics Failed to See in Kubrick’s Last Film.” Harper’s Magazine, October 1999, vol. 299, #1793, p. 76 – 83.
11. David Denby, “Last Waltz.” The New Yorker, 26 July 1999, p. 84.
12. The ever-perceptive Ms. Kakutani, p. 22.
13. That dimwit Hunter, p. C5.
Tim Kreider, “Eyes Wide Shut,” Film Quarterly 53, no. 3 (Spring 2000)
Republished in Depth of Field: Stanley Kubrick, Film, and the Uses of History, pp. 280-297