Fifty Four

Bill is at work. Alice is at home. We cross-cut between the two.


For all that Kubrick pushed the film form forward (alliteration FTW), he certainly wasn’t above sturdy plot-work montages like these; Barry Lyndon and Full Metal Jacket integrate similar scenes within their own pitiless deconstructions of character, setting, and theme. Anyone the least bit familiar with movie drama knows the score. We are witnessing the Harfords, alone, together: physically separated, but united in their adherence to routine. Alice and Helena are sitting at their kitchen table. This is the first glimpse we have of the Harford kitchen; last night was all about fleeing domesticity, if only for a few hours. The kitchen is cozy, the table small and appealingly cluttered. These scenes bring Alice down to earth somewhat, highlighting the bored housewife whose coexistence with glamorous Night Alice (also known as the public face of Nicole Kidman, blurring the line between actor and character) was only implied the night before.

But–and this is fucking crucial to the movie’s success–this disenchantment is not condescending or cruel. Eyes Wide Shut treats Alice like a human being, something you cannot say about most of the myriad suburban-exploitation flicks that cropped up in the late 90s and early 00s. The movie does not view the gap between Alice’s outer serenity and inner turmoil as a lie, or as evidence of weakness or timidity. Rather, it’s a trade-off she’s made, even one that she’s happy with most of the time…but not all the time, and she resents Bill taking her personal and professional sacrifice for granted. It’s worth noting that, unlike the eternally vapid American Beauty (all that which Eyes does right, Beauty does wrong), Eyes Wide Shut doesn’t bother manufacturing a cliched hippie-utopia life for its characters to briefly retreat to before coming to their senses. There is no comfortably circumscribed Other to provide cheap contrast for the Harfords, only the Void: all the security of ego and status and selfhood stripped away, until you are left alone (as in the end of 2001) with your animal self and a mirror. The day-in-the-life-montage provides evidence of the tipping point, as Bill and Alice’s clearly long-cemented routines are contrasted with their uneasy emotional states, riding the candle smoke of last night’s reverie. Alice is feeling resentful, toward her husband and herself. Bill is feeling something stranger, subtler, and scarier: frustrated lust, rattled ego, a fascination with the unfamiliar coupled with a deep-seated dread of the unknown (especially when it comes to sex and death).



So what are they up to? Alice is reading the paper at the kitchen table. Helena takes a bite of cereal, watching Bugs Bunny read aloud: “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” I bother with this blog because of Kubrick’s peerless ability to create little dense dwarf-star moments like these, begging to be unfurled. We have here a reference to The Shining, in many ways the Kubrick movie most similar to Eyes Wide Shut. The first appearance of Wendy and Danny Torrance in that movie is an almost identical shot: mother and child at a table in a somewhat messy kitchen, mother on the right reading, child on the left eating, cartoon noise blaring in the background. Danny asks his mother if she really wants to spend a winter at the Overlook, using his imaginary (?) friend Tony as a proxy to voice his concerns; Wendy attempts to reassure him, but her pasted-on smile hints at her own desperation and fear. The subtext to this conversation, and every interaction mother and son have throughout the movie, is the deadly terror instilled in them by the patriarchal brute Jack. It’s there in that first scene, in Danny’s chillingly blank expression (he refuses to meet his mother’s gaze, a common sign of child abuse) and in Wendy’s chain-smoking, only the most obvious manifestation of her deeply internalized fear. (The Overlook haunts the Torrances, but uses their psychoses as fodder; similar questions about individual versus systemic responsibility arise throughout Eyes Wide Shut.)

But they can’t talk about it. Wendy and Danny desperately need each other as allies, but their fear and shame keeps them apart and leaves them vulnerable to Jack and his newfound ghost friends. It’s the quiet little subplots that enrich Kubrick’s insect-under-glass worlds, and amidst all the surreal imagery and grandiose camerawork and heady ideas about madness and masculinity and Time Itself, The Shining tells the story of a mother and son learning to trust one another as their world falls apart. The Torrance trio falls apart, but is resurrected as a duo when Danny finds the courage to ditch Tony and warn his mother about REDRUM himself. Perhaps that’s partially why Kubrick shot Jack’s death as a farce–mouth hanging open, eyes upturned, frozen in a state of eternal slapstick. Not only is the monster dead, he’s been thoroughly demystified, and is no longer worthy of a role in his family’s life even as a ghost. That’s the soft-spoken optimism buried deep in The Shining‘s M.C. Escher pattern: that maybe the Overlook is a mausoleum for evil, a sort of metaphysical archive where our bloody past can be imprisoned and the women and children can walk free of the patriarchy. There’s horror in those walls, but at least it’s inside the walls.


