By Laurent Vachaud (Translation by Debra Gray & Jasun Horsley)
Almost twenty years after its release, there is still ongoing discussion about what the thirteenth and last film by Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut, is really about.
Like the novella by Arthur Schnitzler that inspired it (Traumnovelle), the film describes the nocturnal odyssey of a New York doctor (Bill Harford, played by Tom Cruise) who ready to do anything to regain his lost capacity for desire. What sparks his quest is the confession of his wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), under the influence of drugs, of her fleeting, overwhelming attraction for a complete stranger she encountered in a hotel lobby. At this basic level, the movie is perfectly understandable, even if, on its release, some critics were unconvinced, even disconcerted, by such a simple narrative line. Some saw the characters as obsolete: could a western man at the dawn of the 21st century be made passionately jealous by his wife’s mere desire for another man. They puzzled at scenes that seemed indistinguishable from dreams (the famous ritualized orgy at the Somerton chateau), and at a happy ending which seemed to indicate a previously unseen degree of compassion on the part of “the master” for his characters.
Even if Eyes Wide Shut had given me a great aesthetic and emotional experience, I personally had trouble placing it in the same class as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, or Full Metal Jacket. This was precisely because I felt I couldn’t connect to it intimately. Worse, I didn’t find in it what I normally loved in Kubrick’s films—the derailing mechanics, the split personality, the conditioning of beings by violence, the pessimism of the vision. Everything in the film seemed soft, shy, and repressed, like the exasperating character of Bill Harford, a real “man without qualities.”
Despite my resistance, I re-watched the film repeatedly, in small sections or in its entirety, in the hope of better understanding what had escaped me. But the more I watched it, the more its enigmas multiplied.
Why did the actors say their lines so slowly, as if under hypnosis? What was the secret society Bill Harford stumbled into in Somerton, and what was the ritual he attended? What was the purpose of the Harfords’ little girl, who could so easily have been left out of the film? Was Alice only a frustrated wife who used erotic reveries as an escape, or did she hide a darker secret? Why was the action picked up again at the end during the Christmas holidays? Finally and more importantly, why was Kubrick so passionate, for such a long time (thirty years), about this little story of conjugal jealousy in which nothing much happens? Was there something more complex hidden in the film?
As I watched, I realized that Eyes Wide Shut had the most complex and coherent visual tapestry in Kubrick’s entire filmography. Complex, because every decoration was full of signs, graffiti, colors, and symbols that could mean anything, everything, or nothing at all. Coherent, because of a shape that stood out from the others in almost all the scenes, that of the triangle. There was nothing surprising in this: the triangle is a classic geometric figure found in many films. Except that it is not about any triangle in Eyes Wide Shut, and its detection gave me my first hint of understanding the film. Remember the famous opening: at the sound of a Shostakovich waltz, Alice lets her dress fall to the floor to appear in all the splendour of her nakedness. Again, perhaps there’s nothing extraordinary about this. The whole thing lasts only a few seconds; and yet, the modus operandi of the film has just been exposed: to draw the spectator’s gaze to the apparent subject (eroticism), only to better conceal the real subject, even while keeping clearly visible. And what is this element hidden in plain sight? Let’s examine the twin columns, presented in a symmetrical manner to the right and left of the stage. They irresistibly evoke the pillars of a temple. Now let’s take a look at the red curtains around the window with lowered blinds just in front of Alice. Their arrangement draws the recognizable figure of a pyramid, which, framed by its columns, refers to Masonic iconography, the emblem of the “New World Order” (Novus Ordo Seclorum) and the mythical “Illuminati” as popularized by the novels of authors such as Robert Anton Wilson and Dan Brown. (Let us not forget that Kubrick was himself interested in esotericism and conspiracy theory, and that he once sought to adapt Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Brown’s inspiration for his best sellers The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons).
