“Explanations are bound to fail. Every viewer will be an expert on sexual fantasy and jealousy and will find his or her individual connection to this complicated film — or not, as the case may be. Let it suffice to say that Stanley Kubrick considered Eyes Wide Shut his greatest contribution to the art of the cinema. Let the audience try to tune in to Kubrick’s frequency — it’s worth the trouble. It may take two or three viewings, though.” — Jan Harlan, Executive Producer, Eyes Wide Shut, speaking to Kevin Filipski, The Flip Side
Let the viewings continue. This writer lost track after seven. An opportunity arrives to see Eyes Wide Shut yet again on 35mm this Saturday via Secret Celluloid Society. As Harlan notes in the above quote, there is something so inviting about bringing one’s own interpretation to this movie, yet there’s a fixed mood and atmosphere that people continue to respond to since its initial release in 1999.
About 15 years ago, during my studies for a Master’s in American literature at Florida International University, I took a class with Alfred Lopez, Ph.D. (currently a professor of English at Purdue University). It was a survey class on theoretical approaches to texts. He turned me on to Jacques Lacan, particularly this book. Not many students took to Lacan, but I loved his writings.
When I met film critic Amy Taubin (a self-avowed Freudian), I asked her what she thought of Lacan. She said, “He’s like a sieve.” Though she was writing him off, she also pointed out what I like about his theories. They offer a filter that can be helpful in coming to terms with some of the more cryptic movies one might encounter. I still use him in my reviews (follow my Lacan tag). So when Lopez asked the class to produce a seminar paper using one of the the theories we learned in class, I chose a Lacanian approach. As I was working toward a thesis paper on Stanley Kubrick (read a shortened version here), I decided to examine one Eyes Wide Shut with the theory because it was so fresh and still quite puzzling to me. Below you will find the paper I wrote in 2002. Note: the writing is a bit academic, and I wasn’t reviewing films back when I wrote it. It’s also probably one of the earlier essays on Eyes Wide Shut that employed Lacanian theory. Also pardon the then expected MLA style of two spaces after periods.
A Lacanian Reading of Eyes Wide Shut
At this year’s Miami International Film Festival I had the good fortune to participate as part of an academic panel discussion on the films of Stanley Kubrick. I tackled the subject of Kubrick’s 1999 film, Eyes Wide Shut. I specifically explored the similarities between the film and the novella that inspired Kubrick, Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. I remember making the point that it did not matter that Kubrick up-dated the novella’s setting from turn-of-the-century Vienna to modern-day New York, which became quite a point of contention between myself and film critic Ronald Bergan, who suggested Kubrick should have kept the setting as it was in the book because, in his reasoning, the theme of the film is outdated and does not fit in the modern world of New York. I contend that the issues brought up in Eyes Wide Shut are not dated. In fact, they are timeless, so time, in regards to setting, actually matters little in Eyes Wide Shut. In fact, it would be a distraction from the timeless theme of the film had Kubrick established his film as taking place during a particular era in history. The film actually benefits from not being associated with the contemporary moment. “Novelists and filmmakers set their work in the past when they want to avoid the distracting immediate particulars of their own time and place, when they want to strip their stories down to essences and ultimates. That’s what Kubrick does in Eyes Wide Shut. . .” (Siegel 79).
I will use the theories of noted French psychologist Jacques Lacan* to prove my point that Eyes Wide Shut deals with issues that people involved in romantic relationships will always find curious. In this movie, Kubrick brings up the threat of fantasy to the relationship of a seemingly stable and secure couple. Lacan’s explanations of the real, tuché, trauma, glissement, and their interrelation will prove helpful in pointing out the timeless value of this film (I shall define the concepts as the paper continues). Another Lacanian theory worth exploring is his up-date of Freud’s pleasure principle, which he calls jouissance. Studies in psychology are ever evolving, as they seek the ultimate truth to the inner-workings of the mind. I believe Lacan’s theories, having been developed in the 1960s, speak more to the modern age, while he builds on the “dated” Freudian theories criticized by Bergan.
I believe applying Lacan’s theories would allow the viewer to appreciate the drama in Eyes Wide Shut much more than if the viewer just considered the Freudian elements of the film. But, first, one cannot appreciate the psychology of Eyes Wide Shut without knowing that the author who wrote the novella, which inspired the movie, was a pioneer in psychology. Schnitzler was an Austrian medical doctor who specialized in psychiatry and syphilis before becoming a novelist and playwright (Holman 2). It has been well established that Schnitzler and Freud shared admiration for one another’s work (Holman 2). With his interest in sex, death and consciousness, one could easily imagine Schnitzler as a sort of kindred spirit of Freud’s (Holman 2). In a 1922 letter to Schnitzler, Freud confesses: “Your preoccupation with the truths of the unconscious and of the instinctual drives in man, your dissection of the cultural conventions of our society, the dwelling of your thoughts on the polarity of love and death; all this moves me with an uncanny feeling of familiarity” (Holman 2).
