ByJames Dunlap, writer at
My tastes are truly bizarre. Finding and reviewing cinema's hidden gems is my forte.
James Dunlap

Stanley Kubrick is like cinematic wine: better with age...

The first thing a friend and fellow cinephile said to me after watching Eyes Wide Shut back in 2000 was, "If I were Kubrick, I would not have wanted this to be my last film." And at the time, I definitely remember agreeing with him.

Part of the reason this film left a bad taste in my mouth was that I was so young when I watched it and, having been raised in a fairly conservative Southern family, the nudity and sexuality seemed excessive at the time. I also wasn't aware that almost all of 's films, with the exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey, were initially poorly received by critics and audiences alike. I've since come to learn, however, that Kubrick's apparent raison d'être lay in creating movies that people just weren't quite ready for yet. Basically, whenever there was a new entry in the Kubrick compendium, some time had to pass before critics and fans could reevaluate the piece and realize that not only is the film in question not bad, but actually, it just so happens to be brilliant, thankyouverymuch.

Fast forward to last year. I'm perusing the free movies option on On Demand, and I see . I'd been in the mood for some Kubrick for a few months and decided to throw caution to the wind and give it another chance. My thinking was that the new, older-and-wiser version of me might see something there that I'd missed the first time.

Now, I don't want to bore anyone with longwinded plot explanations or a tedious analysis of every little thing that happens in the film. Instead, I'm going to jump right into my theory, and set about backing it all up with evidence. Needless to say, if you've never seen Eyes Wide Shut, some of this might be confusing, so you might want to watch it first (and then come back!).

Stanley Kubrick Filming An Early Scene of EYES WIDE SHUT
Stanley Kubrick Filming An Early Scene of EYES WIDE SHUT

Leading Up To The Dream: Insecurities About Sex And Death

My theory is pretty straightforward: Everything that occurs after a certain point in the film is the lucid, lurid dream of Dr. Bill Harford (), and it could possibly be the singular, shared dream of Dr. Harford and his wife Alice (played by Cruise's then-real-life wife ). Yeah, that's right, a shared dream — as in, two people having the same phantasmagoric experience. But more on that later.

And so. Here's a brief breakdown as to when the dream begins and ends:

The day(s) leading up to Bill's dream is a smorgasbord of sexual tension and death-related anxiety. The film opens with Bill and Alice attending a dinner party hosted by Dr. Harford's uber-rich patient Victor Ziegler, wherein the couple are distracted by other individuals in attendance who they, on some level, entertain the thought of sleeping with. Bill receives aggressive come-ons from two determined women, and Alice dances with a tall, suave Hungarian who doesn't try to hide his intentions.

Later, Ziegler discretely calls Bill to his office, only to reveal a naked hooker lying on a couch, barely conscious. The rather on-the-nose implication is that there was some drug-fueled, extramarital sexual romp taking place and the hooker has overdosed in the process. Dr. Harford has been called upon to save her life and clean up the mess. Which he does.

Julienne Davis as Beauty Queen-Turned-Hooker, "Mandy" Curran.
Julienne Davis as Beauty Queen-Turned-Hooker, "Mandy" Curran.

After the party, Bill and Alice return to their swanky apartment, get high, have sex, and then discuss the finer points of physical attraction vis-à-vis male and female psychology. The conversation spirals as Alice divulges her intense carnal longing, some years back, for a naval officer she didn't even know:

"At no time, was he ever out of my mind. And I thought that if he wanted me, even if it was only... for one night... I was ready to give up everything."

Naturally, Bill is jealous and angry, leading to a fight that is ultimately interrupted by a phone call informing him that one of his patients, Mr. Nathanson, has died. He leaves the apartment with their issues unresolved and visits the family of the deceased, whereupon the daughter, Marion Nathanson, attempts to kiss him and even confesses her love for him. Internally rattled but externally composed, Dr. Bill takes his leave, and it is here, at this moment, that I believe the dream begins.

Before we get into the dream, however, let's first consider everything that has happened so far. Both Bill and Alice have toyed with the idea of having an affair (i.e., a sex-related situation), Bill discovered that Ziegler was fooling around with a stoned hooker who was very nearly dead from an overdose (here, sexual situations and death-related situations are both intertwined), Bill and Alice later have sex, then argue about sex and infidelity (another sex-related situation), all of this culminating in one of Bill's longtime patients dying (death), and while he visits, the patient's daughter comes onto him in the same room that her father's corpse is occupying. Sex and death. Everything leading up to this moment is about sex and death, perhaps the two most primeval human motivators.

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Marie Richardson as Marion Nathanson (left), deceased father in the background.
Marie Richardson as Marion Nathanson (left), deceased father in the background.

The Nightmare Begins

As soon as Bill leaves the Nathanson mansion, he is shown walking aimlessly through New York City, but it's a New York that doesn't even look like New York. This scene was filmed in London, which gives the impression of a dreary, alternate, hyperrealistic version of New York, rather than anything actual. This is the first clue that Dr. Harford is now dreaming.

