Written by Heather Collier
Illustration by Amelia Field
In an age of secrecy and scandal, it is no surprise that the 90’s is considered a decade ruled by sex. Tabloids invited us into the gold-trim bedrooms of the upper echelon; unveiling a gory portrait of the Oval Office, Royal households and an entire underworld of casting couches.
As film fans celebrated Eyes Wide Shut’s (1999) 20th anniversary, Jeffrey Epstein was facing charges for prostitution and sex trafficking; most of which took place on his 72 acre “paedophile island”; a playground for the political and ruling elite.
Epstein was not like any other sleazy salesman on Wall Street, he was a master of sleight of hand who seemingly built his wealth from thin air. To merely say he was the monster under your bed or the shadowy figure in your closet is wrong; he was far more frightening than that. He was all of those things, but hid in plain sight – completely out of reach; towering above an insidious pyramid scheme that trafficked underage girls.
The parallels between modern human trafficking rings and what we see in Eyes Wide Shut are deeply troubling; a film that unapologetically sheds light on what we now know to be the height of the Epstein era.
Stanley Kubrick obtained the rights to Arthur Schnitzler’s German novella Dream Story (1926) in 1970; sitting on it for decades to come until the timing was right. He was fascinated by secret societies and studied them extensively; exploring how fantasies and realities often become intertwined. Kubrick was a master of symbolism. His filmmaking was deliberate in every sense, with very little room for coincidence. By his mid-forties, he had created several controversial pieces of work; including A Clockwork Orange and the 1962 adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita – both of which investigated the masks we adorn in public versus the ones we wear in private.
After showing his final cut of Eyes Wide Shut to Warner Bros. in March of 1999, he died of a heart attack only a matter of days later. Intense speculation regarding the circumstances of his death swept through the media after the film’s release – questioning whether the infamous director “knew too much”.
Eyes Wide Shut was marketed as an erotic thriller that delves into the sexual misadventures of a couple who desire more from common life. Upon watching, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The film reveals the sexual worship and sacrifice of young women that occurs within these societies. It is an exposé in disguise; cleverly veiled beneath the Hollywood glow of Cruise and Kidman and buried beneath cloak and dagger trickery. It is not fiction.
Bill Hartford is the every-man; an outsider entering into a world that is totally out of his depth – a stark contrast to Cruise’s stature within Scientology. After arguing with his wife Alice, he embarks on a psychosexual odyssey into the night where he stumbles upon an old friend, Nick Nightingale, who invites him to a mansion where unbeknownst to Bill; there is a masked orgy taking place.
Kubrick embroidered dozens of literary and cultural references alongside subliminal messaging into the very fabric of the film. Glaring hints surrounding cultism; paedophilia and child sex-trafficking that all point towards Epstein’s universe are weaved beneath each layer; so much so that one might believe he is leaving viewers breadcrumbs towards a different plot entirely.
This notion of a double-sided plot begins to manifest when Bill is asked by two escorts at Ziegler’s Christmas party, “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?”. What may seem like an innocent innuendo not only alludes to a separate fantasy world protected by the elite, but can also be traced back to the 1911 play Where The Rainbow Ends; a tale of a group of children who have lost their parents and must slay “the dragon of evil” in order to reunite with them.
Rainbow imagery is an enigma that runs throughout. After meeting with Nick, Bill pays a visit to “Rainbow Fashions”; a costume store where he meets Mr. Milich, a man who is prostituting his teenage daughter. The porcelain-skinned girl whispers to Bill, “you should get a cloak made of ermine”. Historically, ermine is associated with royalty and high status; a metaphor perhaps for the kind of company Bill will be amongst at the orgy. In folklore, ermine is considered to be an emblem for beautiful, coveted young women; their white fur symbolic of purity and innocence. These clues alone are enough to uncover Kubrick’s thinking – Milich’s daughter is a microcosm that stands for the whole; a sickening reminder of the child sex trade and the hundreds of young girls held captive by Epstein.
Later at the orgy, Bill is accosted by two attendees on the balcony who nod in his direction; signalling that his presence is known. Besides Nick, Milich and his daughter are the only ones who had an inkling that he would be there. They are also the only ones who would have recognised his mask. Here lies an unmistakable series of symbols and events that are seemingly all interlinked; a disturbing insight into just how deep such an enterprise may go. Ziegler berates Bill for infiltrating the mansion that night, warning him of the powerful people he had unsettled, “If I told you their names, I don’t think you’d sleep so well”.
20-25 minutes of footage are rumoured to have been scrapped from the original final cut; never to see the light of day. It was said to be too salacious for the American market, when in fact it may be that the missing footage was the centre of Kubrick’s vision — to expose the ritualistic killings of women and children. Heavy CGI and mass editing took place after Kubrick’s death; causing certain scenes to not faithfully align and present an overall unfinished feel. Could it be that the film had hit a little too close to home for certain studio executives; or perhaps other powerful figures that had heard whispers of the incriminating nature of its content? Such conspiracy theories now seem all too plausible.
Cults can only thrive if they are ran on fear. Passwords are to be entered and rules are to be followed. In exchange for anonymity; members must be terrified by the threat of exposure. The omens Bill receives, the murder of Mandy and disappearance of Nick all confirm one thing: lives are expendable when it comes to protecting corrupt billionaires and paedophiles.
Burrowing deeper and deeper into old money, Epstein used every means necessary in order to blackmail his circle of “friends”. Friends who happened to be politicians and royals; with Ghislaine Maxwell as his gateway. He met his own fate when he was found dead in his prison cell in July of last year. His death was ruled a suicide, despite coroners and anatomical experts suggesting his injuries were consistent with homicide. Many argue that he was a pawn – a sacrificial lamb employed by the Mossad and the CIA to lure prominent figures into his ring and gather intelligence. Is such a concept too farfetched or just too real?
Set in a nightmarish dreamscape, Eyes Wide Shut forces its characters into a state of somnambulism where inevitably, consciousness intrudes. Bill awakes many times within the “dream” and gradually begins to see the illusions in the world around him for what they really are. He sees the truth.
The message remains clear: we are asleep. In other words, we know nothing until we are truly “awake”. To be conscious is to be aware of the forces that govern you; to see the injustice, just as Bill and Alice do – yet they are still left completely powerless. Kubrick once said that “observancy is a dying art”; that there is a danger in naivety. As a society we have become complacent in recognising what is happening right in front of us – or simply choosing to look the other way.
The final scene appears optimistic; with Alice reassuring Bill, “we’re awake now”. Yet hopes of a happy ending are shattered when their daughter disappears out of view with several men behind her. Not just out of shot; but out of sight completely.