These same topics had also haunted the mind of Kubrick, as they appeared in his films as recurring themes. It comes as no surprise that Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, a novella published in 1926 in the United States as Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, preoccupied Kubrick for decades. Kubrick had considered making a movie based on the novella since the early ’70s (Holman 1). Kubrick had this to say about Schnitzler in a “lost” 1960 interview with Robert Emmett Ginna, which was only recently published in “Entertainment Weekly,” “It’s difficult to find any writer who understood the human soul more truly and who had a more profound insight into the way people think, act and really are, and who also had a somewhat all-seeing point of view — sympathetic, if somewhat cynical.”
Kubrick may as well be referring to himself in the above statement, as his work has revealed a similar mentality behind his creativity. Since the end of the ’60s, incidentally correlating not long after the first public presentation of Lacan’s theories, Kubrick had begun showing Traumnovelle to every writer he worked with (Holman 1). But the director did not realize his vision of the book until he completed his final film: Eyes Wide Shut (Holman 1).
In Eyes Wide Shut, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), like the protagonist in the novella, takes a journey into a world of dreams where two types of psychological illusions collide: paranoid delusion and erotic fantasy. In the film, Bill’s wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), reveals to Bill that she once had a fantasy about having sex with a naval officer, whom she had noticed as she and her husband checked into a hotel, with their daughter in tow, during a recent vacation. She says the urge to have sex with this stranger felt so important she did not care about losing her husband or family if it only meant one night with this man. Up until this revelation, Bill had felt secure in his wife’s devotion to him, simply because, as he states to her before her confession, she is his wife.
Throughout Alice’s description of the fantasy, occurring early in the film in the couple’s bedroom, the camera slowly zooms in toward Bill’s stunned face. Through this cinematic technique, the audience observes the traumatic effect of the confession take hold of Bill’s psyche. In his work, Freud discovered that fantasy had just as strong a traumatic effect as reality (May 108). This is what we are observing in this scene: the moment of trauma before the character begins his attempt to come to terms with this trauma. This scene bears a twisted similarity to the dynamic between patient and analyst in a therapy session. At first, Alice takes the role as blabbering patient, while Bill is the attentive, quite therapist. “Unfortunately the wrong kind of transference occurs. It’s the silent listener-analyst who goes a bit mad” (Gross 22). Combine this with Lacan’s acknowledgement that “what cannot be remembered is repeated in behaviour,” an idea first presented by Freud (129).
It is not that Bill forgets this traumatic moment, but he misplaces it and gets himself stuck in a loop. Throughout the course of the film, the filmmaker edits grainy black and white images of Alice and a naval officer passionately rolling around in bed, in-between shots of Bill angrily slamming his fist into the palm of his hand or running his hands through his hair. The director is leading the audience to believe that the trauma is the fantasy, just as Bill believes he is traumatized by what has happened in the fantasy. This premise can lead critics of Eyes Wide Shut down the wrong path when trying to understand Bill’s actions, which could be seen as a response to Alice’s fantasy. Bob Wake wrote a typically Freudian review of the book that combines the script of Eyes Wide Shut and the novella of Traumnovelle**, which leads to the sort of misguided criticisms by critics like Bergan. “In both [the film and the novella], a wife taunts her husband with a sexually charged memory of her desire for another man. The jealous husband then embarks on a late night smorgasbord of urban erotica in a futile attempt to assuage his hurt pride and to satisfy his own unfulfilled urges” (Wake).
This statement describes Bill’s actions adequately but does not attempt to understand them. To call the “smorgasbord of urban erotica” futile is to misunderstand Bill’s behavior. In fact, Bill’s actions are quite contrary to futile. It is essential for Bill to experience these erotic moments, so he can successfully heal the psychic wound caused by the act of his wife’s confession. It is not the confession that hurts, it is the appearance of the confession in Bill’s seemingly stable life that disturbs him. This is where Lacan’s theories can help the viewer understand Bill better. Lacan’s idea of the real is something that disturbs a person’s conceived perception of life, which is a self-imposed, unconscious illusion that they live their life by. Hence, living with eyes wide shut (22). The real wakes a person up from this waking fantasy-world. Bill’s illusion is that his wife will always be faithful to him, but when she reveals she had a very real inclination to be unfaithful to him, he is traumatized. The entrance of Alice’s fantasy into Bill’s life is the tuché, which Lacan describes as “the encounter with the real” (53). “The function of the tuché, of the real as encounter — the encounter in so far as it may be missed, in so far as it is essentially the missed encounter — first presented itself in the history of psycho-analysis in a form that was in itself already enough to arouse our attention, that of the trauma” (Lacan 55).
