Back to Bill. Note that there are two different rhythms undergirding this sequence: that of the cuts, and that of the music. There’s no jarring disconnection (Kubrick ain’t Godard), merely a recognition of two cohabiting emotions to match our cohabiting couple. The edits emphasize the distance between their lives (sociology), while the music draws us back to the previous evening, hinting that what the Harfords saw, did, and failed to see or do last night is still haunting them (psychology). But the specific thematic conclusions matter less than the general sense of intertwined realities, of fates colliding and converging, of the gaps between image and reality, exterior presentation and interior self. Eyes Wide Shut isn’t a meta-film in the style of its separated-at-birth sister Mulholland Drive, but both movies work to expose the mesmerizing spectacle of moviemaking as analogous to (or even representative of) cultural norms in which beauty and wealth (treated in Eyes Wide Shut as practically synonymous) cover up abuse and alienation. Yet the ugly Real always pokes through, and Kubrick’s cinema is the ideal vessel for such disturbing hints.
It’s all about priming your audience. If I just say “Eyes Wide Shut is about an empty wealthy asshole slowly realizing the implications of his emptiness, wealth, and assholery,” that sounds trite, pretentious, and not worth watching. But, as Tolkien said, the tale grows in the telling–or to quote the agreed-upon American Tolkien, George R.R. Martin: “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.” What a movie does, how it works, what it means, and what it is are not exactly identical questions, but the means by which they interact is what separates the great movies from the bad, and even the most casual audience can tell the difference.
Anywho, Bill is examining a near-naked patient. He listens to her heartbeat (the seat of our self-sustenance in both literal and metaphorical terms), nods and removes his stethoscope. “That’s fine, you can put your gown on.”
Oho, our Billy Boy (which I just realized is the name of the rapist rival gang leader in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, another movie about the failure of refined institutional intellect to inculcate collective morality) is quite uncomfortable! Why?
Well, we don’t and can’t and won’t know, and that’s partially the point of cinema: to position us firmly outside the characters, deprived of the direct plunging into thought offered by first-person literature. That uncertainty can be rejected by filmmakers desperate to tell and not show, or it can be super-productive and interesting, a way to illustrate a story built around gaps and ambiguities, like 2001, or The Shining, or Eyes Wide Shut.
Is Bill uncomfortable because he’s thinking about Mandy, the last naked lady he saw to? He wasn’t nearly this awkward with her. Maybe because Victor was watching, and he didn’t want to seem too into his rich client’s kept woman, nor anything less than a dependable servant. (Of course, a nurse is watching him examine the patient; Bill forever feels our eyes on him.) Mandy’s story is structurally and emotionally central to Eyes Wide Shut, despite her relative lack of screen time, because her plight is echoed throughout the movie. This mirroring suggests the extent to which Mandy’s fall represents a larger social problem–and the extent to which Bill becomes obsessed with consummating their brief relationship, mediated through class and profession as it was.
Back at the Harford sanctum, Alice brushes Helena’s hair. The latter’s red shirt matches the prominent curtains in the background, emphasizing the littlest Harford’s harmony with her environment, as do the Snoopy clock and the picture of the sleepy panda behind her. Alice, by contrast, is dressed in cool blue; she stands out from her surroundings, but remember that blue is a color associated with Bill and his emotions throughout EWS. Alice cannot escape. Bill examines a young boy’s throat while his mom waits in the background (again, constant observation, grounding the protagonist in his cultural context) next to one of those letter-pyramid vision tests, reminding us we’re watching a film about sight and comprehension of what is seen, from the title on down. Underneath the music, we hear one of the key lines in the movie. “Looking forward to Christmas?” Bill asks his patient. The latter nods, a little smile emerging on his face. “Does it hurt?” The smile fades, and the boy mumbles an affirmation. Now, of course, Bill is referring to the kid’s throat, but Kubrick’s surgically (heh) precise dialogue hints that the “looking forward to Christmas” is what hurts. The unhealthy anticipation, the conflation of material wealth and spiritual fulfillment, the inevitable alienation and disillusionment that follows…these are all central subjects of Eyes Wide Shut, as applied to sex and status along with Christmas.
And look what we cut to next! Alice, naked from behind, as the camera slowly tracks up to find her struggling with a bra. We have returned to the film’s first shot: the uneasy coexistence of Glamor Alice and “Real” Alice, both of whom share an uncertain relationship to IRL Nicole Kidman. Is this exploitative, a leering male gaze? Well, look at the next shot. Bill slowly elevates a patient’s leg, waiting for the pain to kick in. Suddenly, the office is shot as cramped, confining, a coffin. Again, “there’s always a nurse present,” as Bill journeys from sex to youth to death. You are being watched, either by a specific death-sex-cult or by the general pressures of society that have long since infected your own instincts. Cut to Alice applying deodorant while Helena brushes her teeth.
What are we seeing here? Bill helping bodies, Alice as a body. Both are engaged with upkeep, maintenance, appearances–we don’t see Bill delivering any diagnoses or prescribing medication, only gauging his patients’ reactions. So Bill is perceptive enough, in his own way, making his inability to comprehend Alice’s inner life all the more glaring. That Alice’s body is exposed lustfully right before we cut to Bill finding the pain-spot in an older patient grounds sexual desire in the body’s fleshy mortality; Kubrick turns us on only to remind us that all erotic bodies wither and die…unless they’re preserved on screen, like Victor’s renaissance bronzes. The shot of Alice and Helena in the bathroom, then, brings it full circle by collapsing objectified beauty and the day-to-day requirements of maintaining that beauty into the same frame. Eyes Wide Shut dares to look behind beauty, but in an insidious and non-grandstandy manner.