Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sex, Marriage, and Eyes Wide Shut

Because I'm crazy sick, I thought I'd do something a little different with this post. I wanted to do a review, or an analysis, or whatever this might be called, of one of my favorite movies, Eyes Wide Shut. I'm not sure the direction this will take, but it's at least partially relevant to the theme of the blog, and it'll be a little relaxing. There are, of course, spoilers below, as I think a thorough explanation of the plot is necessary to the points I'd like to make.

I know that this movie is not very popular. I think most of the time it's seen as sort of a quasi-porno at worst and a confusing mess at best (maybe "worst" and "best" should be swapped there?). I understand these criticisms. I think they're unjustified (and I hope this analysis will show at least in part why this is so), but I understand them. Before I get to any of that, though, I want to point out how extraordinarily beautiful this movie actually is. I would even go as far as to say that it's the most beautiful movie I've ever seen. The key to its beauty, I think, is the lighting (the same, I think, goes for Barry Lyndon, another less-than-popular Kubrick film). It is almost exclusively lit with Christmas or twinkle lights. This has a truly remarkable effect; the entire film glows. I've never seen anything like it. See below for some examples, and try to deal with the fact that the pictures hang off the side:

But this isn't really what I want to talk about. I want to talk about, at least in part, what this movie is arguing, and make a larger comment about this argument. Before I get to any of that, it's important to get a basic plot down, in case the reader doesn't remember the movie very well, or just doesn't know it at all. If you want to watch it for yourself (and who wouldn't after those stills!), clearly this plot part of this post isn't for you. If you remember the movie well enough, you can skip to the bottom. I'll try to be as brief as I can with the plot summary, but there are a lot of little details that I want to point out. I'll be supplementing the summary with clips from the movie.


The movie begins with a couple (Bill and Alice) getting ready for a Christmas party. They're clearly wealthy (I can't even imagine how much an apartment like theirs would cost in New York), and both are exceptionally attractive. You learn, even early in the movie, that Bill is a bit oblivious or even naive, though hardly slow. For example, Alice refers to the babysitter (for their daughter, Helena) by name, which Bill ignores, only to ask her later, "what's the babysitter's name?" This sort of obliviousness carries throughout the rest of the movie in a meaningful way.

They eventually leave for the party, which is magnificent. The audience learns that Bill is a doctor, and that the party is being hosted by the impossibly wealthy (and powerful) Victor Ziegler (and his wife), someone Bill makes house calls for. During the party Bill and Alice get separated, and Bill is pursued by two beautiful models (who entice him with lines like "Don't you want to go where the rainbow ends?") and Alice is pursued by an older Hungarian man, who nearly convinces her to engage in some sort of infidelity. Bill is pulled away from the models by a medical emergency upstairs, and Alice stops the pursuit of the Hungarian man, telling him multiple times that she is married. The Hungarian man, clearly a connoisseur of beautiful women, continues on anyway, attempting to convince her that marriage is a meaningless social construct, and that her husband is occupied with other interests (that is, other women). The Hungarian man is nearly baffled as to why someone as beautiful as Alice would waste herself with marriage. But Alice ultimately resists.

The viewer then finds Bill in an upstairs bathroom with Ziegler, the host of the party (who is shirtless), trying to wake up a naked woman with large breasts. Ziegler, having had his way with her, indicates to Bill that she took some sort of drug overdose, and that he can't wake her up. Bill, clearly suspicious of the situation, asks no questions and begins to help the woman. He eventually wakes the woman, named Mandy, and is especially kind to her, something she clearly appreciates. Ziegler asks Bill to keep this event secret, which he promises. Before leaving (and I can't remember if this scene comes before or after the bathroom scene), Bill runs into his old med school friend, Nick Nightingale, who, because he dropped out of med school, is playing piano professionally now. They exchange pleasantries, and Nick lets Bill know that he will be playing somewhere in town. The night ends with Bill and Alice, presumably, having sex with one another back at their apartment.

