Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut (1999)': The Symbolic Masks
Note: all photos are either in the public domain (publicity stills) or have been altered to meet "fair use" standards. Also, spoiler alert! First of a series of commentary on this film.
With the recent headlines about the Nxivm and Jeffrey Epstein child sex trafficking cases, Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut-- which focuses on a secret cult of elite, murderous sex abusers -- is once again in the public’s eye. This month and year also marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Eyes Wide Shut, resulting in many retrospective articles and commentary. Sadly, 2019 additionally marks two decades on from Kubrick's death; he passed away from a sudden heart attack only a few days after he delivered his final cut to the distributor, Warner Brothers.
You could write a book about the symbology of Eyes Wide Shut; it’s packed with occult symbols, Easter Eggs, and obscure references of all kinds. (In fact, several people have written books about it.) You could also write a book about the film’s impact on hordes of Internet armchair analysts who believe that every pencil cup and lampshade is a coded Message From Stanley warning about the Illuminati, the Freemasons, the Tri-Lateral Commission, the Bilderbergers, or other usual magnets of conspiracy theories. Of course, the great director's untimely death--in conjuction with the completion of this film--has been a heated subject for the EWS conspiracy analysts from the start.
On the surface, EWS is a film about an affluent, social-climbing Manhattan professional couple, Bill and Alice Harford (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, then married) and their crumbling marriage. As usual with Kubrick films, however, there’s a lot going on in the background behind the slim, surface plot.
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.
Clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, Eyes Wide Shut covers a lot of ground, but the centerpiece of the film is the incredibly creepy ceremony/orgy. The Venetian carnival masks worn by the participants comprise a large part of why these scenes are so effective. Since this is a Kubrick film, many of the masks--of course--symbolize various Kubrickian codes, references, and messages. Some of the masks are merely traditional, some are abstract, some look like actual people—but all are creepy and disturbing. Here are some of the major masks and various explanations of what they may represent; some are from my own theories, while other explanations have come from Kubrick fans and pundits around the 'net.
The “Peter Lorre” mask. The gold mask (top right, above) worn by “Red Cloak” — the sinister Master of Ceremonies at the secret orgy — is arguably the most important mask in the film. Today, replicas of it are sold as popular Halloween masks. I was sure I’d seen those facial features before, but at first I couldn’t place them. Then it finally hit me: the mask startlingly resembles Peter Lorre, the Hungarian-born actor who acted in Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and other famous films of the mid-20th Century. Why would Kubrick reference Lorre, a man who died 32 years before Kubrick started shooting this film?
In my opinion, he's not calling out Lorre as a man, but as a role that the actor played. Film buffs know that Lorre’s most acclaimed performance was in the 1931 Fritz Lang film M, where he portrayed a serial killer who molests and murders children.
IMHO, by inserting this mask in such a prominent role in the film, Kubrick is calling out elites -- like Epstein -- who rape and abuse children. What’s more, there’s a second Peter Lorre mask at the orgy (above, bottom, right); this one is colored brown and worn by one of the party-goers. It's plain--at least to me--that Kubrick really wanted people to notice those particular masks and make the obvious connection to the child killer in M.
Of course, this theory may be all wet. Lorre ended his formerly distinguished career as an actor in B-grade horror movies, starring opposite Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. His face could have simply been intended to up the creep factor of the orgy. But I don't think so.
The Ryan O’Neal mask. This mask is worn by Bill Harford when he infiltrates the secret orgy. No need for theories on the identity of these features; the mask is on record as modeled from the face of O’Neal, who played the title role in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). This is one of Kubrick’s self -referential little Easter Eggs, of which there are many in EWS.
Barry Lyndon tells the story of an 18th Century Irish social climber who schemes to become an aristocrat, but who eventually falls to ruin. Bill Harford is also a social climber, who uses his status as a successful “society doctor” to access the world of the privileged uber-elite (symbolized by Ziegler, Bill’s patient.) Similar to the character of Barry Lyndon, Harford pays a steep price for trying to socialize with people who are "above his station."
