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"Eyes Wide Shut": An Essay on the Nature of Desire

Graduate of History and Philosophy specialized in Aesthetics, from Romania.

Poster for "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)

Poster for "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)

No dream is ever just a dream.

"Eyes Wide Shut"

Stanley Kubrick’s approach to storytelling is that of a microbiologist patiently observing the subject matter, dissecting its nature, and diluting its essence onto the camera. The idea or the purpose of the film is always infused in its form but without falling prey to a mannerist approach. Style is an instrument through which meaning and immersion are achieved, it is never a means in itself. Eyes Wide Shut is a relevant example in this regard.

The last entry in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography is frequently his most overlooked one. This is a mosaic of a movie in which color, music, dialogue, and pace all come together to create a universe riddled with uncertainty and animated by desire. This is evident even from the first frame of the movie. A Venus-like figure manifests itself in front of us. She faces the camera backward, we are presented with a silhouette, with a body missing a face. Unlike Botticelli’s painting, Nicole Kidman’s character is presented in a mundane fashion, She is not an object of love but of perception in regards to her husband, and enticement in regards to the audience.

Do dreams have a worldly significance? Must our eyes be kept entirely shut concerning certain aspects of our life, of our desires? These are the main questions that need answering. Alice is frightened by the word ‘forever’. ‘Forever’ would steal away her fantasy. ‘Forever’ would mean a repudiation of this desire. And this, as we learn throughout the movie, is an impossibility. Dreams do not have shackles, nor do they care for anything else than gratification.

For Alice, desire comes in the form of dreams, for Bill in the form of identity, of the mask. Sin is expressed through identity; the face being covered while all moral instances cease to exist for the moment and the body is free to indulge itself in its gargantuan appetite. In any of the above cases, desire is always linked to a stranger, to an outsider. The naval officer has no name, no identity. The masked girls at the party bear the same mystery around them. Desire requires a degree of discovery and its object is always exterior to the subject.

If you bear with me, I will walk you through my arguments for which I find this movie to be very well equipped to tackle a most delicate subject matter, that of human desire, of erotic desire.

...And at no time did he ever leave my mind.

The Meaning of Dreams in the Film

The chain of events is set into motion by Alice’s confession of a more promiscuous dream. From this point on, dreams will play a pivotal role in the construction of the narrative. As they confront each other on the theme of jealousy, her confession becomes increasingly franc. In turn, Bill’s entire demeanor has turned from relaxed to peevish. From here on, the husband embarks in a soliloquy of thoughts. His strolls through the city further emphasize this. As he interacts with various characters, his innate lustful nature becomes more apparent. It is here, in this self-imposed exile, where Bill learns about a secret party through the means of his former friend and colleague Nick. It is here where the mask becomes the central symbol.

Having arrived at the party, we are as perplexed as our main character. As the orgy is about to commence, we first witness a ritual performed by a masked man wearing a red cloak, a ritual somewhat reminiscent of a promise. A promise that as long as the face is concealed and the rules are obeyed, everything will be forgiven. The face becomes the mark of society, the repression of the libido. Here the body is the sole messenger of desire. The two cannot coexist at the same time as they are opposing symbols. Their collaboration would mean the destruction of the character.

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Here Kubrick doesn’t spend much time deciphering his symbols, nor should he. He lets his red-cloaked character speak in his stead. The red mask acts both as a Vergil-like figure and inquisitor (this is further exemplified by the religious aspect of the ritual performed). This is relevant as it amplifies the mystery of that society. Bill stands in front of him in a Kafkaesque manner, he is being accused without being able to see his accuser.

Here we must take a closer look at the construction of this scene to see exactly how Kubrick builds tension. As Bill is being unmasked, the camera moves through the masks surrounding him, thus creating the illusion that we actively participate in the scene. We are there, walking through the crowd, trying to take a glimpse at the alienated trespasser.

Accompanying the scene is Ligeti’s musical movement. (Kubrick also employed Ligeti’s music in 2001: A Space Odyssey with the same effect). The music is aptly chosen as it builds up the tension without offering any resolution. The G note protrudes the movement in the same way that Bill appeared at the party, stark and dissonant. The construction of the song employs a total of three notes, making it very minimalist in terms of composition. This translates well into the movie as desire is also very minimalist in its core structure. Sure, we can argue that it has various psychological and sociological implications, but at its core, its catalyst is always pure, unaltered, and instinctual. Nothing is random, everything is aligned with Kubrick’s scrupulous attention to detail. By employing this effect, Kubrick is making his audience feel uneasy. Ligeti’s song is there to mirror Bill’s internal struggle. He is pressured, warned, and followed, but never does he attain any form of resolution or finality. This tension slowly becomes his whole reality. The whole movie can be seen through the notes of this particular piano movement. Desire is permanently present but never fully satisfied. The G note would be the illusion of fulfillment, the cathartic liberation, while what succeeds it is the same pattern heard and felt before. The motion is circular and, in this regard, incredibly relevant. Alice’s fear of ‘forever’ in the ending further accentuates this. Desire is relentless and can circumvent any good intention. Thus, in her decline of ‘forever’, she submits to this reality which will repeat itself.

Another important aspect is that of color and pace. Both interact with the dreamlike haziness onto which the plot develops. The main color palettes used are those of red and blue. We can associate red with intense eroticism and depravity (the costume store manager’s daughter, for example) and blue with the dream state. Interestingly, blue also coincides with a confession. As for pace, this is apparent even from the beginning. The dialogue is jerky, displaying more like a distant memory than a genuine reaction. The characters talk slowly, in a muffled manner. An argument can be had that the catalyst of the entire plot lies in the initial flirting at Victor’s party. Although it is noteworthy, I don’t think this is the case.

Alice has two confessions, each revolving around dreams. The first one is provocative, aimed to stab at Bill’s self-assurance, and is set in what appears to be natural lighting. The second one is remorseful and belated. When Bill imagines the scene involving Alice, we can notice a blue tone being cast over. The same blue tone will appear in all of the remaining scenes revolving their house. The only exception is the scene in which we see Alice tutor their daughter into the strange language of mathematics. Blue is therefore associated with dreams and it only appears after the first confession, which comes after the party. When Bill enters the house, he effectively enters his wife’s dreams and desires. When he goes to rent a costume, the room from which the deviant child appears in is red, anticipating the orgy at the castle. Desire can transcend one’s fantasy and become another’s reality. Bill’s house is no longer his. He enters his wife’s unconscious lustfulness. The naval officer is a stranger for Alice as are the masked people for Bill. This comes as no coincidence. The object of desire is ultimately unsatisfiable and therefore it cannot have a face, a determination, or a name. It exists and haunts our being independent of our moral structures. This, I think, is the key with which to interpret the movie.

© 2020 Claudiu Ursu


Maria on May 05, 2020:

Excellent article!

Claudiu Ursu (author) from Cluj-Napoca, Romania on April 30, 2020:

I couldn't agree more.

Noel Penaflor from California on April 30, 2020:

As the years go by, I've enjoyed this movie more and more.

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