As to where he actually is in a corporeal sense, that's up for debate. Is he sleeping in a taxi on his way home? Or in his bed at his apartment? Somewhere else? Who knows. It ultimately wouldn't matter anyways. If we're willing to submit to the "dream theory," then all we can say for sure is that the jump cut from his being in the mansion to his sudden wandering around in the alternate NYC has glossed over the fact that Bill has fallen asleep somewhere between these two scenes.

During his wandering he is plagued by unpleasant mental visions of Alice with the naval officer and once again becomes angry. He is approached by a prostitute named Domino (Vinessa Shaw), who propositions him. He goes back to her room, apparently with the full intention to take advantage of her services, but they are interrupted when Alice calls him on his cellular phone, this moment being a possible clue that the dream is not Bill's alone, but shared with Alice. She is shown by herself in their apartment, watching television, before calling him. So, they could be separately operating within the same dream space, which will seem even more plausible as the plot moves forward.

Alice calls Bill from their apartment.
Alice calls Bill from their apartment.

He leaves Domino's apartment and later finds himself in a jazz club. The pianist, Nick Nightingale, is an old friend who was playing piano at Ziegler's dinner party at the beginning of the film. This is another clue that this is a dream, since it's unlikely that a jazz pianist would have what will end up being three gigs on the same night. It's more likely that Bill is dreaming about him simply because he saw him earlier when he was awake. After Nick's set is finished, the two have drinks, and he tells Bill about another performance he is scheduled for later that night at a very strange, isolated mansion, where he has to be blindfolded and given a password to even gain entrance.

Long story short, Bill sort of finagles his way into said mansion at the appropriate time and, like all the other attendees, is wearing a mask to conceal his identity.

Now, Bill's dream up to this point has dealt primarily with sexuality. First, his obsessive thoughts about Alice with the naval officer, then the episode with Domino. Even while purchasing his mask to attend this secret party it is revealed that the proprietor of the costume store has a promiscuous under-aged daughter that was secretly having a threesome in another room with two of her father's business associates. They are subsequently caught by the father, and they are wearing what appears to be Victorian makeup. To me, this conveys that Bill is beginning to descend into the depths of his subconscious, exploring his deepest ideas regarding sexuality. This is just the beginning of his descent, however; the first shimmering of deep exploration before he arrives at the mansion. Only then, at the mansion, will he be fully immersed in his latent mental substrata.

Also, while sexuality has dominated the surface area of his dreaming up to this point, when Bill arrives at the mansion his anxieties regarding death will become more prominent, and this will intertwine with the erotic.

Threesome at the costume rental shop; notice the men's makeup.
Threesome at the costume rental shop; notice the men's makeup.

Further Descent Into Bill's Atavistic Psyche

Once he's in the mansion, Bill has officially passed into a deeper level of his subconscious, a place where his intense obsessions with eroticism, licentia, and the acute fears regarding death will juxtapose.

Without getting into unnecessary details, suffice to say that what is taking place is an anonymous orgy predicated upon a mockery of spirituality and religion. Everything preceding the orgy is highly ritualized, mimicking religious rituals, but these rituals lead only to explicit engagement with the carnal, the opposite of religion and spirituality. Dr. Harford, hidden behind his mask, watches everything unfold, presumably shocked into silence — and perhaps tantalized.

Eventually, a similarly masked woman recognizes him. It is alluded to intensely, though never confirmed, that this is Mandy Curran, the beauty-queen-turned-prostitute that overdosed in Ziegler's office. Throughout the course of several oft-interrupted conversations, she warns Bill that his life is in danger. With this, his primordial fears of death are beginning to subsume the amatory. Despite her pleading for him to leave before he's found out, he is ultimately discovered, ordered to remove his mask before a throng of disguised spectators, and threatened by the primary orchestrator of the night's debauchery.

"Mandy" intercedes from a balcony on high, however, and offers to "redeem" him. It is implied that she will face some sort of severe punishment, possibly death, which she accepts. Because of this, Dr. Harford is allowed to go free, albeit with a stern warning that he will be in very real danger should he disclose what he has witnessed.

From here, he returns to Alice, and the most compelling evidence that this is not only a dream, but a shared dream between the two begins to unfold.

The interrogation at the moment of salvation as Mandy intercedes.
The interrogation at the moment of salvation as Mandy intercedes.

A Case Of Mutual Dreaming?

By the time Dr. Harford has returned home, Alice is asleep and well into what appears to be a very lucid dream of her own. She is laughing vivaciously when Bill wakes her, but nevertheless claims that the dream she was having was, in fact, a nightmare. She then proceeds to recount everything in detail.

They were together in a field, and she was naked. She begins to feel ashamed and scared, so in order to comfort her, Bill leaves to find her clothes. While he is gone, the naval officer finds her and begins laughing at her. Despite his apparent churlishness, Alice and the naval officer kiss and make love. After some time passes, others are inexplicably there with Alice and the naval officer, and in Alice's words these others are "fucking." Eventually, she joins them and relates to Bill, who is still attentively listening to her recount this dream, that:

"I was fucking other men. So many. I don’t know how many I was with. And I knew you could see me in the arms of all these men."