The next day, we see the daily lives of Bill and Alice. Bill, we learn, does breast exams (some for beautiful women), and Alice appears to be a housewife. Her young daughter and her wrap Christmas presents, and the day is mostly normal, though Alice does appear a little agitated. That night, to relax, the two decide to smoke marijuana. After Alice gets a little stoned, she asks Bill if he had sex with the two models from the night before. He laughingly denies it, which bothers Alice even more. She wants to know why he didn't have sex with them. He says, mostly, because he's married. This bothers Alice (though it's similar to the argument she employed against the Hungarian man). She's angry that the only reason he didn't have sex with the women was because he was married.

What follows is a very interesting argument between the couple, Alice getting frustrated at the idea that he touches beautiful women all day. The side Bill eventually takes is that this is just how men are, that they just want to have sex with beautiful women, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Alice presses, asking, effectively, "what about women?" To which Bill responds that women are different, that they aren't into sex in the way that men are. This, to put it lightly, bothers Alice. You can see this scene in the beginning of this trailer:

The trailer doesn't really do the film justice, though it is a nice trailer, especially that smile at the end. But the trailer makes it seem as if the movie is about women (particularly Alice) getting back and men or something. It's not about that at all. Any any rate, after the argument Alice tells Bill a story about how she nearly cheated on him, but was only stopped by circumstance. In the story, she explains that she was willing to give up everything (the marriage, their child, "everything") if the naval officer she was lusting after had just wanted her. This is really one of the best scenes in the film, and I recommend watching it below, as a lot of what I have to say comes from it:

Bill does not take this news well. In fact, you could probably say that it completely devastates him; it is the catalyst for everything that follows in the film. The phone call you hear at the end of the above clip is from the daughter of a patient who has just passed away. Bill leaves to show his respects (or perhaps to just let off some steam considering his wife's revelation). During the ride over, Bill can't get the image of his wife making love to another man out of his head. He arrives at the patient's house and is greeted by the daughter. After some pleasantries, the daughter confesses his love for Bill, which confuses Bill, who only knows the daughter casually through the deceased patient.

But the daughter pleads with him to have her. Bill spurns the advance, and the daughter's fiance shows up. Bill leaves her, someone he thought was a veritable stranger, brokenhearted. After this, Bill is more confused (and it is no coincidence that this woman, who is promised to be married, but is willing to throw all that way, is comparable to Alice) and not ready to return home. He decides to walk around the city. In the city, he sees sex everywhere, and he can't make sense of it. He is eventually pursued by a prostitute named Domino. (A beautiful prostitute, I might add; do prostitutes ever look like this?) He decides, without much thought, to take her up on her offer for sex. She takes him up to her apartment, and they awkwardly begin making out. Before it can get anywhere, Alice calls Bill on his cell phone. Bill humorously says he has to go but decides to pay Domino anyway. A gentleman.

Still not wanting to return home and unable to get his wife and his conversation out of his mind, he decides to keep walking the streets. He eventually comes across the bar where Nick Nightingale, the piano player from the party, is playing. Arriving at the end of Nick's set, Bill and Nick decide to share a drink together. There, Nick reveals to Bill that he has a gig playing an exotic sex party blindfolded later that night. Bill thinks Nick is putting him on, but Nick explains that the parties are very secret, and involve masked and cloaked guests who have to use a password to get in. Bill, curious, says he has to go to the party and persuades Nick to give him the password: "Fidelio." (A Beethoven symphony and Latin for "faithful.")

Determined to make it into the party and knowing that he needs a cloak and a mask, Bill tries a patient of his who runs a costume shop (Rainbow Rentals; lots of rainbows in this story; so LGBT friendly). As it turns out, the patient has moved, and another store owner (a Russian, I believe, named Milich) runs the shop now. Bill says he will pay well over the price for rental if the shop owner will open his shop in the middle of the night and rent him the things he needs. Milich agrees, and he and Bill look for a suitable costume. Before they can find a costume, Milich hears something. He searches the shop and finds two older, Asian men nearly naked with his underage daughter. Milich lashes out against the men and his daughter, locking the men in an office. The daughter hides behind and, presumably, propositions Bill. You can see the scene here, with that incredible smile:

