Eyes Wide Shut, Explained

The first thing we get in Eyes Wide Shut, out of the blue, is nudity:

Hardly an erotic shot. You need to build up to erotic nudity, just as you need to build up to orgasm—dropping it out of nowhere is more surprising than titillating. Kubrick is telling us that for this couple, Bill and Alice Harford, far from being hidden or shameful, nudity is a mere fact of life. This is compounded by further scenes where Bill clinically observes beautiful naked women without so much as batting an eye at their nakedness.

Here’s our first connection to the story of Adam and Eve—before they eat the fruit, Adam and Eve “were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Kubrick drops this on the audience in part to chide them for their horniness; here is a bunch of nudity, he says, if that’s what you wanted. But he knows it will be impossible to partake in the nudity given the surrounding. A girl unconscious from a drug overdose? A hospital patient? A woman sitting on the toilet preparing for a party? Kubrick totally desensitizes us to nudity, putting us in the mind of our modern-day Adam and Eve.  

So if Bill and Alice are Adam and Eve, a carefree bourgeois couple with no shame or real knowledge about the world, what is Eden? Well, God plants Eden “in the east.” What is the easternmost metropolis in America? New York. Here is our modern-day Eden to house our modern-day Adam and Eve, a wonderful land where all is provided to them. Eden is famously filled with plentiful fruit-bearing trees that are “pleasing to the eye.” Kubrick’s forest is populated by a different kind of tree, also pleasing to the eye:

Note the religious association: the Christmas lights on these trees mark them as “trees of God.” Despite all its darkness, the New York of Eyes Wide Shut is a holy forest. Wherever there is a Christmas tree, God is watching.

In Eyes Wide Shut, little serpents appear before the big one rears his head. At the party Bill and Alice attend, Alice is tempted by an elderly Hungarian man, and Bill is tempted by two young women who offer to take him “where the rainbow ends.” The rainbow combines the colors of the Christmas lights, representing God’s watchful eyes. Thus, going where the rainbow ends means straying away from God. (At this party, we do meet Nick Nightingale, our main Serpent, but he does not play a big role yet.) We also meet God at this party—fittingly, the host—a man named Victor Ziegler. He calls Bill up to help him with the overdosed woman, and we immediately get a sense of how powerful he is, how subservient Bill is to him.

Back at home, a strange sex scene plays out. Chris Isaak’s absurdly carnal voice accompanies the image of Alice staring at herself in the mirror with bemusement as Bill makes ardent love to her.

This was also featured on the film’s poster, so we know it warrants some attention. The obvious difference between the two: Bill’s eyes are shut, Alice’s are wide open. Sound familiar? “God knows that when you eat from [the fruit],” the serpent tells Eve, “your eyes will be opened.” So at this point on the film, Alice’s eyes are opening. She begins to regard her own naked body. As in the biblical tale, the woman is the first to be tempted.

We then get the infamous weed-induced argument between the two, a scene which infuriated many by halting the steamy sex for a seemingly endless session of pontification, acted in the strange, stilted style so unique to this film. At first, Alice seems jealous of Bill, but the conversation soon turns to Alice’s fantasies, and here we get a very important point in the film—Eve tempting Adam. Why would Alice tell Bill about her being enticed by the naval officer (another serpent), other than to invite him to indulge as well?

Their conversation kickstarts the main journey of the film, which is essentially Adam’s very protracted bite into the forbidden fruit. Bill is called to a patient’s home and a woman once again tries to seduce him; he manages to resist her advances, albeit after giving in to a kiss. Wandering the streets at night, images of Alice’s hypothetical affair haunt Bill. Many have read this as an expression of his jealousy. I think it’s much more selfish—Bill can’t get these images out his mind because he desires them for himself. He wants to bite into that plump, juicy fruit, but is scared because he knows he’s not supposed to.

It’s worth asking, at this point in the film, what exactly does the fruit represent? Sex outside of marriage? That’s certainly forbidden by society. At this point, though, it really just represents the ineffable concept of forbidden-ness itself; the hidden truths, the dark depths of our own souls and of the world around us. Bill doesn’t yet really know what fruit he’s about to bite into.

Bill is tempted by yet another serpent, the prostitute Domino, but with Christmas lights still present (the eyes of God), he cannot go through with it. He then travels to meet with Nick Nightingale, the main serpent of our story. (One difference between this and Genesis is that Bill meets the serpent. Adam never does.)