What is occurring on the screen is in fact a missed encounter. Bill’s stunned silence during his wife’s confession is difficult for the audience to watch because of his inaction, while the trauma is making its mark. The director makes the audience feel Bill’s pain by letting the camera linger on his frozen hurt. Later, the audience seethes along with Bill through the repeated images of Alice in bed with this stranger. The subtle moment of trauma is lost, while the director cleverly places the emphasis on the dream, which is tearing at Bill’s heart. “This is why, in the misunderstood concept of repetition, I stress the importance of the ever avoided encounter, of the missed opportunity. The function of missing lies at the center of analytic repetition. The appointment is always missed — this is what constitutes . . . the vanity of repetition. . .” (Lacan 128).
Before Bill can confront Alice about the dream, he is interrupted by the ringing of their house phone. Answering the phone, without a word to his wife, he learns he has to make a house call. This presents him with the opportunity to miss the encounter he needed to confront in order to properly allow for the healing of this wound, sending him on a looping journey to dwell on the fantasy while exploring several misguided sexual adventures, which also become a series of missed encounters. This sliding away of the missed encounter and repetition of it is called the glissement (Lacan 129). The glissement is an important element of Eyes Wide Shut, which, thanks to Kubrick’s adept representation of it on the screen, is also often missed by the audience.
Keeping this in mind gives the audience a more sympathetic picture of Bill as he proceeds on his adventures of missed erotic encounters, following the bedroom confession by Alice. “[T]his is a film where each and every climax — literal and figurative, emotional, erotic and dramatic — is missed for one reason or another” (Gross 23). And so a series of events happen that echo the dynamic of the bedroom confession. To best understand the relevance of these events one must keep in mind that Eyes Wide Shut is a film about fantasy, and the most relevance one can glean from following Bill’s series of missed encounters lies in the interpretations of the events as dream sequences. These things happen, to an extent, only in Bill’s head (Gross 22).
It is significant to note that all of these events include women that share similar features to Bill’s wife. They all seem like thin, light-haired Alice-clones. “[It] bespeaks a deep ambivalence about honoring his marriage vows” (Jameson 28). Not only does Bill go after women that look like his wife, but though he often comes near to it, he never consummates anything erotic with them. In fact, before he can carry out anything with these representations of Alice, death in some form or another blocks his path. One of these women confesses her desire for him with the corpse of her dead father lying next to her. Another of these women disappears from the story when she discovers she has AIDS. The last woman he meets actually dies. Through these encounters with his wife’s shadows, Bill vicariously loses Alice. These are representations of tuché taking the form of Bill’s own erotic fantasies. During these moments Bill experiences his ambivalent desire for his wife while simultaneously exacting his revenge on her. This is an illustration of Lacan’s jouissance. Lacan explains the jouissance as going “beyond” Freud’s pleasure principle (184). The difference comes in the sexual connotation found in the original French language that the word comes from. “Jouir is slang for ‘to come.’ ‘Pleasure’ obeys the law of homeostasis that Freud evokes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, whereby, through discharge, the psyche seeks the lowest most possible level of tension. ‘Jouissance’ transgresses this law and, in that respect, it is beyond the pleasure principle” (Lacan 281).
It is during these moments of perceived deaths that Bill experiences the horror of the fulfillment of his wish: that he has lost his wife. As he makes his journey into understanding the loss of his original and unrealistic perception of his wife, revealed to him during her traumatic confession, these “death scenes” become the symbolic embodiment of the change in his perception.
To illustrate this jouissance, let us examine the final and most important death scene of the film. This scene is set up when Bill walks into a cult-like ritual that culminates in an orgy. The orgy scene is enshrouded in mystery: characters are hidden behind masks and black robes. Bill is placed in a confusing environment that he seems to have no control over, and he drifts through it, as if in a dream, occasionally crossing paths with a masked woman who warns him, “You’re in great danger, and you must get away while there is still a chance.” Yet, he stays, despite her repeated warnings.
