Everybody wants to know the secret meaning of Stanley Kubrick's controversial last film Eyes Wide Shut (1999). What was going on in that weird masked ball scene? Why was everyone at the masquerade party wearing a carnival mask? Analyzing and interpreting the hidden meaning behind all of those mysterious masks might unlock the secret to understanding the entire film. What is the meaning and symbolism of the masks in Stanley Kubrick's movie Eyes Wide Shut?
How do you interpret the meaning of a film like Eyes Wide Shut? The movie centers around the character of Dr Bill Harford (Tom Cruise), a rich New York doctor who goes out for a night on the town and inexplicably finds himself caught up in a strange, dark conspiracy that leads him from one side of New York society to the other. While the evening begins with him making an innocent house call to an elderly patient, the night eventually culminates with him crashing an elite underground secret society sex party where everyone's face is hidden behind an ornate Venetian style masquerade mask. The men at the masked ball disguise themselves in long black cloaks to conceal their identities, but their female escorts are exposed and wear little besides a carnival mask.
Masks play an important role in understanding the meaning of Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut. During the film's pivotal masquerade party sequence, the Venetian masks function not just as novel party favors, but also really as status symbols, and are actually needed to hide the identity and, more importantly, protect the reputation of the male members of New York high society attending the voyeuristic underground party. The distinguished men who attend these scandalous parties don't want their association with and proximity to this kind of lewd, undignified behavior to tarnish or hurt their high social standing. That's why they don the cloak and mask costume. What is the secret meaning behind all these masks?
Kubrick's mysterious masks most likely elude to a unique moment in world history. The partygoers don't just wear any masks. Interestingly, they all wear carnival style masks that can be traced back to the Republic of Venice, with their popularity starting in the medieval period and growing thereafter. In the wealthy mercantile society of Venice, the anonymity of mask-wearing seemed to benefit and disguise merchants and citizens during important business deals. Wearing masks also led to increased sexual promiscuity, especially during Carnevale di Venezia, the Venetian Carnival. However, the masks were also believed to offer their wearers with protection during promiscuous and decadent activities.
As Bill Harford tours the masked ball, a partygoer lurks behind him wearing a white mask with a recognizable birdlike beak: the famous plague doctor mask. Historically, the plague doctor mask was worn by physicians tasked with visiting and treating local victims of the bubonic plague as early as the seventeenth century. While the costume and mask served as a means of identifying these elite healers within the community, the plague doctor mask and costume was also designed to protect the doctor from contracting the black plague, a deadly and highly contagious disease he tried to cure. Relying on obviously outdated and borderline superstitious medicinal practices, to prevent the inhalation of what was believed to be an airborne illness, plague doctors loaded strongly scented spice and herbs like thyme into the hooked, protruding "beak" of their characteristic masks.
What do plague doctors have to do with the meaning of Eyes Wide Shut? Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut shares some characteristics with the historical role of the plague doctor. Like a traditional plague doctor, Dr Bill Harford is a physician who throughout the film makes house calls to treat his sick and dying patients. While bubonic plague is no longer a major cause for concern as far as contagious diseases go, in the 1990s when Eyes Wide Shut was made the AIDS epidemic was perhaps the best modern-day stand-in for the bubonic plague. Harford flirts with the idea of engaging in sexual contact with Domino, the prostitute he flirts with who he later learns is HIV positive. (Interestingly, Domino is also the name of a popular style of Venetian carnival mask.) Could this have been his tragic undoing?
Unlike the other society men in Eyes Wide Shut, Harford finds it difficult to continue to hide behind his mask. His dramatic unmasking at the ball indicates this. Harford is easily seduced into caring about the troubles of the many lower class women he meets throughout the course of the movie, including the poor HIV positive prostitute, the abused daughter of the mask shop owner, or the "thousand a night hooker" who overdoses on drugs in the back bedrooms of the Christmas ball. Harford's problematic sympathy for these damsels in distress contributes to his mask being ceremoniously removed at the end of the masquerade party and may have indirectly led to the death of the mystery woman who helped him earlier in the evening. His fate is uncertain after being unmasked, but a kind masked woman mysteriously pledges to "redeem" him and stand in his place. Who guides her to her fate? The man wearing the plague doctor mask.
The many masks of Eyes Wide Shut are open to interpretation. Stanley Kubrick may have been referencing the art of James Ensor at the end of the famous masked ball scene. Symbolist painter James Ensor is a Belgian artist perhaps most famous for his iconic "mask" paintings, like the self portrait included above. Like Ensor in his Self Portrait with Masks (1899), Harford's unmasked face stands out in stark contrast in an anonymous sea of leering, painted masks. As it does in Ensor's painting, his masklessness indicates his brave humanity and singularity among the other attendees at the party, perhaps representative of his community and society at large.
By the end of Eyes Wide Shut, the film has posed a difficult question: Is it wicked not to care? Would things have turned out better for everyone involved if Dr Harford had followed the advice of rich and powerful friends like Ziegler, turned a blind eye, and kept his eyes wide shut? If the rich doctor had not gotten emotionally involved in the lives and outcomes of the women he encountered that evening and instead viewed them only as commodities and playthings, his lack of sympathy or interest for them might have saved the lives of both Nick the piano player and Kelly Curran.
Unlike his society outsider friends, at the ending of Eyes Wide Shut Harford's society "mask" actually does seem to have protected the rich doctor, as both his social and professional standing seem to go unscathed despite the tragic events that have occurred. However, the famous last line of Eyes Wide Shut suggests that Harford might have avoided the whole fiasco if he were more intimate and interested with his own wife and marriage. If you want to learn more about the meaning of Eyes Wide Shut, check out the short 1926 German novel Stanley Kubrick's film was based on, Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle (also known as Dream Story).