Eyes Wide Shut

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Eyes Wide Shut: Kubrick’s final film on fundamental fantasy, jouissance and gaze

Wim Matthys

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This paper analyzes American director Stanley Kubrick’s cinematography and Eyes Wide Shut  in the light of Lacan’s theory on fundamental fantasy, jouissance and gaze. Firstly, we argue that the film’s events culminate into a staging of the scenario of fundamental fantasy “C observes: A overpowers B”, a scenario which in our thesis is staged on numerous occasions throughout Kubrick’s cinematographic work. Secondly, we substantiate that Eyes Wide Shut’s staging of this scenario of fundamental fantasy underpins the film’s staging of sadistic and masochistic modes of jouissance. Thirdly, it is argued that Kubrick ultimately aimed at confronting his spectators with the gaze, specifically by confronting the audience with his principal actor Tom Cruise’s insistent assuming the masochistic position in the scenario of fundamental fantasy at stake.

1. Introduction

Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s filmic adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s (2003 [1926]) Traumnovelle, opened in New York on July 16th 1999. That is three months after its director died on March 7th 1999, when he had just delivered the final cut of the film to is distributer Warner Bros. Following the film’s release, the hegemonic reaction both in the American public and press was one of disappointment (Preussner, 2001). The film’s critics typically explained that disappointment by referring to, what they called, the “misleading publicity campaign” that Kubrick and Warner Bros had set up for the film (Ransom, 2010). The focus of that campaign was on the film’s depiction of ‘(conjugal) sexuality’, specifically where it involved an appearance of the ‘married in real life’ Hollywood couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (Bart, 1999, September 27; Lobrutto, 1997). For example, Warner Bros.’ sister company Time announced the film on the cover of its July 1999 edition by means of the banner “Cruise and Kidman Like You’ve never seen Them.” The campaign’s message was also reflected in the vast amount of free publicity that Kubrick and Warner Bros. had managed draw to the film by casting Hollywood’s star couple. US Magazine for example questioned if Eyes Wide Shut would be the sexiest movie ever?


So, when the film was released, the critics’ main complaint was that, instead of the ‘hot’ erotic film to which they had anticipated, EWS was clearly ‘unsexy’ (Siegel, 1999; Kreider, 2000). Many critics focused on the film’s central orgy-sequence, dismissing it for being cold and impersonal, not to mention fearsome and, thus, far removed from anything that could be described as ‘titillating’ (scenes 17-22; Ransom, 2011; Denby, 1999, July 26).[1]  Also, by reference to the film’s depiction of conjugal (psycho) sexuality, The New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani (1999, July 18) complained of the lack of “erotic heat” between Cruise and Kidman’s characters. She also complained that at several points the film’s characters were presented in a lifeless, caricature-like, ‘mechanical’ way. The critics’ typical conclusion was that, where they had expected the film to deal with ‘hot’ eroticism, it on the contrary was “[..] passionless, sex-phobic, frozen, and dead” (Kreider, 2000, p. 41).


As indicated by academic film critic Robert Kolker (2000) EWS’s ‘coldness’ and staging of one-dimensional characters is representative of Kubrick’s films in general. In his view Kubrick presents a cinematographic universe reigned by cold, “dehumanized structures” in which human beings and their affects scarcely have a place (Kolker, 2000, p. 157). For example, in 2001, A Space Odyssey the functioning of human beings is almost identical to that of their machines and computer systems. The prominent place that rational structures occupy within Kubrick’s cinematographic universe is also reflected by the director’s use of a highly formalized style. With Falsetto (2001) we for example refer to Kubrick’s use of symmetry on the level of framing, mise-en-scène and narratives.


Kolker’s (2000) observation that Kubrick has created a cinematographic universe reigned by cold rational ‘structures’ is at the base of film theorist Todd McGowan’s (2007) thesis that the set-up of the director’s cinema reflects Lacan’s theory on the fundamental fantasy. McGowan (2007) indicates that, in contrast to the common tendency to associate the notion of fantasy with ‘hot’ affects, the fundamental fantasy rather is “a structure that operates with the same mechanical coldness that we see in Kubrick’s films” (2007, p. 43-44, our emphasis).  However, McGowan does not indicate what sort of structure the fundamental fantasy is about. As such he also fails to pinpoint what specific fundamental fantasy is at stake in Kubrick’s cinema. In this paper we discuss both issues, specifically with reference to EWS. We subsequently argue how this specific fundamental fantasy channels jouissance. Thirdly and conclusively, we point to a mode by which Kubrick’s films and specifically Eyes Wide Shut can confront its cinema viewers with the gaze.