Eyes Wide Shut offers no such way out. Alienation, anxiety, abuse, and the Void are constantly with us, infecting every moment, and our most deeply buried impulses and desires are inextricable from the macroscopic systems in which we scurry. This scene is notable not for a failed connection between parent and child, as in that early Shining conversation, but for the lack of any attempt. Alice isn’t reading to Helena, forging a bond in the fires of Christmas; she’s delegated that job to capitalism, allowing Bugs Bunny to serenade her child. (Helena’s desire to watch The Nutcracker the previous night now seems less related to the ritual celebration known as Christmas than to the ritual celebration of consumerism…known as Christmas.)

Fifty Three

There is a painting in the elevator. Or a photo of a painting, or maybe even some stained-glass confection. Why? Who bothers with art in an elevator?


Well, this is a doctor’s office, and people need something to distract them from the existentially terrifying purpose of their visit. One could say the same of all the myriad artworks blanketing Eyes Wide Shut, that they exist for no other purpose than to protect the characters from the existentially terrifying sight of blank walls (blank lives). But surely that sells art short! Perhaps instead those colors and shapes and lines stand in for the Great Ineffable, the divine vision to be ever-reached-for and never attained. (This is a religious concept in origin, but as the new Cosmos demonstrates, the faithful have no monopoly on the sublime.) Eyes Wide Shut, as I’ve argued before, is a story about people reaching for something new and retreating in fear. Art, then, in its ineffability, represents the mystery of totalizing forces and our unwillingness (not inability) to comprehend them. And that idea, of course, ties neatly into the engaging/alienating work of a doctor, for whom a human being is reduced to component parts, endlessly failing.

Of course, we only see the elevator’s painting/photo/window as it frames Bill’s head; could it then stand in for the wild emotions of the previous night, left behind for the sake of a sober morning? Maybe, but again, Bill’s day job brings him right back to the questions of morality/mortality he dodged the previous night. Sex and death find each other here, as much as the practitioners of both try to pry them apart.

Anyway, the camera turns and follows behind Bill as he enters the office, offering perfunctory greetings to the women who work under him (pun very much intended). Cruise’s delivery here is very mannered, in the same vein as his all-business tone with Victor and Mandy the previous night, standing in direct contrast to his chummy conversation with Nick and his pathetic attempt at flirting with Gayle and Nuala. “Please ask Janelle if she will bring me my coffee.” This is a very theatrical scene, one which needs only a few objects (desks, placards, and of course, omnipresent Christmas displays) to get across the idea of “doctor’s office,” leaning heavily on the actors’ approach to dialogue to set the tone. Of course, if this were actually a play (and I would love to see what a creative theatrical director would make of Eyes Wide Shut), we would be watching Doctor Bill stride through his office from a fixed position. He would be walking across the stage, perpendicular to the audience, who would be seeing a cross-section of the office in question. Theater is not visually limited to a camera’s aperture (a wider scope than cinema can provide) but is immobile in terms of perspective (a narrower range than cinema can provide). If this scene were “staged,” to quote Victor, we would be getting a sense of Bill’s office and how it is arranged, both physically and professionally. In a cinematic context, we follow right behind Bill, glimpsing the office and its inhabitants only as he does, yet also taking note of his surface appeal and that which he does not allow to reach the surface. This is the sort of semi-subjectivity only cinema can explore. Offering neither the full thought-immersion of first-person novels, nor the fixed perspective of the theater audience, movies exist on an uncertain subliminal plane, a non-space shaped by invisible edits, driven an Author that hides Itself. Which, of course, is all perfectly appropriate for a story about hidden truths, directed by an infamous recluse. It’s all about the form-meets-content, baby.


