Eyes Wide Shut: Ending, Themes and Symbols Explained

“Are you here
with anyone tonight, Alice?” “With my husband.” “Oh, how sad.” Eyes Wide Shut opens on an image that
captures what this film is all about. To the spying viewer, this is
clearly an erotic image. Yet, to the woman’s husband who’s theoretically the person
observing this view, the sight is mundane, and that’s signaled in the quick,
casual nature of the shot. Everything that follows in the story
of the woman, Nicole Kidman’s Alice, and her spouse, Tom Cruise’s Bill, elaborates in the ideas embodied
in that opening image. The focus of Eyes Wide Shut is the scary connection between
the erotic and the anonymous. It explores the role that fantasies of
strangers play in our sex lives, and it suggests that
married people are, ultimately, also strangers
to each other. Stanley Kubrick’s final film was
one of his rare box office successes, but it’s among his more
underrated works, and that’s perhaps because
on first viewing, it’s a little difficult to put your
finger on exactly what it’s saying. If you revisit the film, though, and now is a perfect time to do that,
for its 20th anniversary, Eyes Wide Shut is
powerfully terrifying. It takes Kubrick’s trademark skill for putting human nature
under a microscope, and does that very close to home, peering without bias at the lies
that underlie any marriage. “Don’t you think one of the charms
of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity
for both parties?” The film asks whether our safe,
happy, normal lives require us to, essentially, keep our eyes wide shut:
to sleepwalk and dream, wearing a mask that helps us ignore our raging,
roaring ocean of feelings, lest they overwhelm us
if given the chance. “As soon as you were gone,
it was completely different. I-I felt wonderful.” Before we go on, we want to tell you a little bit
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in our description below to get a full month of MUBI for free. The film begins with a couple
getting ready for a Christmas party. Their good looks, vast apartment, and interactions with the babysitter
signal these two have it all. “I’ll hold our cab to take you home.” “Thanks, Dr. Hartford.” Yet almost the first thing
of substance we’re really told is that Bill is sleepwalking,
with his eyes wide shut. “How do I look?” “Perfect.” “How’s my hair?” “It’s great.” “You’re not even looking at me.” Bill and Alice attend
a Christmas party, but after the obligatory
first dance together, they split up and get picked up
by new, temporary partners. Their separation starts with a lie. “Honey, I desperately need
to go to the bathroom.” Alice grabs her opportunity
to quickly get as drunk as possible and indulges a dizzying flirtation
with an older man, while Bill enjoys the charms
of two young women. “You don’t remember me, do you?” “Um…” “You were very kind to me once.” “Only once? That sounds like
a terrible oversight.” Both seem genuinely tempted
by their delicious strangers, but they just about manage to resist,
at least for the time being. “To be continued?” “Maybe… not just now.” Then they go home
and get down to business while we hear the lyrics: “They did a bad, bad thing.” What was the bad thing they did? Well, both of them imagined being unfaithful. Both of them wanted to cheat. And now, their sex life
is totally invigorated by the specters of the strangers they’re bringing
back into the bedroom with them. Alice takes off her glasses, suggesting that she’s willfully
no longer seeing her husband in focus, so that she can imagine him
to be anybody she wants. When the daylight life resumes, vignettes of Alice’s and Bill’s
domestic life show how sexuality has been contained and sanitized
into something unthreatening. Our third conspicuous shot
of a nude Alice is surrounded by scenes
of Bill going about his day as a doctor, which again,
as at the party, involves a beautiful topless woman whose breasts he ignores
with professionalism. “So when you’re feeling tits, it’s nothing more than
just your professionalism, is that what you’re saying?” “Exactly.” Alice’s physicality
is mixed in with shots of a mother’s familiar, unsexy home life. Yet after the day of respectable adult
role-playing is over, Alice breaks out the pot
and decides, for once, to get honest with her husband. “Why can’t you ever give me
a straight f–BEEP-ing answer?” “I was under the impression
that’s what I was doing.” And this is where the trouble begins. Alice starts to strip away the glib falsehoods upon which
a successful marriage depends. “What makes you the exception?” “What makes me an exception
is I happen to be in love you.” When both Bill and Alice
turn down invitations to cheat, their reasoning is, more or less,
“I can’t because…marriage.” “Because… I’m married.” “And because you’re married and
because I would never lie to you.” They haven’t really thought deeply
about what that means to them, what fidelity is, and whether it matters that
they desire others. “Do you realize that
what you’re saying is that the only reason
you wouldn’t f–BEEP those two models is out of consideration for me, not because you
