The “haunting” effects of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut can be identified as creating curiosity, fear and anxiety in the viewer. They can be understood as painting a mosaic of symbolism in the viewer’s eye, and as depositing fragments of concepts inside his mind. The film’s slow pace seems to open wide gaps between the joints of the story’s framework, causing the viewer to lose his secure sense of balance during the progression of the plot. Eyes Wide Shut is not a tale of terror nor one of mystery or of love; it is not a documentary about a married couple nor a psychological drama.
It pretends to be all of these, and in so doing explores the filmic medium and secures the effects of its own elements. Like any film that is carefully constructed, Eyes Wide Shut is the sum of its elements and of the ways by which these interact with each other. The most significant elements of the film are 1) color, particularly red, blue and yellow; 2) sound, such as voices plus external and internal music; 3) camera movement, especially the track-forward, track-backward and the revolving shot; 4) the dissolve, as the main transition technique between shots; and 5) the recursive figures of the Female Nude, Masks and Christmas Trees.
Some of these elements are recognizable from the earlier Kubrick films, such as A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, a fact which reveals the signature of Kubrick the auteur. Eyes Wide Shut can be divided into three parts, each of which contains the elements mentioned above. Part I introduces the main characters and their relationship towards each other. Dr. William Harford and his wife Alice attend a party where pianist Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), an old acquaintance of “Bill” and a pivotal character for the plot, provides the music.
The Harford’s friend and host Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), introduces his wife to his guests and later solicits Bill’s medical attention to save the overdosed prostitute and “beauty queen” Mandy (Julienne Davis), who is sprawled naked on a divan in an upstairs room of the mansion, while Ziegler nervously gets dressed. On the wall behind her hangs a large painting of a female nude. In this manner, the figure of the Female Nude is introduced as having a dual significance: as a measure for risk and fatality (Mandy), and as a representation of aesthetic beauty (the painting).
In the meantime, Alice drinks several glasses of champagne and dances with a pressing suitor. Half drunk and in full coquettish swing, her swaying disposition and her reluctant tongue oscillate between words, like a pendulum pulsating a decrepit waltz. Upstairs, Bill in a demanding staccato calls out to Mandy’s dying ear: “Mandy… can you hear me? Can you hear me… Mandy? Look at me… Mandy. ” In both cases, Alice’s drunkenness and flirtatiousness, and Bill’s tense, yet hopeful tone produce a slowness in their way of speaking and in the overall rhythm of the scenes.
This device becomes characteristic of the film, where whatever altered state the character happens to be in (fear, shock, distress, stupor) can be defined as a “justifier” for the prolongation of his or her oral expression. This strategy of “justifiers” is used in numerous scenes. In one which follows the scenes of the party, for example, Alice and Bill smoke marijuana and she initiates an interrogation which tests her husband’s sense of jealousy.
The scene evolves from her dispassionate questioning to her violent reproach, to a daring confession of figurative adultery. Throughout all three phases, however, Alice deals with the effects of the drug and of the mental “tiptoeing” around her husband’s defensive rationale. This is represented by her slow speech. In addition to this, during the “confession” phase, the film’s grainy quality is accentuated, establishing a kind of screen or filter to distance the viewer from the subject, thus creating in the viewer a sensation of voyeurism.
This relationship is first established in the initial credit sequence, where Nicole Kidman –or her unknown character– very casually undresses, as if unaware of being viewed, setting up the viewer as the unsuspected voyeur of the events to follow. Furthermore, the scene establishes the red, yellow and blue colors, where Alice’s character is usually set against the golden warmth of her surroundings. Blue dominates when the confession scene cuts to the interior of a cab that drives a disturbed and pensive Bill, who must answer to a medical emergency, leaving the confessor of the previous scene without the benefit of a reaction.
Part II presents the protagonist’s prolonged reaction to his wife’s confession, and leads up to his participation in “The House”. In the first sequence of this second part, Bill attends to the death of a patient, whose inconsolable daughter Marion (Marie Richardson) confesses her platonic love for him in a slow and jagged voice (loss and heartache being here the “justifiers”). By the end of this scene, it is clear that Bill is made the target of women’s solicitations, the next of which takes the form of a prostitute (“Domino”, played by Vinessa Shaw) who summons him up to her apartment and leads him through a building’s bright red doors.
This entrance marks the first phase of the character’s transformation. Although these female characters are in neither case seen in the nude, the recursive figure of the Mask is introduced. Inside the bedroom where Marion’s father lies as she confesses her love, there is a stone mask (or what seems to be a decorative replication of a tribal mask of some kind) resting vertically on a night table in the background, at the far left side of the screen. Later, in Domino’s bedroom, two walls hold a series of colored paper mach masks.
However, although the appearance of Masks in these scenes is subtle and does not establish a meaning, this recursive figure is defined and finds full expression in “The House” sequence. After leaving the prostitute’s house, Bill visits his friend Nick at a local bar. Nick confesses that he is hired regularly by a group of eccentric men to play piano blindfolded at their congregations, and that he is to attend “The House” that same night. Describing the events’ habitual ambiance and women as out-of-worldly, Nick unwillingly reveals the secret password which would get him inside the mysterious house.