Speaking of which, we are treated to our second instance of non-diegetic music (the first being “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” which could’ve been playing in-universe but feels much more like it’s echoing inside of Alice’s head). Yet we’ve heard this sweeping rhythm and melancholy melody before: it’s the same Shostakovitch waltz that kicked off the film 22 minutes ago. Remember, it seemed to be non-diegetic before Bill switched it off, our introduction to the uncertain, revelatory mode of Eyes Wide Shut, where reality begins to burn and curl at the edges–half psychological malaise, half sociological blindness. When Bill turns off the soundtrack, he aesthetically sets up the moral revelations to come, training our subconscious to watch for, well, subtext. Our perspective is limited, untrustworthy, and constantly shifting with new information, just like Bill’s. (Again, form meets content; the aesthetic elegantly immerses the audience in the character’s mindset without resorting to voiceover or POV.)

So what does it mean that this waltz returns now? The rhythm, as I said in one of my first posts, is of the sort generally accepted by critics as representing Life Itself. Its brisk movements speak of routine, of predictable ups and downs, of a life as precise and planned as a waltz. Certainly, we see that theme at work in Bill’s day at the office. But there’s that keening melody, emotional but rigid: tragedy at a distance, much like Kubrick’s camera, positioned at the perfect mid-distance to contextualize his characters within the physical, social, and moral hierarchies in which they move while still catching the little personal details that make the journey resonant and worthwhile. As mentioned, the snapshot of Bill’s work life builds on the theme of death introduced by Mandy’s collapse, and Death (caps absolutely intended, as required for all Big Themes), as both a personal tragedy and an objective inevitability (even necessity), fits the melody’s dichotomy perfectly. Shostakovitch, however, speaks to Alice as well. The melody is her yearning for a more fulfilling, expressive life, as betrayed in her flirtation with Sandor (and transparent boredom with Bill), and the rhythm is her choice–and it is a choice, as the movie’s ending will make horribly clear–to stay in her routine anyway. Music-dance-film-character. It all comes together in Kubrick’s always-cosmic sweep. Cinema is the delicate combination of fragile elements, the harnessing of talents for a fraction of a second burned into film. It’s about making it all work, and the waltz works.


Fifty Two

So when Bill Harford steps forward from that elevator the morning after the Christmas Ball, Kubrick shoots it like Bill is stepping out of his own mausoleum. Is Bill a vampire? Is he emerging, not to find new victims, but rather to help them forestall Death? Or are we watching a tape in reverse, Bill’s last moments before he enters the tomb?


Melodramas generally employ death as a metaphor for stagnation and stasis within one’s routine: the passing of a loved one who urged the protagonist to live life to the fullest, the onset of disease as a catalyst for emotional transformation. Bill’s story reverses the trajectory somewhat. His daily life is mired in death, until a startling glimpse of Alice’s inner life (which Bill, seemingly, didn’t previously know existed) strands him in an existential quandary zone, which he tries to fight off with a classic episodic journey through life in general…one which mires him right back in death, via Lou Nathanson’s corpse, Domino’s test results, and Nick and Mandy’s shared, not-actually-ambiguous fate. (Namely, Victor Ziegler has them both killed.)

The implicit question hovering behind every event in Eyes Wide Shut (though Bill finally explicitly asks it at the end, long after it has ceased to matter) is what is Bill, and thereby his audience, supposed to make of all this? How does he reconcile all the chaos and confusion that greets him with the well-heeled stability of his daily life as a death-dealer doctor? Well, he has practice: doctoring brings him right up to the edge of the abyss on a daily basis, allowing him a glimpse at the Void before retreating into Alice’s warm, previously uncomplicated embrace. Her love and their marriage are beacons of, again, Immortal Thought, the idea of love and marriage bolstering the failing body (and, Kubrick whispers, its attendant moral breakdown).


And for Bill, the Christmas Ball served much the same function: a safe (for him, that is) purging of unwelcome thoughts and feelings, a fake catharsis that allowed him vicarious access to a self-serving world of sex and possibility (sex often serving in Eyes Wide Shut as an open-ended metaphor for all varieties of terrifying liberation). He was then able to bring that energy home to Alice and her looking glass, unburdened by her nagging alienation and resentment. Bill is a tourist in the Outside, but will be forced to try to make a home there once Alice renders the Inside alien to him.