really wouldn’t want to.” Alice kicks off all these questions
when she decides to make her husband jealous by divulging
her fantasy about a stranger. “At no time was he ever
out of my mind.” Later, the climactic orgy scene
full of masked figures encapsulates the connection
between anonymity and sex drive. Yet this uninhibited,
impersonal sexual urge is dangerous, and the orgy scene
is infused with peril. “You are in great danger.” As Lee Siegel wrote for Harper’s,
“The risk is that if we surrender ourselves absolutely
to our anonymous animal side, we slide helplessly toward death,
the absolute anonymity.” Whenever Alice and Bill
don’t act on their naked desires, they feel relieved. “I realized he was gone. And I was relieved.” “Do I have to go? I think I do.” What we’re seeing in this movie
is that the Hartfords, and all couples,
veer between two poles. On one end is sex without intimacy,
and it’s kind of terrible, a sinister means
of enslaving and abusing others. On the other end is total intimacy, which can breed boredom
and snuff out lust altogether. The challenge of marriage
is to somehow navigate these two extremes, of mysterious, erotic danger and comfortable knowing familiarity, to find that ideal of sex with love. Earlier, Alice makes the curious observation that while fantasizing
about her stranger, she felt even more tender love
for her husband “You were dearer to me than ever.” So Kubrick raises the possibility
that maybe this duality of the erotic and the mundane
actually works somehow, what if fantasies of strangers
from time to time might just be beneficial
for a marriage? There’s even a suggestion
that on some level the stranger we’re fantasizing about
is our partner. “Someone you know?” We just have to think of them
as this mystery in order to remember the excitement
we once had for them. By the end, Alice and Bill
feel as if they’ve dodged a bullet. “I feel grateful
that we’ve managed to survive through all of our…
adventures.” The film indicates in various ways that they came very close to a ruin
they’ve miraculously escaped. “Because it could cost me my life, and possibly yours.” “She got the results
of a blood test this morning, and it was HIV-positive.” But on the deepest level, the disaster they averted
was really infidelity. Despite very much wanting to, and seriously considering it, neither partner actually sleeps
with someone else. The secret society’s password
is “Fidelio” a reference to Beethoven’s only opera, which is about a faithful wife. “It’s the name of a Beethoven opera,
isn’t it?” When Mandy sacrifices herself
for Bill during the ritual “I am ready to redeem him,” and we hear that this
has sealed her fate “When a promise has been made here, there is no turning back,” the concept of the choice that
can’t be undone might make us think
of an act of infidelity. Once fidelity is violated, it can never be restored. Doubles and mirrors
recur throughout this film. It doesn’t feel like an accident that
Alice bears the name of the character
who goes through the looking glass. And Bill and Alice are mirrored
by other couples in the film. When they walk into
the Christmas party and greet their hosts, the Zieglers, the pairs perfectly reflect
each other in the shot. The Zieglers are a richer,
more powerful version of our couple, representing the class and status
aspect of their lives. A little later we meet
Marian and Carl. In this pair, the man wears glasses
instead of the female, but they have the same hair colors and vaguely similar looks. Marian has fallen desperately
in love with Bill, someone who looks
just like her husband, but is vastly more exciting precisely
because he’s not her husband. “I love you.” “Marian, we barely know each other.” There may be an element
of autobiography in this film for Kubrick. He used the furniture
from his apartment with his wife to create the interior
of the Hartfords’ home. And he added a dose of real-life by casting Kidman and Cruise, who in 1999 were not only two
of the world’s hottest movie stars, they were a real-life couple with a private life
viewers were dying to know more about. Given Kidman’s and Cruise’s
eventual separation, there was something prophetic
in this film’s message that the private truth
is never as it appears, and might shock us, both for its depravity
and for its banality. “You are very very sure
of yourself aren’t you.” “No, I’m sure of you. Do you think that’s funny?” There’s a lot of talk
in film theory about the fact that cinema is dominated by the male gaze, and in recent years
that’s prompted the question of what a female gaze looks like. Some even speculate that
a pure female gaze is impossible, because in our society
women can’t help internalizing the male gaze and seeing even themselves
through men’s eyes. At the end of his life and career, Kubrick is here very interested
in the female gaze, which is expressed visually
through Alice’s glasses, which turn her into someone
who looks with agency. Kubrick tracks how
the male’s stable narrative, which props up his comfortable life,
is utterly threatened by the very existence
of this female gaze. “Women don’t… They basically just