2. The fundamental fantasy in Eyes Wide Shut

The question we have to answer is: what sort of structure is the fundamental fantasy? As Verhaeghe (1997, p. 259) points out, the concept refers to a “generating structure,” operative on the level of the unconscious and at the base of the subject’s symptoms and fantasy-life, as expressed in daydreams. He defines it as an unconscious, “cognitive-affective script through which we approach the world” (Ibid., p. 142). In his tenth seminar Lacan (2004 [1962-63], p. 89) emphasized the fundamental fantasy’s link with the order of the Imaginary, comparing it with “a picture that comes to take place in the frame of a window.” In his fourth seminar Lacan (1994 [1956-57], p. 119-120) had also compared the fundamental fantasy with a movie still, or “a cinematographic movement that [..] suddenly stops at one point, freezing all the characters.” Marking the Symbolic dimension involved, Lacan (1986 [1964], p. 185) stated in his eleventh seminar that that the frozen image of the fundamental fantasy in essence is underpinned by a specific “scenario” or basic script. In his fourteenth seminar Lacan concretized that this scenario in essence is no more than a “sentence with a grammatical structure”. Relevant for our study of Kubrick’s work, Quackelbeen (1987, 1994) indicates that one key to unraveling an artist’s fundamental fantasy, is to question whether his or her creations are marked by the repetitive staging of such a minimal script, which thereby tends to function as a magnetic pole for the (visual) action involved?


In order to retrieve the scenario of fundamental fantasy which is at the base of Kubrick’s cinema, we point to the director’s insistent depiction of human interactions in terms of antagonism and violence. We see this most prominently in the director’s ninth feature film A Clockwork Orange. The film in which every layer of society deploys methods of overpowering, not only marked the apex of the 1960s and 1970s “Golden Age of American film Violence”, but also became the center of a fierce public controversy (Slocum, 2001; Strange, 2010). We add that the visual depiction of aggressive behavior however insists throughout the totality of director’s oeuvre. To illustrate this thesis, we firstly point to the director’s staging of the leitmotiv of the ‘fist-fight.’ For example, Kubrick’s first documentary short film Day of the Fight (1953) focused on the career of middle weight boxer Walter Cartier (Phillips & Hill, 2002). The thirteen feature films the director made, from 1953 to 1999, further illustrate his preference for staging sequences of hand-to-hand combat, as they all include at least one sequence which involves a punch-up or a form of wrestling. Secondly, the director’s work is permeated by the theme of war. Four of his thirteen films are war movies, while two other films also explicitly include large-scaled battle scenes. Thirdly, on a smaller scale qua number of involved combatants, four of his films, among which The Shining (1980) stage the violent disruption of the family unit. Where Eyes Wide Shut’s critics focused on the film’s approach of sexuality, they rarely have pointed to the film’s staging of domestic violence. We however essentially take into account the film’s staging of aggressive behavior to mark the involvement of Kubrick’s fundamental fantasy.

This leads to our observation that Kubrick’s repetitive staging of sequences of violence, explicitly reminds of the fantasy-scene of ‘a child that is being beaten’, which Freud (1975 [1919e]) considered to be central in several of his patients’ fantasy-life. Freud’s text on the beating fantasy also was used by Lacan (1966-67, Lesson of January 11 1967) as a paradigmatic example for his theory on the fundamental fantasy. Although Freud indicated that the exact content of the beating fantasy varied both with the sex of his patients and over the fantasy’s chronologically phased development, in our interpretation the different versions of the fantasy are underpinned by a minimal abstract scenario or sentence: “A overpowers B”. In our argument this scenario also functions as a magnetic pole for the action staged in Kubrick’s work. In A Clockwork Orange the staging of that scenario explicitly is marked by the involvement of passive-active reversal. The first part of the film consequently stages the film’s anti-hero, Alex, in the position of perpetrator (A). However, in the second part of the film, the character shifts from that position of perpetrator (A) to the position of  victim (B), while his opponents do the opposite. We also point to Kubrick’s staging of passive-active reversal in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). For example, at the beginning of the film the overpowering of one tribe of anthropoids by another is countered by the former’s murderous revenge. Interestingly, also Eyes Wide Shut stages the scenario “A overpowers B”, that is, as the culmination point of its central male character ‘Bill Harford’s’ social encounters. The film’s staging of that scenario specifically is organized around that character indulging in active-to-passive reversal over his interactions with his wife, ‘Alice’.


