Eyes Wide Shut: Privilege and Emasculation

At first the structure this essay naturally took felt a little basic. I was approaching the concepts that interested me by making some notes re-watching key scenes and scanning the the script, but became aware that since I am exploring only one aspect of a deeply allegorical film full of complicated symbolism, I shouldn’t have to write about the whole film – and not in chronological order. However, By time I got into the second half of my analysis I realised that it had to be this way. I have deliberately (and with great restraint) not talked about scenes that didn’t have a direct relation with the topic, and yet still addressed most of the film in the same form. This works with Eyes Wide Shut, and little else, because of Kubrick’s ability to integrate theme and meaning into the structure of his movies. Essentially, this film is an essay itself, and so lends itself to the format: Points are introduced, explored, developed further, conclusions are made and questions are asked. A lesser film would have stopped at 90 minutes, and it still would have been brilliant. Instead, Kubrick examines the consequences of actions, even the hypothetical.

When Eyes Wide Shut starts, we are thrown into the midst of a long-term relationship – one that has given them a child, financial security, social events to attend, and the freedom to be open with each other. In what is a little surprising for a movie marketed as an “erotic thriller”, we see Alice undress and use the toilet while her husband dresses alongside her. We are seeing behind closed doors, but there’s still an adherence to expectation. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are putting on the costumes of high-class civility, but also becoming that which the audience expects the then real-life couple to be. The first conversation we see is as follows:

ALICE (looking in mirror)
How do I look?
BILL
You look great.
ALICE
My hair okay?
BILL
Perfect.
ALICE
You’re not even looking at it.

While it’s a fairly banal conversation, and one I’m sure many couples have had, in the context of the rest of the film it suggests something else. Plus, it’s Kubrick – nothing is superfluous. The perfection they seek is aesthetic, or rather they want to find satisfaction through dressing and acting like they have already have. In one sex scene, Alice turns away from her lover to look at their reflection in the mirror. While Alice’s beauty is frequently brought up by the people she meets, it’s Bill who is intent on appearing a certain way. He frequently uses money to solve problems, with a seemingly limitless amount of cash in his wallet at all times. It’s not just about getting his own way, but showing that he has resources, that the money doesn’t matter. It may be an interesting tactic to rip a hundred-dollar note in half, giving one half to the cab driver and promising the second to him if he waits, but it’s also an expression of his ego. You can see why Cruise was perfect for the part as his trademark grin follows this posturing. This is also applies to how often he shows people his Doctor’s ID, something that Kubrick always returns to. It’s another way he defines himself, a well-respected and well-paid job that he can use to stroke his ego, and tame his insecurities.

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The real genius of casting Tom Cruise in the role of Bill is that he was the image of Hollywood and of American Exceptionalism, an Adonis to tear down. Co-writer Frederic Raphael wanted to keep the Jewish background of the main characters, but Kubrick insisted that they should be “vanilla” Americans. It’s important that the male protagonist was the current image of white, privileged masculinity at the time, for it’s this very masculinity that is deconstructed. While it’s not always intentional, Alice works as a foil to the strict roles he believes men and women operate in. An argument starts when Alice brings up the two women who Bill spent some time with at the previous night’s party, ending in Bill making such sweeping statements:

Bill
Women don’t… They basically don’t think like that
Alice
Millions of years of evolution, right? Men have to stick it every place they can… but for women, it is just about security and commitment…and whatever the fuck else!
Bill
A little oversimplified, Alice. But yes, something like that
Alice
If you men only knew

This is the same scene in which Bill insists on the fact that he never thinks about sleeping with other women, that he is different because of his love for Alice. He allows himself the excuse of his gender being uncontrollable, while also being exempt from the flaws of this position. While his weary condescension would be insulting on its own, the truly pernicious message at its core is that her sexual nature is his to decide, and the way she feels is irrelevant. She hits back the only way she can, by attacking his ego and inflaming male jealousy. She tells of the time she met a young Naval Officer, and fantasised about leaving Bill for him:

And yet at no time was he ever out of my mind. And I thought if he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything. You, Helena, my whole fucking future. Everything! And yet it was weird, because at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever, and at that moment, my love for you was both tender and sad.”