The “Donald Trump” mask. As anyone could reasonably imagine, this one has been generating conspiracy theories for years. Some people don’t see a resemblance, but I think it does look quite a lot like The Donald — lol it’s even painted orange! In the film, the reveler who wears this mask is very prominently featured in the front row of the audience members who are watching the occult ceremony just before the orgy. Trump detractors claim this proves that Trump is/was involved in secret, unsavory activities. Trump supporters claim that the mask shows Trump’s horror and disgust at the alleged activities of his fellow billionaires. Notably, this mask is the only one that wears an expression of horror and repulsion — it’s almost shrieking. Interestingly, Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, is a Trump supporter—at least according to her very active Twitter feed. Surely, Vivian is aware of these theories regarding the alleged “Trump” mask; what on earth does she think about them?
The “George Soros” mask. This may seem like a cheap shot, but I genuinely think that this one looks quite a bit like Ol’ Baggy Eyes, aka the shadowy, controversial global financier at the heart of many conspiracy theories. Notice that this mask is painted green, in addition to having prominent bags beneath the eye sockets. Is the green color a reference to filthy lucre? At the time that EWS was filming, Soros was considered a major architect of the financial crisis known as “the Asian flu,” which caused widespread economic distress in many East Asian nations. Note that the Christmas party scene in EWS also features a sinister, wealthy Hungarian; Soros is Hungarian in origin. In the film, the wearer of this mask isn’t prominent but just silently lurks in the background, as a shadowy global financier might be expected to do.
The “Bob Hope” mask. This mask with a receding hairline and a prominent, "ski-jump" nose is worn by a butler at the occult/orgy mansion. He is the servant who ushers Tom Cruise’s character into a kind of courtroom, where the sinister Red Cloak unmasks him and -- it’s implied -- sentences him to death.
Hope had a reputation as a “player” who slept with numerous women during his 40s heyday as a movie star, but I don’t think that’s what is being referenced here. If this mask really does refer to Hope, I think it’s pointing to the beloved funnyman's long-time role as an official USO entertainer of American troops who are stationed overseas. Kubrick made three very famous anti-war films: Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. He would have seen Hope as a deceiver who lulls soldiers to forget -- at least for awhile -- their role as cannon fodder for the global elite. Significantly, the servant who wears this mask tricks Bill Harford into following him by telling him a lie.
Other people have said this ski-jump-nosed mask may be a reference to Richard Nixon and not Hope, but I tend to think not. Nixon, who died two years before EWS started filming, hadn’t been a factor in global power and politics since 1974. And the disgraced ex-President was at the apex of power before his downfall -- not a servant.
The “Picasso mask”. This mask depicting a face made of a fractured triangle and a fractured oval does look like a Picasso painting. But as Rob Ager, the self-described “Kubrick decoder,”points out in one of his videos about EWS, the triangle also looks very much like the “Eye of Providence” symbol on the back of the U.S. dollar bill (the pyramid with a glowing eye on top.) Note that the green accents on the mask are painted in the same shade of green that the dollar is printed in, and the squiggly black lines on the mask's left side echo the scrolls of the banner under the Eye of Providence.
This is another reference to the themes of unlimited wealth and power that pervade EWS. The “Eye of Providence” is also a common Masonic symbol, of which there are many in this film, including the Christmas decorations at Ziegler’s house and the throne that Red Cloak sits on when passing judgement on Harford. (I'll write more about this in a future post.)
The Plague Doctor mask. This mask is worn most prominently by the man who grabs and leads away the masked “mystery woman” who “redeems” Harford from an unknown but sinister fate. It’s not spelled out, but the obvious implication is that she’s offering to die in place of Harford, just as the main character in the Beethoven opera Fidelio risks her life to save her husband.
The plague doctor mask was worn by physicians during the Black Plague; it supposedly protected wearers from plague germs. The “beak” of the mask was usually stuffed with medicinal herbs. In the EWS "redemption" scene, it's undoubtedly a symbol of approaching death. The mask is also an ironic echo of Harford’s status as a real-life doctor, except that this plague-masked "doctor" deals out death instead of life.
The Bautta mask. This mask is worn by the party-goer who nods at Harford from a gallery above the floor where the occult ceremony takes place. It’s hinted in a later scene that Victor Ziegler is behind the bautta mask, but it’s never verified. The bautta was a common mask worn in the heyday of the Venetian Carnival. It flares out over the mouth so that a wearer can eat and drink without removing the mask. According to my research, the word bautta comes from either a German word meaning “to protect” or an Italian word for “monster.” Both words fit Ziegler; he “protects” the secret cult by having certain people “eliminated”; he is also a monster.