During its opening scenes, the film suggests that in their marriage, Bill self-confidently assumes an active, dominant position towards Alice (scenes 1-5). While he is presented as a successful physician, we learn that Alice is unemployed and on a manifest level resigns herself to a supportive role by taking care of their child’s upbringing and by publicly appearing as her husband’s trophy wife. This balance in the marriage however is upset when, during a bedroom discussion, Alice provokes her husband to reveal that he is unable to acknowledge that she is a subject of desire which may exceed his interest. During the discussion, Bill’s self-satisfied utterances reach their culmination point when he states that he knows for “sure” that Alice, ‘being his wife and the mother of his child’, would or could never be unfaithful to him. In response, Alice radically confronts Bill with her desire. Although she has not factually betrayed her husband, she manages to upset him merely by disclosing that she fantasizes about doing so. In a mechanism of hysteria, Alice dethrones Bill in his assuming the position of ‘master of knowledge’, confronting him with the lack at the base of subjectivity. The radicalness of the scene however is that, Alice not only confronts Bill with his inability to acknowledge her subjective desire, but explicitly humiliates him while doing so: her immediate response to her husband’s self-assured utterances is that she bluntly starts to laugh in his face (Image 1, scene 7). Remarkably Bill at this point, does not challenge his wife’s aggressive outburst, but passively subordinates to it. While Bill thus shifts from the active position of dominance to passive subordination, his wife does the opposite. It is in that sense, that the bedroom-sequence culminates into an instance of the scenario “A overpowers B.” While it is Alice who ultimately assumes the position of aggressor (A), while Bill ultimately is in the role of victim (B). From this point in the film onwards, Bill will insistently assume the passive subordinate position towards his wife. We for example point to a later sequence of the film in which Alice again humiliates her husband. In this case she does so by telling Bill the content of a dream, in which she not only indulges in sex with other men, but specifically does so to make fun of her husband.


   Image 1:  Alice ‘castrates’ Bill, by laughing in his face (scene 7)


Now, in order to complete the scenario of fundamental fantasy that structures Kubrick’s cinematography, we have to take into account that on numerous instances throughout his films, the director also explicitly stages the third party of an observer (C) towards the scenes of overpowering involved. The full scenario of fundamental fantasy that underpins these films thus is: “C observes: A overpowers B.” As an illustration we indicate that Kubrick’s first short film Day of the Fight (1951) opens by immediately pointing to the fact that the boxing matches it comments upon in the first place function as a spectacle for their public of spectators. Secondly, Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) also repeatedly emphasizes that the function of its gladiators’ involvement in mortal combat primarily is to provide visual entertainment to Roman patricians. A Clockwork Orange (1971) most prominently stages the scenario “C observes: A overpowers B” when its central character Alex is submitted to an experimental technique for treating his aggressive behaviour. During the treatment Alex’s eyes are fixed to the screen in a cinema auditorium, so that he literally is forced to observe filmic depictions of “A overpowers B.” Eyes Wide Shut also on one instance literally stages the scenario “C observes: A overpowers B.” We point to the central sequence from the film in which Bill is ritually punished for having intruded a masked orgy. In this sequence, a master of ceremony occupies the position of aggressor (A). The figure not only commands Bill to drop his mask but also humiliatingly suggests that the film’s protagonist should ‘undress.’ In this sequence the position of the observer (C) is assumed by a series of masked spectators whom all encircle Bill and as such witness him assuming the position of victim (B) (Image 2, scene 22). We add that the specific set-up of the sequence recalls that also in five other films Kubrick stages instances of overpowering that involve a hedge of spectators (C) constituting the border of the combat zone.



