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  • Thaïs Castralli

weekly inspiration #7: Eyes Wide Shut (1999)



Video with full color analysis:




Following the footsteps of The Night of the Hunter (1955) as an unusual holiday movie, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is actually my favorite one, which I watch every Christmas. This year I had the amazing opportunity of doing so on the big screen at the Egyptian Theater. The American Cinematheque screening was presented by Leon Vitali, long time collaborator of Stanley Kubrick, director’s assistant, and actor portraying the Red Cloak character in the movie. The 35mm print just made the colors of the movie pop up even more, which was very encouraging for me to pursue the analysis I always wanted to explore, and am developing here, on the use of solid colors to represent concepts in this movie.

Although it is a film I find myself watching again and again and am quite familiar with, Mr. Vitali brought up a valid point: a Kubrick movie is always different upon rewatching. I believe his masterpieces are so filled with detail that each new viewing allows the spectator to venture through new paths of perception, and, therefore, embark in new interpretations. That is so, in my opinion, for Kubrick’s representation of a theme speaks directly to the human experience, so it is easy to connect with the themes presented and sympathize with characters in a deep and personal level. That allows for different analysis of a subject depending on when we, as audience, find ourselves in life in that particular moment. In Eyes Wide Shut the connection may even be stronger for dealing with such deep, powerful emotions, and feelings. Even though Kubrick dissects the delicate structure of marriage, the movie is about much more than that: it deals with human desire and the power dynamics in a relationship.

Turning 20 years old this year, Kubrick’s final piece uses the camera as a microscope to analyze the concept of marriage as a social construction, cleverly setting it inside of a dreamlike landscape where he can approach the subjects of human desire. Under the lens, he inserts then married Hollywood couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, adding yet an extra layer to a narrative that already stands on the thin line that separates fantasy and reality. They lend their shared reality to the made up New York city sets so Kubrick can dive into the human psyche. The narrative rubs the veneer of joint life with unfulfilled or unspoken desires. The social appearance peels easily when disturbed by the rage of jealousy and by those nearly inexpressible impulses.


The delicate balance that keeps the social structure of marriage up can be set off by the silent push and pull of forces between the members in it. In other words, if one of the partners believes the other has the upper hand on a situation or feels inferior in a particular subject, jealousy can be prompted to push the state of things off balance. The implications of jealousy can be asserted in this movie right from the beginning, and not only from one of the characters seeing her husband flirting with other women, but also from the perception of leverage displayed by the different career moments protagonists find themselves in.


Dr. William and Alice Harford appear to be the perfect couple - young, beautiful, and smart. The movie starts with the couple getting ready for a party, sharing the same bathroom. As Alice asks for Bill’s attention on her hairdo the film presents right away their intimate relationship not being a desire of intimacy but as an enduring and stable connection. The first scene showcases their luxurious apartment and their well cared fore young daughter. Their home life is a picture of success, stability, and proves their achievements early on in life. The party they arrive at is from one of Dr. Bill’s patient’s, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). As the couple separates in the party, Bill is approached by two women, and Alice dances with a wealthy, intelligent, older gentleman. The film starts to scratch the veneer of the perfect marriage it just presented. While dancing, Alice reveals she is the former manager of an art gallery that went broke and is currently unemployed. Their conversation showcases her knowledge and hints to the idea that becoming a stay at home mom is not part of her plans. Meanwhile, Bill is a society doctor, who clearly achieved success early in his career, and is respected by his wealthy patients - the main example is the lavish party they encounter themselves at, and the mention they attend it every year. The clear notion of unbalance in the power dynamics of the relationship on the subject of career is exacerbated by Alice seeing her husband joined by two models. Furthermore, just like he did not pay attention to her hairdo earlier, this time he does not pay attention to her intentions of making him jealous by dancing with another man.


The events at the party arise Alice’s desire and provoke her jealousy, which prompts her to confess an erotic fantasy she nurtured with another man while married to Bill. Although only imagined, and never acted on, this fintense desire of another man tilts the balance of the relationship again, and induces Bill into an unknown furious jealousy. That unacknowledged passion propels him into a nocturnal hunt for adventures to act out on his jealousy - on a sort of payback for Alice’s imaginary betrayal.