What is relevant here is that this is exactly what Harford has just witnessed: An orgy. While he was seeing it, she was dreaming it, even dreaming that she was a part of it. Obviously, since Eyes Wide Shut is not a film about the supernatural, this is impossible. We can't appeal to paranormal theories to explain this away, since this contradicts the spirit of the script. So what's the explanation?

My theory is simply that, the two are somehow occupying the same dream space, and Alice's dream within a dream represents her (and, by deductive logic, Bill's) descent further into her subconscious. Her waking from this selfsame dream within a dream symbolizes their returning to more surface-level dreaming, where erotica is no longer the primary concern, but rather, now they will be dealing with fear.

Alice Tells Bill Her 'Nightmare'
Alice Tells Bill Her 'Nightmare'

Although I may seem to be contradicting myself by pointing out that this theory would entail some sort of supernatural phenomena such as psychic connections or astral projection, opening the door for other paranormal explanations, it should be noted that the idea of shared dreaming is more a topic of science fiction (a domain that Kubrick is perfectly comfortable with, as seen with 2001: A Space Odyssey) rather than fantasy.

Recall that Christopher Nolan's sci-fi flick Inception was about shared dreaming. There is even a group of scientists, whom you can read about in this Psychology Today article, that study dreams, and they often perform experiments regarding shared or mutual dreams.

So this theory isn't beyond the realm of possibility, in some sort of science-fiction-based-on-actual-science (or quantum mechanics) sense. It's also worth noting the extremely bizarre conversation that happens between Alice and Bill at the end of the film, taking place after they are awake and are no longer lost in their hypnagogic hallucination:

Alice: We should be grateful — grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream.

Bill: No dream is ever just a dream.

Alice: The important thing is: we are both awake now.

It's almost like Kubrick is taunting us with this dialogue, begging us to realize that we've just been duped into watching a two-hour wet dream. And the thing is, it's not just the dialogue. Kubrick reveals himself in much more obvious ways. Consider the very title, Eyes Wide Shut.

Have you ever seriously stopped to consider just what that title conveys? It's an amalgam of two ideas: "Eyes wide open," a common phrase used to express a sudden epiphanic realization, and "eyes shut," i.e., asleep. This is a film about people who have profound realizations in their sleep.

Could he make it any more plain for us?

(Also, Eyes Wide Shut is based on the 1926 novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler. The title is German for "Dream Story").

Alice and Bill's final dialogue, on the topic of dreams.
Alice and Bill's final dialogue, on the topic of dreams.

So When Do They Wake Up?

Lets skip past the remainder of Alice and Bill's phantasmagoria, if for no other reason than for the sake of brevity. The dream continues well beyond the orgy at the mansion, but the erotica is muted from here and fear of death becomes the primary theme. Dr. Harford spends the rest of the dream trying to solve the mystery of what had just been witnessed, and as he does so he is threatened at virtually every turn. The only real question left that's worth trying to answer is: When does the dream end?

I believe it's toward the closing moments of the film, after the conversation with Ziegler in which Ziegler confesses he was at the orgy and implies that said orgy was orchestrated by very powerful people that could bring real harm upon Dr. Harford. He also tries to assuage Harford's fears by convincing him that he's misunderstood a lot of what he's witnessed — which could just be Ziegler's tactic to stop Bill from investigating things further.

After this intense interface, Dr. Harford returns home and finds Alice asleep on their bed. Next to her, on his pillow, lays the mask that he wore in the mansion. The mask is a visual queue that he is now awake both literally and metaphorically. It represents what he has taken from the dream, the knowledge of himself that he has gained. A dream has caused his "eyes to open," as it were.

The very next thing he does is wake Alice, and the fact that someone is roused from sleep in this very scene should not be ignored. He tells her that he will "confess everything," meaning to divulge the depraved, terrifying dreams he's had in the wake of her own confession regarding the naval officer. Remember, she told Bill about him before he, Bill, started dreaming, which was one of many things that fueled his nightmare.

Mask On The Pillow:  Herald Of The Dream's Finality
Mask On The Pillow: Herald Of The Dream's Finality

What's it All About?

At the heart of Eyes Wide Shut is a question about whether or not we should be or even can be held accountable for what occurs in the depths of our psyche. Can Alice be blamed for her intense desire for the naval officer so long ago? After all, it's not as if she consciously chose to have those feelings, right? Likewise, can Bill be held accountable for whatever sexual fantasies, fetishes and fears indwell in his subconscious? How much credence should we give these things? How much should they affect or inform our relationships with others?

The conclusion that Bill and Alice reach together as a couple, as highlighted by their final dialogue, is that these things do matter. They do affect relationships. Even so, at least as far as Bill and Alice are concerned, they don't matter enough to justify ruining what they have together. They both decide to move forward in their marriage. As to how they will navigate this, the audience is largely uninformed, and it's ultimately irrelevant. What is important is the bigger picture: As complex human beings we have deeply private, unconscious desires, feelings, lusts, and things we are ashamed of, and while all of this represents an important part of our character, of who we are, it isn't the full picture.

Or to put it another way: While the unconscious does have meaning, there remains more to being human than just our dreams.


So, what do you think? Is this theory valid? Was it all just a dream?


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