One more note before I actually look at the scene in question. There is a phenomenon here I think we’re all familiar with: the manner in which an exciting, exceptional night out fades into the watery gray of morning. Colors don’t pop as much without the dark of evening as contrast; every interaction seems more mediated, less genuine, more real and less true. It’s the journey from Saturday night to Monday morning (with Sunday church, in this case, serving as a structuring absence), emphasizing our emotional range not as a sign of experienced maturity, but as representative of the terrifying instability of our psyches. The man who emerges from that elevator is the Doctor Bill Harford that everyone knows, the public face inextricable from Tom Cruise’s own tabloid-staple mug. Is that the same man who knew Nick Nightingale in med school? Or the man who flirted with Gayle and Nuala? Or the man who revived Mandy? Or the man who then promptly abandoned her? Or the man who turned all of that into nothing more than fodder for sexytimes with the missus?


Who is this man?

Fifty One

The morning after: welcome to a day in the life of the Harfords.


Our first daytime shot in Eyes Wide Shut, a film that portrays Day and Night as practically different worlds (ones which perpetually transform the protagonists as well), is of an elevator door sliding open to reveal Doctor Bill. And “Doctor” is who he is, now–away from the shady services he provided for Victor and Mandy, away from the subtle psychological unmooring instigated by Nick and Gayle and Nuala, but also away from the ego-surrender-bliss he achieved in the previous night’s sex. He is back where he belongs: “show[ing] my face,” as he will put it that night after his ego, inextricable from his looks, has taken a foundational blow. He looks right, and his personal depths (such as they are) are caught up in this surface appeal.

Isn’t that what we ask of our doctors, after all? Isn’t that why we allowed for the modernist rise of hospitals, the encapsulation of intimate, individual needs within an anonymous and impersonal system? We want to be healed, of course, but even more we want to be reassured. We want to know that what is happening to us has happened to millions of people before us, that there is an inherited wisdom, a canon, that can contextualize the terrifying chaos unleashed upon us from within. We are our bodies, as Kubrick knows well, but our bodies betray us at every turn. Where do we locate our consciousness when we are failing from within? (See also Claire Denis’ phenomenally unsettling L’Intrus, a feature-length explication of this question and one of my favorite films of the last ten years.) Bill has so far been able to integrate his premodern instincts with his modernist sense of Self, but Alice will challenge that equilibrium by the evening’s end (“Millions of years of evolution, right?…If you men only knew…”) Bill’s office, then, is both a bastion of Immortal Thought and a temple to Mortal Decay, a cultural locus where the Individual and System meet and compare notes. As such, it is the ideal vessel for Kubrick’s sociological theses, as well as a subtle parallel to Victor’s bathroom, hidden behind the scenes of the gorgeous, life- and sex-affirming Christmas Ball. What is Christmas but a dual tribute to life and death, ringing in the new year while silently affirming the passage of the old? Christ’s birth is forever shadowed by his death, and his resurrection can seem cold comfort to those mortals left behind with their questions (see also: E.T.)


Therein lies a central topic in Eyes Wide Shut that I’ve barely touched upon. Death, appropriately enough, is the terminus of many a Kubrick production. 2001 ends on images of Dave Bowman’s death and rebirth, and that of the human race he represents. The Shining both kills Jack and preserves his ghost in hellish immortality. Full Metal Jacket achieves symbolic orgasm when its intensely conflicted protagonist murders a fifteen-year-old female sniper. Dr. Strangelove does so with the atomic annihilation of the human race (and that orgasm is barely even metaphorical). Deepest and darkest of all, Barry Lyndon crawls to a close by stating, in onscreen text, that death and the distance of time have rendered (for modern audiences trapped in their own Space-Time Corridor) the three preceding hours of rise and fall, hope and betrayal and war and ambition and loss and wealth and even love, utterly flat and meaningless: “they are all equal now.” So, too, are the soldiers marching in horrible unison at the end of Full Metal Jacket, the hideously simpatico politicians and criminals at the close of Clockwork Orange, the smiling pre-corpses trapped behind glass in our last infernal vision of the Overlook, the planet of corpses left behind by Strangelove…and, last but not least, the married couple together again as the curtain falls on Eyes Wide Shut (and on Kubrick, closing his career on his most intimate expression) somehow simultaneously transformed and untouched by their experiences, agreeing to rebuild their marriage around willful blindness and self-deceit. EWS mines a sex-death conflation not dissimilar to Strangelove, but played more as tragedy than comedy (although the latter does inevitably worm its way in there).

