Contemporary Sexuality and its Discontents:
On Stanley Kubrik's Eyes Wide Shut

Matthew Sharpe


The title of this essay involves a self-conscious echoing of Sigmund Freud's famous later essay "Civilisation and Its Discontents". In that paper, Freud asks several of the most intractable questions facing the human condition, including what is the meaning of life? And: why and how is it that humans come to suffer? The radicalness of the essay stems from Freud's postulation that, while our civilised condition enables us to counteract many sufferings emanating from external nature and from our own corporeal frailties, a quanta of "discontent" pertains to the condition of being civilised as such. As is well known, Freud seeks to explain this suffering by way of even the two central and inter-linked postulates of his later metapsychology: the superego and the death drive. "Civilisation and its Discontents" posits an innate aggressivity to human nature, attaching to the "death drive": an aggressivity that can be directed outwards, in aggression towards others and the external world, but which can also- under the pressures of civilisation- become introverted and directed at the subject's own ego.

Interestingly, though, in his 1912 piece: "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love", Freud had raised the same questions as he later raised in "Civilisation and its Discontents", and answered quite differently. In so far as sexuality provides us with our most intense experiences of pleasure, Freud reasoned that people would seemingly be entitled to look to it as providing the model and paradigm for all our happiness-es. Yet, in "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love", without any reference to thanatos, Freud entertains the possibility that there may be some elementary imbalance in man's sexual make-up by itself, which disallows us from finding happiness or fulfilment in love. "This gloomy prognosis", Freud moreover comments: "rests … on the single conjecture that the non-satisfaction that goes with civilisation is the necessary consequence of certain peculiarities that the sexual instinct has assumed under the pressure of culture." [Freud (1), 259]

What I want to do in this essay is offer a theoretical interpretation of Stanley Kubrik's Eyes Wide Shut. In reading the film, though, I want to bring to bear a set of theoretical categories and preoccupations taken from the psychoanalytic writings of Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan's provocative interpretation of Freud's work. My argument at its broadest is that Kubrik's film is a film "of its time", in at least the two senses of the genitive. Eyes Wide Shut is of course based on a fin de siecle novella Traumnovelle ("dream-novel") by the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler. What I want to contend, though, is that Kubrik's film is a knowing re-framing of Schnitzler's narrative. My argument will be that Eyes Wide Shut, in its singularity as a filmic text, provocatively casts into relief the malaises haunting our own specifically later capitalist, "permissive" mode of organising sexuality and sexual difference.

The paper is divided into three parts. Part I deals with what would traditionally be called Eyes Wide Shut's "content". It is entitled "the inside is outside", as I will argue that the film can be read as staging a markedly contemporary universe of social and sexual relations. Part II is entitled "the outside is inside". The reason is that in it, I will take up the "form" of the film, or what Derrida would call its "framing". I will also argue that crucially our gaze was factored into the construction of the film from the start. In the concluding Part III, I take up the question of the implications of my reading for our position of enunciation as contemporary consumerist subjects.

I Content: the Inside is Outside

Eyes Wide Shut tells the story of three days and nights in the life of Doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and of his wife Alice (played by Cruise's then-wife Nicole Kidman). At the commencement of the film, the couple are happily married, living with their young daughter Helenain a well appointed inner-city apartment. Although Alice is currently unemployed, Bill is a success in his professional life, running his own medical practice, and enjoying both the confidence of his patients and the respect of his staff.

All this is called into question, however, following a Christmas party Bill and Alice attend on the first night thrown by one of Bill's patients, the mysterious Mister Ziegler. Three things happen at this event which become deeply important in the discontents that ensue. The first thing is that Bill recognises his old friend from medical school, Nick Nightingale, who is playing piano with the band. Half out of politeness, Bill promises to drop by soon to see Nick play at "The Sonata" in the bohemian end of town. The second pivotal thing that occurs at Ziegler's party is that both Bill and his wife are drawn into highly sexually charged encounters with members of the opposite sex. Alice is brazenly "hit upon" by a sleazy Hungarian bon vivante Szandor Savos, with whom she shares an intimate dance, at times talking so closely that their lips almost touch. Meanwhile, Bill has been recognised by a model whom he had once assisted during a photo shoot on fifth avenue. This model and her friend "Nuala" now appear only too keen to return the favour to the kind doctor. The third thing that happens at Ziegler's party is that, while the two models try to lead Bill away from the party altogether, he is called upstairs by the host. There he finds a prostitute with whom Ziegler has presumably been having sex collapsed naked on a red chair. The prostitute, whom Ziegler calls "Mandy", has overdosed on a mixture of speed and cocaine. Bill treats her professionally and calmly. He also cautions Ziegler (whose wife is at the party, and is keen to have "Mandy" whisked away) that she should rest for at least an hour before being taken home

