Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Fredric Raphael (from Arthur Schnitzler’s novella)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack
Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), Kubrick and co-writer Frederic Raphael transplanted the story of two married people toying with infidelity from an early 20th century Jewish couple in Vienna to a late 20th century ‘vanilla American’ (Kubrick’s words) couple in swanky New York. Typically Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut comprises a relatively small number of relatively long scenes. Every frame is as richly detailed as a Renaissance masterpiece. The lighting and composition are immaculate, every moment and movement studied. The classical score adds to the sense of an opera in celluloid. A giant of the first century of cinema, Kubrick passed away soon after delivering a print of the film to Warner Bros.; accounts vary as to whether it was the first edit or the final cut.
The film opens in the boudoir of the Harfords, where William (Tom Cruise) and Alice (Nicole Kidman) dress for a swanky Christmas party. The party unfolds with a sea of stiffs in tuxedos and evening dresses twirling to a white-suited band. (This is some vanilla!) Bill, invited because he is the host’s doctor, discovers that the pianist is an old friend who flunked medical school, the poetically named Nick Nightingale (Todd Field). Nick invites Bill to hear him play at a downtown café, an off-the-cuff gesture that leads to Eyes Wide Shut’s controversial central scene.
For her part, Alice gets tanked at the bar and invites herself to be hit upon by the rakish Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont). They engage in a stilted conversation about fidelity. Sandor probes Alice’s defences with formulaic jabs; she praises monogamy in equally conventional terms while glancing insecurely into the lobby, where two beautiful young women hit on Bill.
Clearly angling for a full gynaecological inspection, they overload turgid dialogue like “Doctors always seem so… knowledgeable” with hip-swaying, breast-wobbling, lip-pouting, eye-rolling innuendo. It’s an indigestive moment that makes one reach for the antacids, thankfully interrupted by an aide of the host: the good doctor is needed. Bill takes his leave, his exact interest in the two women as uncertain as what awaits him beyond the rising gilded banister.
In the private chambers of Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), high-class call girl Mandy Curren (Julienne Davis) has passed out after taking a speedball, wearing only her stilettos. Bill, the consummate professional, pays no attention to Mandy’s imposing superstructure and coaxes her back to consciousness by the highly technical procedure of calling her name. (Now you know what all those years in med school are for.) Cruise’s Bill Harford never displays one iota of medical acumen throughout the film; he’s the biggest quack in cinematic history. He also spends most of the film in a stupor, parroting what others say.
Meanwhile, Sandor offers to show Alice the host’s collection of—another moment of Kubrick overindulgence—Renaissance bronzes. A close inspection of Sandor’s trouser statuary is clearly included. Alice declines the offer “because I’m married,” but kisses her finger and touches it to Sandor’s lips as she leaves. One perfect couple, two straying minds: that’s the dramatic blancmange of which Eyes Wide Shut is moulded.
Back home, Bill and Alice vent their sexual frustrations on each other; the choice of soundtrack—Chris Isaak’s ‘Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing’—again hints at the fundamentally illicit nature of sex. After a montage of their everyday lives (her: domestic goddess; him: chest inspector to beautiful women) Alice rolls a joint and the perfect couple with their imperfect sex lives get stoned. When she’s sufficiently addled, Alice quizzes Bill over whether he fucked the two women at the party.
Kidman takes extreme delight in uttering the ‘f’ word, lingering over it like a glass of sweet, sticky Chateau d’Yquem, shaping her mouth into a sexual orifice from which she ejaculates the verb. Bill retaliates, predictably enough, with questions about Sandor: “What did he want?” “Sex, upstairs, then and there,” Alice giggles with winning honesty. Possession flares in Bill’s reply: “He just wanted to fuck my wife.” Grammatically, the sentence is aimed at Sandor, but Bill is actually reminding Alice of her marriage vow: he is the only person permitted to have sex with her. In more technical terms, Bill asserts that he is the 100% owner, in perpetuity, of what might be termed the sexual access rights to Alice’s body.