Death is a fall back, a default, the universe’s own fail safe. For Kubrick, death represents the failure of hope, the end of individual ambition and progress. 2001, ever ambiguous, might represent a transcendence of this pessimistic pattern, offering as it does Dave Bowman a fresh start as the Star-Child, but then again, he only earns that position by killing his evolutionary competitor HAL. As Tim Kreider says in his shattering explication of Eyes Wide Shut‘s socioeconomic theses, “was there ever a Stanley Kubrick picture in which no one got killed?”


The murder victim in EWS is Mandy, whose story is hidden and muddied by incomplete information (a key motif in the movie, especially its opaque second half) to mirror her invisibility and powerlessness within the movie’s social hierarchy. But death will still crop up in all sorts of unexpected ways as the larger story proceeds, meant to sap existential strength from Doctor Bill and force him to re-evaluate both his own life and the larger society he supports, not as his preferred reflection-free stream-of-consciousness, but as a System dominated by forces both economic and evolutionary (not to mention the insidious connections between the two), where death is employed as threat, punishment, and inevitability. The patriarchy wields violence, but succumbs to time’s slow attack from within. Death, then, both raises Eyes Wide Shut‘s stakes and purposefully deflates the tension; all of this is mortal. This, too, shall pass.


Fifty! Well all right then!

I’ve finally reached the end of the Christmas Ball sequence, the first of Eyes Wide Shut‘s Three Evenings. So before I move on to the next segment (a day in the life of the Harfords), let’s recap what we’ve learned.

Eyes Wide Shut is the story of a rich couple–who are nonetheless cast as the servant class to the elite-of-the-elite Zieglers. The Harfords are sexy–although they quickly meet more entrancing, alluringly unreal suitors. Bill is smug and secure within his ego-armor as husband and doctor–until he finds a foil in Nick. Alice is alienated and unhappy–but far better off than her parallel-self Mandy. They return home from the Christmas Ball refreshed and eager to reconnect via fucking–but the evening’s memory hovers like a ghost.

So Eyes Wide Shut is a film about tipping points, about  futures forsaken, about standing on the edge of revelation and turning back, afraid of both the Void and the possibility it might act as a mirror. It is about characters that insidiously reflect aspects of our protagonists, both because the director designed it that way to make thematic points and because that’s how life actually works, if we’re honest enough to abandon the Promethean dream of pure individuality. It is about, as I have said over and over, both psychology and sociology, and the contact point between the two. The psychosis of the individual and the malaise of a society become difficult to tell apart, and people and events with no explicit connections among them are revealed as interrelated cogs in a sex-based underworld economy. People (Alice, Mandy, Nick, Marion, Domino, Milich’s unnamed daughter, the nudes at the orgy, and ultimately Bill himself) are treated as objects. Any moral or existential reaction is quickly suppressed–or repressed, the latter requiring no collective action at all, so ingrained are the movements of lust and shame.

This is a world designed to demand interpretation, but implemented by men (Victor and Red Cloak) in such a way as to resist interpretation. In other words, a system that hides itself. Certainly, much the same could be said of the mysterious monolith-makers in 2001 or the rapacious spirits haunting the Overlook Hotel, but they never hid the very fact of their existence in the manner of Eyes Wide Shut‘s patriarchy. They just refused to divulge their goals and methods to the helpless little mortal puppets they manipulated. Kubrick’s last film, by contrast, is dedicated to exposing the mental and social blocks that have kept those hierarchies in place in spite of modernist attempts to overthrow them. And maybe those attempts have worked too well! They have merely forced the puppet masters to cloak themselves better, to put a smiling Clintonian face on the same old abuse, to provide just enough doubt and ambiguity (the supposedly open-to-all opportunity of the “free” market, coupled with the disingenuously individualist nature of modern psychology) to prevent the kind of revolution of thought and power that every Kubrick film anticipates, only to collapse in moral decay and death. Eyes Wide Shut brings it all back home, shorn of the fantastical and genre- or era-bound vessels in which Kubrick had previously clothed his critiques. There is no exit…and even if there is, we’ll give up looking before we find it.

