Eyes Wide Shut Meaning: Plague Doctor Masks & Stanley Kubrick's Movie

by K Shabi PUBLISHED 7 July 2013

Stanley Kubrick's controversial last film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is the kind of movie that gets people interested in discussing "hidden meanings," especially when it comes to the film's ritualistic party/masquerade scene. As it turns out, understanding the meaning behind all of those masks might unlock the secret to understanding the entire movie. What is the meaning of Stanley Kubrick's movie Eyes Wide Shut?

Eyes Wide Shut Meaning: Plague Doctor Masks & Stanley Kubrick's Movie

Hidden Meaning of Eyes Wide Shut

Two major themes unveil the hidden meaning behind Stanley Kubrick's movie Eyes Wide Shut: (1) sex and (2) class distinction. If you've seen Eyes Wide Shut, you probably recall that the movie includes not only a lot of female nudity, but also quite a bit of explicit dialogue between the film's stars, a society couple played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, two celebrities then married in real life. Unbeknownst to his jealous and bored wife, one night the rich New York doctor (played by Tom Cruise) finds himself caught up in a dark conspiracy involving everything from a low-class HIV positive prostitute to an elite underground secret society sex party where everyone hides their identity with an ornate costume ball mask. The men at the party wear long black cloaks, but the women wear little besides the mask.

Eyes Wide Shut Mask Party Meaning & History

Masks play an important role in the meaning of Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut. During the film's pivotal masquerade sequence, the masks worn are not just novel party favors, but are actually needed to hide the identity and more importantly protect the reputation of the high class male members of New York society attending these voyeuristic underground parties. The high class men are happy to be invited to these salacious parties, but they also don't want their association with and proximity to this kind of risky behavior to tarnish or hurt their high social standing. Thus the partygoers don the cloak and mask costume.

James Ensor's Mask Paintings & Eyes Wide Shut

James Ensor Masks Paintings & Eyes Wide Shut MovieSymbolist James Ensor is a Belgian artist perhaps most famous for his "mask" paintings, like the self portrait seen here. Given the striking similarity between this Eyes Wide Shut still and James Ensor's Self-Portrait with Masks (1899), it is possible that Kubrick intentionally drew from Ensor's art while making the film.

Doctors, Bird Masks & the Plague

Oddly enough, the plague doctor costumes worn by the upperclass men at the secret society party in Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut bear an uncanny resemblance to the traditional plague doctor costume historically worn by doctors treating victims of the bubonic plague as early as the fourteenth century. (Death playing chess and the danse macabre were also popular symbols during the Black Death.) Relying on pre-Enlightenment superstitious medicinal practices, because of their elite status as healers in the community the plague doctors wore the characteristic "beak" bird mask and long black cloak to protect themselves against contracting the black plague, an airborne and highly contagious disease. To prevent themselves from breathing in plague bacteria, strong herbs like thyme and spices were loaded into the bird "beak" area of the mask. So what do plague doctors have to do with the meaning of Eyes Wide Shut?

Eyes Wide Shut Plague Doctor Masks Analysis

Tom Cruise's character Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut has many similarities with the historical role of the plague doctor, another key to understanding the meaning of the film. Like a plague doctor, Bill Harford is a physician who throughout the film makes house calls to treat his sick and dying patients. Given the mature themes in Eyes Wide Shut, it is also worthy to note that while Harford does not treat anyone suffering from the bubonic plague, the doctor does come very close to engaging in sexual contact with Domino, a prostitute he meets up with happenstance and later learns is HIV positive. While bubonic plague is all but wiped out in today's society, AIDs is a good modern day stand in for the black death, especially if Stanley Kubrick was drawing a connection between Harford and the role of the Medieval plague doctor in Eyes Wide Shut.

It is ludicrous to assume that a cloak and mask costume, no matter how ornate and expensive, can protect or immunize an upperclass member of society from coming into contact with the "contagions" of the lower class, either today or during the medieval period. Unlike the other rich upperclass men in Eyes Wide Shut, Dr Bill Harford finds it difficult to continue to hide behind his mask, so to speak, and not be 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 possibly 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.

Eyes Wide Shut Movie Title & Ending Meaning

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 Bill 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).

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