Definition: Sexual access rights
Access: “the means or opportunity to approach or enter a place; the right or opportunity to use something or see someone.” (Compact OED) The right to have sex with a given person, a right that may be held by the person in question or may have been surrendered to or forcibly usurped by another person.
The use of such an objective, legalistic term is a deliberate attempt to take an abstruse piece of psychological programming and reveal it for what it is: the right to accept or deny sexual congress with another. Who owns your sexual access rights? The reflex answer is that we each own our individual access rights; but if the question is rephrased as “Can you have sex with a third party without repercussions from your significant other?” it’s clear that in reality this is frequently untrue.
Who owns your sexual access rights? The reflex answer is that we each own our individual access rights; but if the question is rephrased as “Can you have sex with a third party without repercussions from your significant other?” it’s clear that in reality this is frequently untrue.
Consciously or more often unconsciously, most relationships (wedded or otherwise) involve an absolute exchange of sexual access rights between the two parties. In many relationships this may not matter, but if either partner gets het up over a third party then it will matter a great deal: it will entirely dictate the emotional responses that follow, quite possibly resulting in the destruction of the relationship with major long-term emotional damage—not only for the couple but for any children caught in the often acrimonious crossfire.
Alice’s response to Bill’s reminder signals her implicit acceptance of his ownership of her sexual access rights. Instead of defending her own sovereignty she vents her outrage at Bill’s assumption that, because she’s beautiful, Sandor only wanted sex. With the faultless lucidity of the intoxicated she charges that, ipso facto, Bill must have wanted sex with the two women. Bill denies this on the basis of his love for Alice, a love that makes him sure of her fidelity because she is his wife. Alice treats this self-supporting construct with the risibility it deserves and collapses like a deflating haggis (apparently it’s a laughing fit).
When Kidman finally plugs the leak a remarkable thing happens. She embarks on a monologue about a naval officer she passed in a hotel, whose sole glance left her breathless with desire. Cruise, suddenly remembering the maxim that great film acting is about stillness, stops bobbing his head like a parcel-tray cocker spaniel. He sits in rapt attention as Alice relates how she would have given up everything—including Bill and their child (as Stella Raphael did in Asylum)—for a single night of navel exercises. Yet, at precisely the same time, Bill felt dearer to her than ever before. There it is: the puncturing of the skein of ordinariness, the paradox whose unravelling leads to deeper truth, the glimpse beyond the walls of Sexcatraz. Kidman’s delivery is magnificent, the high point of Eyes Wide Shut. Like Maureen and Court’s first kiss in The Man in The Moon, the ring of the telephone curtails the monologue; it’s a night call for Dr Harford. And with that Kidman’s good work comes to naught. The fascinating, insightful, contradictory notion that Alice’s lust for the unknown officer only increased her love for Bill—the one moment in Eyes Wide Shut that begs us to truly open our eyes—is thoughtlessly discarded.
During the taxi ride to his client, Bill dwells on what Alice just told him… in detail, vicarious detail. His mind’s eye sees Alice on the hotel bed, the naval officer pawing her breasts through her flower-print dress while she whips off her panties in flagrant breach of his supposedly unconditional access rights. Bill experiences Alice’s story as a transgression, a violation of his sexual boundaries, whether it’s fact or fantasy. His response, fuelled by anger, shame and humiliation—exactly the same feelings, albeit milder, that impelled John Lotter and Tom Nissen to commit rape and murder in Boys Don’t Cry—is that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Bill has three opportunities in quick succession to be unfaithful, none of which he takes, yet the obsessing possibility of Alice’s affair keeps Bill’s moth circling the flame of infidelity. The first chance comes in the apartment of his recently deceased client Lou Nathanson. Lou’s babbling daughter Marion professes her love but Bill shows not the slightest inclination to roll Lou’s body off its deathbed and shaft the incoherent Marion on the lukewarm sheets. Leaving the Nathansons, Bill agrees to pay a prostitute one hundred and fifty dollars for unspecified services. In another deus ex machina moment reminiscent of The Man in The Moon, Alice phones, inducing a sudden flush of guilt that drives Bill out of the prostitute’s arms and into Nick Nightingale’s conveniently handy club.