On the following night, the transgressive experiences of the couple at Ziegler's "arrive at their destination" to haunt their conjugal equanimity. Alice decides that she will "smoke a little pot" that she keeps stored in the cabinet behind her mirror. Reclining on the bed half-stoned, she proceeds to question Bill concerning "those two girls who he was so blatantly hitting on" the previous evening. A long discussion follows, to which I will return. Its denouement is that Nicole, in a fit of jealous exasperation, confesses to having fantasized about dropping everything for the sake of one night with a naval officer whom she had seen while holidaying with Bill the previous summer.

This confession is the animating traumatic event of all that follows within Eyes Wide Shut. It profoundly shocks her husband, who is rendered dumb by its disclosure. Even as we watch his stunned face, though, the phone rings, and Bill is called away on an urgent medical visit before anything can be resolved. As Bill sits in the back of the cab, we see his repetitive visualisations of his wife enjoying being coited by some handsome naval officer, framed in a spectral blue. It is Bill's incapacity to "get his head around" what his wife has disclosed to him that provokes him after his professional visit to accept the solicitations of a street prostitute. When this encounter is interrupted by his wife calling him on his mobile phone, it is Bill's continuing discontent that leads him to "drop in" on Nick Nightingale at the nearby "Sonata" bar, and then to insist on attending the exclusive masked orgy at which Nick will be playing later that night.

The rest of the film proceeds with a certain inevitability. Despite the mask Bill buys, he is "found out" as an imposter at the masked orgy. He is about to be submitted to some nameless punishment, when a statuesque masked woman intervenes, offering herself to Bill's captors in order (as she says) to "redeem" him. Bill returns home in the early hours of the morning badly shaken, and stows away his costume out of sight of his wife. The following day, Bill spends trying to tie up all "loose ends" associated with his adventurous night, with a marked lack of success. Bill returns his costume to the costume shop, where he discovers that his mask has somehow gone missing. He tries to chase up Nick Nightingale, whom he discovers has been whisked away from his hotel at 5am accompanied by two heavies. Bill drops by at the Somerton mansion- the scene of the previous night's excesses- only to have a letter silently delivered to him at the gate warning him to desist in his inquiries. Most disturbing of all, Bill discovers, by way of a newspaper that he picks up that night, that an ex-beauty queen named "Amanda Curran"- "Mandy", the hooker from the first night- has been found dead in her hotel room. Having visited the corpse at the morgue, Bill is then phoned by Ziegler. Standing over a bright red pool table, the latter confesses that he "was there" the previous night, knows what Bill has been doing since, and warns him that he has been in "way over his head" for the last twenty four hours. Ziegler admits to Bill that Mandy was indeed Bill's saviour at the masked orgy. Yet he denies to Bill that there is any connection between her intervention the previous night and her subsequent death. When Bill returns home that night, he finds the mask that he had worn the previous night sitting enigmatically on his pillow, beside his sleeping wife. At this point, he breaks down and tells her that he will confess "everything".