Image 2: masked spectators (C) encircle Bill in a ritual of humiliation (scene 22)

3. A scenario of jouissance

At this point we take into account that from a Lacanian point of view, the subject ultimately tends to cling on to the script of his fundamental fantasy because it sets out the coordinates by which means he channels bodily jouissance (Declercq, 2004). We remind that a literal translation of Lacan’s concept of jouissance into ‘enjoyment’ is inadequate. Where enjoyment is entailed with a connotation of mere pleasure, jouissance explicitly refers to a transgression of the pleasure principle (Vanheule, 2011). As Fink (1995) points out, it is “a pleasure that is excessive, leading to a sense of being overwhelmed or disgusted, yet simultaneously providing a source of fascination” (p. xii) For Lacan (1992 [1959-1960]) jouissance’s dimension of excess also is pointed to by its association with the subject’s transgression of the boundaries set up by the Symbolic or Oedipal laws.

In Kubrick’s films, jouissance most prominently appears in its sadistic variant, that is in association with the position of the perpetrator (A). As McGowan (2007) indicates, this mode of jouissance typically appears where Kubrick’s representatives of authority insistently tend to exceed the boundaries of their function. One mode by which Kubrick highlights these figures’ jouissance is by deriving over-the-top-performances from the actors that impersonate the according roles. As a paradigmatic example McGowan refers to Michael Bates’ appearance as A Clockwork Orange’s (1971) chief prison guard. For McGowan (2007), jouissance appears through Bates’ use of his voice, as the prison guard exaggeratedly screams at his inmate Alex when the latter arrives in jail. Similar mechanisms of over the-top-performances can be retrieved in, for example, George C. Scott’s impression of Dr. Strangelove’s (1964) general Buck Turgidson and Lee Ermey’s performance as Full Metal Jacket’s (1987) drill instructor. In Eyes Wide Shut Kubrick most prominently points to an authority’s figure’s jouissance in a sequence where Bill is carpeted by a ‘substitute father figure’, Ziegler. In this scene the ‘excess’ which marks Ziegler’s jouissance is subtly indicated by the inappropriate ‘paternalizing touch’ which he applies to Bill’s shoulders. The involved dimension of humiliation is marked by the contrast between the smile which appears on the Ziegler’s face and Bill’s facial expression of discomfort. As another nuance to McGowan’s approach of Kubrick’s films, we indicate that in Eyes Wide Shut, sadistic jouissance is not solely associated with the appearance of authority figures. Indeed, the perpetrator’s jouissance also explicitly is pointed to in the scene where Alice as aggressor (A) humiliates her husband during the bedroom discussion. Similar to the sequence in which Ziegler overpowers Bill, the involvement of sadistic jouissance is marked by the contrast between Alice’s overt smile and her husband’s facial expression of discomfort. The sequence also evokes jouissance’s dimension of ‘excess,’ as it involves actrice Nicole Kidman’s shift from natural acting to an over-the-top performance: her outburst of laughter not only takes remarkably long but also is accompanied by burlesque bodily gestures, she swaggers around and even falls to the floor (scenes 6-7).