After Bill secures his cloak and mask, he makes his way to the party, using the password to get in. The party is how Nick has described it: an orgy with hundreds of beautiful men and women. The ceremonies begin with a ritualistic, quasi-Catholic scene with a Master of Ceremonies wearing a red cloak, like a cardinal. The guests all wear black cloaks and masks (presumably to hide their identify, as they are all, so is implied later, very powerful and important people), and the women (and men) are passed around for fun. (I do actually think the length of the orgy scene is unnecessary. There are multiple shots of sex, which often feel gratuitous and a little cheesy. The only fault in the film, I think, but I digress.) One of the women (also masked) takes Bill aside and pleads with him to leave, that they are on to him, that he shouldn't be there, and that they will harm him. Bill asks who she is, but she refuses to answer.

Eventually Bill is discovered, and he is brought before the Master of Ceremonies, who reveals him for who he is, a fraud who snuck into the party without an invitation  The Master of Ceremonies tells him to remove his mask and his clothes for all of the party guests. He refuses to remove his clothes, and the Master of Ceremonies tells him that he will have to forcibly take action if he doesn't comply. Before this can happen, the woman who was trying to get him to leave speaks up. She offers herself as "sacrifice" in his place. The Master of Ceremonies accepts the offer, and Bill is escorted out of the party, told to speak of it no one, and to never return.

Bill returns home, confused and terrified. He wakes his wife, who is having a bad dream. She describes the dream to him, which consists of her having sex with multiple men while laughing at Bill. The next morning Bill tries to figure out what happened the night before, despite the threats he received from the Master of Ceremonies. He first tries to find Nick, but learns from the concierge at Nick's hotel that Nick had been roughed up by some men and taken away. He tries to return to the mansion where the party took place only to receive a note from someone at the gate telling him to abandon his pursuits or else face dire consequences. Bill then returns the costume to Milich, who tells him that the mask is missing. As he is paying for his bill, the two Asian men from the night before are seen leaving the shop in good spirits. Milich tells Bill that they have made an arrangement (prostitution of the daughter) and offers his daughter to Bill, if he is so interested. This disgusts Bill.

That night, Bill goes back to Domino, the prostitute from the night before (whom he has clearly some affection for---and she is a nice lady, to be fair), to bring her a gift. But Domino isn't in. Her roommate, who flirts with Bill, informs him that Domino has learned that she has HIV. Bill, unsure how to take this news, leaves. Back on the streets, Bill notices a man, presumably related to the group at the orgy, following him. The man ominously stares him down as he walks out of the shot. (This, I think, is a particularly famous scene from the movie because of how subtly terrifying it is; you can see it here.)

Reading in a newspaper, Bill discovers that the beauty queen (Mandy, the nude woman in Ziegler's bathroom at the beginning of the movie) has been found dead. Bill goes to the morgue to confirm that she is in fact the same woman. Ziegler contacts Bill after this discovery and tell hims to come over. There Ziegler explains that he was at the orgy as well, and that Bill was in more danger than he realizes. This is the point where Ziegler explains that the people at the party are very powerful, very important people (hinting that they are politicians or business magnates, leaders of the world). Bill then confirms that the woman who "sacrificed" herself for him at the was in fact Mandy, and that, in line with that sacrifice, ended up dead the next day. Bill is horrified by this. Ziegler tries to calm him down, saying that her death was accidental, that there was no foul play at all, that she just overdosed on drugs, and that the whole "sacrifice" was all just a charade, a show to get the partygoers excited and to scare Bill off. You can see that scene here.

Whether or not Bill accepts this explanation, he returns home, makes sure to lock the door, only to find his mask from the orgy, lying on his pillow, next to his wife. The people from the orgy somehow managed to make it into his bedroom, a place that was supposed to be sacred and separate. He breaks down crying, waking his wife, telling her that he will confess everything he has done. The next morning, after that confession, the two of them, with their daughter, go Christmas shopping at a toy store. There they discuss the possibility of a future together. Alice says that they should be "grateful" that the couple has managed to survive through all of their "adventures, whether they were real or only a dream." They reconcile, for the most part, not quite on the same page. Watch that tension here. The last (and possibly most important) line of the movie is this. Alice: "There is something very important that we need to do as soon as possible." Bill: "What's that?" Alice: "Fuck."