Here Bill learns of a secretive gig Nick has later that night at a masked party awash with nude women. Stuttering like a teenage boy seeing his first nipples, Bill strikes up his parrot act. NICK: “Believe it or not, I don’t actually know the address yet.” BILL: “You don’t?” NICK: “It’s in a different place every time.” BILL: “A different place every time?” The repetitive dialogue makes both Bill and Cruise look dumb. But Bill’s zigzag odyssey suddenly assumes direction; he wangles the address and password off Nick and goes in search of a cape and mask.
Bill’s fitting session is interrupted by the antics of the costume shop owner, who half-heartedly tries to throttle his teenage daughter (Leelee Sobieski) for getting frisky with two Japanese dwarves. She hides behind Bill, whispers sweet nothings in his ear then retreats, dawdling to give him a good look at her budding curves and the smudge of black beneath her gauzy aquamarine knickers. Despite his supposed fixation with infidelity, Bill ignores her. Sobieski’s effortless acting goes to waste in a subplot every bit as fuzzy as her nether regions. With that, Bill is finally on his way to the film’s central scene: the gentlemen’s sex club.
Bill gains admission to a remote mansion and is ushered into a vaulted hall where a strange ceremony unfolds. Ominous chords issue from Nick Nightingale’s organ. (No, that doesn’t read right, but I shan’t change it.) A papal figure in a scarlet cloak fumigates the place and bangs a staff on the floor. Masked, black-cloaked women react to the deep throbs of the staff. They shed their cloaks, revealing only G-strings below… and stilettos. (Did Kubrick have a thing about nude women in heels?) One by one the women are sent to choose from the encircling masked men. Of course, Bill is amongst the erect (sorry, elect). Somehow Bill’s escort recognises him as an interloper and warms him to leave but the escort herself is whisked away by an unknown man.
Ignoring this warning, Bill explores room after room full of elaborately staged sex acts—male-female and female-female—watched by masked and impassive men. On the surface, Kubrick’s orgy is a mishmash of popular misconceptions about ritual sex cults and male fantasies of unlimited access to unattainable women. But Eyes Wide Shut is open to other interpretations. The recurring use of Masonic and Satanic symbols such as pillars and pentagrams has been noted, suggesting that the film is an elaborate occult initiation. Essayist Tim Kreider engagingly argues that it’s an indictment of the wealthy elite’s commoditisation of women, and that “almost all of this film takes place inside Bill Harford’s head.” For the purposes of Sexcatraz, the head it is actually taking place inside is Alice’s—for reasons that will soon become apparent.
After several minutes of highly operatic yet somehow flaccid sex, a valet finally leads Bill back to the main hall, which now hosts a sitting of the Spanish Inquisition. Bill is unmasked before his peers (shades of Pink Floyd’s The Wall) for inveigling the cult and is ordered to undress. Once again, enforced nudity is used to publicly humiliate a sexual transgressor and curb their behaviour.
But at this moment the masked escort intervenes anew, offering to “redeem” Bill and be punished in his place. She is then led away, an unknown woman going to an unknown fate (it’s rather how I felt on first viewing Eyes Wide Shut). Bill is warned never to pry into the cult again then ejected from the mansion.
Bill arrives home to find Alice in the throes of a nightmare. Concerned, he rouses her. Alice recounts walking naked through a strange city, feeling—like Colin in The Comfort of Strangers and Dani at the swimming hole in The Man in the Moon—ashamed of her nudity. Alice’s most deeply held belief about her own body, accessible only in the dream state, is shame. Alice’s recollection continues; in the nightmare she sees herself fucking strangers while Bill casually looks on. Alice is one of the women at the sex party; more accurately, the sex party is Alice’s dream. This isn’t immediately obvious because we enter the party from Bill’s perspective (our perception of cinema is strongly shaped by whose point of view we first enter a given scene from).
