Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and the object in psychoanalysis

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In 1965, Jacques Lacan suggested that the artist precedes the psychoanalyst¹, as their work brings to light reactions, thoughts and feelings that would otherwise remain unknown. In this stunning movie by American director Stanley Kubrick, every scene seems to be carefully designed to captivate, starting from the choice of main actors, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. At that time, the couple embodied the Hollywood ideal of beauty, sex appeal and success, which, in itself, probably brought some of the audience to the movie.

In fact, in the very first scene, Nicole Kidman is shown from behind, casually letting her dress fall to the floor and briefly exposing her naked body, as if it wanted to communicate something like ‘I know what you want to see, and you will not be disappointed’. This promise is kept in the next scene, which portrays Tom Cruise’s character, Bill, nonchalantly interacting with his wife Alice, who is sitting in the toiled, like a peek of this highly desirable couple’s intimacy. Bill, a well-related doctor, and his beautiful wife are getting ready for a reception, they both look gorgeous, they kiss their little daughter Helena goodnight, and everything seems to be perfect.

This harmony, however, is soon disrupted, despite the beauty. During the reception, Bill and Alice openly flirt with strangers, which frustrates the initial feeling of satisfaction in their relationship. Subsequently, the party host, Victor Ziegler, secretly asks for Bill’s medical assistance to a young woman, who is shown naked in his bathroom, and is known to have overdosed during a private session of sex and drugs. At this point, something that contrasts with the characters’ beauty and propriety irrupts on the screen, an intrusion of excessive pleasure that challenges their apparent control.

With Bill and Alice back home, they prepare for Christmas celebrations, and normality appears to have been resumed. However, in a moment of intimacy, Alice casually reveals that she has sexual fantasies with another man. Bill’s shocked reaction to this confession confirms that the image of a perfect couple had been irreversibly damaged. From this moment on, visions of an extra conjugal relationship begin to haunt him incessantly, and the plot develops from Bill’s perspective.

From the psychoanalytical point of view, Alice’s confession represents a major stroke on Bill’s narcissism, a loss in his image he is not willing to accept. In a clinical context, Bill would probably be advised to talk to his wife about the hurtful fact that her sexual satisfaction takes more than what he’s offering her, which would eventually lead to a – symbolic – resolution that includes this loss. In the movie, instead, Bill attempts to turn his loss into gain by obtaining extra pleasure from the image of an extra conjugal relationship, which becomes his obsession. This extra pleasure is what Lacan called ‘jouissance’².

At this moment, Kubrick’s genius stands out, as if he wanted to illustrate the nature of the psychoanalytical object. Firstly, the image pursued by Bill, the pleasure from sexual relationship with another woman, seems to follow him wherever he goes, which highlights its relation with repetition and drive. Starting from the two beautiful girls flirting with him at the reception, from Marion, his patient’s daughter, who unexpectedly kisses him, confessing her unconditional love, to the prostitute Domino, who indiscriminately approaches him in the street, and Mr. Millich’s daughter, who also flirts with him at the clothes rental store. In all these instances, there is the promise of a pleasure that appears easy, but is also illegal, immoral or dangerous, for a cost that cannot be completely estimated. In other words, jouissance.

But the most graphic representation of this idea is the dramatic orgy Bill manages to sneak into, which appears to constitute the fulfillment of his fantasies. Here, Stanley Kubrick seems to fully understand the essence of the visible world, as Bill’s situation suddenly switches from watcher to watched, like in Holbein’s picture ‘The Ambassadors’. Before Bill could even begin to satisfy his urge, he is literally exposed to the crowd in the center of the room, as an object of jouissance, and kicked out of the place, having his pleasure denied. While submitted to the symbolic order, like the audience, his jouissance is impossible.

In fact, there is a noticeable change in the movie atmosphere after this scene. Bill’s insistence in pursuing what he believes will satisfy him repeatedly leads to frustration and danger. For example, when he calls Marion, her fiancé answers the phone. When he tries to find the prostitute Domino, he learns that she’s is HIV positive. When Bill starts being followed by a random man in the street, he gets inside a café, and the headline on the newspaper he holds reads ‘lucky to be alive’, which adds to the feeling of uncanny.

Eventually, Victor Ziegler’s invites Bill to his place, only to warn him once again he should quit his enquiries, and to assert his complete humiliation. After that, Bill heads back home and spots the mask he wore at the orgy on the bed where Alice slept. Immediately, Bill is taken by a feeling of horror and impotence, as if he faced the image of his ultimate defeat. That mask, like every step he took after his wife’s confession, was supposed to remain a secret, invisible, and the mask’s appearance in his home represents a vision of his own castration, his void. Breaking down in tears, Bill has no choice but to confess everything that happened to Alice.

While Stanley Kubrick’s aptitude as a movie director is indubitable, and can be recognized in most of his work, his ability to translate such delicate aspects of human psychology into images seems to excel in ‘Eyes Wide Shut’. Indeed, it is not until the very last line said by Alice, Nicole Kidman’s character, that the audience understands the plot was never about a symbolic resolution for the couple’s dilemma – it was about jouissance all the way…


¹ Lacan, J. (2001). Hommage fait à Marguerite Duras (1965). Autres écrits. Paris: Seuil, p. 193.

² Laznik, M. (2005) Jouissance (Lacan). In: Mijola, A. (ed) International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Farmington Hill: Thomson Gale, pp.894-895.


Estevam Holpert,  October 2021