Secondly, Kubrick’s films on several instances refer to the link between jouissance and the position of the victim (B). The according mode of masochistic jouissance reminds of Freud’s (1975 [1924c], p. 161) notion of “erotogenic masochism”, or the pleasure a subject can derive from his own pain. To illustrate Kubrick’s depiction of masochistic jouissance, we refer to A Clockwork Orange’s (1971) staging of a quick-cut montage of close-up images that depict four identical ceramic Christ figures placed on a cupboard in its protagonist room. The specific set-up of the scene marks masochistic jouissance’s paradoxical association between pleasure and pain. On one hand the sequence contains elements that accord with a classic representation of Christ’s crucifixion, referring to the experience of pain: the figures have their head bowed, wear a crown of thorns and have nail-wounds in their wrists. On the other hand, they are lined up in a dancing pose while the sequence, moreover, is edited to an inflaming passage of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. The addition of these burlesque elements not only marks the scene with a reference to excess, but also implies that the figures are portrayed as if they paradoxically derive pleasure from their suffering. In our hypothesis the set-up of Eyes Wide Shut subtly suggests that its character Bill also derives masochistic jouissance from assuming position of victim (B). We recall that, from the point Bill is humiliated by Alice during the bedroom sequence, he keeps running into situations that confirm his passive subordination to aggression. At several points the film suggests that the male protagonist somehow ‘actively chooses’ to persist in the passive position. For example, Alice only discloses her humiliating dream to Bill once he has prompted her to do so, ignoring all her signs that he will ultimately be hurt by it (scene 24). It also is remarkable that, although Bill has plenty of opportunity to interrupt or counter his wife’s outbursts of aggression, he insistently fails to do so. In this sense, we can hypothesize that quasi-paradoxically, assuming the position of victim (B) somehow is a source of pleasure for Bill. Although the character’s ‘lust’ in his own pain does not manifest visually (e.g., at no point is it illustrated in his facial expression), the involvement of masochistic jouissance thus is subtly suggested by his insistent indulgence in ‘self-sacrifice.’

Thirdly, we indicate that Kubrick’s films also mark the association between the position of the observer (C) on one hand and the experience of jouissance on the other. As an example we refer to a sequence of A Clockwork Orange in which the film’s character Alex is humiliated on a theatre stage for a public of observers (scene 23). The sequence implies that Alex’s former aggressor, the film’s chief prison guard, is staged as a member of the observing audience. Here, however, a close-up of that character reveals that he responds to the observed depictions of humiliation both with enthusiastic applause and by displaying a large smile on his face. The scene’s excess is thus not only marked by the transgression depicted on the theatre stage, but also by the prison guard’s exaggeratedly enthusiastic reaction to the transgression he observes. As such, the sequence not only highlights a complicity between the positions of perpetrator (A) and observer (C), but also that this complicity is essentially substantiated by a sadistic mode of jouissance.


Although Eyes Wide Shut on the level of its content does not manifestly stage the observer’s (C) jouissance, we now argue that on an extra-diegetical level Stanley Kubrick himself derived jouissance both from staging and observing the sequences of overpowering that appear in the film. To pinpoint the mechanism at stake, we evoke the film’s co-screenwriter Frederic Raphael’s (1999) statement that it is at least remarkable that Kubrick’s deliberate choice to cast a married couple –Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman- for a film which explicitly dealt with the theme of marital crisis. In terms of the fundamental fantasy, whenever Alice was overpowering Bill in the film, Kubrick was involved as director of sequences in which, structurally, Nicole Kidman also assumed the position of aggressor (A) towards Tom Cruise. In our argument, Kubrick’s sadistic jouissance specifically was marked by his casting of Tom Cruise. The film not only stages Tom Cruise in situations where he is overpowered and humiliated by his own wife, Kubrick’s film also involves specific elements that reflect the mediatized gossip and rumours about the disparities in Cruise’s marriage to Kidman. We firstly point to the remark by Andrew Sarris (1999) of The New York Observer that it was striking how Kubrick throughout the film was dwelling “sadistically on the size disparity in [Cruise’s] marriage to Ms. Kidman.” Secondly, Kubrick also included sequences that can be interpret as subtle allusions to the rumours that the Cruise’s marriage to Kidman was a sham to hide Cruise’s purported homosexuality (see Siegel, 1999, Pocock, 2000; Webster, 2011). As an example, critics like Amy Taubin (1999) often referred to a scene in which Bill / Tom Cruise encounters the flirtations of a gay desk clerk. More radically Kubrick also includes a short sequence in which Bill/Tom Cruise is overpowered by a group of young men on the street. In a literal depiction of the scenario “A overpowers B,” these young men not only aggressively push Bill/Tom Cruise against a car, but also verbally humiliate him by calling him a member of the pink team (Image 3, scene 10). Also this scene thus involves an allusion to Cruise’s purported homosexuality. Based on these observations, we consider it plausible that Stanley Kubrick himself derived sadistic jouissance from actively staging and observing Tom Cruise assuming the position of victim (B) of these various humiliations.