What cannot but strike even the most unseeing viewer of Eyes Wide Shut is the absolute centrality to it of the topic of sexuality, if not of the act of sex itself. [see Part III] It would be difficult to think of any other contemporary film (although not television series) that more unabashedly evinces the "constant optimisation and … increasing valorisation of discourse on sex" that Foucault broached in The History of Sexuality Volume 1. [Foucault, 23] Kubrik's film seems a wholly unreflective illustration of what Foucault called:

The pleasure that comes of exercising a power that questions, monitors, watches, spies out, palpates, brings to light [sexuality], and on the other hand, the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power. The power that lets itself be invaded by the pleasure it is pursuing; and opposite it, power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off, scandalizing, or resisting" [Foucault, 45]

From the first moments of Eyes Wide Shut, the sexuality of the main couple is incited, excited, provoked and problematized. I have already mentioned how both Alice and Bill are tempted by members of the opposite sex at Ziegler's party. But this is only the beginning. On Bill's doctor's call after Alice's confession to him the next night, the daughter of his deceased patient starts to kiss him desperately, confessing her passionate love. As Bill wanders the streets after this bizarre house-call, he is then pushed about on the sidewalk by a group of young men who accuse him of being a homosexual ("which team's this switch hitter playing for?", etc.). Two of the three extended dialogues in the film, those between Alice and Szandor at Ziegler's, and of Alice and Bill the following night, are explicitly concerned with the sexuality of the protagonists, and the supposed deeper Truth of male and female sexuality as such. The central traumatic moment of the film, as I commented above, is Nicole's confessing everything about the supposed truth of her sexuality to her husband, like a good Foucaultian subject.

The critical question is how this central preoccupation with sexuality is treated by the film. What I think is more specifically at stake in Eyes Wide Shut's concern with sexuality is revealed most directly in a remark Bill passes in his conversation with Bill on the second night that leads up to her fateful confession. Bill asks Alice what that man she was dancing with the previous night had wanted. Alice responds: "mmm … sex … upstairs, then and there". Bill replies calmly that he can understand why: she "is a very beautiful woman", and "we both know what men are like". But Alice doesn"t like his responses at all. She challenges Bill that, according to his own logic, he should have wanted "to fuck those two models" he had been speaking to at Ziegler's, since they were also beautiful. Why is he any different from other men?

Bill's reply to this has two parts. He says that he is "an exception" firstly because "he happens to be in love" with Alice. But then he adds "and because we"re married …" The "and" here, I want to argue, is crucial. I would argue that it stands as something like the "and" in Heidegger's "Being and Time" or Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses". Rather than being a simple conjunction between the first and second terms, that is, my claim is that the second explanation Bill "adds on" here actually designates the truth that under-girds the first.

The crucial thing here is the logic operative in Bill's declaration of their married status. When Alice protests that Bill's answer to why he didn"t sleep with the models says nothing about his "real" inner desires- or what Kant would have called his "pathology"- she is absolutely correct. Bill does not assert anything concerning what he may have done had he, for instance, not been married to Alice. What we are dealing with in Bill's and Alice"s declarations of their married status, that is to say, is what Lacanian theory isolates as the symbolic dimension of human existence. To say "I"m married", as Bill and Alice do when challenged concerning their desire in Eyes Wide Shut, is of course to say nothing concerning one's "natural" inclinations or metaphysical essence. It is to do nothing more, and nothing less, than to declare oneself a subject within the prevalent order of social convention and exchange: an order which, in Lacan"s words, "… weaves the texture between generations", even regulating our access to our sexual objects. [at Zizek, 1996: 78] The claim here is of the same order as the elementary pledge of allegiance of the classical subject who says of his or her political position, dumbly: "I follow the leader, because he is the leader". The point is exactly that there is a minimally uninformative, tautological aspect in such statements that can only appear as an index of their irrationality both for any phenomenological or "realist" position, as for Alice in her jealousy in Eyes Wide Shut. What is at stake, in a word and in the words, is a pledge of faith or commitment on the part of the subject in question: something that will never wholly "show itself from itself", but which we have- exactly- to take on trust. It is precisely in and because of the gap in what can be given to our cognition (conaissance) concerning the Others" desire, Lacanian theory argues, that the symbolic dimension of our existence is opened up, as the dimension of re-cognition or reconnaissance of them

My central argument in this piece as a whole is that Stanley Kubrik's Eyes Wide Shut concerns exactly what happens to human sexuality when this symbolic order of the pact or "word of honor" is fundamentally called in to question. I think that the film's animating questions, and the questions it poses to us, are: what is it that insists when the provenance of the order of pacts and public-symbolic roles is no longer held to be unassailable? Is this a recipe for overcoming the final causes of suffering Freud located in "Civilization and its Discontents"- those issuing from the 'surplus repression" involved in civilization itself? Or are the discontents in the sexual life of civilized humans of such a kind that they insist beyond the seeming lifting of older, patronymic forms of taboo and prohibition, as in our later capitalist or "consumerist" world?

