Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick (UK/USA, 1999, 159 min.). At an opulent Christmas party, married couple Bill and Alice (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) each have a flirtatious encounter with a stranger. Back at their Manhattan apartment, the couple get into a jealous argument that culminates in Alice’s confession that she once considered having an affair with a handsome soldier who she glimpsed at the beach. The realization that his wife has private fantasies is too much for Bill; he leaves the domestic warmth of their home and wanders into the night, encountering a host of temptations and unusual characters in this oneheric drama about the darker side of love.
Perhaps because it cannot be packed into any recognizable genre, Eyes Wide Shut was misleadingly marketed as a “sex movie.” This branding has led to the film’s (mis)placement in our cultural cannon as a piece of erotica; a guilty pleasure. But a closer look will reveal that Eyes Wide Shut is actually a dialectic investigation into the problem of monogamy. The film explores this topic by visiting a range of related issues like marriage, temptation, jealousy, autonomy, communication, and (naturally) eroticism. Eyes Wide Shut does not only ask the philosophical question of whether monogamy is realistic and natural — it ventures to answer this question with a surprisingly optimistic solution.
To make sense of the film, I turn to contemporary film theorist Tarja Laine whose book Shame and Desire examines relationships depicted in film narratives with the aim of better understanding real life relationships and the psychology of modern love. In the book, Laine uses the term “romantic love” to refer to a culturally constructed ideal wherein two lovers must fuse together to form a single combined identity; neither lover is allowed personal growth for fear of complicating or corrupting that identity. In contrast, Laine inaugurates the term “authentic love,” to describe a relationship that allows for the preservation of one’s own identity while accepting difference and continuous transformation in one’s lover. I’ll borrow these useful terms from Laine to make sense of the messages in Eyes Wide Shut.
Until their pivotal argument, Bill and Alice Harford have had to create an illusion of perfect “romantic” love to support Bill’s persona as a successful doctor to the New York elite. This illusion is not only public facing, but permeates their private lives as well. Their projected identity proscribes both Harfords from having sexual dreams that do not involve their spouse; to vocalize such fantasies would be to shatter their constructed reality by acknowledging that they are autonomous individuals with separate interior worlds. Alice’s admission that she has private fantasies sparks Bill’s panicked realization that there are parts of her that he will never know, forcing him to individuate and reconstruct his identity. Thus, the two escape the confines of their shared public persona and become free to move forward in a more authentic form of togetherness. Kubrick’s motif of masks, costumes and nakedness throughout the film underscores this concept of shedding one’s superficial image, and the ever-present Christmas imagery speaks of absolution and birth.
Manager and Assistant Programmer of Film and Video
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston