Describing what Eyes Wide Shut has meant to me throughout the years is challenging. Stanley Kubrick’s deeply mysterious melodrama is perhaps the most potent occult spell ever released in cinemas, gaining power with each passing day. On a personal level, it has profoundly changed my life.
The first time I saw it was on a bootleg — an unauthorized, censored version by Kubrick, with digital effects of caped figures covering the sex scenes. Combined with low-resolution quality on VHS, I found it intriguing but didn’t give it much thought initially. Yet, it lingered in my mind, and years later, I watched it again on a proper tape or DVD, feeling a stronger connection. I started to see something more. You see, Kubrick’s work had always left me somewhat cold, and to a certain degree, it still does. He often maintains a considerable distance from his characters. However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate his absurd perfectionism, which is unusual for someone like me who appreciates films with more evident imperfections.
It wasn’t until I saw the remarkable documentary Room 237 that I fully grasped how The Shining resonated with far more people than I could ever imagine. Hearing passionate speakers discuss the film made me love it even more. The participants in Room 237 found their own magic within Kubrick’s only horror movie, and even his assistant, the recently departed Leon Vitali, claimed that whatever was said about The Shining held no truth. I’m fairly certain he’s wrong, even if he’s also correct. Once a film is released to audiences, it ceases to be an exclusively subjective form of art. On a philosophical level, it no longer belongs solely to the creator; instead, it begins to live its own life.
For me, Eyes Wide Shut triggers memories of my childhood and youth. I grew up within a deeply religious community, surrounded by various church interiors, old and new, and a plethora of spiritual symbolism. (Much later, I was a member of the Templars of Honor and Temperance, a secret brotherhood with all the expected esoteric rituals. However, I haven’t been involved for at least 20 years, primarily due to my disagreement with their aggressive stance against drugs.) One vivid memory from when my mother became a Christian was a rapture-themed painting on the wall of the place where ex-alcoholics gathered and praised the so-called Lord. It depicted people in white clothes peacefully ascending to heaven, with traditional Jesus rays breaking through the clouds. A silent world remained below, with abandoned cars by the road, empty houses, and an abundance of green, beautiful nature. Even then, I felt a desire to remain on earth rather than venture to a tiresome heaven. The idea of having an entire world to oneself — an incredible opportunity to pursue personal desires without external judgments — captivated me.
While I never truly connected with the mythological figure in the sky, the symbolism and art associated with it always fascinated me, and that fascination has endured. From ancient occult symbols to stone faces frozen in tomb-like churches, Eyes Wide Shut is no exception. Rarely have I encountered such a meticulously crafted film. Even seemingly cheesy sequences, like Tom Cruise’s back-projected New York street walk, become dreamy reminders that our perceived reality may not be what it seems. The film is replete with esoteric symbols and themes, and there is no doubt that Kubrick toys with concepts such as the Illuminati, conspiracies, secret societies, and the nature of reality.
Eyes Wide Shut is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, Traumnovelle, which closely aligns with Kubrick’s vision. One notable difference lies in the character of Ziegler, played by Sydney Pollack in the film. Ziegler, meaning “bricklayer” derived from the word “Ziegel,” essentially implies a Freemason (or, if you want to explore more conspiratorial routes, perhaps it’s derived from the German word “Ziege,” meaning goat). I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. Kubrick undoubtedly embedded underlying themes in his interpretation; he was too astute not to. Yet, this is also the juncture where conspiracy theorists and skeptics diverge in their extremes, each trying to discredit the other.
As a storyteller myself, my affinity for the extraordinary doesn’t imply blind belief. The Illuminati, secret orders, and conspiracy themes in Eyes Wide Shut serve as storytelling devices, and excellent ones at that. Kubrick skillfully weaves them into the narrative, leaving a lasting impression without making them the central focus. In the words of Hitchcock, during a lecture at Columbia University in 1939, he said, “It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’ The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”
According to my interpretation, Eyes Wide Shut employs the MacGuffin to tell a story about the creation of an open relationship.
The main characters, Bill and Alice, are portrayed by the real-life couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Some argue that Kubrick specifically chose them to deliberately break them up (originally desiring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, who were also married at the time) or, at the very least, to toy with Cruise. Kubrick teasingly claimed he could make Cruise a big star with this film. I wonder what Cruise thought upon hearing those words from the esteemed director, even if it was meant in jest. Was Kubrick’s intention to set Tom and Nicole free, whether through their breakup or by loosening the constraints of their relationship? The key to the entire movie lies in the final scene, specifically in the last word uttered by Kidman’s character, Alice.
“I do love you, and you know there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible.”
In my eyes, it’s more complex than it initially appears; “fuck” is the key to everything. fuck. It’s actually one of my favorite words. It encapsulates a multitude of emotions — love, sex, hate, happiness, disappointment, elegance, and primitivism. It’s concise, memorable, and visually appealing. When I hear it, a spectrum of experiences floods my mind. It embodies so much within a single word.
I vividly recall the moment this realization struck me, leaving me at a loss for words. Eyes Wide Shut had spoken to me on a profoundly personal level — directly to me. Not through voices or anything supernatural, but through the meticulous fusion of every detail, akin to unlocking the Lament Configuration from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. However, this experience was far more pleasant and lacked the piercing hooks. It served as confirmation on how to live my life — or rather, our life.
Bill and Alice may appear happy, at least superficially. They have a beautiful child, good jobs (Bill is an upper-class doctor in New York), and financial stability. Depending on one’s perspective and outlook on life, they could be considered attractive with a promising future. However, an underlying desire to engage with others sexually plagues them. The old adage “the grass is always greener on the other side” holds true. They begin taking risks. Alice confesses her strong fantasies about a sailor, to the extent that she was willing to leave Bill and their daughter, sacrificing everything for a single night with this alluring young man. At the start of the film, she also comes dangerously close to being seduced by an exotic and experienced Hungarian businessman reminiscent of George Hamilton. Bill, too, is tempted. Had he not received an urgent client message, he likely would have indulged in a threesome with two young models or, out of desperation, engaged a prostitute who is later revealed to carry the HIV virus.
When Alice confronts Bill about what transpired with the models, she gradually reveals her own mental escapades involving the sailor. The revelations escalate, and Bill grows increasingly desperate. He follows his friend Nick Nightingale to a mysterious party, an enchanting sequence that ranks among the most mesmerizing ever filmed. Bill cannot let it go; he needs to know what truly happened. Alice discovers he had embarked on some kind of adventure, and he breaks down, crying in her arms.
These are two individuals plagued by misfortune, yet still possessing the means and ability to engage in sexual relations with each other. What burdens them is the desire for others. The only obstacle preventing their infidelity is the guilt imposed by society. Interestingly, when Alice shares her sailor story, she also admits that it deepened her love for Bill and their daughter. This suggests that sex can be separate from love — that there’s room for both pleasure and emotional connection — and it brings them closer together.
Desperation permeates the atmosphere. Bill yearns for revenge sex and attempts to contact a client played by Swedish actress Marie Richardson. However, the plan is thwarted when her boyfriend answers the phone, reminding Bill of how close he is to jeopardizing everything. He also flirts with the prostitute’s friend, unaware of her HIV status, inadvertently appearing desperate and pitiful.
All these risks would be inconsequential if they chose to reject guilt, jealousy, possessiveness, and ownership. It becomes evident while watching the film that love (between the dramatic moments, Bill and Alice display gentleness and affection) and sex (basic, carnal, primitive, and yet playful) can exist as separate entities while coexisting harmoniously.
Cautions exist, of course. As Anton LaVey once wrote, indulgence is distinct from compulsion. The mansion’s inhabitants grapple with compulsion — a secret society compelled to engage in sexual encounters due to their inability to find satisfaction elsewhere. They conduct their affairs in secrecy, ashamed of their desires. Their actions revolve around the act itself rather than genuine carnal lust. It plays out in the context of a classic melodrama, though Kubrick injects a sense of humor with the stereotypical backward talking/singing during the primary initiation scene that launches the orgy. Jocelyn Pook’s music is truly breathtaking and fits seamlessly. It feels as though Kubrick choreographed the mansion scenes after hearing the music.
Essentially, the secret society symbolizes Bill’s deep, secret fantasies, trapping him in an endless cycle of feverish paranoia and secrecy — confined behind locked doors and fences, threatened by hidden faces. For Alice, it’s the sailor — an intense erotic fantasy that may or may not be real. The photo models, the charming Hungarian businessman, the prostitute, the sailor, the secret society, and others all exist to test Bill and Alice. Enduring these trials helps them understand each other better, forming a bond based on shared experiences that will guide them through the rest of their lives.
When Alice discovers Bill’s mask, she shows it to him, placing it on his side of the bed to dispel any shame. They need to trust their instincts, just as she did, even though she didn’t act on her desires entirely. The key is to understand that when Alice mentions “fucking,” it isn’t solely about engaging in sexual acts with each other; it’s about navigating life in general. As long as they have each other to return to, as long as they remain emotionally faithful, they can find fulfillment. That’s the message I gleaned from the strong visuals, the dialogues (often echoing Arthur Schnitzler’s original novella), and the underlying themes. Some may argue that I see what I want to see, but that’s the beauty of it — I am creating my own reality, the reality I desire.
Eyes Wide Shut is not merely the greatest love story ever told; it is a testament to the strength of individualism and the act of bestowing love upon those who truly deserve it. And fucking your brains out.
Fred Andersson is a Swedish story producer, researcher and writer with over twenty years of experience in commercial television and the author of Northern Lights: High Strangeness in Sweden, out now from Beyond the Fray Publishing. He lives in Märsta, outside Stockholm, with his photographer husband Grzegorz and two overly active cats. Join him on Twitter and Instagram.