Christmas in Eyes Wide Shut
Every year, as we get closer to the holidays, you’ll start to see and hear people discussing holiday movies, and a contemporary part of that discussion is quibbling over whether such-and-such a film is a Christmas movie. The archetype of this argument is that the film, Die Hard, because it takes place at an office holiday party on Christmas Eve, should be considered a Christmas movie. I’m not that interested in this part of the conversation, but what I do find interesting to look at is what the motives and implications are for setting a movie like this at Christmas. In the case of Die Hard, there are structural and thematic reasons why this choice makes sense. A late night holiday party gives a reason for a small group of people to serve as hostages to be in this office building after hours; and, since part of the emotional core of the film is Bruce Willis’ John McClane trying to reconcile with his estranged wife, Christmas is a great backdrop for that kind of homecoming. Setting aside the question of whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, that it is set at Christmas does play an important role in the story being told.
Another film that has taken on some prominence recently in this conversation around unconventional Christmas movies is Stanley Kubrick’s final film, 1999. Eyes Wide Shut. Like Die Hard, and the other films in this discourse, Eyes Wide Shut is a film that is very overtly set at Christmas, but isn’t interested in engaging directly with traditional Christmas themes. This is a choice of some kind as this shift of setting is one of surprisingly few changes from the novel the film is based on, with just about every scene in Eyes Wide Shut dressed so that you never forget when the events depicted are taking place. There is a danger of overinterpreting Kubrick in these kinds of choices, but I do think that in this case he is trying to say something here, and I’m interested in exploring what that might be.
The film is based on Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s novella, Dream Story. It’s a story about, among other things, dreams and class and marriage, mostly told through a dark night a husband has after his wife confesses to once contemplating being unfaithful to him. The story begins with the husband and wife reading to their young daughter as she falls asleep before they plan to head out for the evening. The one scene of the nighttime story we hear described is of a galley ship out to sea, with a team of slaves rowing below deck, while a prince lays by himself up on the deck, wrapped in his purple cloak, staring up at a starry night sky. As the couple finish reading this bit, the two parents observe that the child’s eyes have shut while she wears an expression “as if she had been caught getting up to mischief.” It’s a sweet domestic moment before the father and mother leave for a masquerade party that night to mark the end of the carnival season.
The film does begin similarly, but even before this scene, the very first shot we get during the opening credits is of the wife, Alice (Nicole Kidman), from the back as Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 plays. It’s night. She’s in the bedroom of what seems to be an expensive city apartment. She’s presumably coming home from a night out, undressing, letting her dress fall off her body to reveal that she’s naked underneath. It’s only a 7 second shot, but it’s enough time to play with an audience’s expectations of what this film is going to be. It’s a moment out of time from the rest of the film that you could read almost anything you like into. It can seem sexual because it’s someone as famous and beautiful as Nicole Kidman getting naked, but it’s not filmed in any especially sexy kind of way. She’s simply a woman standing in her bedroom, casually undressing, but the audience can’t help but project something onto what they’re seeing, unavoidably reading something, probably too much, into the behavior of a woman, caught in a private moment simply existing in our gaze.
When we next see Kidman, it’s a different time. She and her husband Bill (Tom Cruise) are now getting ready to go to a party. Bill putters around their bedroom in his tuxedo, talking to Alice, looking for his wallet, before walking into the bathroom where Alice, in another fancy black dress, is sitting on the toilet, finishing going to the bathroom. They have such a lived-in domesticity and comfort with one another that this intimate moment plays as the most unremarkable thing in the world. Similar to the book, as Bill and Alice make their way out of the apartment to head to the party, they stop in the living room to give their young daughter a kiss goodbye and some last minute instructions to the babysitter, before heading out for the night.
In one sense this is where the film and the book start to diverge, but more as a matter of emphasis and pacing than content. This next party set piece of the film is mostly faithful to the book, and serves the same function as setting in motion everything to follow, but what Kubrick will take twenty minutes to unfold, the book will dispense with in a paragraph. It’s also at the party where Kubrick introduces his biggest addition to the narrative, the wealthy host of this incredibly lavish party, Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). We can tell that Bill and Alice are wealthy in their own right from their NYC apartment, and we will learn that Bill is a high end doctor catering to affluent patients, but the wealth of the Zieglers is another level altogether. The contrast drawn out by Bill and Alice not knowing anyone at the party and feeling out of place.