The film is actually relentless in its laying out before us of a world wherein the norms that governed older, more overtly patriarchal ways of organizing sexual relations in Western societies have manifestly broken down. In the routine doctor's call that Bill makes just after Alice has told "all" to him, the old man who lies dead on the bed is exactly the father of the young woman who proceeds to throw herself guiltily at Doctor Bill. The owner of the costume shop where Bill goes to buy his mask and costume- one Mr. Millich- turns out to be the pimp of his daughter. And the password to the masked orgy that Nick gives to Bill at the Sonata is "fidelio"/"fidelity".

What manifestly happens to Bill in Eyes Wide Shut after he hears Alice's confession, I want then to contend in this Part I, is that he begins to suspect that the symbolic order of social masks, roles and commitments, might be nothing more than a sham. It is certainly true that what he goes searching for on his adventurous night is in part a compensatory reaffirmation of his male virility. Yet my suggestion is that Bill's odyssey in Eyes Wide Shut also involves a search for the Truth of sexuality beneath the veils. Alice's revelation of what he imagines to be the hidden Truth underlying her marital commitment incites in him a growing anxiety that there might be a deeper level of sexual experience, beyond that available to him in his stations as a husband and as a doctor, or indeed in any such social role. Bill becomes preoccupied with the possibility that, while he may have lived well, he has not yet had It: that perhaps somehow he has missed something which others have access to, and that he might be able to reclaim through his illicit adventures.

It becomes evident, in fact, that Bill at this point has come to occupy something very like even the elementary position of the contemporary consumerist subject. As Slavoj Zizek has argued, this is the position of a subject interpellated by the "plague of fantasies" issuing from the multimedia telling him/her how s/he could live better, enjoy more, and experience the truth of his/her Self beneath the social masks. Equally, from organizing even his "libidinal economy" by recourse to his symbolic roles at the start of the film, Bill comes- like a good "pathological narcissist"- to consciously deploy his symbolic roles as either external obstacles or means in his individual "pursuit of happiness" and of sexual enjoyment. The overwhelming demand to enjoy! that Bill newly suffers beneath is enunciated with typical directness in Eyes Wide Shut by the two models who hit on him at Ziegler's party, as they lead him towards the exit. When Bill cottons on to what is happening, he asks them, bemused: "where are we going?" The models respond, one after the other: "Where the rainbow ends." "Don"t you want to go to where the rainbow ends?"

In all of what follows, this zeitdiagnosis of consumerist subjectivity that I have only introduced here, and how Eyes Wide Shut relates to it, will be the central concern.

II: Form: The Outside is Inside

In Part I, I have put the contention that our "outside" later capitalist world of liberated sexual mores can be meaningfully read as the referent of the inside "content" of Eyes Wide Shut. Insofar as this is the case, though, it could be held to neatly embody an example of the type of psychoanalytic reductionism that Jacques Derrida, for example, has critiqued in "Le Facteur de la Verite". Derrida's central claim in this text is that psychoanalytic interpretations of literary texts typically over-look their framing as literary artifacts. Derrida contends that Lacan overlooks the role of the narrator in "The Purloined Letter", for instance, and in doing so effectively treats Poe's text as a mere purveyor of the supposed truth of repetition disclosed by Freud, which is also the truth of the signifier more generally. [Derrida, 1987] What I want to focus on in Part II of this piece, in the light of this important criticism, is precisely the framing of Eyes Wide Shut. My claim will be that, that at least two levels, the film self-reflexively draws attention to its own "fictionality" in a way that reminds us of its origins in Schnitzler's suggestively titled "dream novel".

