How Kubrick Stole Christmas – An Analysis of Eyes Wide Shut

How Kubrick Stole Christmas – An Analysis of Eyes Wide Shut

Or how a film marketed as an ‘erotic thriller’ made me hate Christmas. Based on the 1926 novella Traumnovelle (which translates to Dream Story) Eyes Wide Shut offers an exploration into religion, class, and gendered relationships, as well as some big picture discussions of Christmas and dreams vs truth, with some revelations still applicable to the society we continue to exist in.

Eyes Wide Shut, starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, premiered in 1999 with Stanley Kubrick as its director, producer and co-writer, alongside the screenplay aficionado, Frederic Raphael. To this day, Eyes Wide Shut holds the Guinness World Record for the longest production time with a 400 day continual shoot. Filming and production was surrounded by a campaign of confidentiality and secrecy.

Set at Christmas, the film follows Bill Hartford (Tom Cruise) as he goes on a sexual odyssey after a shocking revelation from his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) that she had sexual fantasies about another man. This culminates in Bill’s trespassing into a ritualistic secret society, where he finds many social elites taking part in a masked orgy. Eventually escaping from their clutch, Bill spirals with the truth of what he’s seen and reels in the threats that follow to keep him quiet. Dr Bill Hartford acts as the passive vehicle for Kubrick’s hyper-perfectionist exploration of sexual desires as a representation of the everyday individuals flirtations with societal disobedience in a civilization of authority and abusive power.

Eyes Wide Shut had been a life-long obsession for Kubrick, making several attempts to adapt the novel it was based on. Whilst it was finally released in 1999, Kubrick was to suffer a terminal heart attack at the age of 70, just 6 days after showing the final cut to Warner Brothers. Rumours and conspiracies continue to plague the vacuum of Kubrick’s swan-song film.

With an obsessive attention to detail and perfectionism, Kubrick exhibited absolute artistic control in writing, research, editing, music, and cinematography to the post-production of the film. Kubrick’s films were noted for their realism, but in a film based on secret societies and the ultra wealthy’s ritualistic tendencies, just how real was Eyes Wide Shut?

With a strong dislike for Hollywood, Kubrick moved to the UK, and while he is regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, he also joins the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles as rebels of the film industry. As an outsider with the knowledge of an insider, Hollywood couldn’t control Kubrick. This led to people conspiring that Kubrick’s tell-all film of the worlds elite was what led to his surprising, and coincidently-timed death, which ensured he couldn’t finish the film the way he wanted to.

While Kubrick had contrasting and confusing political views, he remained distrustful of authority after coming from a secular background but remained incredibly superstitious (evident in 2001: A Space Odyssey) throughout his life. Kubrick himself desired privacy, always avoiding interviews and photographic opportunities where possible, which would ultimately lead to his very purposeful relocation away from limelight of Hollywood and the control that it seemingly had over him.


Something unnervingly prominent in perhaps the climaxing scene of the film is the clear influence of religion and ritualistic rites in the masked orgy.

‘The pre-orgiastic rites are overtly Satanic, a Black Mass complete with a high priest gowned in crimson, droning organ and backward-masked Latin liturgy.’

Tim Kreider

The high-priest cloaked in red holds a remindful comparison to the robes of Catholic priests. The colour comes to symbolise wealth and power, and whilst this is true for the film and modern religion, film colour theory also uses red as a warning of danger. Throughout Eyes Wide Shut, in prominent scenes of threat, there is a bold red structure, as with Victor Ziegler’s pool table who orders Bill to forget what he’s seen. Yet, this film isn’t about sex. Sex was the method of demonstrating Kubrick’s views on power by the ritualistic ultra-wealthy, with clear commentary on Catholicism’s history of abuse. Even if the similarities in wardrobe could be dismissed as coincidence, composer Jocelyn Pook used her piece, ‘Backwards Priests’, which features Romanian Orthodox Divine Liturgy played in reverse during the orgy scene. And anyway, Kubrick was never known for coincidence; an obsession with perfectionism meant everything was intentional in his films.