The Harfords’ bedroom, therefore, evokes a Masonic temple, a place haunted by an invisible and omniscient higher order, to which Alice is irremediably linked. Even the title of the movie, Eyes Wide Shut, which appears just after this first scene, sounds like a director’s warning: “Do you think you’ve seen something? You’ve seen nothing. You think you’ll see an erotic film with Nicole Kidman? I will show you a woman manipulated by a secret society at subconscious level, without the knowledge of her husband.” Because Alice has already undressed many times under the influence of this power, like other women we meet later in the film.
Seen in this light, Eyes Wide Shut seemed to me to be more in sync with other films Kubrick that tell the story of people who only believe themselves to be masters of their fate, when in reality they are being manipulated by higher powers, powers which empty them little by little of their humanity. The most striking example is, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the Order is of a divine or extraterrestrial nature, represented in the form of a black monolith which Kubrick films as a broken pyramid, overshadowed by the omniscient sun (in one of the most famous shots of the film). The pyramid and the eye are also found on the poster for A Clockwork Orange, whose protagonist, Alex, is also a puppet in the hands of the elite. In The Shining, it is Jack Torrance who is under the influence of demonic forces at the Overlook, an institution with a convent roof at its base, situated at the foot of a pyramidal mountain, surrounded by triangular firs.
Redmond, the hero of Barry Lyndon, thinks himself master of his destiny while his fate is already known to an omniscient narrator, who makes him appear from then on as a toy of Providence. The American poster even put forward a triangular figure, the ace of spades—a symbol of both Barry the player’s profession and his misfortune. Finally, to complete the loop, the entire action of Barry Lyndon takes place in the eighteenth century, which saw the birth of the famous Illuminati of Bavaria, officially dissolved in 1785 but suspected to have survived as the Illuminati, a secret society pursuing a plan of world domination and very similar to the Higher Order in Eyes Wide Shut. Even if Kubrick never officially names the sect to which Victor Ziegler belongs (the existence of the Illuminati having never been proven), he makes it an amalgamation of the occult societies, associating with it symbols of the Freemasons, Luciferians, and even Scientologists.
The presence of the Order is made noticeable in the film not only by the pyramid shape but also by multiple lights (again, in reference to “Illuminati”?) and invading colors: walls of lighted garlands at Ziegler’s; satanic pentacles in the ballroom; many triangular Christmas trees that seem to watch Bill Harford, like sentinels (or the monolith of 2001), throughout his nocturnal odyssey; “carrier of light” statues in Somerton; red hangings at the homes of Ziegler and Millich and in the entrance to Somerton and on Domino’s door, all evoking the “Red Shield,” the origin of the surname “Rothschild,” a family long associated with the World Bank Illuminati plan. (Coincidentally, the castle where Kubrick filmed the orgy scene is none other than Mentmore Towers, a home belonging to the Rothschild family). These visual associations make all the more sense when we remember that, for Kubrick, the higher powers have always been associated with light: Danny’s second sight is called The Shining, to say nothing of the lighting of the war room and Dr. Strangelove’s nuclear explosions, the spatio-temporal corridors of 2001, or the beam of the projector in A Clockwork Orange.
These lights and colors also create in Eyes Wide Shut a trance-like sensation of dizziness, reinforced by the particular diction of certain characters who express themselves as if in a daze. This is particularly clear in Alice’s two big scenes—when she dances with Szavost, and when she argues with her husband under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. Her manner of speaking changes dramatically and a second personality seems literally to appear. This, for me, was the second key to reading the film.
Kubrick has always had a pronounced interest in altered states of consciousness and multiple personalities. Whether it’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Bowman near the end of 2001, the marines in Full Metal Jacket or Jack and Danny in The Shining, many of his characters experience a metamorphosis following trauma or brainwashing. Furthermore, the famous Ludovico treatment in A Clockwork Orange was similar to many mental programming techniques tested by the CIA in the 60s, the MKULTRA and the MONARCH programs. Inherited by the Nazis, for whom Kubrick has never hidden his morbid fascination, MONARCH and MKULTRA are at the heart of Eyes Wide Shut. Before explaining how, a little historical reminder is needed.