All of this is rendered in a baroque, ravishing film style that nevertheless works to constantly throw its own beauty into question, both by revealing the rape and murder lurking behind the beauty (Clockwork Orange-style sociology) and by reflecting on the uncertainties and emotional/existential voids that beauty, whether in cinema or real life, cannot resolve and may only make worse (Shining-style psychology). Setting imposes on and implicates the characters; the characters infest and infiltrate the setting, albeit some with more skill than others. Individual and System. What do our little chimp brains do when confronted with their own limits? What do systems do when confronted with the glorious, horrible spectacle of an ego unchained? How does one build a story around these ideas without falling into didactic lectures that leave the audience informed but uneducated…how do we make it real? How do we expose what is hidden while acknowledging that its ability to hide itself is what truly matters, making the intertwined struggles of building a better society and building a better person so fiendishly difficult? How do we get the flashlight to shine on itself?

Eyes Wide Shut is about being faced with your tininess in time. It’s about ineffable forces moving through you and leaving your will and consciousness and identity adrift, buffeted.

I hope not for answers, but merely for better questions. Like Kubrick, no matter how deeply I bury my Jewish ancestry in the name of modernist atheism, the Talmudic instincts come roaring back. Stanley Kubrick was a man passionately dedicated to exploring a society he seemed to want no part of, and I can relate.

Forty Nine

Alice has finally made it clear: she will not be sleeping with Sandor. Why she isn’t is an immensely complex question, which I’ve begun to answer and will continue to once I finally arrive at the epic Bill-Alice throwdown the night after the Christmas Ball. But first, she says goodbye, placing her finger to her lips and then to his.


Before I got into film theory and general cinephilia, I couldn’t understand the appeal of movie-watching from a detached, observant perspective. What’s the fun in that? Without sheer visceral immersion, wonderment and world-building, the surrender to pure emotion, what’s the point?


Maybe I was ignorant to think the theoretical approach worked like that, or maybe it does work like that and I’m just bad at it. But my own critical eye has never required me to surrender my pure love of movie magic. It’s a dialectic between the two: the visceral hints at the intellectual, which in turn provides greater weight and resonance to the visceral. As I mentioned in my Best of 2013 post, cinema dissolves theory into ether, but it’s still there, hidden like a Trojan Horse within film’s sensory impact. So my “reading” of a movie is constantly being interrupted by the “watching,” and vice versa. Those are the Movie Moments, when a thought and a feeling occur to you at the exact same time, and your consciousness shudders for a split second as you reconcile the two, only to find that the movie has cheekily moved on to the next one without you. My favorite directors from David Lynch to Apichatpong Weerasethakul are less storytellers (“mythmakers” would be closer to the mark) than they are experts at creating these moments, over and over, until your brain and heart stop fighting it out and make sweet beautiful Monkey Ghost love.


So I’m humming along through the opening passages of Eyes Wide Shut, the scenes in Victor’s bathroom providing plenty of grist for both social and psychological interpretations, the Kubrickian Big Picture unfolding in my mind’s eye…when Alice puts her finger to her lips, and then Sandor’s, and that eye goes wide shut. (Couldn’t resist.) My critical faculties fall away, and I’m left with the sexiness and melancholy and beauty, my god, beauty of the Moment. I am hyper-aware of each ticking second, my eyes and ears straining to catch every detail before the Moment vanishes, as it must, the passage of time being the implicit subject of every movie ever made.