Perhaps most noteworthy to understanding the religious spine of Eyes Wide Shut, is Kubrick’s intentional transference of the novel into 1990s Manhattan at Christmas. With a particular focus on the Christmas tree, with one in nearly every scene, the dark and dissonant narratives of the film are juxtaposed by the rejuvenating symbolism of Christmas. By using Christmas as its landscape, Eyes Wide Shut runs a narrative that parallels the consumerist dark side of Christmas. ‘Desire is like Christmas, it promises more than it delivers’. Material reality replaces the values of spirituality, compassion and charity and Kubrick contrasts the original beginnings of Christmas with an orgy of consumerism, climaxing in December at the height of retail expenditure.

 Whilst the backdrop and the films’ narrative offer a stark contrast, the film even offers unsubtle commentaries. Merry Christmas banners hang in the windows of shops alongside signs that read ‘no checks accepted’. Rows of Christmas cards are on display in Bill’s office below a not particularly merry sign saying, “Payment is expected at the time of treatment unless other arrangements have previously been made.”

Dreams vs Reality

Christmas lights offer a dream-like, surreal glow that plays into Kubrick’s exploration of dreams and reality. Christmas reflects a hallucinogenic quality in visuality, aura and emotionality. Eyes Wide Shut plays with the line between reality and fiction. The audience never knows what to believe. It questions objectivity vs subjectivity, private vs public and dreams vs reality. Yet despite this, Kubrick questions whether a dream is ever just a dream.

The slow pace is purposeful in adding a melodic and hypnotic flow to the film’s tendency to subvert the audience away from what’s real and what could be a figment of Bill’s unconscious desires. Kubrick purposefully toys with the game of reality, in a like-for-like way the original novel translates to ‘Dream Story’; even playing the game with Cruise and Kidman. Married in real life, the couple at the height of their stardom in 90’s Hollywood were subject to psychoanalysis from Kubrick, taunting them to confess their own personal fears of marriage.

The line between reality and fiction was deliberately blurred in all aspects of the film’s story and production. The couple slept in their characters’ bedroom, chose the colors of the curtains, strewed their clothes on the floor, and even left pocket change on the bedside table just as Cruise did at home.’

The Bigger Picture

Kubrick’s films are never only about individuals, they are about civilisation and history. Whilst many critiqued Cruise and Kidman for their wooden portrayals, this in fact should be taken as Kubrick’s reluctance to focus on the characters, and more so to use the scenes, dialogues and people as props in his exploration of themes and symbolism. The film is not Kidman’s, Cruise’s or Raphael’s, it is Kubrick’s commentary on sex as transactional in an exploration of marriage, as well as using sex as a prop to explore classism and elitist power.

Cruise and Kidman were at the height of their careers in the ’90s and their talent is non-negotiable. And so the audience, with the knowledge that Kubrick was known to retake shots over 90 times, has to consider the fact that this was the take that Kubrick wanted us to see. What can be mistaken for shallowness and naivety in acting, is actually Kubrick’s examination of imagery, not dialogue; his cast was merely a tool for his vision. Cruise, hidden in a mask and robe, acts as the vehicle for the representation of man’s service in a larger ritualistic machine, devoid of individuality.

Sex, Elites and Class

Eyes Wide Shut is at its best when it’s perceived as a film of relationships rather than characters.

            ‘The film excels as an unflinching examination of a long-term relationship unravelling at the seams as a result of mutual suppressed desire and emotional dishonesty.’

At face-value Kubrick suggests sex to be the transactional, economical undertones of civilisation, resonating through the marriage of Alice and Bill and their opening lines to the film. Alice’s first onscreen line is, ‘How do I look?’ whereas Bill starts, ‘Honey, have you seen my wallet?’

Yet the film offers a deep dive into the relationships between classes. It portrays the elites and upper-classes as empty and amoral, using the ‘inferior’ lower classes as their possessions. This transfers through the orgy scene, as the masked individuals use these women as objects for their own gratification. Bill, as a high-class, wealthy doctor for the elites is also guilty of this.

Dr Bill uses his title as moral authority over those below him such as taxi drivers, costume shop owners and street-workers like Domino. Bill introduces himself as a ‘Dr’ at every chance he gets, aware that it grants him automatic trust and power. Yet, when his moral authority is deconstructed, he’s no more in control than the rest of us whilst simultaneously being just as immoral of those with the highest of powers. Bill, whilst his eyes are open to the corrupt and exploitative natures of the social elites, chooses ignorance over truth and lets the system of depravity continue. This depiction of sex is one that is a power game ruled by the elites.