Nick paints a tempting view of what Bill will get if he eats from the fruit. “I’ve seen a few things in my life, but never anything like this…And I have never seen such women.” Kubrick reinforces the connection between eyes being opened and the fruit being eaten —Nick only saw these amazing sights because his “blindfold wasn’t tied on that well.” (It’s also worth noting that Nick refuses to say the name of the party’s hosts when Bill asks. You don’t say the name of God.)

To enter the party, Bill must buy a costume, just as Adam and Eve “sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” when they ate from the tree. And just as these cloth coverings represent blasphemy, Bill must leave the watchful eyes of God to see this party; to enter the costume store, he must quite literally travel “over the rainbow”:

After obtaining his costume, he finally heads to the mysterious party. Notice we are still surrounded by pines, but the Christmas lights are completely gone. God is not watching this part of the forest.

The famous orgy sequence contains multitudes. Although nudity abounds, note how un-sexual it all is; most guests just hang around, participating in strange Satanic rituals and chatting. Even the sex-havers don’t seem all that horny. They go through the motions, pumping and grunting, but it’s all very mechanistic. The real action seems to be these fucked-up rituals, which raise many questions—what’s the point of all this? Who are these people? Are these women here consensually? Bill eats it all up, gazing with mystified fascination at the goings-on.

In the original story, it’s a bit of a contradiction that God both creates and forbids this fruit; is it holy or not? Is it blessed by God or not? Kubrick preserves this contradiction. In the film, as I mentioned, the eyes of God (Christmas lights) are gone from the trees, but what we hear at the ritual seems to contradict this. “Auov uad auon acnurop ias iicinecu ertac iulunmod asiz,” drones a voice. Flipping each word around, this becomes a Romanian translation of a Bible passage, which translates to “And God told to his apprentices…I gave you a command…to pray to the Lord for the mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, the search, the leave and the forgiveness of the sins of God’s children. The ones that pray, they have mercy and they take good care of this holy place.” So God is present at this party (quite literally, we later learn!) even if it remains in some sense godless.

Let’s think more about that damned fruit. The New International Version describes it as “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” These seem to be two separate features—tastiness/visual beauty and wisdom—both appealing, but in different ways. I think in Eyes Wide Shut the fruit can be similarly divided into two parts: sexual depravity, and the even darker stuff that lurks beneath. Everyone in our society knows about sexual depravity—in 1999, BDSM, roleplaying and plenty of other fetishes had long been mainstreamed. So just as Eve can tell even before she eats the apple that it’s “good for food,” the orgy is immediately enticing to Bill, “good” in a language he can understand. The darker and more important part of the fruit—knowledge of good and evil—comes later, but at least he gets to savor the delicious taste first.

After they eat from the tree, Adam and Eve become ashamed, and shame is beginning to dawn on Bill and Alice as well. Bill returns home and Alice tearfully confesses yet another dream of getting fucked by the naval officer while Bill watches. Bill’s lighthearted demeanor of the film’s first act has fallen away; now he is somber and vaguely horrified by the world around him.

God warns Adam and Eve, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.” When he returns to the mansion in the morning, Bill is handed a note that makes a similar threat, although more obliquely, hoping “for his own good” that he gives up his investigation. In other words, that he spit out the fruit while it’s still in his mouth. But he’s too fascinated and intrigued to spit it out. Far from it; he bites deeper. He learns that Mandy, a woman at the party, has been found dead, presumably murdered as some kind of Satanic sacrifice. He has now moved past the “good for food” element of the fruit and is encountering the “knowledge of good and evil” part. I assume I don’t have to go into this in detail, but there exists a giant conspiracy in the world of Eyes Wide Shut, a massive secret ring run by elites, practicing Satan-worshipping, sex trafficking, pedophilia, and murder. Not far from the Epstein Island recently revealed to the unsuspecting public. This is the world of evil that lurks beneath, and you learn about it when you bite into that cursed fruit. (Bill also learns, as if this wasn’t enough awful enlightenment, that Domino is HIV-positive. More darkness lurking beneath the lurid surface.)

Much like Adam and Eve are chased around the garden “in the cool of the day” by God after their transgression, Bill soon finds himself pursued by a mysterious man, presumably a messenger of Ziegler, through the streets of New York. God cannot let Adam escape surveillance after he has tasted the fruit.

Bill also learns that as a punishment for inviting him to the orgy, Nick has been brutally beaten and kidnapped by Ziegler’s men. A witness notes that as he was carried away, he had “a bruise on his cheek.” This echoes God’s punishment for the serpent—that he must crawl on his belly, but more importantly that his head will be crushed.