And then Kubrick cuts to something (which I’ll get to in a moment) that immediately re-engages my interpretive instincts, brings the Big Picture rushing back with more clarity and more complexity (complication, not complexity, is the opposite of clarity), and breaks the spell–only to immediately recast it. Film is the most effective of all propaganda media for a reason: it imposes itself upon you in a manner unlike any other art form. It’s blatant artifice that somehow manages to convincingly present itself as a window on reality, and Eyes Wide Shut finds Kubrick operating in both arenas at peak capacity.

Take that cut. Alice touching Sandor’s lips (metaphorically silencing him, enforcing the secret of their almost-dalliance?) is so charged a moment that it seems to break the film, producing such a jarring edit in both image and sound that you almost expect to hear a record skip. We leap from Alice fully clothed to Alice bare naked, from her refusing sex to her accepting it–yet also from aroused to seemingly bored. The shift in music from background, diegetic, live orchestra to forefronted, non-diegetic, recorded blues (Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing”) is even more unexpected, given Kubrick’s reputation for stodgy classicism. His music selections alone, given the lush instrumental arrangements providing much of the emotional backbone of 2001 and Barry Lyndon (not to mention the synthesized Bach establishing the stately nightmare that is A Clockwork Orange), would seem to validate that perception, but the director’s later works find him eagerly engaging with pop culture. Adapting a pulpy Stephen King bestseller (The Shining) and filling it with references to Johnny Carson and Bugs Bunny, opening and closing Full Metal Jacket with pop songs, casting Hollywood’s most tabloid-ready couple as a thinly veiled version of themselves in Eyes Wide Shut…these decisions do not speak to a man walled off from the world, as the conventional wisdom suggested of Kubrick, and this early-film edit arguably mocks the intensely Old World feel of the Christmas Ball by denying it elegant closure. All that filigreed set design and fraught emotional tipping points and grim sociological analysis is gone in an instant, as if characters and audience alike have woken from a dream. Kubrick ends the Ball just short of drawing explicit conclusions, leaving us to reach our own while processing this new short scene, which presumably takes place that same night after the Harfords arrive home, but looks and sounds and moves as if it’s occurring entirely within Alice’s head.


She is swaying before her mirror, naked, removing her earrings–seemingly dropping the pose of Doctor’s Wife, returning (like so many Kubrick characters before her, though usually in a much more violent context) to her unfettered, unmediated state of being. Yet even now, the mirror prevents her from escaping the Meta entirely. That keys into the basic psychic-social contradiction at the heart of Eyes Wide Shut: is what we’re seeing and hearing meant to be a pitiless, objective construction of reality? Or have we been locked inside the characters’ heads by a director who means for us to filter the movie through their blinkered perspective? The answer is “both,” of course, but many of the film’s most entrancing and memorable moments come when it hovers on the knife’s edge between the two, as it does here.

Bill approaches from Alice’s right. He is also naked. He does not glance at the mirror, not even for a second; their roles are reversed from the opening scene, which saw Bill admiring his own handsome mug while ignoring his wife. Now he can’t look away from her, as if he wants to lose himself in her. Is he trying to banish guilty thoughts of Gayle and Nuala? Or is he fantasizing about them, and so keeps his eyes away from the (necessarily circumscribed, literally skin-deep) truth in the mirror? Worse yet: how to answer those questions in terms of Mandy? Does he care about the helpless position he left her in, completely vulnerable with a man who has already raped her at least once? (“You can’t keep doing this.”  “I know…”)


Or did seeing her there, naked, unconscious, turn him on? Is Bill no better than Victor, deep deep down? None of these questions are ever answered explicitly, but Bill’s behavior later in the story will provide clues. For now, it’s worth noting that Bill is yet again avoiding self-examination. His flirtation with Gayle and Nuala was completely free of the shame that kept Alice from surrendering to Sandor; he only didn’t go through with it because Victor called him away (sociological status trumping psychological desire). His brief conversation with Nick marked the first cracks in his glass-menagerie life, evoking as it did a wilder (and terrifyingly/thrillingly uncertain) lifestyle, but Bill doesn’t seem fully aware of it until he sees Mr. Nightingale again, after he’s absorbed a few more shocks to his system and has escaped high society for the literal descent into the Sonata Cafe. Bill was pure bedside-manner with Mandy and played the willing toady with Victor; he is, at his possibly empty core, the man who forgot the babysitter’s name approximately 15 seconds after his wife told him. Eyes Wide Shut is the story of Bill Harford finally doing what Jack Ripper and Alex DeLarge and Redmond Barry and Jack Torrance and Private Joker failed to do: really look at himself. To his credit, he’s increasingly horrified by what he finds (weakness, deceit, selfishness, culpability in rape and murder), but when Alice turns Lady Macbeth at film’s end and offers him a one-word solution to all the pain and confusion and guilt (“fuck”), he not only eagerly accedes, he falls right back into the smug, sentimental ego-sustaining language (“forever”) that Alice, Void-aficionado that she is, mournfully sees right through.