Eventually, the hosts of the orgy catch on to Bill’s intrusion. After getting cornered by the cult’s leader, Bill is seemingly saved from persecution by the masked woman who announces that she will “redeem him.” The cult releases Bill with a vague threat should he try to probe into what happened at the house. Bill leaves the house, not knowing what the redemption the woman has volunteered for him entails. Bill is left to his own imagination. His fantasies give him inspiration to investigate his suspicion that the woman may have placed herself in great peril for his sake. This leads Bill to a morgue, where he finds the body of the supposed woman who “saved” him the night before. As he stares down at her corpse Bill seems to have an intimate connection with it. He lingers over the body and bends toward its face, very slowly, as if about to give it a tender kiss. And then comes the turning point: that feeling of revulsion that comes in doing something pleasurable that is jouissance. Bending forward, Bill comes within inches to the dead woman’s nose before he begins to pull away, also slowly, but now with disgust. In the end, Bill has “psychically resolved [his trauma] by transferring much of his affection away from the original object (his wife) and onto a string of other figures, one of whom finally ‘pays’ for Harford’s symbolic wound with her life” (Lopez). Here is the symbolic death of Alice, which reawakens Bill’s desire for her because he has not realized that all along he had imagined this faceless woman as having Alice’s face. “He now realized with a shudder, his wife had been incessantly hovering before his eyes as the woman he was seeking” (Schnitzler 271).
Kubrick makes an important digression from the book now. He adds a second scene of transference between Bill and a man called Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack), who ironically is one of Bill’s patients and also knew this woman who supposedly saved Bill. During this scene with Ziegler, Bill’s fantasies are revealed as simply just that: fantasies. “That whole play-acted ‘take me’ phony sacrifice that you’ve been jerking yourself off with had absolutely nothing to do with her real death,” says Ziegler. “She was a junky . . . she OD’d . . . Nobody killed anybody. Someone died. It happens all the time. Life goes on. It always does until it doesn’t.” The sexual reference Ziegler makes to Bill’s fantasy is also a reference to the jouissance that is driving Bill through this fantasy world and actually occurs in the morgue, prior to this confrontation with Ziegler. It allows for Alice’s symbolic death and Bill’s own near-death experience at the mansion, thus Bill’s relationship with Alice is reborn.
Though Bill renews the value of the presence of Alice in his life, the film does not end until Alice once again presents Bill with a renewed perception and leaves him with one final tuché, as far as the audience can see. Wandering though a toy store with their daughter, after Bill confesses to her the series of fantasies he had just experienced, Alice reinforces the power of her confession. After a bumbling back and forth about their future and a consideration by Alice that “maybe” their relationship can survive this, Bill asks, “Are you … sure?” And she replies, “Am I sure? Only as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, can ever be the whole truth.” Bill then responds, “And no dream is ever just a dream.”
As established earlier with the bedroom confession, we can now appreciate the dream as having just as much power as any reality. Thought and fantasy are very real threats to Bill and Alice. After Bill uses the word “forever,” not once but twice, Alice recoils. “Let’s not use that word,” she says. In effect, she does not want to acknowledge their future as a couple. She does not want to accept that their marriage is “forever” because the “future” is also a fantasy: a truth removed from either half of the couple — just another threat of division (Fisher 48). Alice admits the word frightens her. Instead she proposes that they stay in the present, stating, “There is something we need to do as soon as possible.” This does not stay a mystery for long, and she calls it by its plain, direct Anglo-saxon name: “fuck.” It is the embodiment of jouissance. “Who does not know from experience that it is possible not to want to ejaculate? Who does not know from experience knowing the recoil imposed on everyone, in so far as it involves terrible promises, by the approach of jouissance as such? Who does not know that one may not wish to think?” (Lacan 234).
Alice seems to be saying that she and Bill can only, truly be together when they are fucking: intimate, naked and unthinking. Thus, at the end of the film, it is learned that a married couple who remain faithful to each other in body, but not in mind, must come to terms with both psychological illusions of paranoia and fantasy to ensure the security of their relationship. According to Lacan, that desire to persevere stems from the mysteries that the illusions hold (279-280). It is in our interpretation, or perception, of what we see that defines our lives. Fantasy becomes reality and the truth becomes unknowable, something that lies in the unconscious (Lacan 21). This leaves us with consciousness as our perception, while the unknowable and traumatic truth lies in our unconscious.
By not knowing anything, you know the truth hence “eyes wide shut.” Seeing but not seeing — ego-consciousness. That is the solution, and it is a happy ending to the film. We know it is happy in the book with a reference to a “child’s gay laughter” and a “triumphant sunbeam” (Schnitzler 281). The movie makes a reference to the child’s laughter of the book by placing the couple in a toy store, which is filled with laughing children as background noise to this exchange between Bill and Alice. In the end, Kubrick aims to show us that there is a transformation toward greater awareness in the relationship between Bill and Alice. It seems superficial fucking will protect them from their dreams. Alice seems to say that they should not meditate on paranoia and fantasy and just be together. This revelation only arises with the awareness of the power of the dream.
