There is a certain faction of films that are doomed owing to wrongful advertisement, and likewise, on the other end of the advertising spectrum, there are films that turn out to be pleasant surprises because they did not turn out the way they were advertised. Along similar lines of thought, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ was specifically and categorically marketed as an erotic thriller, but that turned out to be only one part of it. In fact, I am ready to bet a fair amount that the decision to do so too was purely studio based, and not something that Kubrick would have personally assigned, seeing as though almost all of his films have seldom fit in the narrow bracket of a single genre. ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is, in my interpretation, a relationship drama, dream like in its approach: a microscopic look on a marriage and a family that has elements of a mystery thriller, stylishly and impeccably decorated.
Even the cynics that this film has drawn towards it over the years, and believe me there are many, would agree that the film is all too well mounted to look at, just as the marriage at its centre that it so gleefully and explicitly scrutinizes. It is also Kubrick’s last film, closing out an absolutely golden filmography of a master auteur, and while there have been numerous claims and controversies that usually accompany the name of this film with respect to the final version of the film being tampered by the studio before it released and it not being completely in line with Kubrick’s vision, I prefer to remember it as a fine, trademark Stanley Kubrick film, certainly not among his best works, but carefully understated enough not to be considered for the same contention either. It is his avant garde feature, and I can see why despite being backed by a big production house like Warner Brothers, Kubrick would have wanted it that way.
Eyes Wide ‘Shut’ Meaning
Before we deep dive into the plot and the ending, I would like to get a bit into literal interpretations, before delving into all the figurative this film deals with. “Eyes Wide Shut”, the expression in itself is a falsity if you see: they cannot be ‘wide’ shut, as opposed to its rather well suited antonym, “eyes wide open”, usually indicating surprise or shock while at the same time declaring a state of absolute clarity. In that, eyes wide shut would mean a degree of knowingness, a kind of self-awareness of a certain sequence of events, and despite that, choosing to remain oblivious of it.
The shutting of eyes would then represent denial; denial from something that is a reality but also something you’d deliberately steer away from seeing or accepting. This will require more meaning if you look at the ultimate motive of the film’s plot and its resolution in the end. The meaning also doubles up on a Kubrick imparted dreamy quality to the film, eerily familiar because it has been constructed from memory, yet unrecognisable all the same: something that you can’t look away from even if you want to, like in a nightmare whence you are partially self-aware of what’s happening and even the fact that you are dreaming and it’s not real, but cannot break free.
The eyes are figuratively wide open, but literally, and in a manner of wordplay, wide shut. In fact, dreams become a very important motif in the film itself, something that I will try to expand upon as we move forward. However, before that, I think it is imperative to explore the two primary characters that inhabit Kubrick’s film: Bill and Alice. This is who the story is about, from the beginning right until the end.
Character Sketch: William Harford
Coming to clearly the more intriguing case among the two, William Harford (Tom Cruise) would seem to have the perfect life to many, at least initially. However, his world quickly comes crashing down once his wife confesses of her thoughts of infidelity with other men to his face, while being offended by his outlook of women’s natural inclination towards fidelity and docility. After receiving a phone call about the demise of one of his older patients, he leaves the house in the middle of the night, but cuts his visit short after the patient’s daughter makes advances towards him and confesses her love for him despite not knowing him personally. He walks out, and the call quickly becomes Bill’s own odyssey towards exploring his own sexual freedom when he agrees to go to Domino’s place.
Bill’s conscience is rekindled when Alice calls up just before he is going to go through with it with Domino. He leaves, paying her what was promised without actually cheating on Alice. Following that, he goes to a jazz bar and meets with Nick Nightingale, his old friend, to learn that he is playing at a secret location that night, blindfolded. He reveals that the women there are beautiful and a curious and somewhat titillated Bill makes up his mind to find his way into that event. After going to great lengths to rent a tux, costume, and a Venetian mask to get into the event, he does so, only to realise that the event was a kind of sex ritual, where cultists of some sort gathered and indulged in orgies in an almost spiritual manner. He is quickly outed due to his naturally strange behaviour, but is saved from whatever consequences the cult intended for him when a girl kind to him since the beginning agrees to take the fall in his stead.
Even after he is evicted with a warning, Bill continues to find clues to lead him to the girl who saved him, but eventually learns that even Nick had suffered the consequences of his visit to the mansion. Whilst returning the dress and costumes to Milich, he discovers that he had lost the mask and that Milich was now prostituting his daughter: no better way to put that. He overcomes another temptation for betrayal, and gets to know about a hooker’s death due to drug overdose. At the morgue, he identifies her as Mandy, the hooker who OD’d inside Ziegler’s bathroom while the two were evidently having sex, and later confirms her as the one who “sacrificed” herself at the ritual to save Bill. Ziegler, of course, insists that it was merely as a warning to Bill, and also that Nick was safe back home in Seattle, but we don’t know it for sure.
The special thing about Nick’s journey away from Alice and eventually finding his way back to him, is that it grows increasingly absurd towards the middle, almost dreamlike: one that you are aware of but cannot necessarily snap out of, before it snaps back to normal right after he sees the mask on the pillow: a trigger for him in all ways metaphorical to help him realise what went wrong, and a tearful Bill confesses and reveals his voyeuristic misadventures to Alice, as the two rekindle the next day in principle agreeing that they needed to spend more time on their marriage.