The conversation is interrupted by a phone call, and by the time they next see each other Bill has had romantic encounters with two women, and has attended the infamous masked orgy. While there are numerous moments, both minor and major, that contribute to Bill’s feeling of emasculation, Alice’s speech is the instigating event that sets him on this path. As Scott Tobias points out in his excellent piece, the hurtfulness of this confession is two-fold:

I wonder which is worse: Alice admitting that she was willing to throw away her entire life with Bill and their family for a rendezvous with a handsome stranger, or that her love for Bill was “both tender and sad.” The former is devastating for obvious reasons, and it’s designed to inflame male jealousy, but the latter, while sounding loving and conciliatory, makes Bill into a pitiable, pathetic creature, adding to a sense of humiliation that will deepen as the night goes on.

As he sits in the back of the taxi taking him to the house of a deceased patient, the image of Alice and the unnamed Naval Officer together plays over and over in his mind. He meets Marion, her father having just died. She is full of grief and confusion, her need for affection and stability giving her a wired energy; her eyes staring at Bill then darting away, barely hiding her feelings for him. She kisses him, and he allows it though not really reciprocating, before deflecting her declarations of love and insisting that “we barely know each other”. Despite his kind words and appropriate response, there’s a distinct sense that he doesn’t actually give a shit. He leaves, though his mostly passive behaviour suggests that things may have gone another way if her husband hadn’t arrived. After leaving the apartment, he walks through the street alone, the sight of a couple kissing bringing back flashes of the imagined sex between Alice and the Naval Officer – he smacks his hands together in sudden outburst of frustration. It’s at this low point that his sense of masculine worth is challenged. “Hey, what team is this switch-hitter playing for?” a man jokes to his friends, before a barrage of homophobic insults are thrown his way. They knock him down, continuing to berate him as he stumbles to his feet. He pauses and looks back at them for what feels like a dangerous amount of time, as if he wants to respond with violence, but turns away instead.

The next person he meets is a prostitute named Domino, who suggests he comes back to her apartment. Once again, his hurt ego compels him to reclaim some kind of agency. In what is one of the most romantically-shot, sensitive scenes (an odd choice that will make more sense later), they kiss, but a phone call interrupts any true connection once again – this time it’s his wife. He lies about where he is, but the moment is over and he leaves, insisting on paying Domino for her time. The first unrequited extra-marital sexual encounter in the movie was one where Bill seemed to be in a position of power (“[We] are knowledgeable, about all sorts of things…”), in the second he wilfully resisted the advances of a desperate women, and the third time he is allowing himself to be directed. Each time his power diminishes, and each time he is more clear in what he wants. And at this juncture, he starts to lose something too. It’s material wealth, money for pleasure he didn’t receive, but there will eventually be an emotional cost for him to bear. His attempts will always be thwarted, and no matter how much he wants to establish his dominance through sex, he will be rendered impotent.

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The scene which reinvigorates him, and makes him look visibly content in himself again, is when he enters a bar to see his friend Nick playing piano in a Jazz band. The door is opened for him, he is shown to a table, his coat is taken, and he is brought a beer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that his self-assurance, his broad grin and bumptious demeanour reappears once he returns to the comforts of privilege. When Nick tells him about the the party, Cruise’s trademark smile and jovial attitude is a mask that uncomfortably shifts, as his need to attend becomes pushy and a little threatening. “You know there is no way on earth that you are leaving tonight without taking me with you” he says, smiling. The lighting on his face, tilted forward with his brow furrowed, is more reminiscent of Jack Torrance than Jerry Maguire. The party, at this moment, becomes the terminus of the night, the mysterious point at which he believes he will find fulfilment of some kind, revenge on his wife’s hypothetical affair, and a way to stabilise his tortured masculinity.

One of the most haunting images of the film is the gateway to the mansion as the taxi pulls up, behind it a path shrouded in forest, swallowed up by an impenetrable darkness. Two unnamed men stand by it, awaiting the password, emotionless and reticent. The mansion scene is the apex of the narrative, the twenty minute sequence’s midpoint being the midpoint of the runtime. Everything that happened in the first 70 minutes has lead to this, and the 70 minutes that follows is its aftermath. Passing through this gate, Bill enters another world, one of which he does not belong, and can never be a part of. While it’s devoid of any eroticism, absurd and disturbing in equal measure, it’s stimulating to him. It’s a pure and inscrutable expression of power, one that he wants to immerse himself in. The robes and masks conceal identity, personality, and emotion. Bodies are revealed and used only for anonymous sex, a display of sexuality without the constraints of the gender politics and personal ties that Bill believes constrain him.