don’t think like that.” What sets this whole drama in motion is Alice revealing her lust for a naval officer she saw
on vacation. “And I thought if he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything.” She shatters Bill’s assumption that,
because she’s a woman, she’s less interested in sex and doesn’t actually want
to be unfaithful, whereas a man naturally
has desires that he suppresses. “Men have to stick it
every place they can, but for women–women, it is just about security and commitment and whatever the f–BEEP else!” “A little over simplified Alice,
but yes.” The film, like Kubrick’s 2001, takes inspiration from the Odyssey, Homer’s epic about
Odysseus’ journey back to his loyal wife Penelope, who is besieged by suitors. As Siegel writes, quote, “Just as every enchantress
Odysseus meets on his voyage home is an echo of his thralldom
to Penelope, every woman Bill meets
is a version of Alice.” The question of
Penelope’s unbesmirched virtue, of whether she gave into her suitors,
or wanted to, haunts Odysseus and Bill,
all of literature and film, and really, it seems, men in general “Knowing Penelope to be faithful,
he told her to be nice to the suitors. I think that’s when Penelope,
who at heart is a simple woman, began to despise him.” The female’s desire and the male’s inability
to possess or contain it is the central anxiety
and crisis of the movie. “If you men only knew.” What’s subtly revolutionary
about this film is that it’s telling men: your wife has the same feelings
and fantasies and temptations as you. All of these perverse, dark, difficult
human impulses are universal. Yet a man like Bill can’t handle this. The erotic femininity she exudes as she describes her true feelings
strikes him as confrontational. “Alice, this pot is
making you aggressive.” And the desperate, long adventure
he goes on in search of a sexual thrill is ultimately just an attempt to live up
to Alice’s fantasy. “I was fucking other men. So many. I don’t know how many I was with.” “Ladies, where exactly are we going? Exactly?” “Where the rainbow ends.” “Where the rainbow ends.” A recurring idea in Eyes Wide Shut is the impulse to go
where the rainbow ends. The film has images of rainbows, and the custom store Bill goes to
is called Under the Rainbow. So the suggestion is that,
in this night of chasing his desire, Bill is trying to find
the end of the rainbow. Of course, the end of the rainbow
is a place that’s impossible to reach. Likewise, Eyes Wide Shut illuminates the immense false promise
of desire, and the way that
when we get what we covet, it’s disappointing, maybe because
the real void or hunger we wanted to fill can’t be satisfied. As Lee Siegel wrote,
“Desire is like Christmas: it always promises more
than it delivers.” Eyes Wide Shut has been called
a Christmas movie for grownups. In this adult’s version
of a Christmas movie, instead of the latest cool toy, the thing characters very badly want
is anonymous sex. But what doesn’t change
no matter your age is this feeling that
getting what you thought you wanted, doesn’t make you happy. Notably, the secret ritual gathering
is lacking a Christmas tree, while the rest of the film is dominated by Christmas tree lights
everywhere Bill goes. So while the lovely,
glittering illusion exists elsewhere, there the cold, hard truth
is undecorated. “She was a hooker. Sorry but that’s what she was.” And this bare, ugly reality
is perhaps the true meaning of where the rainbow ends. “Don’t you want to go
where the rainbow ends?” “That depends where that is.” “You’ve been way out of your depth.” Bill and Alice may strike us
as a pretty upper-class couple, but they’re small fish,
at the outer edges of a ruling class that’s operating
in the shadows of this society. “I couldn’t even begin
to imagine how–how you even heard about it, let alone got yourself
through the door.” Many have read
Eyes Wide Shut’s sinister power elite as a message from Kubrick implying that similar groups do operate
in our real world, as the ritual incorporates imagery that
might evoke the Illuminati, Freemasons and others. But whether there’s any basis
to this or not, the movie appears to
make a subtle connection between Bill and Alice’s marriage and this power structure. The elite depends
on people like the Hartfords keeping up their clichéd performance
of respectable married life. Ziegler is a dark mirror
of the worst parts of Bill and of powerful men in general. That’s underlined visually
in these two shots which look like inversions
of each other. Ziegler stands in front
of a nude portrait, while Bill stands behind
the naked, passed-out prostitute Ziegler has just exploited. Soon after, this shot of Bill presenting a nice face to Mandy,
while Ziegler’s groin is behind him, expresses the idea that Bill’s pleasant manners paper over
and legitimize the baser urges that drive Ziegler and his ruling class “It’s okay, I’m a doctor. I’m actually a very old friend of his.” “I’m a doctor.” “I’m Dr. Hartford.” We already get hints
at the Christmas party that there are two layers,
two worlds, operating here: the surface, Christmas-light filled