Let’s rewind to the party for a moment: after endless rooms filled with nude women (save for masks and, yes, heels), Bill enters a boudoir where, for a few easily missed frames, there’s a woman in a flower-print dress galloping a masked man on a couch. This intriguingly clothed woman is surely Alice, her appearance and dress slightly distorted by the dream state. When the sex party is recognised as Alice’s dream, not Bill’s, other puzzling elements of the film—Bill’s punishment and redemption by the sacrifice of his mysterious saviour—suddenly make sense.
Alice perceives Bill’s interest in the women at the Christmas party as a transgression against their mutually exchanged sexual access rights. Accordingly, Alice—via the dream—punishes Bill by ordering him to strip naked to trigger his shame. On the verge of Bill’s punishment in steps the mysterious woman who, in the film’s thematic climax, offers to “redeem” him. The word is curious and clearly purposeful; if the sex party is anything other than Alice’s dream it is hard to see what is achieved by Bill’s redemption. But in the context of wavering sexual access rights it makes perfect sense. The unknown woman is Eve taking the rap for biting the apple all over again. In this way Alice acknowledges the attraction of other women but forgives—i.e. redeems—Bill while reminding him of his vow of fidelity (the password to the mansion where the party occurs is ‘fidelio’). At its core Eyes Wide Shut recognises the allure of female sexuality while at the same time warning men not to drift towards infidelity with their eyes closed.
The rest of the film’s overlong running time rams home the point that infidelity is a Bad Idea: Bill goes in search of the prostitute he met earlier but finds she’s contracted HIV; he reads in a newspaper that Mandy Curren, onetime beauty queen and the call girl he saved at Ziegler’s party, has overdosed. Bill visits the morgue. Mandy’s greying body slides out on an aluminium gurney. In case you hadn’t guessed, she was the mysterious escort at the sex party who “redeemed” Bill—and paid the price.
Bill arrives home to find Alice sleeping. On the pillow next to her is the mask he waylaid at the sex party; who placed it there is unknown. Bill stares down at his soundly sleeping wife. The thought that the cult has the power to inveigle his apartment and threaten his family is more than his poor heart can take. Feeling ashamed of how close he came to violating his sexual covenant with Alice, Bill breaks down as Alice wakes and cradles him. Rest easy, folks: the status quo has been upheld, though at what cost remains unsaid. For all their wealth, education, privilege, and handsomeness, the one thing the Harfords do not have is control over their individual sexual access rights. These were unconsciously surrendered at marriage in compliance with society’s default programming, with Bill and Alice only discovering the cost some years later, with the emotional wellbeing of their daughter now also at stake.
Eyes Wide Shut is a fascinating film but it has its flaws. The pacing is leaden and Cruise is saddled with quite possibly the worst dialogue ever given to an A-list actor. Plot holes abound. But, subliminally interposed between the frames of Kubrick’s visually gorgeous final film are snapshots of our society’s hidden covenants on sexual access rights. Their exploration, however, is distinctly lop-sided. There is no recognition of the downsides of monogamous relationships, such as partners with differing sexual desires, desires that change over time, or the simple longing for variety. Cruise’s Bill Harford abandons his dalliance into extramarital sex before it’s even begun and retreats to the conjugal bed, naïvely believing that he now has control over the desires that impelled his quest in the first place: his eyes are truly wide shut.
Bill and Alice are ultimately able to contain their sexual curiosity—in Eyes Wide Shut at least; in real life Hollywood’s then pre-eminent married couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, separated soon after the film’s release. The same cannot be said for the protagonist of the next film, Adrian Lyne’s 2002 erotic melodrama Unfaithful.
 In the original novella it’s clear that the equivalent character to Alice placed the mask on the bed, more confirmation that the sex party is her dream. Kubrick opts for the ambiguity of letting the audience wonder whether the cult was responsible. If the cult exists only in Alice’s dream then the two are synonymous.