Let me commence by citing what Slavoj Zizek says concerning Eyes Wide Shut in his 2001 work: The Fright of Real Tears. To quote:

Recall Stanley Kubrik's Eyes Wide Shut (1999): [in it] it is only [Alice's] fantasy that is truly a fantasy, while [Bill's] fantasy is a reflexive fake, a desperate attempt to artificially recreate/reach the fantasy, a fantasizing triggered by the traumatic encounter of the Other's fantasy, a desperate attempt to answer the enigma of the Other's fantasy: what was the fantasized scene / encounter that so deeply marked her? What Cruise does on his adventurous night is to go on a kind of window shopping trip for fantasies: each situation in which he finds himself is a realized fantasy- firstly the fantasy of being the object of the passionate love interest of his patient's daughter; then the fantasy of encountering a kind prostitute who doesn"t even want money from him; then the encounter with the weird Serb (?) owner of the mask rental store who is also a pimp for his juvenile daughter; finally, the big orgy in the suburban villa." [Zizek, 2002: 174]

Provocatively, Zizek goes on to draw our attention to "what many a critic dismissed as the film's ridiculously aseptic and out-of-date depiction of the orgy" in the villa. He reads the patent staleness of this spectacle as not a failing attesting to the limits of the film's re-telling of a fin de siecle text in today's permissive world. Zizek argues that it "works to [the film's] advantage", as a deliberate highlighting of Bill's "incapacity to fantasize" for himself. [Zizek, 2001: 174]

The first contention about Eyes Wide Shut that I want to proffer in Part II involves a further dialectical twist, beyond the terms of Zizek's reading of the 'second-handed-ness" of Bill's fantasizing within Eyes Wide Shut. Recall that, when Bill arrives home after the masked orgy on the second night, he awakens Alice from what she describes as a horrible nightmare. In this "nightmare", she was lying naked in an Edenic garden, when the officer of her fantasy appeared, laughed at her nakedness, and ravished her. Then, she tells Bill, she was being made love to by a multitude of different men. Other couples "were fucking" all around, and all the while Alice was laughing at her hapless husband, who had impotently gone searching for her clothes.

The thing that is striking about this dream is that it represents something exactly akin to what we have to imagine Bill was about to be submitted to in the "reality" of the orgy, as well as what presumably happened to "Mandy" as the price for his redemption. A certain relativisation of truth and fiction, or reality and dream, is thus at least suggested here. We are reminded, in fact, of Lacan's Freudian thesis that when we awake from "anxiety" dreams, as Alice does when Bill returns: "… we are escaping into so-called reality to be able to continue to sleep, to maintain our blindness, to elude awakening into the real of our [repressed] desire". [Zizek, 1989: 45] This episode in Eyes Wide Shut, that is, suggests the possibility that Zizek does not go far enough in pointing out that Nicole's fantasy has a generative primacy over Bill's sexual imaginary. What it suggests is that it is actually Alice whose world, in her "dream within the dream", that is importantly Real within the film. Correspondingly, we are provoked to ask: what if Bill's world- the world we are presented with as the unshakably real one- is importantly "only a dream": a "fantasy-construction that enables us to mask the Real of our desire"? [loc cit.] Bill's last declarative statement in the film is certainly provocatively to warn his wife that "… no dream is ever just a dream".

The second thesis that I want to pose in Part II concerning Eyes Wide Shut's framing is more radical. This is the contention that, if we are to ask of Eyes Wide Shut: whose dream then is it, in its manifold artificality?, the ultimate answer must be: it is ours, the viewers. In line with Part I, that is, what I want to suggest is that our fascinated consumerist look- here in the "outside" world- is importantly "counted in" the framing of the film from the start.

