In this gigantic mansion, practically a wet dream for those turned on by wealth porn, cloaked and masked figures stand by the perimeter, watching as Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) is asked to doff his own disguise, after having explored rooms that seemingly fulfilled his erotic fantasies. These dreams, crafted by Stanley Kubrick, at first exemplify the Freudian assertion of wish fulfillment and then transform into nightmares that exist plainly as perilous reality, bouncing around ideas of gender politics, desire, and monogamy. Through heightened fantasy and looming danger, Eyes Wide Shut asserts that wish fulfillment isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Harford lives an upper class lifestyle with a beautiful wife, a daughter, a nice apartment, and the joint invitation to a Christmas party for what looks like the 1%. This might be waking life, but there are hints at playing out a fantasy at this party for both he and his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman). Both approached by very attractive people that offer them a bite of the forbidden fruit, this Christmas party, where the lines of fidelity, though in place, are bent ever so slightly, allow the couple to playact a life without the other. Bill has two flirtatious models on his arm, just barely fulfilling the heterosexual male fantasy of the ménage-e-trois. Alice dances with a lounge lizard, his cosmopolitan presentation swoon worthy. In both scenarios, separate and yet together, there is a performance: Bill is momentarily single, the attractive, rich, doctor who has these women under his spell. It’s an act, his elocution heightened to make him seem cooler, his body language suddenly stiff to maintain an air of class. Conversely, though Alice replies to the lounge lizard’s introduction of his nationality with “I’m married”, she seems to play the role of the married woman for whom the idea of infidelity is enticing, both for herself as well as for the lounge lizard. In contrast, her body language becomes relaxed, vaguely seductive, especially when juxtaposed against the lizard’s performative act, which is not dissimilar to Bill’s.
However, both of these interactions still exist within the parameter of “reality”, where the lines of fidelity and monogamy are not to be crossed. There is an implication that these little tête-à-têtes are exactly how monogamy is supposed to work, which is suggested throughout the rest of the film. If these boundaries are transgressed they are only momentarily satisfactory.
After an argument with Alice about a fantasy she once had about a naval officer, he goes off into the night and his interactions play like a thriller or a horror film. Much has been made about the generic semantics of “What is Eyes Wide Shut?”, and while it may not fit cleanly into any box, the genre tropes still present themselves in a surprisingly traditional way. There is a nagging sense that fantasies are exactly that; things that are not to be fully realized, things that only exist in our imaginations essentially. Bill’s, and even Alice’s, fantasies always exist at the threat of something ruining their reality and their status quo.
Bill picks up a prostitute on the street, and comes very close to making their sexual transaction when Alice calls on the phone asking him when he will be back, essentially preventing the transaction from happening. The looming threat of transgressing heterosexual monogamy is the force that stops him and, as the film suggests, all for the better, given that we learn later that the prostitute is HIV positive. Given the status of Stanley Kubrick as master auteur, perfectionist and mocker (a la A Hard Day’s Night), this presentation of almost punishment is jarring, primarily because one wouldn’t necessarily expect Kubrick to reinforce the same kind of Puritan values and norms that films of the same genre do. Wish fulfillment, regardless of the genre, is a double edged sword.
This is also true for Alice, for, the fantasy that initially ignites this extended dream of Bill’s comes at the hazard of breaking apart her family. On a trip in the past, she saw a naval officer that lit her desirous nature aflame. She did not act upon this, primarily because said officer did not make a move. There is a mixed message in this scene, though, suggesting that women, too, can have fantasies that men have, never acted upon as suggested by the rules of matrimony. Yet that fantasy is not allowed to exist within the context of Alice’s own desires; it only seems to exist in conjunction to how Bill feels, which is to say, emasculated. Bill may get a taste of the sexual reverie he so longs for, and, regardless of its conclusion, Alice is never given that benefit.
Bill doesn’t so much dip his toe into the dream world as plunge himself wholeheartedly. Something inexplicable seems to propel this particular desire, perhaps the confine of marriage and the ensuing dull domesticity of it all. (This is suggested when, replying to Alice’s question of whether she looks good for the party, he responds without looking, “You look great.” The dramaturgical elements of marriage are reflexive for both of them.) The orgy at the castle is splendid, perhaps even a work of sublime eroticism. There is an intentional masculine feel to it all, with the men covered, watching the goings on, and the women having doffed their clothing. The men are in power here, as if watching a film.
Everywhere around Bill, someone is offering him forbidden fruit, at the very least implicitly. He never acts upon these desires, partially out of a presumed internal fear, but also because of the very theatrical warning he’s given by the nude, masked woman. The danger there is in itself alluring for Bill, certainly a departure from the house visits and domestic disputes. But this dream of ritualistic sex is turned up on its head in two ways: first, he’s threatened heavily by the leader of the group, and second, he becomes obsessed with uncovering what really happened.
Yet again, even in these moments, which take up the bulk of the film, there’s a simpering “be careful what you wish for” attitude. Though we are certainly as engrossed with uncovering the nature of the cult and the sex as Bill is, hanging over his head is the Sword of Damocles, ready to drop and shatter his life.
“We were in a deserted city and our clothes were gone. We were naked and, and I was terrified. And I felt ashamed… Oh god. And I was angry because I thought it was your fault, that you were gone. You rushed away to 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, he was the man from the hotel, the one I told you about. The naval officer. He stared at me. And he just laughed. He just laughed at me.
He was kissing me. And then, then we were making love. Then there were these other people around us… hundreds of them, everywhere. Everyone was fucking. And then I… I was fucking other men. So many… I don’t know how many I was with. And I knew you could see me in all the arms of these men… Just fucking all these men. And I wanted to make fun of you, to laugh in your face. And I laughed as loud as I could. That must have been when you woke me up.”
It’s telling that this dream is first described as “horrible” by Alice, and then talks about shame. This seems contradictory to the initial monologue Alice gives regarding female pleasure, with its “If you men only knew” confidence, because she is shamed by the Naval officer, and even more ashamed of the erotic fantasy she ends up acting out in the dream, heavily implied to be the same orgy that Bill has just come home from.
When Bill finally learns that a majority of it was just a sham to scare him away, he returns to his wife, in tears, weeping heavily. The film’s conclusion does not really suggest much ambivalence, with the addressing of the issue in FAO Schwartz essentially amounting to “married couples aren’t perfect, we have desire, but we can’t act on these fantasies”. However tantalizing these excursions may be to monogamous couples, Eyes Wide Shut comes off as rather moralistic, using its wish-fulfillment as a form of cautionary tale. Its ambiguities only exist structurally; morally, the codes are relatively locked in place. The bonds of matrimony are to exist by a certain set of rules: you’re allowed to have these fantasies, reveries, dreams, and temptations, but if you act upon them, you are to be punished. Despite the film’s explicit eroticism, Kubrick uses a relatively old fashioned trope of the dream as a way to shame and threaten the dreamer, a way to keep the dreamer inside the bounds of a particular ideology. We can look to Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics from Into the Woods to summarize how dreams work in Eyes Wide Shut, particularly from the song “I Know Things Now”, which itself hints at the dangers of wish fulfillment and sexual exploration: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not.”