They get separated when Bill spots someone at the party he does know, and goes over to talk to him while Alice goes to the restroom. The person Bill spots isn’t another guest at the party, but rather one of the hired help: a piano player with the band that Bill recognizes as an old med school classmate of his, Nick Nightingale (Todd Field). We see Bill blossom a bit talking to Nick, presumably in part just from seeing a friendly face, but also clearly because Nick is someone at this party to which Bill can feel more successful. They talk briefly, making plans to catch up at one of Nick's other upcoming gigs in the city, before Nick is pulled back to rejoin the band.
Now separated from one another at the party, both Bill and Alice each experience a small adventure. Alice is by herself at the bar waiting for Bill, drinking champagne to try and get comfortable, when a suave older Hungarian man begins to hit on her. Alice appreciates the attention, agreeing to dance with him, all while his advances become increasingly blunt. Bill is elsewhere, talking with two young models who openly flirting with him, and will ultimately try to lure him upstairs for sex. Alice will eventually resist her pursuer’s advances, leaving him on the dance floor to go look for Bill. We don’t see as definitive a resolution between Bill and the two women interested in him, as he is interrupted right as it becomes clear what’s being offered to him.
Before we can be sure that Bill will say ‘no’ to these two models, he is summoned by one of Ziegler’s assistants. What we will learn when Bill makes his way upstairs, is that sometime after we first met Ziegler, when he and his wife were welcoming Bill and Alice to the party, he had apparently snuck upstairs for an assignation with another woman. When Bill finds them, Ziegler is dressing, and his mistress, Mandy, is sprawled out naked on a couch, unconscious from an overdose of cocaine and heroin.
Because I’m specifically looking at Eyes Wide Shut through the prism of Christmas, a connection I made this time that I hadn’t before is some of the resemblance between this scene and a key scene in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film, The Apartment. In that film, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemon), is a low level employee at an insurance firm who is letting executives at the company use his apartment to meet their mistresses, in order to try and get a leg up at the company. The night of Christmas Eve, Baxter comes home after his boss, who had been scheduled to have been using the apartment, should have been finished. Once there, Baxter finds the woman from the company he likes, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), unconscious in his bed, having taken an overdose of sleeping pills after meeting up with his boss. Baxter has to run to the apartment next door to ask the doctor that lives there, Dr Dreyfus, to come help Ms. Kubelik. Dr. Dreyfus is able to revive her, and Baxter spends the next few days nursing Ms. Kubelik back to health. When Bill is summoned in a similar way to revive Mandy, he is also able to do so. He gives much the same sort of instructions to Ziegler that Dr Dreyfus gave to Baxter, with the difference being that Ziegler can barely hide how put upon he is to not be able to just have someone put her in a cab and send her home. Ziegler will do what he has to in order to extract himself from this situation, but he cares as little about Mandy herself as Baxter’s boss cared about Ms. Kubelik.
In both the book and the film the husband and wife go home from the party and are both romantically charged up for one another after having been sexually pursued by their respective strangers at the party. In both the book and the film, the couple makes passionate love, and again in both book and film, this passionate outburst is tempered for each of them when they wake up the next morning to return to their less exciting everyday lives. It’s the next day, as they are each stewing in the ordinariness of their lives that they each begin to dwell on the excitement that could have been theirs, seemingly having lost sight of the passionate night they actually did have with one another. The way it’s phrased in the book, “And all at once, those inconsiderable experiences were bounded magically and painfully by the deceptive appearance of missed opportunities.”
After this long day, they put their daughter to bed and retire to their bedroom. Perhaps chasing something of the excitement of the night before, Alice grabs their small stash of marijuana from a Band Aid box in the medicine cabinet. We next see the two of them in bed (in admittedly one of the more bizarrely acted scenes ever put on film), seemingly quite high. Alice asks Bill about something she’s clearly been stewing about since the party. She had seen him with the two girls at the party, noticed that he had then disappeared for a long time, and wanted to know if Bill had slept with them. Bill plays dumb. “I wasn’t hitting on anyone,” he says. We know otherwise and, importantly, so does Alice. This may be the choice Bill makes where things start to devolve for him. Bill could have chosen to be honest with his wife here, but he doesn’t. This dynamic will underpin the rest of their interactions in this scene and the remainder of the film. While Alice is willing to be brutally open and honest with Bill, to a fault even, Bill is not willing to do the same.
