Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999): The Redheads and What They Mean

in film •  3 months ago 

Nicole Kidman isn't the only redhead in Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's last film.

Second in a series of articles about this fascinating film. See first article here.

My recap of the basic premise of Eyes Wide Shut, carried over from the first article, is repeated:

To summarize briefly, Bill is a well-established Manhattan physician with patients from the .01 percent, including the uber-rich Victor Ziegler (well-played by director and sometime actor Sydney Pollack of Out of Africa fame.) Ziegler invites the Harfords to a Christmas party at his lavish Manhattan townhome, where two gorgeous fashion models hit on Bill and a mysterious Hungarian billionaire tries to seduce Alice. Bill also helps Ziegler out of a tough spot, after a hooker named Mandy overdoses in his private bathroom during sex.

The day after the party, the couple has an argument that shocks Bill to the core; as a reaction, he goes on a midnight sojourn that eventually lands him at a masquerade party in a huge country mansion on Long Island. The masquerade party is the scene of a bizarre occult ceremony, followed by a mass orgy that takes place throughout the mansion's luxurious rooms.

Every participant, as required, wears a carved Venetian mask at all times, including Bill, who rented his from a costumer in Greenwich Village. Bill is quickly detected as an outsider, then threatened and unmasked, but is redeemed by a “mystery woman” in a feathered mask, who appears to be offering her life in exchange for his. (This follows the theme from Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, about a woman who disguises herself to rescue her husband from prison; "Fidelio" is the password to the orgy, given to Bill by an old friend who plays the piano at the cult's orgies.) The rest of the film follows Bill’s attempts to investigate the death of the woman who “redeemed” him and the impact the experience has on his marriage to Alice.

There are many recurring themes in EWS. One fascinating aspect is the prevalence of redheaded women, starting of course with Bill’s wife Alice, a tall, skinny redhead with curly hair, and his seven-year-old daughter Helena, who has straight red hair.

As the story unfolds over a few days, practically every woman whom Bill encounters is a tall skinny redhead: Nuala, one of the fashion models he flirts with at the Zieglers’ Christmas party; Mandy, the hooker who overdoses in Ziegler’s bathroom; even Mrs. Ziegler, an attractive, older redhead who probably looked a lot like Mandy when younger.

Later, while wandering around Greenwich village, Harford almost has sex with a prostitute named Domino, another tall, skinny redhead. He comes back the next day to bring Domino a gift, only to find she’s not home. Her roommate, Sally, lets Bill into the apartment and comes onto him; not surprisingly, Sally is another redhead.

At the orgy in the mansion, Bill encounters two redheads: the masked Mystery Woman who “redeems” him from a sinister fate at the hands of the occult/orgy participants; and another tall, skinny masked redhead who propositions him for sex, before the Mystery Woman pulls him away.

By my count, that’s eight redheads, excluding Helena. It’s interesting to note that all of the eight redheads (except possibly Mrs. Ziegler) are sexually available to Harford. There are only two women he reacts with in a prominent way who aren’t redheads -- and significantly, Harford does not consider them sexually available: Marion, a middle-aged blonde who’s the daughter of a recently deceased patient, and the brown-haired teen-age daughter of Millich, the costumer who rents Bill a mask and costume for the orgy party. He sees Marion as off limits because of professional ethics. (Although he later reconsiders the rejection of her sexual advances.) He also considers Millich’s daughter unavailable because she’s underage.

What exactly do all the redheads mean here? My first thought is the traditional depiction of red-haired women in Western culture as “scarlet women,” or often, as witches in fairy tales. This fits with the sexual and occult themes of the film. My second thought is that Kubrick wanted to show the sexually available women in Harford’s life as interchangeable — and disposable — commodities.

This theme is repeated at the orgy, as all the sexually available women are white, young, thin, and tall, with nearly the same type of bodies, and all are wearing identical black g-strings — only their masks are different. Consider, also, the way red-haired Domino is later replaced by her red-haired roommate Sally, with no real explanation of where Domino went.

Of all the redheads (after Alice), Mandy, the hooker in the bathroom at the Christmas party, is the most important. Later on, she’s possibly the red-haired Mystery Woman who “redeems” Harford at the orgy and then dies mysteriously the next day. I say “possibly” because we only know that the Mystery Woman is Mandy on Ziegler’s account, and Ziegler is not a reliable source. Secondly, Mandy and the Mystery Woman are played by two different actresses (or three, of you want to count the dubbing of the Mystery Woman’s dialogue by Cate Blanchett.) Did the original Mandy actress suddenly become unavailable due to the lengthy shoot (more than a year?) Or is this a deliberate switcheroo to make audiences question the storyline and look into deeper meanings? Whose body is on the slab at the morgue after Mandy dies? The actress who plays Mandy or the one who plays the Mystery Woman? In the end, it doesn’t matter, because in Ziegler’s world, all women are Mandy — even his own wife.

NOTE: Interestingly, in the German television movie Traumnouvelle (1969), which is based on the same 1929 novella by Arthur Schnitzler that Kubrick based EWS on, most of the women are red-haired as well, including the main character's wife and the Mystery Woman who redeems him. There's a decent copy of Traumnouvelle on YouTube if you want to compare it with EWS. It is virtually the same story, shorn of all of Kubrick's bells and whistles, and set in a different era and country.

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That rich people cult scared the crap out of me when I saw that movie. What if the rich and powerful who lorded over us do have that kind of secret society?

Google "Jeffrey Epstein."

Clearly the use of red-hair as symbolism was intended by Kubrick... fascinating.

After seeing the German version from 1969, where most of the women are red-haired as well, I suspect it was in the original source material, Troumnouvelle by Schnitzler. After reading the synopsis of that novella on Wikipedia, it appears that Kubrick was extremely faithful to the book. The only real difference is the updated location and era, and the addition of the character of Victor Ziegler. Plus all the weird occult stuff.