Tempted by an appetite for adventure, the estrangement from his wife, and his knowledge of the password, Bill insists on going as well. Nick hesitantly gives out the address and instructs him to wear a disguise (a cloak and a mask), as everyone else does, and Bill assures him that no relation will be made between the two of them. The events that lead up to Bill’s arrival at the House (from his encounter with Nick to finding a costume) introduce the character (and the viewer) to a world that differs from those of his home, his work, and his friend Ziegler’s mansion.
In his world, the characters are identifiable and their roles are defined. In this “external” world, Bill is introduced to a world which requires a specific code of access, and a world whose inhabitants are portrayed as players of an unidentified game. For example, Bill convinces the costume shop owner Milich to open the shop for him late at night. Flashing his card which identified him as a doctor and promising to pay a good tip, Bill is allowed in and is made witness of the sex games of Milich’s daughter, who is caught in a mnage–trois with two transvestites.
Bill finds Milich’s reaction comforting: he threatens to accuse the two men to the police and he is enraged with his daughter. However, in later scenes, Bill returns to the shop and sees the two transvestites closing a deal with Milich, who has evidently prostituted his daughter. The purpose of this subplot is to focus on Bill’s confrontation with the ambiguousness with which such a resolution was reached. In other words, Milich’s hidden transformation from being angered to being pleased by the situation points to Bill’s ignorance of the “rules of the game”.
Inside the House, Bill finds himself amidst a superbly choreographed and orchestrated orgy. He enters a room filled with people in black cloaks and extravagant masks which hide all their identities. Nick, blindfolded, plays in the background to accompany the ritualistic movements of the members. In the center of the room, a circle of masked women in the nude and in high heels select their sex partners and proceed to other rooms.
In this scene, the music, sound effects, the overall design of the masks and the choreography of the characters’ movements are all carefully layered to produce a unique and sophisticated world whose inhabitants are its natural extension. Conflict arises when Bill is identified as an outsider to the group in spite of the cloak and the mask, a fact which again points to the character’s inadequacy and lack of belonging as resulting not from his camouflaged presence but from his ignorance of the “rules of the game” or the “true code of access” into this codified world.
When Bill is identified as the intruder, he is summoned by the leader (a disguised male who sits on a throne and pounds his demanding staff on the deep red carpet) and must face mysterious and fearful consequences to breaking the rules. However, when one of the group’s female members volunteers to “redeem” him by being “taken” instead of him (the language here insinuating death as punishment), Bill tries to dissuade the leader from proceeding with her decision. This ritualistic event finds justification when its leader teaches Bill: “Promises are kept here.
This statement confirms two things: 1) it demonstrates the leader’s knowledge of Bill’s intrusion into this well-defined circle; 2) it explains the seriousness of all members’ commitment to the rules of this world. While the Female Nude is depicted as the axis around which the events in The House revolve, here it finds full expression: the Female Nude figure of the “woman-saviour” claims to act both as the ultimate measure for risk and fatality and as the ultimate measure of aesthetic beauty. The duality of its significance merges into a female character who comes to represent both.
Thus, it is safe to say that the leader’s statement and the synthesized personification of the Female Nude define “The House” as an establishment analogous to the institution of Marriage: an arena within which all players must recognize the codes and be ruled by them. Part III involves the protagonist’s struggles with seeking to rationalize the events of the first and second parts, and to reconcile with his wife. The consequences of his intrusion in The House are not only uncertain, but they are kept from him as he engages himself in an obsessive investigation.
Soon, Bill is summoned by Ziegler. In his study, Ziegler confesses his knowledge of the previous night’s events. He reaffirms a shocked Bill by describing the goings-on in The House. Ziegler’s role in the scene (and perhaps in the scene he is narrating) is visually represented. He leans on the edge of his deep-red pool table, he rolls a ball with the palm of his hand. There are a few other balls scattered on the table, and their colors recall the colored cloak of the leader of “the other arena”, that is, The House.
The pole/staff off to a side, the viewer can only question Ziegler’s role in The House. Eyes Wide Shut relies on numerous filmic elements that help create the world of its characters and the effects of the story. One obvious device is the recursive figure of the Christmas Tree (with colorful lights). This object appears in the film’s interior locations, functioning not only as a marker of a season or a time, but as a unifying element for all the different “worlds” of the different characters.
It is no surprise, however, to find that the figure of the Christmas Tree is missing in The House, making this the only place which is “immune” to the markers belonging to a different existence. Notably, in the final scenes Bill reenters his home, unplugs the tree in his living room (which had remained lit all throughout the previous scenes), marking a change in his world. Seeing this action of unplugging the tree/lights marks the ending of one phase and the beginning of another. In the scene which immediately follows, the protagonist reacts –finally– to the challenges of his marriage.