That the sense of vision is crucial to Kubrik's reframing of Schnitzler's novella is indicated by the very title Kubrik gave to his film: namely, "eyes wide shut". Reading this title recalls Hegel's treatment of tautologies as the highest instance of contradiction in his Logic. [Zizek, 2002: 35-38] The first two words, "eyes wide …" induce our expectation of hearing the phrase "eyes wide open", which we use to describe someone in a state of full alertness. Then, with the signifier "shut", this expectation is shattered. Retrospectively, our trope "eyes shut" is invoked, which we use to describe someone who is exactly the opposite of fully awake to what important (as in "he had his eyes shut to x, y, z…"). What I would indeed suggest is that the coincidence of opposites condensed in the title represents an almost literal invocation of the Freudian analysis of scopic inhibition in his 1910 "Psychoanalytic View of the Psychogenetic Disturbance of Vision". In this piece, Freud describes such phenomena as hysterical blindness as resulting paradoxically from an over-valuation, and more pointedly an over-sexualization, of the visual sense. As he says:

"Let us suppose that the sexual component instinct which makes us of looking- sexual pleasure in looking [scopophilia]- has drawn upon itself defensive action by the ego-instincts in consequence of its excessive demands, so that the ideas in which the desire are expressed succumb to repression and are prevented from becoming conscious … the ego refuses to see anything at all any more, now that the sexual interest in seeing has made itself so prominent. But the alternative seems more to the point … The repressed instinct takes its revenge for being held back from further psychical expansion, by becoming able to extend its dominance over the organ that is in its service." [Freud, 112]

My second contention for Part II, though, is not simply that we should directly link this Freudian description of a subject who has his eyes at once wide open and forcibly shut, to Kubrik's 1999 film. The point is that Eyes Wide Shut, in its internal concern with visual fantasies concerning others" jouissance (as in Zizek's reading), is discernibly also an engagement with, and comment upon, our own "outside" gaze as contemporary consumers of Hollywood, upon the film.

Recall the way that the film was advertised, or precisely not advertised, before its release in July 1999. Kubrik insisted on the strictest silence from all those involved. In order to pique our curiosity to see more, all we were let in on was that the film was to be an erotic thriller, and that it was to star Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, then Hollywood's "hottest" celebrity couple. The opening shot of the film- in what is a brutal gesture of desublimation- is of exactly what we came to see, Kidman disrobing from behind in stilettos. Shortly afterwards, as Bill and Alice leave for Ziegler's party, the music that we had taken to be a soundtrack framing the scene for us on the outside is revealed to be the music Bill had been playing "within" the film, which ceases when he turns off his stereo.

The clearest registration of what I am suggesting about the provocation and inclusion of our consumerist look in the construction of Eyes Wide Shut is the one promotional advertisement that was associated with the film's release. It captures an image from the one love scene between Kidman and Cruise within the film. Provocatively, even within Eyes Wide Shut, this love scene occurs in front of a mirror. Bill approaches Alice, and kisses her passionately. Alice, however, as she submits to Bill's kisses, is markedly distant. Apparently in order to get a better look at the spectacle in the mirror, she takes off her eye glasses. At this moment, the scene abruptly ends, with Alice's oblique look at the camera. It is virtually the final frame that is captured in the image in the ad.

What is most confronting about this scene within the film, I want to suggest, is indicated exactly in how this shot is framed in the advertisement. Alice and Bill appear framed in a mirror, surrounded by a purple backing. At least ironically, then, this image is being proffered to us as what we viewers see, or at least visualise, whenever we look in a mirror. Bill and Alice- or Tom and Nicole- it is being suggested, are our couple, the perfect embodiment of the Real Thing of a full sexual relationship that we are incited by the mass media to imaginatively idealise. The troubling enigma about this scenario thus comes from how Alice"s gaze, as she apparently looks back at herself out of the corner of her eye, is also the point from whence the framed image that we are looking at itself looks back at us. There can then be few clearer cases of what Lacan called the object-gaze, in fact: a point within the "objective" visual field that yet looks back at us, reminding us of our implication, and the implication of our desires, in what it is we see. Like the skull at the feet of Holbein's Ambassadors that can only be seen at the cost of "de-realising" the rest of the content, once Alice's almost-disgusted glance catches our eye, the fantasmatic frame of Cruise and Kidman, ideal Hollywood couple, really enjoying the Real Thing, is shattered. To cite Zizek's sublation of the post-structuralist emphasis on the "tain" in the mirror of self-reflection, the point of which I want to argue also applies directly here:

Hegel knows perfectly well that refection always fails, that the subject always encounters a dark spot, a point which does not return him his mirror-picture- in which he cannot "recognise himself". It is precisely at this point of absolute strangeness that the subject … not the imaginary ego, caught in the mirror-relationship, is inscribed into the picture … the subject qua subject of the look "is" only insofar as the mirror-picture he is looking at is inherently incomplete- insofar, that is, as it contains a "pathological" stain- the subject is correlative to this stain." [Zizek, 2002: 89]

If my contention in this Part II holds then, we will also have to pass beyond Zizek's reading of the remarkable close of the film, with Alice fractiously answering her husband's question about what they should "do" now with the single word: "fuck!" For Zizek, this "cut" neatly emphasises how human desire is so deranged that we not only need to fantasise if we are to have sex, but that ultimately sex itself is the best defence against the plague of fantasies concerning the enjoyment of the Other[s]. As Zizek says: "end of film, final credits". [Zizek, 2001: 175] If the film was only ever our dream, staged with an eye to our consumerist scopophilia, our direct confrontation with the signifier whose repression allowed us to keep on dreaming could only be followed by the blank screen of our waking.

III: Conclusion: Traversing the Fantasy

So the contention that I have put here is not simply that Eyes Wide Shut didactically stages the external truth of our consumerist-permissive world. My argument in Part II is that its staging as one more spectacle within the 'society of the spectacle" is also in question within the film itself. In this concluding Part III, I want to close the dialectics of inside and outside, and truth and fiction, that has been introduced in reading the film. The question that I want to raise is: if Eyes Wide Shut not only stages characters captured in the consumerist fascination for the sexual Truth behind the repressive surfaces, but also addresses us in our very viewing of it as similarly interpellated subjects, what is it that it says concerning our contemporary regime of sexuality and sexual difference? Does it simply flatter our post-liberal consumerism, in its "adult" disregard of older taboos? Is this what Alice's gaze back at us from the looking glass stands for?

The answer is not difficult to ascertain, as my closing remarks in Part II indicate. Anyone who goes to Eyes Wide Shut with an eye to being sexually titillated will be lastingly frustrated. Even the one love scene between Alice and Bill is unceremoniously cut short. Bill's visit to Domino ends when "Mrs Dr Bill" calls. When he calls back Marian dissipately the following day, her fiancee Carl answers, so Bill hangs up. When Bill goes back to Domino's on the third evening, her housemate "spoils the mood" by telling him that Domino has that day been diagnosed with H.I.V. The orgy itself is a spectacle not only for us, but also for Bill. When it looks as though he is about to be coupled with a girl, "Mandy" pulls him away to warn him that he "must go", and that he is in "terrible danger". The artificial slowness of all dialogue in the film, together with Bill's own incapacity after meeting Domino to do anything but parrot the words of all of his interlocutors, all succeed in conveying the most profound impotence. Domino's dress is a rich purple.

What I would argue Kubrik's film is suggesting about contemporary sexuality, then is an apparently paradoxical, but actually dialectical, position. The removal of all obstacles to uninhibited sexual inhibition in Eyes Wide Shut, when Bill casts off the shackles of his marital and professional roles, leads only to the most far-reaching inhibition. Nothing seems any longer to be permitted him. By the end of the film, Bill is begging Alice to have him back. In this way, Freud's "On the Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love", which I invoked at the beginning of the paper, is deeply relevant to the text. As Freud writes there:

The damage caused by the initial frustration of sexual pleasure is seen by the fact that the freedom given to that pleasure in marriage in marriage does not bring full satisfaction. But at the same time, if sexual freedom is unrestricted from the outset the result is no better. It can easily be shown that the psychical value of erotic needs is replaced as soon as their satisfaction becomes easy. An obstacle is required in order to heighten libido; and where natural resistances to satisfactions have not been sufficient men have at all times erected conventional ones so as to be able to enjoy love … In times in which there were no difficulties standing in the way of sexual satisfaction, such as perhaps during the decline of the ancient civilizations, love became worthless and life empty, and strong-reaction formations were required to restore indispensable affective values." [Freud, VII: 257]