When Bill deflects about the two models and misleads about why he was upstairs with Ziegler for so long, He asks Alice about the man she was dancing with. Alice tells Bill that he tried to get her into bed at the party, but she is deeply troubled by how unthreatened Bill is by this confession. She’s hurt by his complete lack of jealousy in this moment, feeling taken for granted, feeling like she’s been filed away in his mind as just a faithful wife and mother, and not as a sexual being, not as someone that another man could find interesting enough to try and steal away from him, not as someone capable of being tempted to let herself be stolen away. So, Alice makes a confession.
She asks Bill if he remembers a trip they took to Cape Cod the previous summer; if he remembers one night sitting in the dining room of the place where they were staying at a table next to where three naval officers were sitting. He doesn’t remember because the moment Alice has in mind meant nothing to Bill, but she tells him why it’s so burned in her memory. She had seen the naval officer earlier that morning and they shared a glance that shook her to her core. She reminds Bill that they had gone up to their room and made love that afternoon while their daughter went to the movies with a friend, but confides that she was thinking about the naval officer the entire time. So built up was this infatuation in her mind, that she tells Bill that she felt like she would have been tempted to give up everything - her marriage, her family, everything - to be with that man, even if it was only for one night. But she also adds: “And yet it was weird, ‘cause at the same time, you were dearer to me than ever, and at that moment my love for you was both tender and sad.” The next morning she says she woke up in a panic, uncertain if she was more worried that the naval officer had left the hotel, or that he hadn’t. By dinner that night, when she realized the man had left, she says she felt relieved.
Bill is silent for this whole confession, and as we will discover more and more over the course of the film, his world is shattered by this revelation. There’s no time to discuss though, because a phone call comes right then, summoning him to the bedside of a patient of his that had just died. Bill will go out into the night, and all of his misadventures that follow will be motivated by the sudden jealousy, and fear, and emasculation that came from what his wife just confessed to him.
For our purposes, we don’t need to belabor all of the shenanigans that Bill will get up to over the course of this night and the next day, but I will briefly list them here. At the bedside of his dying patient, his grieving daughter will throw herself at Bill. Bill will be accosted by some drunk frat guys on the street that will insult him and question his sexuality. He’ll let himself be picked up by a young sex worker, named Domino, and brought to her apartment, but will chicken out when he gets a checkup call from Alice before anything can be consummated. Leaving there, he’ll stumble across the jazz club where Nick Nightingale is performing, where Nick confides in Bill that he’ll be playing blindfolded at some kind of high end sex party that night, and Bill pressures Nick to help him sneak in. Nick caves, telling Bill that the secret password for the party is “Fidelio” - An opera by Beethoven about a faithful wife who disguised herself as a man to rescue her husband from prison.
Bill secures the costume he needs and sneaks into the party. He is warned almost immediately after he arrives by one of the women who recognizes that he doesn’t belong there, and she tells him that he’s in danger if he doesn’t leave immediately. Bill doesn't listen, and circulates through the party, among the other masked and cloaked observers, watching the different groups of men and women have sex. One of the naked masked women approaches him, asking him if he wants to go somewhere more private. He agrees, but is pulled away before anything can happen by the first woman who warned him earlier. She tries to warn him again, but it’s too late. Bill is brought to a room where most of the cloaked figures have assembled to confront him. Before he can be punished, the woman who had been warning him all night offers herself up to be punished in his place, and Bill is allowed to leave with a threat to never discuss what happened.
Bill arrives back home at four in the morning, their Christmas tree the only light on in the apartment. He hides his cloak and mask before going into the bedroom where he finds Alice laughing in her sleep. Bill wakes her and she jumps, shifting from laughter to fear. He asks her what she was dreaming of, and she describes a nightmare where the two of them were frightened and naked, and she thought it was his fault. In the dream, Bill went looking for her clothes and she suddenly wasn’t frightened anymore. She was now lying naked in the grass when the naval officer came out of the woods and saw her there and started laughing at her.
Alice stops here, but Bill knows there is more to her dream, because she was laughing when he came in, and he presses her to tell him the rest. Now holding onto Bill, on the verge of tears throughout, Alice describes how the naval officer starting to kiss her, and then they made love; And how there were all these people watching. Then she was having sex with all the other men there, she didn’t know how many. She knew Bill could see her and what she was doing, her impulse was to make fun of him, to laugh in his face, so she laughed as loud as she could. She’s crying now as she tells Bill this, and he doesn’t know what to say.