world of appearances, and the deep, dark,
bottom-line underworld. The camera frequently shows the eight-pointed star
on the walls of Ziegler’s house, and this resembles the Star of Ishtar, a symbol of fertility and sexuality. Later, the orgy
has striking visual similarities to the Christmas party. “Do you know anyone here?” “Not a soul.” Meanwhile key details are inverted, first faces are unmasked
and bodies covered; then faces are masked
while the female bodies are naked; first Bill saved Mandy,
then she saves him; first he turns down a proposition,
then he tries to have sex but fails. All these parallels
make it apparent that the reality beneath the hazy, dreamy lights
of the first party was actually this one all along. The same people were there. Prostitutes were
pleasuring important men and taking drugs. There’s a hint that Ziegler
may himself be the Red Cloak character, as later when he talks with Bill, the way he taps objects twice
on the pool table echoes the way Red Cloak taps his staff. And while their faces were visible,
the people in the first party were wearing even more
impenetrable masks, as they do all day long, even with their loved ones. The comparison reminds us, too,
that as lovely and civilized as the original socializing looked, we should make no mistake: there is an evil that
holds the rich and powerful in place, and this evil will do whatever it takes
to maintain this hierarchy. “Come on. It was always gonna be just
a matter of time with her.” What makes the men truly powerful
is that they get to be invisible. To do whatever they want,
unseen, with impunity. “I’m not gonna tell you their names
but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well.” Bill is not important enough
to be invisible. He’s shamed and put in his place
by having to take off his mask, to be seen by others he can’t see. “Of course it didn’t help a whole lot that those people arrive in limos and you showed up in a taxi.” This powerful society’s dominance
is everywhere, even a toy in the very last scene alludes to the magic circle
of the ritual. “It’s only a dream.” Eyes Wide Shut takes loose inspiration
from an Austrian novella called Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler. And throughout the film,
there’s this question of whether some or all of this
has been a dream. “I just had such a horrible dream.” You could even read all this action
as Alice’s dream. “Then there were all these
other people around us, hundreds of them, everywhere. Everyone was f–BEEP–ing.” In the daytime, when Bill
returns to the costume store, everything is different. What we saw under the moonlight, we question under the sun. “Things change.” And this is how Ziegler
tries to convince Bill that everything he saw and felt
wasn’t real “She was a junkie. She OD’d. There was nothing suspicious. Her door was locked from the inside. The police are happy. End of the story.” His society concocts a rationalization
to dismiss Bill’s experience “Suppose I said that
all of that was staged.” However unbelievable it is,
it gives Bill a story to hold onto, to let go of what he’s learned
and go back to docile obedience. “Nobody killed anybody. Someone died. It happens all the time.” In the end, Alice concludes
that the whole truth doesn’t lie in the dream,
or in the waking reality. Both are real. “Only as sure as I am that
the reality of one night let alone that of a lifetime
can ever be the full truth.” “And no a dream is ever just a dream.” Over the course of the movie,
these two confront their unconscious desires and, at least for a time,
snap out of their trance. Yet is all this
awareness and soul-searching honesty even good for their relationship? The movie doesn’t
necessarily indicate that it is. In fact, it’s downright dangerous. As the movie goes along, we sometimes get the feeling that
Alice needs to stop being so transparent with her spouse “Just f–BEEP-ing all these men. I wanted to make fun of you,
to laugh in your face.” By the end,
they’ve both made forthcoming confessions to each other of all that they wanted to do and almost did. “I’ll tell you everything.” Their eyes are more open,
for better or worse They’re obviously unsettled, not sure whether they like
being less oblivious. “We’re awake now. And hopefully for a long time to come.” The last dialogue in the movie
is Alice saying there’s something they need to do as soon as possible. “What’s that?” “Fuck.” What’s going to heal this marriage
isn’t communication, it’s sex. Sex is the very force
that set them off on this hazardous journey, and a marriage counselor might find this
a simplistic relationship fix, but who knows? What if the good old-fashioned practice
of having sex with each other is the foundation
of a marriage that lasts? All these two struggling,
blind individuals can know for sure is that there is love here. “I do love you.” And though the future is uncertain, they choose to keep
that love alive another day. “Is it as bad as that?” “As good as that.” Hi, guys, this is Alani, and today I want to talk to you about one of our favorite places
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