Spoiler alert: This blog post contains spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Released in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut explores sophisticated themes which parallel society. Perhaps the most captivating are the themes of marriage, sexuality and where to draw the line between these two polarities. Kubrick did a wonderful job exploring dark ideas which may take you a few watches to fully grasp.
Stanley Kubrick, the director and writer, considered Eyes Wide Shut to be his best film — and for good reasons. There are compelling, dark and eye opening themes in addition to fantastic acting and cinematography. Arguably, the most prominent theme is realities of marriage, more specifically, sexual fantasies that may challenge faithfulness. To prepare his lead stars for the role, Kubrick attended psychoanalysis sessions with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, who were married at the time. He requested that they admit their fears about their own marriage to reach an appropriate headspace for filming. Kidman stated that it was intensely honest and blurred the lines between reality and acting. These sessions are absolutely intriguing, but both stars vowed to never reveal what was said.
Eyes Wide Shut begins with Alice, played by Nicole Kidman, and her spouse Bill, played by Tom Cruise, preparing for a Christmas party. During the event, Alice dances with another man and Bill is arm in arm with two attractive models. They’re both enticed by the strangers they meet at the party, but neither commits infidelity… or did they? This raises the complex question of what infidelity is exactly. Is flirting considered to be unfaithful? Is a sexual fantasy considered infidelity? Or are these things common practice for people who have been wed for several years? And so, the dark plot of the film begins when Alice and Bill begin to question what faithfulness truly means.
The Christmas party sparks a conversation between the married couple. Alice asks Bill directly if he was interested in sleeping with the two models. He carefully evades the question and Alice later admits that she had a sexual fantasy about a stranger to make Bill jealous. This conversation implies that anonymity and sexuality go hand in hand… further implying that marriage cannot possibly encapsulate raw sexuality because there is no element of namelessness. Rather, marriage is about intimacy and commitment, not primal urges which are controlled when one is wed. After this conversation, Bill becomes haunted, perhaps even obsessed, with his wife’s sexual fantasy. Through a string of events, Bill finds himself at a ritualistic orgy where everyone is masked. One of the masked, naked women informs him that he is in great danger and must leave immediately. This insinuates that if we are to submit to our most primal sexual desires, we will face death, and marriage is therefore the appropriate approach to life because it requires self-control. Caught between the extremes of lust and intimacy, Bill becomes troubled, not knowing how to find balance in his marriage to Alice.
I believe the main theme of Eyes Wide Shut is the struggle married couples face to stay true to their commitment while continuing to enjoy the simple pleasure of sex. Further, it’s about the contrast between fantasy and reality, and how sexuality affects both differently. I also think the film is about Bill’s personal journey to discover the reality of marriage. As a married doctor and devoted father, he is fulfilling the American Dream and believes he’s the model citizen. However, the fact that his wife experiences sexual fantasies deeply disturbs him, shaking him to the core, because he doesn’t know if his marriage and lifestyle is perfect anymore. This causes him to question his identity, is he a good husband, doctor and father? By participating in the oneness of a masked ceremony, he detaches from himself, thereby allowing for sexual exploration that he didn’t allow before out of commitment to his wife. In the end, Bill and Alice acknowledge that they’ve effectively navigated the sexual issues of their marriage and are “awake”. Perhaps fantasy and brushing with the unknown is a normal part of marriage, even required, to make long-term commitment work between two people.