It’s been 20 years since the influential director has passed, and, after my trip to the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition at the Design Museum in London, I wanted to talk about its most divisive film and explain why I think it is definitely his most underrated work.
While it is widely regarded as an erotic thriller (and marketed as such upon its release), the audience soon found out that Eyes Wide Shut’s themes are more than just sex. It deals with desires, fears, dreams, and of course marriage. It is also significantly more complex than the erotic thrillers that came out in the 90s, leading to a misunderstanding of what the film actually says. The main reason for its complexity is, in my opinion, its construction. Yes, it follows the classical 3-acts structure, but, no, it is nothing near what I’d call a conventional narrative. In fact, I firmly believe it mirrors how we are dreaming. At first, we are fully awake and our brain picks up details that will be later used in our dream. Then, the dream itself. A reflection of the reality with an emphasis on our fears and desires. Some things might make no sense at all. We accept that. Finally, we wake up and try as best as we can to reconstruct our dreams before it fades completely away.
The film opens on Alice removing her dress, then cuts to the title. Title that can be interpreted as followed: in the very next scene, Bill enters their bathroom and Alice asks how she looks. Without even looking at her, he responds that she looks fine. Bill has his eyes wide shut on his relationship. He does not feel the need to work for it anymore. Then they go to a party hosted by Bill’s mentor: Ziegler and his wife. It is interesting that the Zieglers perfectly doubles the Hartfords (Bill and Alice). The film will make use of doubling quite often, but more on that later. At the party, both Bill and Alice meet other people to which they are sexually attracted. Please note that people are fully dressed with face unmasked. Fast forward through Alice and Bill’s day, the couple smokes some weed and have a little chat. Alice reveals having a fantasy with a man for whom she could have given up everything. From then on, Bill goes for a walk that will lead him to the infamous orgy party, where people are naked and wearing masks (doubling).
I firmly believe it mirrors how we are dreaming.
Kubrick uses a certain amount of techniques to stage the dream. As I said, in the first part, Bill picks up details. He meets Nightingale at the Zieglers, which is his perfect opposite. Nightingale chose the unbalanced life of an artist and is still single. That might leads Bill to question his choices in life. He also discovers that his mentor is actually cheating with a whore that he tried to save. It is also worth mentioning that the two models Bill meets say that they are going “where the rainbow ends”. In the second part, the dream, Bill tries to be unfaithful to his wife and is saved by the whore (doubling, again). He meets two prostitutes (mirroring the two girls he met at the party before) who look just like Alice and goes to a costume shop named “Rainbow”. After the orgy, Bill goes home and Alice recounts her dream of the orgy, blurring the line. The third part starts the next day, Bill goes on a quest to recollects clues of what happened at the orgy, as if he was reconstructing his dream. This part takes the more traditional thriller route, with a twist. Everything is not as it seemed the night before. Just like when you wake up.
Visual clues are left throughout the films. The colors, to start with, can be understood as followed: blue for fear, red for desire and yellow for comfort. Alice and Bill’s apartment is immersed in yellow light. When Bill comes home after the orgy, their bedroom is plunged in the darkness of blue, where he is confronted to his fears. Furthermore, the use of blue can be seen almost everywhere in the film, through windows. As if Bill’s fear where to threaten the comfort of his relationship. Red is, of course, predominant at the orgy; the floor is red. As is Ziegler’s pool table. Notice how Ziegler doubles-tap his ball onto his table, just like the master of ceremonies double-taps the floor with his staff. Kubrick also shoots the more grounded scenes on a tripod, and the dream-like scenes with a Steadicam. The film ends with Bill and Alice realizes that they need to have their eyes wide open on the sexual fantasies in order to survive as a couple. Fantasies can be interpreted as dreams. And sex is crucial in a relationship. That’s what the film tells us.