Despite his passion and desire, his attempt to integrate into the party is immediately met with hostility. He is frequently told “You’ve got to get away before it’s too late” by a masked woman who seems to know him; but the most unnerving example of this is the slow zoom to a couple on the balcony, the man’s mask bringing to mind those nightmarish beaked masks worn by plague doctors in the seventeenth/eighteenth century. Throughout the scene there’s the underlying fear of being found out, of not belonging. The expectation is that Bill’s journey will culminate here, and he will involve himself in the debauchery. However, neither Bill nor the audience are allowed this indulgence, and he is quickly exposed. Like in dreams, the sudden recognition by a threatening “other” is the real horror. The most gut-wrenching moment of the whole film may be the solitary, distinctive piano, and the cut to the same room the initial ritual took place in, this time with every mask turned to him (and to us).

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He is revealed to be an outsider, and so told to remove his mask and undress; his agency completely taken from him and his pride undermined. In the Arthur Schnitzler novel its the characters Jewishness that’s at issue – there’s an inner circle into which Jews of the era were not admitted. Kubrick removed this element entirely, and without it the personal humiliation is driven home further. No matter how rich he is, how much power or confidence he has, or how much he abides by social standards of masculinity, he cannot break through into the hidden elite. Other than during sex, the men in the mansion are fully-clothed, while the majority of women only wear a mask. The men surround, watch, and use them. Whether they are pressured into attending, drugged, threatened, or willingly attend, there is a sense of hierarchy. This fits in with views Bill has previously shown to believe about gender and sexuality – that women do not desire sex but instead need the power of a man to protect them, while her body only serves to pleasure him. It’s said in less certain terms, but it’s an understanding of the world that colours his interactions with women throughout the film. While not being a lesson he understands at first, his expulsion from this secret society is ultimately saying “This world is ours, not yours”. He may find privilege in his gender, race, and sexuality, but there’s no fulfilment. The patriarchy hurts him too, something that eats away at his soul.

His encounter with the adverse effects of privilege doesn’t just deliver a blow to his conscience, but inverts his own notions of masculinity. He is “feminised” in an uncomfortable way, treated “like a woman”. He is ordered to disrobe, something that is expected of none of the other men there. After refusing to remove his clothes, it is warned “would you like us to do it for you?”. His decision to enter the party and involve himself in the orgy, whether as an active participant or a voyeuristic one, results in condemnation. He is shamed for his sexuality in a way that few men are, but women commonly experience – just as he dismissed his own wife’s sexual urges earlier that night. The threat of sexual violence, as well as the fear of being followed by a man through the streets at night, are appallingly familiar parts of the female experience. The glimpse that Bill has of this everyday fear disturbs the security of his male privilege.

Bill returns home to find Alice in bed, hysterically laughing. He wakes her, only for her to claim she was having “the most horrible dream”. She strokes his hair to comfort him (and herself), and he asks what she dreamt about:

Alice
We were in a deserted city, and our clothes were gone, we were naked. Then…I was terrified, and I felt ashamed. Oh God. And I was angry because I thought it was your fault. You rushed away to go and find clothes for us. As soon as you were gone it was completely different, I…I felt wonderful. Then I was lying in a beautiful garden, stretched out naked in the sunlight, and a man walked out of the woods – he was the man from the hotel, the one I told you about, the Naval Officer. He…he stared at me, and then he just laughed, he just laughed at me”
Bill
“That’s not the end, is it?”
Alice
“No”
Bill
“Why don’t you tell me the rest of it?”
Alice
“It’s too awful”
Bill
“It’s only a dream”
Alice
“He… he was kissing me, and then we were making love, then there were all these other people, hundreds of them everywhere, and everyone was fucking. And then I was fucking other men, so many…I don’t know how many I was with. And I knew you could see me in the arms of all these men, just fucking all these men…and I wanted to make fun of you, to laugh in your face, and so I laughed as loud as I could. That must have been when you woke me up”

Aside from being yet another humiliating blow to Bill, it’s one that undermines his self-prescribed role as a wealthy, powerful patriarch of his family. Without knowing it, Alice is admitting that there are constraints Bill puts on her sexuality. His refusal to believe in her sexuality outside of motherhood makes her feel ashamed of her desires. In return, she wants to shame him, wants him to know that he is not the sole dominant figure in their relationship. As he will remark in the final scene, “No dream is ever just a dream”.