So he has a beautiful gilded mirror in his beautiful gilded apartment (with his beautiful gilded wife?) because he’s a rich asshole who caters to other rich assholes. What matters at a human level (the one Kubrick supposedly could not access), however, is that he is refusing to look into it. But Alice isn’t. The camera slowly tracks in as he kisses and fondles her. The rest of the world slowly vanishes, and we are left alone with the mirrored image: not reality, but its presentation, reality’s representative, as with all the characters (Victor, Red Cloak, Bill) and institutions (apartments, cafes, hospitals) who have servants to front for them. Bill is gone, fallen into ego-surrender-bliss, the positive flipside of the restless Void to which Alice belongs (and where he will soon join her). Then Kubrick cuts in, closer, into Alice’s perspective. His eyes are closed, hers open and facing the mirror: the movie’s signature image. Except when it’s reproduced on posters and DVD covers, Alice seems to be looking at us, demanding some kind of moral and philosophical response to what we are being shown–and what is being hidden. In context, she’s clearly looking at herself, a cold moment of self-awareness (clarity being the only gift Kubrick, or the Coens, or the Dardennes, ever grants his characters) killing whatever erotic buzz she might have left over from her almost-dalliance with Sandor. She knows what she is: a kept woman, with an easier but no more meaningful or free existence than Mandy (both of them tall redheads with a taste for numbing drugs, to steal a phrase from Kubrick superfan Jeffrey Scott Bernstein). Bill will learn. Oh yes, he will.


A couple more structural items to note:

We do not see Bill and Alice return home from the Ball. As mentioned, Kubrick cuts straight from Alice and Sandor ending their dance to Alice and her mirror, beginning a new one. Most scenes in Eyes Wide Shut (and Kubrick clearly conceived of his final movie in terms of paralleled set pieces) have an establishing shot or a quick blur of a taxi ride sandwiched between them, so as to set the pace and maintain the mood of an otherworldly New York. When Kubrick instead jumps between interiors, he intends for us to notice, and think on What It Could Mean. Here, it means that even as the characters try to put what they’ve learned and felt (about themselves, among others) that night behind them, the audience is meant to subliminally link the two scenes, as if on a single emotional/aesthetic/thematic continuum. The (last?) temptation of Alice has been “collapsed” into this cozy domestic womb, thus tainting the latter and the lovemakin’ therein. Already, the wall between Inside and Outside has begun to crumble. Who knows what spooks will worm their way in? (Again, early shades of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.) Sandor will not be among them; his point made and purpose served, we will never see him again. That cut is an apt way of bidding farewell to his caricatured character–sealing him within a night that must already feel, to both Harfords but in different ways, like a dream.

And then there’s the soundtrack: “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing,” its rumbling guitar and sea-spray snare setting the mood perfectly. I won’t bother hunting for intertextuality between Kubrick and Chris Isaak, who generally bores me, but I remain haunted by his delivery of a single line in the song. It comes right after he warbles, “You ever love someone so much you thought your little heart was gonna break in two?” His voice drops to a low, quiet sneer, and he chuckles: “I didn’t think so.” So much of Eyes Wide Shut is about the idea of love, the proper look and ritual of it, the routines we arm ourselves with to bolster our ego against the Void. This is where the movie tiptoes into suburban-exploitation American Beauty territory, but Kubrick thankfully doesn’t linger on alienation, being far more interested in the physical and mental spaces alienation forces us to inhabit. And there are so many more of those to come…