Take 61: Eyes Wide Shut

Jessie McAskill
6 min readDec 17, 2021
In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, Take 61: Eyes Wide Shut.

Eyes Wide Shut is a feat of sleight of hand. Right when you think you’ve got a beat on the trick, or that you’ve deciphered the biggest secrets, up comes another bend down the rabbit hole. It is Stanley Kubrick’s final and most post-modern film: primarily focused on sex and status, knowledge and belief. The effect of displaying brazen sexuality shielded behind the guise of opulence and exclusivity is hypnotizing for the viewer, as well as Dr. Bill Hartford. The structure of the movie leads us to hunt down clues driving the plot forward, while also mentally cataloging hints at the self referential code carved into the narrative by Kubrick. The sensation is a story that is suspended and always just out of reach. That twisted mirror image of Bill’s experience in the film. and ours viewing it, creates a haunting and taut atmosphere from the opening scene to the final credits.

In my previous pieces about Kubrick’s movies I suggested that he often focused on evolution, and demonstrating that while the set dressing can vary, the primal instincts behind most actions remain the same. That primordial theme is inherent to Eyes Wide Shut, and is addressed explicitly a few times. Both Bill and his wife Alice are beautiful people and almost immediately we see them pulled apart and sexualized by a variety of suitors. Later, they’ll have a heated conversation that covers a lot of ground, but most predominantly focuses on infidelity and the existence of female desire, which Bill seems to deny:

Alice: Millions of years of evolution, right? Right!? Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women it’s just about security, and commitment, and- and whatever the fuck else!

Bill: A little oversimplified, Alice, but yes, something like that.

Alice: If you men only knew.”

This movie illustrates the basic desire of humanity for consumption and ritual, while the persistent aura of Christmas serves as reminder of those impulses from beginning to end. There is Christian imagery used extensively throughout the orgy scene (what a sentence that is…). The concept of the virgin mother is referenced multiple times, as well as consistent use of symbols like the Christmas tree borrowed from paganism to represent everlasting life. But, there is also the modern tradition of Christmas — including commerce, gift giving, and splurging, reminding us that religion and consumption are at least in some ways, inextricable from one another.

The marriage between Alice and Bill is another example of humanity’s association of ritual and tradition with evolutionary instincts — their marriage is difficult and both seem to experience a sense of sacrifice because of their commitment to one another. Alice wants Bill to be jealous, and also to understand her own amorous urges. Knowing that the actors were married in real life at the time of filming lends their scenes together a quality of desperation and tense realism. It has to be acknowledged that their real life marriage must have influenced their performances, and both Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are excellent in this movie. Much of the critique on this film is focused on the tone and flash of the secret society Bill encounters, but when stripped of it’s ostentatiousness, the players in that group have the same basic motives as all of humanity: get laid, climb socially, be respected, eat, drink, get high.

I think often about how certain Hollywood actors have become nearly inextricable from their public personas, and my hunch is that Kubrick was explicitly trying to invoke that type of celebrity sentiment when he chose to cast Tom Cruise as a man entranced by a cult, opposite his real life wife, Nicole Kidman. Using the Hollywood hype machine to underpin his Hollywood film, adds a unique depth to the film, which is already nuanced and textured enough to leave many people confused or turned off. Tom Cruise’s relationship to Scientology was public knowledge when this movie premiered in 1999, but the organization still maintained some mystery until Janet Reitman’s groundbreaking Rolling Stone article in 2006. We know now that the institution is structured in tiers, where the closer to the top of the pyramid a member climbs, the more access to privileged information they are permitted to access. The value of that information is debatable, but the structure of the hierarchy is designed to be intoxicating and addictive — some say, brain washing.

The broad strokes of a Scientologist’s experience are almost identical to Bill’s in Eyes Wide Shut. His obsession with the secret society and his hunt for the knowledge that eludes him is the engine pushing forward the plot. But, just like Tom Cruise the Scientologist, the question always remains how much truth there is to that knowledge, and what value it holds for him. At the end of the movie, Victor Ziegler suggests that Bill had imagined most of the details, and for all the aura of mystery, there was little more to the gathering than sex and fantasy, and his plain speak seems to snap Bill out of the haze of fixation — at which point he returns to his wife. This exchange feels like the lights coming on at the end of a ceremony, the smoke and mirrors are removed and the illusion is revealed. The party is about sex, the girl died of an overdose, everything else was generated by Bill’s willingness to believe in fallacy. The title Eyes Wide Shut accentuates the coexistence of knowledge and misbelief, and that incongruity supports an existence where someone seeking the truth might be seeing only deeper into their own delusions. Seeing may be believing, but it can also be worlds away from knowing.

“Bill, suppose I told you that… that everything that happened to you there… the threats, the- the girl’s warnings, her last minute intervention, suppose I said that all of that… was staged. That it was a kind of charade. That it was fake.” — Ziegler

There has been a lot written and researched about the symbols embedded throughout this movie, and a lot of time spent discussing the conspiracy theories regarding Kubrick’s sudden death after the release of this film. I love the specter of the illuminati as much as anyone, and that world of exclusivity and wealth is like catnip for many of us who long for an inside look at the private lives of people we know only through many degrees of separation. Because of this, I wonder if the movie served as Kubrick’s (who was a recluse himself, desperate to remain out of the public eye) final prank on those of us who are thirsty to know what we feel ostracized from, when ultimately those lives are as elemental as our own. He allows us to feel like we’ve gained access to the inner circle, only to tell us later that it was all an illusion created to scare and tease us. We and Bill are all subject to the same yearning: to be included, and our trip through the looking glass ends the same way, a big reveal showing that the reflection was of ourselves all along.

--

--