The dialectic of sexuality and prohibition suggested in Eyes Wide Shut takes things even one step farther in the culminating orgy scene. The sex itself here is preceded by a bizarre ritual. As Bill enters, women dressed only in masks, heels, and black g-strings kneel in a circle around a man cloaked in a rich red, swinging incense like a Catholic priest, who is the central point of the ritual. By cracking a tall staff down on the ground in front of each girl, he passes a kind of benediction upon each in their sex. The girl then rises and leaves the circle, choosing a partner by approaching him ceremoniously and pressing her mask against his. Let me stress again that I don"t think it can be sufficiently emphasized how misplaced a critique is that reminds us that this is hardly all that transgressive these days: since the rise in "sadomasochistic" practices and sub-cultures in the contemporary world is a well-attested sociological datum. [cf. (e.g.) Zizek, 1999: ch. 6] This would be the whole Lacanian point. Bill's journey down the looking glass does not end in the Edenic garden of Alice"s dream. It ends in the murky realm of the superegoic short-circuit between law and transgression, administered by a sinister proxy of the "father of enjoyment" of Freud"s "Totem and Taboo": the One who had absolute access to all of the women. Even the key to the Lacanian figuring of perversion is the position that, in the absence of a prohibition rendering our access to the desired Thing, this absent Law itself becomes the subject's object of enjoyment, such that he cannot "get off" without suffering the force of its Law. It is with reference to this position that Zizek contends we need to understand the rising incidence in later capitalism of sexual relations premised on the voluntary attempt to re-establish in the private realm the types of master-slave relations that are increasingly absent from the public realm. [Zizek, 1999: ch. 6]

What am I then contending that the film says concerning contemporary sexuality is that, beyond appearances, Eyes Wide Shut stands as a calculated challenge to the contemporary sexual dispotif critiqued so forcefully by Foucault in The History of Sexuality volume 1. Bill's search for a liberated sex results in frustration, or worse. As Ziegler says to Bill on the final night: "Do you have any idea who those people were last night? If I could tell you their names- and I"m not going to tell you there names- … you wouldn"t sleep so well". In the epistemological register, Bill's search for It, the Truth concerning sexuality behind the social masks, ends in a world of "real" masks and of semblances, where sex is reduced to the most basal mechanical operation, everyone resembles everyone else, and (perhaps most terrifyingly) Bill is unable even to establish from Ziegler whether the whole scene of his being threatened and "redeemed" the previous night was anything more than a fake staged to "scare the living shit out of [him]".

Alice's summary remark to Bill about his misadventure in the final scene is absolutely telling to what I am arguing here. We expect to hear from her the conciliatory remark that one night can never be the truth of a whole life, and that therefore their marriage will survive. Instead, in a wonderfully speculative sentence, she says that she is "sure that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, can never be the whole Truth". What is intimated here, then, is the dimension of what Zizek calls "essential appearance", borrowing from Hegel. [Zizek, 1989: ch. 5] It is not that we can never get to the whole Truth in one night, since this is the business of a whole life. It is that this "whole" is itself never whole. It is always minimally "not all". What we have to consider at this point, that is, is not that the social-symbolic roles are there to conceal the Real Thing of Sex and Truth, that which would render experience whole. It is that their prohibition of immediate jouissance keeps open the space for sublimation and desire, and the semblance that such a Real platitudinous Thing ever existed in the first place. This, certainly, is the Lacanian formalization of the Freudian speculation in "On the Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love" concerning the apparent impossibility of civilised animals ever finding full satisfaction in any sexual relationship.

In Eyes Wide Shut, at the start of the film, Bill cannot find the wallet where he keeps all the tokens of his socio-symbolic roles, and which is the only thing that seems to vouchsafe him any efficacy on the second night within Eyes Wide Shut and after. Alice knows where it is, right beside the marital bed. When Bill is being led away to where the rainbow ends by the two sirenic models, one asks him: "do you know what is so nice about doctors?" For once, Bill answers decisively: "Usually a lot less than people imagine".


Derrida, Jacques. "Le Facteur de la Verite", in The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1 London: Penguin: 1999.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology London: Verso: 1989.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Fright of Real Tears British Film Institute: Great Britain, 2001.

Zizek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What they Do London: Verso, 2002.