Are we all trapped in this system of secrecy and willful passivity? Was this Kubrick’s warning at the end of his life? Evil will continue to exist as long as those with the knowledge of inside cruelty continue to turn a blind eye. With the inside understandings of some of the most elite structures ingrained in our society, was this purposeful expedition into the threat that secret societies pose to civilian life what got Kubrick killed? Or was his death a coincidence, a man overcome with exhaustion leaving the rest of us to ponder the extent to which this film was finished?

The Title and Today

So what does ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ mean? It’s a realisation that disobeying the dictates of society, and your consciousness, is both terrifying and exhilarating. They (we) are trapped – trapped by a world controlled by money and hedonism. With your eyes wide shut, you close yourself off to the evils you know exist but with limited power to do anything about it, we choose to live as passive echoes to a subservient society that at the top is controlled through a system of abuse by the most powerful.

We are all Dr Bill. We know we are being lied to, whilst we may not know what’s true and what’s our subconscious imaginations, we do choose a life of peace in rejection of our deepest fears about what we ourselves allow to exist. For all of Alice and Bill’s talk about being awake, their eyes are still wide shut. They (we) choose to forget the ugly realities of wealth and power. The film isn’t one about sex, but perhaps, at the end of it all – we are all fucked.

In the middle of the ’90s, public condemnation of Monica Lewinsky and the tabloid focus on her stained dress completely missed the point. This wasn’t a story about sex and infidelity, it was about power, the abuse of it and our complicity in that abuse. The world’s most powerful men continue to, more often than not, walk away from scandals unscathed whilst we shrug at the life of a woman torn apart in global news. Whilst Eyes Wide Shut may have been out of touch with its dealings of HIV, Kubrick was spot on in condemning the use of sex as power-play by the elites to maintain their status.

The film also anticipates an obsession with secret societies that continues to transcend popular culture and 21st-century politics. Both prime ministers, David Cameron and Boris Johnson are known ex-members of the Oxford University secret society – The Bullingdon Club.

This society has notably displayed exponential examples of vandalism and ostentatious displays of wealth. Despite this, there’s clear evidence of elitist power and classism that allows its members to utilise their power and still become some of the most powerful politicians in British history.

Some journalists even link Eyes Wide Shut with Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual offences.

Jeffrey Epstein, for the alleged repeated and systematic trafficking and sexual assault of underage girls, is more than an indictment of a sexual predator. It’s also compelling evidence of corruption among the most powerful political and business interests in the United States. So what connects Eyes Wide Shut and Epstein? If Kubrick’s movie isn’t a skeleton key for unmasking specific elite depravities, what is it?’

Andrew Whalen


Is this what got Kubrick killed? Was his death truly without malice? Conversations continue to exist that surround Eyes Wide Shut in a blanket of suspicion and conspiracy. Kubrick died 6 days after showing his ‘final cut’ to Warner Brothers unto which the film would be completed by WB’s and Kubrick’s estate, vehemently insisting it was Kubrick’s final version. Yet, we know that Kubrick had a history of working on his films until release, giving him another 3 months of edits to express his hyper-specificity.

There were rumours that 30 minutes of footage was cut/‘lost’ from the film but as the film sits at 2hrs39mins anyway, perhaps it’s understandable as to why. But even then, rumours of lost footage to protect the elite have largely been dismissed and those closest to Kubrick agree that the final version was as close to Kubrick’s vision as possible.

But even Kidman described Kubrick’s timely death as ‘dark and strange’. Was it possible that Kubrick had yet to include things in the film that would allude to some of America’s elite involvements in ritualistic behaviour at the expense of subservient individuals stuck in a paradigm of abusive power? Perhaps we’ll never know. But either way, the public is blind to the darkest actions of secret societies and structures that uphold classism and elitist behaviour at the expense of lower social classes. After all, we live in a world where Epstein, Weinstein and even British royalty are safeguarded by institutions of power, elitism and secrecy.

Written by Lizzie Shaw | Illustrated by Beth Herbert

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