His immediate response to this humiliation is to try and inflate his ego once again – so he phones the grieving woman who confessed her love for him. He wants to return to safety of that power balance. When he can’t get through to her, he returns to Domino’s apartment, this time actively seeking her out rather than entering her apartment building with reluctance. She isn’t home, but her roommate Sally is, and she invites him in. She tells him that Domino had said how nice he had been to her the previous night, reflecting the beginning of the film where he is told “You were very kind to me once” by one of the two models. That was also the moment where he was the most in control, and so he begins to feel sure of himself once again. Following the rule I established earlier, he is more forward here than with Domino, but his power has diminished even further. He is confident, but this is also him at his most desperate and vulnerable. He has let his guard down completely because he believes this is the place where his masculinity can be appeased. The way he leans into Sally, opens his jacket, drums his fingers on the table – his swagger is back in full force. The self-assurance that had been beaten out of him has returned, a reaction of sorts, or a defence mechanism. Then she brings him back down – Domino got the results of a blood test back that morning, and she has tested Positive for HIV.

He straightens up, the bravado is gone, he begins to talk in a detached way as he did with his patients before. The tender romance of his initial scene is now seen through a different lens, a set-up to a cruel joke. It’s simultaneously painful and strangely satisfying to see the Hollywood actor taken down a peg. In this moment he had tried to embrace not caring – shutting his eyes to the ordeal of the previous night to enjoy himself, and yet the worst thing possible has happened. However, his despondency isn’t just empathy for the dying girl and her roommate, as his reaction is of disappointment rather than sadness. He even lightly smiles as he says “I am very, very sorry to hear that”, completely caught up in his own experience. The most devastating thing to happen to any character in Eyes Wide Shut is the setback that he takes with humour, because to him it is just another dead end, another woman who can’t give him the satisfaction he needs.

Joe has $2.50, Mike has $1 and 75 cents. Joe has how much more money than Mike?

It’s a harmless maths problem that Alice helps their daughter with, but it’s also what triggers Bill to remember Alice’s dream again. What sets off these moments of inner torment have been deliberately placed before, such as the couple kissing on the sidewalk, or his rejection of Marion’s advances. If it’s moments of intimacy that prompted the fantasy image of Alice and the Naval Officer to appear in his mind, then what is it about the exchange between his daughter and wife that made him remember her dream?

Over the course of Eyes Wide Shut, Bill’s position as patriarch and breadwinner of his family unit is challenged. He is emasculated and humiliated, both of which stir up deep feelings of inadequacy. He flashes his money throughout the film, before coming into contact with a class of people he didn’t even know existed, people who have more than he could ever imagine. As Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) tells him, “Those were not just ordinary people there, if I told you their names […] I don’t think you’d sleep so well”. The revelation that Ziegler is involved is the final humiliation; it’s not even a nameless force, but a group with his client and friend for a member. The idea that this isn’t a vast conspiracy but just a group of people that want to fuck is mortifying to the man who has been living in fear the last few days, even if he still believes there’s something more sinister at play. Ziegler effectively reprimands him, in what was meant to be an apology. He’s been out of his depth, tampering with what he shouldn’t, and they knew all along. He may have smugly exhibited his cash in front of the cab driver, but the fact that he arrived in a taxi at all “when most people arrive in limos” raised suspicions. His very entrance to the party was immediately of a lower class than the other guests, and played into a sense of inadequacy he was already avoiding.

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One of the most common responses I’ve heard to a person lamenting some ongoing injustice, whether it be one of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia, is “Don’t think about it too much”. Ignorance is comfortable when you’re privileged enough not to have to deal with that hardship personally. Ziegler’s view is that ‘yes, we may have done some horrible things, yes we are a force that will do whatever it takes to remain in power, while others are not be allowed entry, but we’re not the bad guys’. Effectively – this is the way things are, and you’ll have to live with it. “It’s for your own good, believe me” is reminiscent of the weary condescension Bill showed to Alice at the beginning.The choice he is left with is whether to shut his eyes or not, and look away from the suffering that forms the foundations for his privilege.

When he asks the masked woman, who will later turn up dead in a hotel room, who she is, she answers “You don’t want to know”. He believed he knew everything, and finds that not only is he unaware of the underlying truth to the world, but his understanding will only bring him more suffering. Much like the forbidden knowledge of which H.P. Lovecraft wrote, these secrets will only fill the inquirer with mental anguish and regret for what they have learned. It’s unclear whether Bill will learn that he isn’t the herald of all truth, and that Alice’s perspective matters. Maybe when he gets his own beer from the fridge he feels the difference in privilege from when one was brought to him. Conversely, as he has shown time and time again, he could instead seek to massage his ego, find another outlet where he can be both a masculine ideal and consider himself a “good person”. Alice’s final statement could lead him either way; it could be a recuperation of intimacy or an empty gesture from which neither will find real fulfilment.

Alice
I do love you – and you know, there is something very important that we need to do as soon as possible
Bill
What’s that?
Alice
Fuck

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