At the end of the Second World War, some Nazi scientists were clandestinely brought back to America to continue their research on personality breaking points, but this time on behalf of the CIA. Test subjects from psychiatric asylums were delivered to them and the whole secret operation was called PAPERCLIP (Martin Scorsese refers to it, through the character of Max Von Sydow, in Shutter Island). During the sixties and seventies, the MKULTRA experimental subjects became soldiers and even civilians, who were drugged and traumatized with the aim of creating multiple personalities, each activated by a password. The object was to make programmed “Manchurian Candidate” killers or sex slaves for the elite. A former test subject named Cathy O’Brien claimed to be one of the many survivors of the MONARCH project in her book Trance Formation of America, published in 1995. Haunted by disturbing dreams and personality disorders, she claimed to have relived under hypnosis the sexual abuse inflicted by her own father, who was linked to the CIA and himself an abused child. Recollections of her and her daughter delivered to Satanist and pedophile networks were also highlighted, still under hypnosis, albeit without any proof having been established (the MKULTRA archives were destroyed by a CIA manager, Richard Helms, in 1973). O’Brien claimed to have served as a “presidential model,” i.e., a programmed sex slave, for the use of former Presidents George Bush, Sr. and Ronald Reagan.
We can think what we want of O’Brien’s testimony, but it seems unlikely Kubrick wouldn’t be interested in such material, especially since O’Brien’s book, self-published the year he started working on the storyline of Eyes Wide Shut, describes with great precision her reactions to a MONARCH-type inducement of trauma. Via this method, usually inactive areas of the brain are stimulated, giving the test subject increased sensory perceptions. This idea is echoed in 2001, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. And what did Dr. Strangelove depict if not the collaboration of a former Nazi with the American government? Strangelove’s final speech even explained how an assembly of women recruited from the finest specimens would be made available to elites after the apocalypse to perpetuate the human race. This speech seems to directly announce the “presidential models” of Somerton.
Alice’s strange dreams and altered states resemble a perfect Monarch victim. It is just as if Kubrick took Schniztler’s novel Traumnovelle and changed it gradually to “Trauma-Novelle,” sneaking in the theme of mind control so dear to him. In this way, everything that happens within Schnitzler’s dream in the movie becomes the fragmented memories of an alter ego. This idea is especially clear in a scene where Bill returns home to find his wife waking from a dream, similar in many ways to his own evening in Somerton. In Kubrick’s version, it is not so much a case of coincidence or “synchronicity” between Bill’s experience and Alice’s “dream,” as of a young woman who served as a brainwashed sex slave during the ritual that Bill surprised at the castle. Alice’s mind then repressed the traumatic memory so she could continue to function freely, in a reflex psychiatrists describe as a fugue state. Thus, each of the traumas suffered corresponds to a fugue state or different personality, stored in her body and brain.
Throughout Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick also ceaselessly forges links between Alice and the girls of the orgy. The black dress that falls in the foreground announces the fall of the capes of the slaves of Somerton. Alice’s omniscience afterwards (she seems to “see” the girl with bare breasts that her husband examines in her office, and to sense the danger he is in with Domino) represents an extraordinary acuity of her brain, similar to the one described by Cathy O’Brien and also found in “The mysterious young woman” who recognizes Bill at the orgy despite his mask. Finally, at Ziegler’s party, Alice flees Nightingale (Todd Field) because she unconsciously recognizes the man playing the piano in Somerton. Kubrick even suggests Alice’s dissociation by showing it reflected in mirrors whenever one of her alter-personalities enters the scene.
