Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick - Leon Vitali - Somerton - masks - orgy - ceremony

Eyes Wide Shut
1999, directed by Stanley Kubrick

Each of the last five films Stanley Kubrick made before Eyes Wide Shut traces the consequences of a particular human shortcoming:

  • pride in 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • cruelty in A Clockwork Orange
  • dishonor in Barry Lyndon
  • wastefulness in The Shining
  • arrogance in Full Metal Jacket

Once we identify the sin that governs Eyes Wide Shut, all the plot elements which seem to lead in different directions will fit together with a single purpose. Until then it’s not necessarily clear what’s at the movie’s center. To some viewers it’s a story of a married couple’s imagined sexual adventures outside their marriage, and there’s plenty of evidence for that: the password “Fidelio”, Alice’s dreams and fantasies, Bill’s nighttime odyssey of temptations. The movie opens with Alice and Bill getting ready for the Zieglers’ party; she’s naked, and he’s in a tuxedo. Over the course of the movie this discrepancy will be reversed – Bill will be psychologically undressed, his weaknesses laid bare, and at the Long Island mansion the high priest will literally order him to remove his clothes. The story ends with the couple’s reconciliation and the promise of Alice’s last word: “Fuck”.

Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick - Venetian masks - Somerton

To others Eyes Wide Shut is a commentary on the impenetrable world of the ultra-rich, portraying a ruling class that lives by its own laws and is unaccountable to people beneath itself. Bill Harford is a successful doctor with a magnificent apartment on Central Park West, about as wealthy as a young man can be by the fruit of his labor alone, but when his much wealthier patient Victor Ziegler invites him upstairs to solve a delicate problem requiring the utmost discretion, Bill imagines he’s been taken into the confidence of a class far higher than his own. He thinks he’s crossed a line that in truth he’s nowhere near welcome to cross.

After Bill’s long nighttime adventure he’ll spend most of the movie’s second half retracing his path, and at each step, where he had earlier found his way open to exciting possibilities, he will now find – true to the movie’s title, and true to the picture of a world closed to outsiders – that he’s been absolutely shut out. At the Sonata Café the door is literally barred shut. At the costume store he is welcomed, but on terms that make it abundantly clear that he should stay away (the owner offers his teenage daughter in prostitution). At Somerton, the site of the masked ball, he is kept outside a locked gate and warned sternly not to pursue further inquiries. He calls Marion Nathanson, but her fiancé Carl answers the phone, so – being shut out a fourth time – he hangs up. At Domino’s apartment her roommate Sally welcomes him in and flirts with him, but she tells him news that comes down like a wall: Domino was just diagnosed with HIV. Finally at Ziegler’s house, where he smugly expects his host to ask him about some sensitive medical problem (we can almost see the word “impotence” in Bill’s eyes), Bill learns that he’s trespassed in a world where he’s not permitted, and his life depends on his staying out.

Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick - Tom Cruise - Bill Harford - Somerton - gate

We have, then, at least two stories in one – a story of fidelity, and a story of humility – but that doesn’t necessarily get us closer to pinpointing the sin that ties everything together. There are however several clues, one of them being the incessant reminders that the story takes place during Christmas season. There are Christmas trees in the Harfords’ apartment, Ziegler’s house, Bill’s office, Lou Nathanson’s apartment, Domino’s apartment, and the Rainbow costume store, and there are Christmas lights in the Sonata Café, the two restaurants, and all over the streets of Greenwich Village. All of this builds to a finale in a toy store where the air of the impending holiday is as palpable as ever.

But let’s put that aside for a moment to observe what happens an hour into the film. At 59 minutes and 53 seconds, seven seconds short of the hour, we hear the password “Fidelio”. The weight of this word, and its obvious relation to the subject that preoccupies Bill and Alice, give us reason to think it’s a further key to the movie. But it’s not precisely at the hour mark. Seven seconds later Nick Nightingale says “Thank you” then hangs up. Now that the secret password has tempted us to look for meaning at the one hour mark, and we hear instead the innocuous words “Thank you” from Nick, we can either feel disappointed or we can open our eyes and realize that the sin in this Kubrick movie is ingratitude. Whether it’s a story of a man unsatisfied with his wife because she once fantasized about a naval officer, or a story of a wealthy doctor looking to enter the circle of New York’s highest society, either way it’s about someone ungrateful for what he has. The first thing we learn about Bill, other than the fact that he’s wearing a tuxedo, is that he’s ignoring his wife who’s right next to him. At the toy store she tells him they should both feel grateful not to have lost anything.

Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick - Todd Field - Nick Nightingale - Christmas lights - Sonata Cafe

The title Eyes Wide Shut is an exact description of ingratitude, of being impervious to what one already has. In fact the whole film is peppered with minor expressions of thanks to taxi drivers, waiters, and so on. When Bill calls from Domino’s apartment, Alice is watching an Italian lesson demonstrating the use of “grazie” and “prego”. Before returning to Ziegler’s house Bill picks up a New York Post whose headline reads “Lucky to Be Alive”.

Twice in 2001: A Space Odyssey astronauts call home and talk about a birthday. Just as a birthday is a day of pride, Christmas is a day of gratitude, a reminder that the good things in life are gifts. In this light the ubiquitous holiday decorations in Eyes Wide Shut are more than cosmetic. The only significant location without Christmas lights is the Somerton mansion, a place where gratitude would be totally foreign. There is, nevertheless, one anomalous act of gratitude at Somerton. The woman whose life Bill had saved in Ziegler’s bathroom volunteers her life to save his. Mandy’s sacrifice stuns the masked partygoers, who stare silently up at her. If Bill’s suspicions are founded, if Mandy was murdered for his sake, then Ziegler’s remarks about her in his last scene would be the basest disrespect for her life, a disgusting show of ingratitude toward a woman whose pleasures he enjoyed and who saved his friend.

Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick - Sydney Pollack - Tom Cruise - Victor Ziegler - Bill Harford - billiard table - pool table - billiards

Bill’s temptations, both sexual and in pursuit of status, are signs of ingratitude for a good life and a good family – but he’s not so far gone that Alice can’t pull him back to her orbit at the end. People like Ziegler, however, and the other guests at the masked orgy, are another story. There is no pulling them back, and the line Bill wishes to cross is a line no one should want to cross. If Bill is shut out of all the places he went in the first half, the corollary is that he is lucky to be shut out.

Even in his second-to-last line Bill is not quite cured of his ingratitude. Alice tells him, “The important thing is we’re awake now, and hopefully for a long time to come,” and he answers “Forever.” She suggests that they avoid that word because it frightens her. The word is also frightening in Kubrick’s horror movie The Shining, where both Jack and the dead twins speak to Danny about staying in the hotel forever. The wish to hold onto something forever may sound like a sign of appreciation, but it’s also asking for more. It’s an expression of dissatisfaction, which is akin to ingratitude. Once again Bill is grasping for too much, trying to have what mortals are not entitled to.

Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick - Tom Cruise - Nicole Kidman - Madison Eginton - Bill Harford - Alice Harford - Helena Harford - home - Central Park West

At Ziegler’s party a couple of models invite Bill “to go where the rainbow ends”, and the costume shop’s door is labeled “Under the Rainbow”, alluding to The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy fantasizes, as Bill does, about a more exciting life. Like Dorothy, he’ll come to appreciate the pleasures of domestic life at the end. The word “Fuck” in this context is practically synonymous with “There’s no place like home.”


The Wizard of Oz – “Over the Rainbow” vs. “Under the Rainbow”; story of someone seeking excitement who comes to appreciate life at home

Plein soleil – Similarity of Alain Delon and Tom Cruise, each trying to penetrate the closed world of the ultra-wealthy

Gertrud – Title of Beethoven’s Fidelio used ironically to comment on a couple’s infidelity

2001: A Space Odyssey – Gorillas and tigers in the toy store like hominids and leopard in Africa; words “thank you” at the one hour mark; birthday/holiday as a sign of pride/gratitude

The Shining – The word “forever” as a sign of overreaching; waking up from nightmare about hurting the one being told; something important hidden in a low cabinet with a sliding door