Character Sketch: Alice Harford
As with all marriages, Bill and Alice’s too needed work, and while on the surface it didn’t look troubled at all, the fault line is exposed when Alice (Nicole Kidman) confesses while smoking pot with Bill to having fantasized herself with the naval officer while they were on vacation at Cape Cod. The degree of her fantasy is revealed too when she said she actually contemplated leaving him and Helena for the officer. The dialogue in that one scene really brings out her conflicted nature about the scenario, with her lust for the naval officer clearly getting the better of her, with nothing but the obligation to her marriage and whatever love she felt in that moment for Bill helping her overcome that.
The same is also tested when an older Hungarian man tries to seduce his way into possibly courting Alice for sex despite knowing that she was married. You’d expect Alice to vehemently oppose the man once he made his intentions clear, but she deposes off him rather lightly with a signatory kiss instead, pointing to an obligation more than a necessity. However, she is truly at her breaking point when she has another dream: one where she has sex with the naval officer and a group of other man, even mocking and laughing at Bill as he helplessly watches on in the dream, as described by Alice. Seeing as though how clearly and profusely Kubrick expresses that “no dreams are just dreams”, especially in the context of this film, these represent desire for Alice. One might be all too naïve to consider that their marriage was lacking the energy of their yesteryears after years of domestication, the desire for which manifested in Alice through her dreams and fantasies; we all know relationships to be far more complex than that.
The Ending, Explained
“I think we should be grateful. Grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real, or only a dream. Sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime can ever be the whole truth. And no dream is ever just a dream. The important thing is we’re awake now and hopefully for a long time to come.”
Rarely have I ever seen a film, that too as complexly layered as ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, so completely summed up in its final bits. It’s like the payoff to everything that Kubrick was hinting or playing at throughout the narrative, including the starkly real bits and the surrealistic dreamy bits that were concisely put together by a revered academician for the audience to take home. The ending of the film, thereby, is as difficult to comprehend as you want it to be, and as simple (in Kubrickian terms) as the text above. A lot of patrons related to the film too have argued over the years that the ending of the film is not what Kubrick would have contended with, and since the auteur had been well known for continuously editing his films and especially their endings well until the last day, sometimes even when they were playing in theatres, fans too have made their peace with the fact that the film and its ending is indeed an “incomplete” version of sorts, missing the final Kubrick touch, seeing as though he untimely passed away weeks before the film could release to the public.
To get to the ending, let’s rewind our clocks to the moment when Bill returns home from Ziegler’s where he faces the revelation that Ziegler was one of the members of the cult and was there at the house that fateful night. Back home, he finds a sleeping Alice with the mask that he rented lying on the pillow beside her, seeing which he breaks down into tears and vows to tell Alice all of his misadventures from the past two days. He does so to a teary eyed Alice who later has a conversation with him as worded above when at the toy store Christmas shopping for Helena. They realise that gratitude would be the first step in coming over this hurdle in their marriage and family lives: gratitude for their mutual love that endured despite each of their infidel tendencies.
Alice also presses that there is another thing that they must do as soon as possible: “F*ck”. While this may sound quasi comical in nature, especially after the credits immediately start rolling to Jocelyn Pook’s playful tunes almost as soon as she utters this, the couple realises how much they needed physical intimacy and some time together to find their way back to each other. Even though they never explicitly cheated on each other, we very well know that they were there. Cheating doesn’t merely involve physical involvement with a third person; you are already halfway there if the thought of it lands in your mind.
At this point, I would like to go back to what I quoted from the film above. As I continue to admire the conciseness of how well put that final dialogue is, I will also state that it perhaps means more than one can literally draw from it. The testimony of the couple, calling each other’s foray into near infidelity a dream that they’d both like to forget, and them being awake finally implying that the nightmare was seemingly over, and the awakening must be accompanied by the realisation that their marriage needed work, are some of the examples of that.
If I am to state it quite simply, the film’s plot can be divided into three parts: the initial doubt, the unadmitted guilt and the forgiveness. Kubrick materialises the three parts distinctively in my opinion, and deliberately keeps the middle part, the guilt, as the bridge between the two, represented as a journey into the increasingly absurd and unknown. It is through undertaking this journey that Bill is able to find his way back to Alice. The middle part, the bridge or the guilt, whatever you may term it, is thus one extended MacGuffin that when seen closely, alludes to and leads to something else, something bigger, ultimately proving in itself to be inconsequential. The story begins and ends with Bill and Alice, and when the credits roll, you still know little to nothing about the cult. Kubrick wanted it to be kept that way because it was never about the cult.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’ is actually a tad bit away from being a masterpiece, and definitely not among Kubrick’s best works, even though it will be remembered more than some of his better works by virtue of being the last film he made before he departed. That in no way demerits the film, which is actually quite an intriguing watch. However, where the movie really merits is that during its roughly 160 minute runtime, it gives you a whole lot to think about, and that is in addition to the anticipation of what is going to happen next, as the film unravels its erotically mysterious layers in the second act.
Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman both turn in visibly dedicated, inspiring performances, and given that Kubrick has always been reported as a director who was not easy to work with, and I’m sure you can see the command, both of them do considerably well. Despite the plot and its treatment drawing varied responses even from devout followers of the auteur’s work, absolutely no one can argue over the fact that it is in fact very meticulously mounted, and technically soaring. We all know too well by now that nothing in any single frame of a Kubrick film is not where it’s supposed to be, and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ lets you witness and admire that meticulousness amid strikingly familiar yet surreal set pieces, one last time. For fans and movie lovers alike, this one is a must watch, even numerous times after, simply for the joy of unraveling a layered film: the package of a mystery, erotic, thriller and the core of a marital drama. Something only Kubrick can pull off with such elan.