From there, it’s as if a part of Eyes Wide Shut unfolds in Alice’s fragmented psyche. All the other women encountered by Bill during his nocturnal wandering become the many multiple personalities of his wife, as created by MONARCH. Marion (Marie Richardson) refers to an Alice weakened by the death of her father. An additional connection between the two women is the wallpaper of the mortuary chamber, adorned with lily flowers from the Harford landing. Marion also wears a necklace foreshadowing that of the “mysterious young woman” of Somerton, another avatar of Alice. Later, when Bill goes to Domino (Vinessa Shaw), he confronts the student prostituting herself to make ends meet. Domino’s purple vest is also the same color as Alice’s sheets, and adorned with a Masonic compass, a sign of her control by the “Order.” On the walls of Domino’s room, masks again announce Somerton’s universe. At Millich’s home, where Bill buys his costume for the evening, we discover another Alice alter ego: the child abused and prostituted by her father.
In her testimony, Cathy O’Brien insisted that the MONARCH victims were generally all abused by their parents (usually the father), themselves former victims under control, to form entire lineages of human robots. The name of Millich’s costume shop, “Rainbow,” is far from innocent, echoing as it does the mysterious phrase of the two models who pounce on Bill at Ziegler’s party: “Do you want to go where the rainbow ends?” More than likely this is a reference to the Somerton ritual, but it is also an obvious nod to The Wizard of Oz, a film based on a book by L. Frank Baum. Like Eyes Wide Shut, The Wizard of Oz can be read on at least two levels: as a story for children, and as an adult story replete with occult resonances. Baum was an active follower of Theosophy, an esoteric doctrine based on the teachings of Helena Blavatsky (the Harfords’ daughter is called Helena). Theosophy sought to extract the common roots of all religions in order to form a universal doctrine capable of leading man to knowledge of the Divine. Did Kubrick, like Baum, seek to create his esoteric manifesto through Eyes Wide Shut, or to reveal his allegiance to a secret society? On the contrary, in my opinion he sought to denounce the influence of the occult on women, and especially on children.
Ever since Lolita, in which Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) supplied a pedophile network with fresh meat, the theme of childhood abuse has always been at the heart of Kubrick’s work. In A Clockwork Orange, the teenager Alex is sexually molested by his teacher on his bed before suffering terrible mental torture that deprives him of his free will. Barry Lyndon’s Lord Bullingdon receives severe corrections from his father-in-law, and The Shining shows a child abused by his alcoholic father. Likewise, Full Metal Jacket portrays young men subjected to shock treatment worthy of the Clockwork Orange program. The Vietnamese prostitutes and the young sniper of Full Metal Jacket are often minors, also conditioned for a very specific purpose. And then we have AI: Artificial Intelligence, the project Kubrick would have shot after Eyes Wide Shut that Spielberg finally filmed? Kubrick’s idea of a synthetic child and its association with an android prostitute (“Gigolo Joe”) clearly suggests what use Kubrick imagined for “Supertoys,” the child-robots of the future. Spielberg significantly reduced this aspect in his treatment of the story, converting it into a fairy tale updating of Pinocchio. But what was Collodi’s “Island of Pleasure” if not an allegory of a pedophile dream par excellence?
In Eyes Wide Shut, abused childhood is everywhere. We see it at Millich’s—he prostitutes his own daughter—but also in the heart of the Harford home, in an even more pernicious way. When Bill returns home at the end of the film, he finds the mask he wore to Somerton on Alice’s pillow. Is it his wife who found it, as in Schnitzller’s novel? Or was it left on the pillow as a warning? Kubrick does not say, but this is our last hypothesis. Echoing the warning message that Bill had already received from the hands of a dismal old man when he returned to Somerton, the mask, placed on the pillow by the Illuminati, sounds a new warning, saying, “We have access to your wife but also to your daughter.”
If Alice is shown pampering herself to become a perfect object of desire, it’s clear she reserves the same fate for her daughter, whom she coifs like a little doll. Is she preparing her to become the ideal MONARCH slave, true to the tradition of abused parents and children? Watch the little girl in her first scene: sitting on the couch next to her babysitter, she is wearing butterfly wings. MONARCH owes its name to a variety of butterfly, the Monarch Milkweed, because its test subjects all felt a sense of flutter after each session of electro-shock. Then at the end of the film, Helena wanders into a toy store where a game with a red logo, “Magic Circle,” is clearly visible. This echoes the Somerton ritual that the little girl will be called to one day. The viewer then sees a mass of teddy bears, which in some circles are a symbol of child abuse, as well as reminiscent of a bear from The Shining (a scene cut from its European screening) in which Wendy tells the doctor about Danny’s mistreatment by his father. Finally, when Helena finds the toy of her dreams in the store, it is a Barbie doll adorned with butterfly wings. When she proudly brandishes the doll in front of her parents, it evokes not only the concubines of Somerton, but also the child’s own future. The loop is complete: the caterpillar will become a butterfly one day.