And just like that, a seemingly happy marriage has the curtains open so audience can enter the backstage and watch the real spectacle taking place behind the scenes.

The pristine façade is just that: a façade. Bill and Alice pose as the example couple in this case study by Stanley Kubrick, who, in his last movie, develops a stunning masterpiece of mood, atmosphere, and allegoric visual representation. Eyes Wide Shut is a psychological thriller that unravels as a domino effect, after the first flick of emotion, the actions of the protagonist cannot be stopped. Or, in Kubrick’s own words: “a film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later”.

Just like with other Kubrick movies it is nearly impossible to select one single scene to represent the visual inspiration this piece offers, especially because each scene here builds off another. The visual style, however, is created around a color scheme to represent concepts, which is used before in his filmography. The color red in particular is largely used in his other colored movies. For Eyes Wide Shut not only red but color blocking is present throughout the film. I venture to say that each color describes a specific concept. That color analysis is exactly what I wish to explore in this essay.

In my opinion, the extant to which Kubrick inserts the solid colors red, blue, and yellow in frame is by design a tool to express ideas. As red is so present in his work, he usually also works with green inside the compositions as a complimentary color. In Eyes Wide Shut that is not different:



To me, in this movie, yellow represents wealth and power. Even though it appears in certain scenes as complimentary to the intense blue elements used in frame, it is continuously presented as a rich gold standing by itself. It is overwhelmingly present in Ziegler’s lavish house and in the mansion where the wild, ritualistic, and secretive sex party Bill’s night culminates in takes place.


{For Ziegler’s house, director of photography Larry Smith pushed the 500 ISO film stock by two stops (rating it E.I. 2000), so he could light the enormous location only with Christmas lights. Of course complimentary lighting is used for close ups, but the warm ambiance the Christmas lights lend to the environment is both dreamy and a symbol of excess, which clearly marks the character Ziegler}


The main colors in play in Eyes Wide Shut are red and blue. To me, representing desire and dream, respectively. Red is present in almost every frame of the movie, in pieces of wardrobe, neon signs, streets lights, decoration and architecture. It translates the characters’ inner intentions or symbolizes the pursuit of desire or eroticism:


On the other hand, blue describes dream, the fantasy land that Bill embarks on, and it is the color of night. From the first scene the apartment windows showcase an intense blue tint to represent night. The use of colorful, expressive lighting inside a realistic set points to fantasy as a main aspect the narrative will deal with. Blue is not only present in lighting for night, but also in elements during day time. It is as if dream is bleeding into reality. And acts as if the day was stained by the previous night’s events:

{When the masked woman offers herself for the punishment Bill would have to endure in his place, her background is created by blue lighting. Neither the audience nor Dr. Bill can access if the rituals are real or part of this invented universe. In my opinion, it is the use of blue one more time to symbolize the dream and surreal aspects of the world built by people trying to act on their fantasies}


{Alice is lit in blue while she confesses her erotic dream to Bill. Night has swept the room and fantasy is present. The lighting outside the room is warm, as if signaled that reality is outside}


{When Bill revisits the mansion where the sex party took place in the next morning, he is stopped at the gate, which is blue, and now pops out under daylight. Night bleeds into day}


During some moments of the narrative, red and blue intersect and the clash of concepts is represented in violet:


Reaching the end of the movie, the confessions of Bill and Alice about their fantasies is cathartic in the way that it brings them together. Uncertain on how to move on with real life after venturing in dreamland, Alice expresses they should be grateful for surviving their fantasies, whether they were real or only imagined. Bill points out that no dream is ever just a dream. The joint conclusion they reach brings together the two worlds the movie has been analyzing from the start and shows fantasy and reality as two faces of the same coin. The act that may follow a desire bares no weight on the scale of relationship. The sheer presence of it is enough to throw it off balance.





Thank you for reading!

Until next week... and next inspiration!

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