So long as individual minds wander in the world of sexual fantasy, you will have the kind of conflict that so disturbs the life of the central husband and wife characters in Eyes Wide Shut. So long as people struggle to maintain relationships in the face of conflicts caused by things as seemingly trivial as fantasy, you will have psychologists who will try to make sense of this. The search for understanding the psychology of couples and people in general is an ever-evolving science. There will always be new thinkers who will develop new theories based on old ones in order to find the truth behind the mysteries of the mind. Like Lacan, they will always turn to the father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, to find a start to their new ideas.
Maybe, one day, the theories of Lacan will become dated, as we come closer to understanding the truth of the human psyche. But we will never outgrow emotions, and as long as they have an effect on relationships, they will be a concern. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a sensitive and realistic portrayal of the emotions that threaten as well as bind a couple’s commitment to one another, and, until new theories come by, Lacan’s theories prove profoundly helpful in understanding the actions of the couple in the film.
Eyes Wide Shut will screen on 35mm at O Cinema Miami Beach on Dec. 17 as part of Secret Celluloid Society’s on-going late night weekend screening series (Secret Celluloid Society’s Nayib Estefan talks making 35mm experiences and reveals Aug. and Sept. lineup — An IndieEthos Exclusive).
*See Lacan: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.
**See Wake: Review of Eyes Wide Shut/Dream Story (Traumnovelle) on Culturevulture.net.
Bergan, Ronald. Commentary on reading of “Eyes Wide Shut: Schnitzler’s Novel and Kubrick’s Film” by Hans Morgenstern. Palms Hotel, 3025 Collins Ave., Miami 29 Jan. 2002.
Fisher, Dr. Bruce. Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends. 2nd Ed. San Luis Obispo: Impact Publishers. 1996.
Ginna, Robert Emmett. “The Odyssey.” Entertainment Weekly Online 6 April 1999. 2 Feb. 2002 <http://www.ew.com/ew/archive/0,1798,1|25529|0|THE%2bODYSSEY,00.html> reprinted <http://www.archiviokubrick.it/english/words/interviews/1960ginna.html>.
Gross, Larry. “Too Late the Hero.” Sight and Sound. Sept. 1999: 20-23.
Holman, Curt. “Dr. Strange Love.” Salon.com. 15 July 1999: 2 pp. 2 Feb. 2002. <http://www.salon.com/books/feature/1999/07/15/schnitzler/index.html>.
Jameson, Richard T. “Ghost Sonata.” Film Comment. Sept./Oct. 1999: 27-28.
Kubrick, Stanley, dir. Eyes Wide Shut. Perf. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. 1999. DVD. Warner Bros., 2000.
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: W.W. Noron & Co. 1998.
Lopez, Al. “RE: RE: paper description & grading rubric.” E-mail to the author. 4 Feb.
May, Robert. Sex and Fantasy: Patterns of Male and Female Development. 1st Ed. New York : Norton, c1980.
Schnitzler, Arthur. Dream Story. Trans. J.M.Q. Davies. Eyes Wide Shut/Dream Story (Traumnovelle) by Kubrick, Stanley and Frederic Raphael, Arthur Schnitzler. New York: Warner Books, 1999.
Siegel, Lee. “Eyes Wide Shut: What the critics failed to see in Kubrick’s last film.” Harper’s Magazine. Oct. 1999: 76-82.
Wake, Bob. Rev. of Eyes Wide Shut/Dream Story (Traumnovelle) by Kubrick, Stanley and Frederic Raphael, Arthur Schnitzler. Culturevulture.net. 4 Feb. 2002. <http://www.culturevulture.net/Books/EyesWide.htm>.
Cohen, David. “Film Review: Psychology and Film: Eyes Wide Shut.” CG Jung Page. 4 Feb. 2002. <http://www.cgjungpage.org/films/ews.html [dead link]>.
Gediman, Helen K. Fantasies of Love and Death in Life and Art : A Psychoanalytic Study of the Normal and the Pathological. New York: New York University Press, 1995.
Halligan, Fredrica R. and John J. Shea. The Fires of Desire : Erotic Energies and the Spiritual Quest. New York : Crossroad, 1992.
- “Les couloirs du merveilleux: The femme-enfant, the doll-fetish, the mask, Alice in a wonderland of de Sade.” The Corridors of Roissy … the Gardens of Samois…. 20 Feb. 2002. reprinted as <http://www.storyofo.info/marvelous.html>.