In the film’s climax, Ziegler summons Bill to his offices. Ziegler explains that he was present at the orgy, that Mandy merely died of an accidental overdose, and that Nick is safe back in Seattle. Then, Ziegler doubles down on the threat, warning Bill never to look into this world again. Here is where Eyes Wide Shut departs significantly from the Biblical parable: in this story, God lets Adam and Eve off with a slap on the wrist. In the original, he forever banishes them and their descendants from Eden. Kubrick opted for a less extreme, more haunting conclusion, one that (as we shall soon see) is nonetheless far from happy.

Bill returns home from his meeting with God. He shuts off the Christmas lights; shame has engulfed him completely; he can no longer bear the piercing eyes of God. In the bedroom he finds Alice asleep with an orgy mask placed on the pillow next to her, presumably sent by Ziegler as a final threat. He breaks down, crying into her shoulder, and she begins to cry too. They have both fully consumed the fruit; this innocent bourgeois couple can never unsee the horrifying depths of evil in the world. You can get rid of ignorance, but you can’t get rid of knowledge.

Which brings us to the final scene of Eyes Wide Shut, one of the more elegant endings in film history. Bill and Alice go Christmas shopping with their daughter. At the department store, the Christmas lights sparkle; the eyes of God are back upon them; they are back in Eden. A happy ending?

Alice certainly seems to think so. She says they are “awake” again, and that they should basically forget about what happened the previous night—”the reality of one night,” she says, “can [n]ever be the whole truth.” Bill knows she’s fooling herself—she doesn’t want to wake up, she wants to go back to sleep, back to the comfort of ignorance.

The film’s famous final word—”fuck”—encapsulates her possibly fruitless (no pun intended) desire. She wants to become naked again, to fuck without a care in the world, to spit out the fruit and remain in Eden. Fittingly, we never hear Bill’s response—Kubrick cuts to black after that final request. He does this to preserve ambiguity. Will Bill accept Alice’s request to close their eyes once again, to tie the blindfold tight and distract themselves with a world of materialistic pleasure? Or is he in too deep—will he be forever scarred by the knowledge that the fruit has brought upon him, unable to look at the world the same way?

We don’t know. Part of what made Kubrick such a brilliant filmmaker was his insistence on shying away from easy answers, and so while he borrows many elements from the Adam and Eve tale, he does not borrow its moralistic fire-and-fury ending. Eyes Wide Shut also doesn’t share the Bible’s reverent view of God; Ziegler is a vastly evil man, not even slightly benevolent. But Kubrick does borrow the biblical tale’s ultimate message: that knowledge is a curse. To truly know the world is to peel back all the decorations, the costumes, the euphemisms (“the rainbow”), the fake storefronts, the blindfolds, the masks, even the fake New York that Kubrick constructed on a London soundstage…to truly know the world is to see it without all these things, naked. And that is a truly terrifying sight.

16 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Shut, Explained

  1. The rainbow can’t help but evoke The Wizard of Oz, another story about the loss of innocence.

    Also, the base story for Eyes Wide Shut is Traumnovelle (Dream Story) by the Freudian Arthur Schnitzler. It seems to me these — and perhaps other currents —are stronger than the Biblical ones.

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  2. I came across this beautiful article after viewing the film and finding the popular video essays on YouTube to be missing the mark on some of the most important themes. The allusions to Adam and Eve seemed entirely obvious to me, especially in the scene where Alice recounts her dream and Bill’s desire to find them clothes. It is only fitting that a movie with the name “Eyes Wide Shut” has so many subplots and intersecting meanings that the viewer is almost challenged to keep their eyes shut to at least a few of them. From consumerism, to dreams, to original sin, and our own willingness to turn a blind eye to that which makes existence unbearable, the film is almost too much too handle. A fantastic film and a fantastic analysis

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  3. Entertaining analysis but I think you’re missing the symbolism of the rainbow in Genesis: it is God’s covenant with man. Consider Genesis: 9:8-9:17:

    “8 And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying,

    9 And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;

    10 And with every living creature that [is] with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.

    11 And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.

    12 And God said, This [is] the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that [is] with you, for perpetual generations:

    13 I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

    14 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud:

    15 And I will remember my covenant, which [is] between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.

    16 And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that [is] upon the earth.

    17 And God said unto Noah, This [is] the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that [is] upon the earth.”

    Not sure this would change your conclusions, but it might add something to the analysis.

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