Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Published: Jul 27, 2012 |Updated: Sep 10, 2023


Eyes Wide Shut is like a last joke played on us by film-maker Stanley Kubrick just before his death. The storyline centers on a couple in crisis. It plays out in a highly symbolic world, where deeper layers of meaning are always hinted at and things are rarely what they seem. Meaning in Eyes Wide Shut is thus a very personal thing, which is probably why people still argue over what the movie is really about. Join relationship expert and couple’s therapist Nick Duffell on his own exploration of this movie. It will prove enlightening.

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Genre Drama
Production year 1999
Director Stanley Kubrick
Male actors Tom Cruise, Sydney Pollack

Spinning the medicine wheel

Stanley Kubric’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, provocative as it is, is not “an astonishing tour de force of eroticism” as the Evening Standard suggested when it appeared in 1999. It is far more important than that. The key to this profound movie is in its title: Eyes wide shut. It shows how a couple can be in an intimate sexual relationship and blindly miss each other, and it recounts the consequences which can ensue.

In particular, the husband has his eyes wide shut, and the marriage is all but destroyed. In the very last moments there is a redemption. The wife declares that they have now – through the process they have undergone – awoken. And they re-choose each other. They have made it – but only just.

Eyes Wide Shut is the masterpiece of a dying film-maker. Kubric was busy with the profundities of life in all his movies. That he should make his final film about love and relationship – choosing a real-life husband and wife to star in it – says much about how important he must have considered the subject matter. Such gravitas enriches the carefully coded study of love that the film is. But here all is not what it seems: The most dramatic episodes are the least significant; the most domestic ones the most heavily charged with meaning.

It seems to be all about sex – but it is not: It is about relationship. Cruise and Kidman’s marriage did not survive and I wonder how much the intensity of playing in this film contributed to it. At the time Helena and I wrote to them to offer them therapy, but of course we had no answer!

At an unusually slow pace, the film obsessively deals with the subjects of love, relationship and intimacy, though to the casual observer it is steeped in excitement and eroticism. The truth is that there is plenty of sexuality in the film, but more accurately the role of sex is – as it is in life – to be the catalytic force which creates, impels and changes us.

This is the deeper side of sex which our culture generally overlooks. Interestingly, some Native American spirituality features Sex as a catalyzing element that is placed in the centre of the Medicine Wheel, while other post Christianity versions of the wheel omit this. Principally the film is not about sex, but about seeing and transformation.

It is about whether we look beyond the surface of things, whether we live behind our masks, whether we can be really bothered to look into another person, and dare to go for intimacy (into-me-see). Otherwise we may treat the other as only an image, and therefore an object for our desires or fantasies. This is deathly.

What is shocking in the film is not the eroticism (that is not even very arousing) but the extent to which humans can exploit each other as if they were objects to be used and then disposed of. This is acutely demonstrated through the characters of the party-host and the costume-renter. These two abuse their power, feeding off and destroying the innocence in their care.

A mythological journey

The film is like a dream or mythological journey. Time spans are not literal, and characters are like archetypal dream figures. The Tom Cruise character is the perfect handsome dutiful husband married to a glamorous woman, played by Nicole Kidman. But there is something in their intimate life which seems not to satisfy her. One night, at an opulent party, she resists a seducer, who attempts to tantalise her with the notion of marriage as a launching place for selfish hedonism.

Later, having temporarily left the rational world through taking drugs, she challenges her husband about his fidelity. He responds that he would never be unfaithful: he loves her, she is his wife, and she is beautiful. But this won’t do: she is enraged. We, the viewers, can imagine that this is because it is not about her, that she feels objectified. He can own her, want to fuck her, but can he care about her? Their current level of married bliss is no longer enough for her.

So she tests him further by describing her fantasies concerning a single glance she once received from a naval officer. The passion which this look promised was enough to make her risk everything, even her family; and yet it made her love her husband even more. In other words, she needs more than a basic static level of married intimacy – she needs passion and dynamism to enrich her love.

But the husband just does not get it. He becomes jealous and feels cheated. He becomes obsessed with his fantasies of her and the sailor. The picture that runs inside his head is not one of intense intimate passion, but of raunchy sex between strangers. And next, he sets out to get some for himself, by means of various chance encounters. Through one mythic night he acts-out in secret and puts himself at grave risk.

However, he fails to satisfy his excitement and curiosity. He never actually finds what he is looking for. But he does run into unexpected intimacy. The most intimate scene is when he is with a masked woman with a perfect body, and he wants to see her face. Eventually, she gives her life for him.

In effect, he receives nothing but utter kindness from all the women he meets. At the same time, his wife goes on a parallel dream journey, in which she is an object of shame. But they are in separate worlds, polarised, and drifting apart.

The power to transform

After his long Odyssey, the husband finally comes home. His wife is asleep, and next to her, on the pillow, he sees his missing costume-mask. In a flash, grief and remorse overtake him. He finally realises that she has been living with half-a-man, one who has been masked and blind. He sees that he has been running his life from his driven ego-personality, (persona is Greek for mask), from the power of his role, rather than from his soul.

Now that he is finally able to really feel something, he is able to look at his wife fully in the face. She (and the other female/Anima characters) have provided him with a mirror in which he is now able to see the catastrophic journey he has been on, driven by his own fantasies, servicing his own neediness, to find an erotic adventure. He has awoken to his shame, not a neurotic shame as Adam and Eve’s (where the whole cultural mess started) but to his existential shame of how he failed to honour his ‘naked’ truth, and relate honestly to his beloved.

Now that he has ‘seen’ himself he can awaken to her – if she still wants him to. The closing words are spoken by the wife: “We have one thing more to do – we need to fuck.” This ‘fucking’ is something which is neither naive nor obsessive – it is awoken, intimate, jointly chosen. They have polarised, and now they have grieved – to complete their healing they must unite in the age-old simple way. This is awakened power and sexuality: it creates an alchemy which we call  ‘Potent Intimacy’.

Eyes Wide Shut accurately describes how easily men and women miss each other and drift apart, to polarise as enemies, or settle for a quiet loneliness. It is inevitable, for men and women are different in their centres of charge and in their imaginations. They have entirely different fantasy lives. In her imagination, she harbours a longing for intimacy, which needs to be satisfied before she is ready for sex. He, for his part, needs sex before he is ready for intimacy. He leads, as is were, with his genitals, and she with her heart – a very common inter-sex impasse – see our book Sex, Love and the Dangers of Intimacy. No wonder it is so easy to miss each other!

The eyes are the tools of the heart, and if they are shut the heart will be too. But when through his search the husband awakens to his heart – and the medium is grief, as it always is – and can make it available in the relationship, she opens to him sexually, and the circle can be completed, the medicine wheel has been spun.

Powerful ideas from Eyes Wide Shut

  • In many relationships, the man will think that "things are just fine" when a world of discontent and frustration is opening in the woman.
  • When a man finally notices what is going on in the woman, he may want things to "turn back to normal".
  • Try on that the woman reacts because she is not feeling loved. Try on that you are taking her for granted, you don't see her anymore and that you have become lazy. Try on that it may feel painful to her.
  • A woman needs to feel chosen and seen by a man, not merely taken for granted.
  • Challenges in a relationships are huge growth opportunities, though things will never "go back to normal". This is probably a good thing.

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