The remaining hour of the film is mostly Bill retracing his steps from the night before. Discovering just how badly things went, or could have gone. At Nick’s hotel, Bill learned that Nick showed up bruised and scared at 4:30 in the morning to check out, and in the company of two large men. Bill goes to the address of the party from the night before, and someone comes out and hands Bill an envelope with his name typed on it. In it is a letter warning him not to investigate any further. He returns to Domino’s apartment, and meets her roommate Sally, who seems to also be a sex worker. Bill seems to be interested and on the verge of hooking up with Sally, when he learns that the reason Domino isn’t there is that she just learned that morning that she was HIV-positive. From a newspaper Bill learns that Mandy from Ziegler’s Christmas party - who it turns out was a former Miss New York, making her prominent enough to warrant an article in the paper - had died of a drug overdose. Pausing to read the article, you can see that she had been seen returning to her hotel in the company of two men about the same time that Nick was being brought back to his hotel. Was Mandy the person who tried to warn him?
At this point, Bill gets a phone call from Ziegler, summoning him to a meeting. Once at Ziegler’s, Victor tells Bill that he knows everything and that Bill needs to stop looking into this. He’s talking out both sides of his mouth a bit - on one hand telling Bill that these are dangerous people that he needs to be real careful not to cross, and at the same time trying to reassure Bill that Nick is fine and that Mandy’s overdose was just an inevitable accident. Ziegler is trying to weave a narrative for Bill that will both let him go home not thinking he got two people killed, but also still scare him enough to keep his mouth shut.
Bill does go home. Maybe this would have been something he could have put behind him, until he walks into his bedroom and sees his mask from the party resting on his pillow, next to his sleeping wife. He breaks. His crying wakes up Alice, and he says he will tell her everything. We presume that he does, because the next shot we see is Alice, her eyes bloodshot and smoking a cigarette. The room is sunlit, suggesting she’s been up all night hearing Bill’s tale. Perhaps there’s more to discuss, but Alice says their daughter will be up soon, and is expecting for them to take her Christmas shopping today.
The final scene takes place at a toy store, presumably FAO Schwarz, or similar. This setting is another departure from the book, where Bill’s confession and this next scene are all one piece. Something about what happens next Kubrick specifically wanted to set not just in a Christmas setting, but in the most nakedly commercial facet of the holiday. This echoes a bit the way he’s used Christmas throughout the film. never the traditional themes of the holiday, but the trappings. Trees and lights and presents and parties, but just these surface appearances.
Walking among the toy store aisles, Bill asks Alice what they should do. To which Alice says, “What do I think we should do? I think we should be grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real, or only a dream.” Bill asks her if she’s sure, and she adds, “Am I sure? Only as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, can ever be the whole truth.”
Alice is clearly struggling some to make peace with what her husband confessed to her, but she is choosing to make peace with it. Whether or not that’s the right choice is up to her to decide. She is choosing to accept what happened and try to repair their bond. She tells Bill that she loves him, but that there is something that they need to do as soon as possible. Bill dutifully asks what that is. And Alice answers with the somewhat infamous last word of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, “Fuck.”
So, is Eyes Wide Shut a Christmas movie? I don’t know, probably not. It being set at Christmas plays no role in the plot. The Ziegler's Christmas party could have been anytime, and they could have been doing any kind of shopping in the final scene. But, that said, is there something Kubrick is trying to say by setting it at Christmas? Probably so, but maybe not Christmas in the sense we usually think. In some ways, Christmas is a holiday of appearances, which something that traditionally Christmas movies can feed into. Carefully orchestrated Christmas cards pictures taken between fights. Cheery lights on the house that might not reflect the lives of the people inside.
When we first meet the Zieglers it’s one picture perfect happy couple meeting another as the Zieglers welcome Bill and Alice to the party, only for us to meet Victor again upstairs just a little while later, standing above a naked unconscious woman that isn’t his wife. The course of the film reveals all the ways that Bill and Alice aren’t so picture perfect, too. But there’s something Alice says in that last scene that sticks with me. When Bill asks her what they should do she says “we should be grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures.” There is something a little Christmasy about the idea of counting your blessings and being grateful for what you have and have overcome.
This is my take away, at least. Eyes Wide Shut is a film about marriage and fidelity, that looks at the differences between how things appear and what they are actually like, and examines the tension between the things we want and our appreciation of what we have. Each of those themes makes sense to interrogate through a lens of Christmas. Where we leave Bill and Alice is in a toy store at Christmastime, a place more than any other in the world that screams out from every shelf, “Look at all the things that could be yours!” But they have everything that they need at the moment. They have each other, and a better understanding of one another. They’ve been through a lot together, but their eyes are open now. It’s a Christmas miracle!
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.