     Image 3: Bill is pushed against a car and humiliated by a group of young men (scene 10)
4. Conclusion: Kubrick’s staging of the gaze
In this paper we firstly have argued how Eyes Wide Shut, like other Kubrick films, stages the scenario of fundamental fantasy “C observes: A overpowers B.” Secondly, we have argued that Kubrick’s staging of that scenario channels sadistic and masochistic dimensions of jouissance. Moreover we pointed to a mode by which Eyes Wide Shut’s director Stanley Kubrick himself derived sadistic jouissance from staging and observing the film’s sequences of overpowering.

Conclusively we indicate how the staging of fundamental fantasy and jouissance in Eyes Wide Shut can involve the film’s viewers. To locate the mechanism at stake, we indicate that whenever Kubrick’s films stage the scenario “A overpowers B,” also his film’s cinema viewers are structurally involved as observers (C) of the violence staged on screen. Kubrick’s reference to his spectators’ involvement specifically is underlined in the sequences from his films that depict sequences of overpowering being observed on television or on a cinema screen. For example, in Killer’s Kiss (1955) two characters explicitly watch a television broadcast of the film’s anti-hero being knocked-out in a boxing contest. Also, three of Lolita‘s (1962) characters at a given point are at a drive-in cinema, observing a sequence of overpowering from Fisher’s film The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).

Ultimately Kubrick’s films evoke their viewers to confront, what Lacan calls ‘the gaze’. Tis gaze for Lacan essentially unseen. An encounter with it can be marked by the spectator’s experience of shifting from the position of actively looking to being looked at from some undefinied point behind a pictorial surface. A confrontation with the ‘the gaze’ essentially implies that the spectator loses his distance towards what is depicted in the visual field. The mechanism most literally is pointed to in A Clockwork Orange, at the point where its main figure Alex is portrayed at the bottom of a cinema auditorium while he is forced to observe cinema violence. We point to a specific shot from the sequence which, as a central element stages an intense concentration of light, which indicates the presence of the film projector on top of the auditorium. We also remark that through the specific set up of the camera, the position of the film’s spectator here coincides with that of the cinema screen that Alex is forced to look at. These observations call to mind Lacan’s statement that the presence of the gaze is typically marked by “[..] the instrument through which light is embodied” and by which the spectator of a visual spectacle experiences himself as “photographed,” or is turned into a picture himself (Lacan, 1986 [1964], p. 106). The film’s shot, in our interpretation, confronts with the gaze in case the viewer undergoes the imaginary experience of shifting from the active position of distant observer towards the position of the passive object that is looked at.

To locate a mechanism by which Eyes Wide Shut can confront its viewers with the gaze, we turn to the sequence in which ‘Bill’ is unmasked and ritually humiliated for having intruded the film’s secret orgy (Image 4, scene 22). With Pizzato (2004), we firstly indicate that a logical effect of the sequence is that the first impression of the film’s viewers is that the unmasking in the sequence not so much concerns the fictional character of Bill, but rather reveals the ‘famous face of [the actor] Tom Cruise.’ Secondly, this sequence also stages Bill/Tom Cruise in a position where he is passively looked at from all sides by the figures that encircle him. In several of the scene’s shots Kubrick’s set-up of the camera is as such that these masked figures look at the film’s spectators. Thereby the evokes Lacan’s (1986 [1964], p. 107) thesis that the ‘gaze’ typically manifests itself as an enigmatic presence located beyond the surface of a “mask,” a presence by which the viewer imagines himself being looked at. In our interpretation a radical effect of the sequence is reached in case the film’s viewers suddenly experience themselves passively looked at, or confronted with Kubrick’s attempt to make them complicit on the level of the jouissance that he himself derived from staging scenes of overpowering, specifically where they involve the humiliation of his principal actor.


Wim Matthys

Missoula, 2014 August 1th


Image 4: Masked observers (C) witness how Bill/Tom Cruise is unmasked (scene 22)


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[1] All references to scenes from EWS are based on the division of the film into 38 chapters on the DVD which Warner Bros released in 2001 as part of The Stanley Kubrick Collection, a box containing six Kubrick films.