Now, why did I write all that? I don't know, I'm pretty delirious from the medicine. No, there's a lot of really valuable stuff in this movie that I think is worth talking about. Before I begin, though, I want to say that I will not be discussing Illuminati, New World Order, conspiracy stuff. I know that Eyes Wide Shut is like a cult classic for conspiracy theorists, especially as it concerns world leaders and their secret societies and sex slave parties. Whatever merit those arguments have, I have no interest in discussing them. (Because I'm part of the conspiracy, oooooo.) What I want to discuss is how sexuality and marriage are portrayed in the film.

The first thing I want to note is that despite being a pretty unrealistic film, in the sense that it feels almost like a strange dream (which was intentional), it is one of the most insightful films I've ever seen in its understanding of the psychology of sexuality. Dostoevsky is often praised as being a sort of master of human psychology, especially as he portrays it in works like The Brothers Karamazov. Eyes Wide Shut is to film what Brothers is to literature, at least with respect to sexual psychology.

Now, what do I mean by all of this? What I mean is that Eyes Wide Shut fully understands and presents what sexual energy actually is. It is unquenchable, it is infinite, and it is overwhelming. And I don't just mean it's sexy. I actually don't think Eyes Wide Shut is a very sexy film. In fact, I don't think I've ever been aroused watching it. (To be fair, it's mostly naked women, so I may be a bad test subject.) It consumes the person until he or she is able to find release. You can see this in every character. The models at the beginning, the Hungarian man, Ziegler, the daughter of the deceased patient (who was willing to give up a marriage for a stranger), Domino, the people at the orgy; all unable to function or even understand the world without their release. This is exactly what Alice is getting at as she presses Bill. She can't imagine a world where a handsome doctor touching the breasts of a beautiful women is just professional.

And mostly importantly, Alice's story. In her explanation to Bill, the one I told you to pay special attention to, she said she was willing to give up everything for sex with the naval officer. I think this scene alone better portrays the core of human sexuality than anything I've ever read or seen. And I don't mean to imply that every woman or even every person is like this. That's not what I mean when I say that it's psychologically insightful. (So, please don't say, "I would never think something like that!") What I mean to argue is that unrestrained human sexuality is the ability to give up everything beyond reason. To have an absolute need to get off with the object of your desire. I don't think Kubrick was trying to say that Alice was a bad woman. I think he was just trying to say that, because she was a human being, that unrestrained human sexuality was able to rise up and control her whole being.

This is meaningful for anyone who is interested in concepts of virtue and chastity. Chastity is not just an act of the will. Chastity is learned and practiced. Chastity takes time. The other day, I came across this pornographic video on the internet. I watched it just a little too long, and I was nearly shaking. And I think I have a pretty decent control over my sexual appetites. There is that anecdote about Aquinas, where his family tried to lock him in a room with prostitutes so he wouldn't join a religious order and give up his future in politics. He had to pick up a hot iron from the fireplace to drive the woman away and pray to angels to "gird his loins." I don't think the point of this story is that Aquinas thought sex was real bad or something; I think it's more speaking to the fact that it often takes something like a hot iron and divine intervention to drive away such a desire.

I think that this thing, this part of us, is so difficult to understand, much less control, that it leads to some of our greatest losses in life. Now, please don't misunderstand me. Sexual desire is good when it is directed properly. But your sexual desire doesn't know what the proper object of your sexuality is. That's some for your intellect to figure out. And it's not easy, figuring it out or controlling it. I have emphasized a number of times that a great deal of chastity has to do with preparation because our ability to control once we're in the moment is so diminished by this unbelievable desire.

And then, of course, there is Bill. His motivation was, in a certain way, two-fold. He was, in most part I think, trying to both get back at his wife (for her sort of emotional infidelity) and figure out sexuality as a whole, all in one night. What he discovered, I think, horrified him. Unrestrained sexuality is prostitution, orgies, corruption, the selling of daughters, and most importantly, the inability to think straight. Which is, I think in part, why Alice says what she says at the end of the movie. The solution to this energy, to this insanity is to "fuck." And I think Kubrick picked this word on purpose. Whether I agree with his overall point that "fucking" is what married couples do, I think the underlying argument, that marriage is this outlet, this solution to this impossible problem, is profound in its own way. St. Paul might agree.