All of these observations could be smoky delusions, admittedly. Perhaps they are similar in kind to those offered by Rodney Ascher’s entertaining Room 237 documentary, in which one wild theory about The Shining’s true occult meaning follows another. Surely we need at least one breathtaking detail to confirm our thesis? As it happens, there is one to be found, not in Eyes Wide Shut but in The Shining. When the Torrance family arrives at the Overlook Hotel, Danny meets the ghosts of the previous caretaker’s twin daughters, in the playroom. The fact Kubrick chose to make these two girls twins (unlike in the source novel) is a clear allusion to the theme of multiple personalities created by trauma in children. At least, this is strongly suggested by the words of an advertising poster seen behind the girls on their very first appearance. The poster is for a ski resort and bears the name of MONARCH. When we factor in the attention Kubrick famously paid to every detail in his films, is it sensible to dismiss this as mere coincidence? Or is it there, like the masonic pyramid of Eyes Wide Shut, to designate the real subject of the film?
Why was Kubrick so obsessed with traumatized children and mental and physical torture? Had he experienced it himself? This is a question that nobody can answer. On the other hand, Eyes Wide Shut seems to deliver another coded message, just as intimate. In the critical scene that kick starts the film’s action, Alice tells her husband how, during a vacation in Cape Cod, she met a naval officer who seduced her with a single glance. If he had ordered it, she says, she would have abandoned everything—Bill, Helena, all her “miserable life”— to follow him. Through recounting this memory, Alice describes the absolute dependency that connects her to her “handler” or “watcher,” namely, the man who programmed her, who by a word, or even a look, can cut her off from those she loves forever (this is known as “disconnection”). As for the naval officer’s uniform worn by Alice’s “handler,” a man in a uniform may seem like a common enough fantasy for women, but it also serves as a thinly veiled allusion to the Church of Scientology, whose founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a naval officer, and whose most senior executives belonged to a network named Sea Org (whose members wear uniforms). In addition, the fact the star of Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise, is one of the most famous members of this sect sheds further light on the film, because the actor and the character are combined in one and the same manipulated victim. Ziegler’s secretary in the film is also performed by Michael Doven, a notorious Scientologist who was the Cruise’s “handler” and who features in the credits of all his films. Cruise himself never concealed his relationship with an abusive father who beat him up. Kubrick could hardly be unaware of these details.
Finally, the filmmaker had a personal reason to signal Scientology as one of the corrupting powers of the Harfords’ world. His daughter Vivian, who made the documentary about the making of The Shining and who composed the music for Full Metal Jacket (under the pseudonym Abigail Mead), joined the sect in Los Angeles shortly before the start of the filming Eyes Wide Shut. This information was only revealed by the family, sometime after Kubrick’s death. According to his wife Christiane, Kubrick was devastated by his daughter’s leaving, and implored her desperately to return. When he died, Vivian attended his funeral in England, escorted by a “handler,” after which she left again, never to return (not even after the death of her sister, Anya). Today, Vivian is a follower who has succeeded in “disconnecting” from the Kubrick family. Her entourage has not heard from her for more than ten years.
In one of the last scenes of Eyes Wide Shut, Bill Harford enters a café which is playing the tragic notes of Mozart’s Requiem (Mozart was himself a Freemason). Opening his journal, he discovers an article about the death of a young woman, a former beauty queen. From all of these details, it becomes hard not to see Eyes Wide Shut as a father’s requiem for his lost daughter.