Which leads me to my next point. The only thing keeping unrestrained sexual energy in place is some semblance of order. And what the movie makes clear is that that order is fragile. I think people, at least  in certain parts of the world, take sexual order for granted. This may be because there are limited consequences (at least physical ones) to our sexual choices in the modern world. But the line between a beautiful family and depravity, the line between fidelio in its proper meaning and fidelio as a password for a sex party is a fine one. Just ask the millions of married men who are addicted to pornography. Now, I don't mean to be dramatic. I don't think the average person, male or female, is so weak that he or she would be willing to throw everything away at the drop of a (super hot) hat. I'm saying that the core of unrestrained sexuality in the abstract (especially when derived from somewhere like jealousy) is sexual depravity. And that sexual depravity can only be restrained or controlled by some sort of order, as fragile as it might be.

And I don't mean to be all preachy. The virtues are our best hope against terrible versions of ourselves. But I think you have to approach them humbly, to start out by recognizing that you are not as powerful as you think, that you are seeking them or practicing them to be better. The key to many successes in life is humility, the ability to see yourself as what you are, with all your sad little faults, your inability to look away, to do the right thing when you need to. And sex, of course, is the most difficult thing in our lives to figure out, as Bill learned. It never feels quite right, and it's always so, so frustrating, even, and especially when, you get the release you were looking for. And I don't think you need to evaluate whether Bill and Alice (or anyone in the movie) are virtuous people to really get the movie. All you need to see is that virtue is what keeps sexuality in line, and that without it, we'd lose everything.

Anyway, this post has gotten exceedingly long, and I need to take some more medicine (or at least eat something). There's a lot more that could be discussed, but they are a little outside of the scope of this blog. I hope this wasn't too boring, and I hope you maybe, if you hated the film before, like it a little more now. If you haven't seen it, I surely recommend it. There is a lot of nudity in it, though, so take that as you will. Talk to you all soon.


  1. Huh. All I'll say for now is, the way you write it, this was unintentionally a very Catholic story.

    1. Heh, as any good Catholic will tell you, everything's unintentionally a very Catholic story! No, but I do think there's something going on in this movie that's pretty traditional, if you will.

  2. No, but I do think there's something going on in this movie that's pretty traditional, if you will.

    Yeah, the plot summary you give doesn't hit my expectations at all. I thought it was "orgies, the R-rated movie", and just sort of ignored it at the time. The part about Domino attempting to seduce Bill then turning out later to have HIV just seems particularly unusual to me, for some reason. I think because, again, I got the strong if casual impression that this was a movie that was just going to glorify sex and debauchery and so on, so 'one of the most extreme downsides/risks of casual sex in the modern era is brought up' particularly comes out of nowhere for me.

    I agree that restraint is something that is practiced at. Heck, I won't say I'm particularly good at it. I wonder if that insight isn't the most important 'lost awareness' of the modern era - the idea that virtues are something people commit to and work on, not just 'have'. I also wonder if the opposite is true, where whatever-virtue's-opposite-is intensifies through practice. Or does something akin to intensifying.

    1. That is indeed how it works, to my knowledge. Our virtuousness or viciousness is in a state of constant change, and our good or sinful actions create increasingly powerful good or bad habits within us. If we are virtuous but then fall into vice, then our habit of virtue becomes weaker. Aquinas argues in the ST that even not practicing a virtue, without practicing an obvious vice, is enough to corrupt it. So yeah--a state of constant change where we must perpetually be on our guard.

      This is also the reason why it's so hard to quit being a drunk, or to quit smoking, or to lose a lot of weight: we've developed such powerful habits through our repeated action that they're nearly unbreakable. Modern Protestantized Christianity has forgotten the importance of repetition--people in that camp think that, once you've been baptized or forgiven, your habits disappear. Not so. Overcoming vice is a never-ending process in this life.