Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999): The Symbolic Names

in #film7 months ago (edited)

In Kubrick's last film, there's a scene where Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) rents a costume from a costumer called Rainbow Fashions. The name is symbolic but we can only guess how; rainbows/rainbow lights are featured everywhere in the film.

The following is the third in a series of articles about the symbolism and themes of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick's last, enigmatic film. The first two articles can be found here and here.

Synopsis: 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.

Like many elements of EWS, even the names of people and places are symbolic. Here is a summary of the symbolism in the naming conventions in the film:

Dr. Bill Harford. Harford (played by Tom Cruise) is the main character, an affluent "society doctor" who treats wealthy patients. "Dr. Bill", Harford's nickname, is a sound-alike reference to “Dollar Bill”, emphasizing the role of money that is repeatedly brought up in the film. (There are numerous scenes where sums of money are mentioned or transacted — these scenes are too prominent to be coincidental.) Reportedly, Kubrick created the name from "Harrison Ford," because he wanted Dr. Bill to have a WASPy, "whitebread" name (ironically, the real Ford is of Jewish ancestry.) Kubrick also at one point wanted to cast Ford in the role that ultimately was portrayed by Cruise.

The name Harford may have a secondary meaning, however. It's an alternative version of the more common surname Hartford, a name that literally means “deer crossing” in Old English. Indeed, Bill Harford does often look like the proverbial “deer caught in the headlights” as he “crosses” from his mundane bourgeois world into the dangerous new world of the ultra-rich secret society. A deer is also prey, and could be a reference to the way Harford is “hunted” by the secret society after he attends the orgy.

Alice Harford. Alice (portrayed by Nicole Kidman) is Bill’s wife. Her first name comes from a word meaning “noble” in Old German. This may be an ironic choice, however, as the actions of Alice in the film are far from noble. More likely, though, it’s a reference to the most famous Alice in Anglo culture—Alice in Wonderland, a little girl who chases a white rabbit down a rabbit-hole into a magical world. In the film, Alice has a sexual fantasy about a handsome naval officer dressed in a formal, white uniform. She confesses to Bill that she wanted to leave him and follow the naval officer wherever he went, if even only for “one night” of sexual bliss.

Nick Nightingale. Nightingale (portrayed by director/actor Todd Field) is the piano artist who plays blindfolded at the ceremonies/orgies of the secret cult. He foolishly gives the address and password of the latest event to Bill. His name is obviously a reference to the phrase “sing like a bird” or “sing like a nightingale” -- slang for the act of betraying secrets, especially secrets of a criminal nature. In the film, Nightingale pays a heavy price for his “singing.” Interestingly, he has the same name in Traumnouvelle, the source literary work for EWS: Nachtigall, so the “sing like a bird” analogy probably exists in German as well as English.

Sandor Szavost. Sandor (portrayed by the Argentinian actor Sky du Mont) is the oily and mysterious Hungarian who tries to seduce Alice at Ziegler’s Christmas party. The name Sandor is the Hungarian version of Alexander—as in Alexander the Great. It fits the character and situation if you consider a seduction the same as a “conquest” — which many powerful men do. In my previous post, I speculated that Sandor is also a reference to George Soros, the international financier of Hungarian origin who’s at the heart of many current conspiracy theories. Notably, Sandor makes a strong point of mentioning his nationality to Alice from the get-go:

“I’m Sandor Szavost. I’m Hungarian.”
“I’m Alice Harford. I’m American.”

Victor Ziegler (played by Sydney Pollack). Victor Ziegler is a wealthy, powerful patient of Bill's. Victor is an aggressive name, literally meaning “winner.” His fabulous wealth and influence do make Victor a winner at the game of life. Ziegler, OTOH, literally means “bricker” (brickmaker) in German—ie a person who makes a product used by masons. (Many film pundits say it means "mason", but that is another word: maurer). Possibly, the name suggests that Ziegler serves Freemasonry, but is not one himself. At the Christmas party, there are decorations that form occult symbols (more about this in another post) all over Ziegler’s ballroom.

Domino. This is the name of the prostitute who picks up Harford while he's wandering around at night in Greenwich village after his argument with Alice. It references a type of mask, tying in with the theme of masks that appears throughout the film. But unlike the elaborate jeweled and feathered Venetian masks worn by the rich at the orgy, a domino mask simply covers the area around the eyes and partially across the nose. (“Robin” from the Batman comics wears a domino mask.) The cheap, simple mask highlights the poverty of Domino, who has turned to prostitution to pay for her college courses in sociology.

Mandy. The red-haired, high-class hooker who overdoses in Ziegler’s bathroom is later revealed as Amanda Curran, a former beauty contest winner. The name Amanda comes from the Latin for “worthy of love.” Mandy later saves Bill’s life at the orgy (at least that’s what we are told) which does prove that she’s “worthy.” I am not sure if Kubrick chose the name for this reason or if it has some other significance.

When Bill finds out about Mandy’s death in an article in the New York Post, a close-up of the article reveals that she’s the former girlfriend of a wealthy Londoner named “Leon Vitali.” Leon Vitali is the IRL name of the actor who plays Red Cloak, the sinister Master of Ceremonies at the orgy. This is is one of Kubrick’s inside jokes, as Leon Vitali was his longtime friend and assistant. But it could also mean that Red Cloak was the man who initiated Mandy into the cult.

Nuala Windsor. Nuala is the red-haired fashion model who hits on Bill at Ziegler's Christmas party (along with her friend Gayle.) Pointedly in the dialogue, Nuala is revealed to have the same last name as the British royal family, while Gayle does not have a last name at all; I suspect Nuala's name is not coincidental. The royal family are often featured in conspiracy theories about Freemasons, Bilderbergers, the Illuminati, etc.

Rainbow Fashions. At the Christmas party, Nuala and Gayle lead Bill around Victor’s townhome, and he asks where they are taking him. Gayle answers, “where the rainbow ends,” and Bill thinks it’s a joke and laughs. We never know what she means, because at that point, Ziegler’s male secretary appears and asks for Bill’s help with “something” (which turns out to be Mandy’s overdose in Ziegler’s bathroom.) But later, however, Bill visits a costumer called Rainbow Fashions to rent his costume for the secret orgy.

Rainbow Fashions is on the second floor of a grungy retail building; the first floor is occupied by a business called “Under the Rainbow,” clearly a reference to The Wizard of Oz. This could be Kubrick’s clue that what’s happening to Bill after the Christmas party is “all a dream” just like Dorothy’s adventures in Oz. At least one film pundit, Movies Up Close, provides a pretty good argument that everything that happens from Bill and Alice’s argument (and Alice’s subsequent confession about lusting after a naval officer) is a dream triggered by Bill’s financial, class, and sexual insecurities. Under this theory, he only "wakes up" when he confesses to Alice what he's been up to behind her back (or in reality, what he dreamed). This theory has its charms, although I'm not entirely convinced. Note that the original novella, Traumnovelle, means Dream Story in German.

Keep in mind, 1999 was long before the rainbow became the near-exclusive symbol of gay rights that it is today. The rainbow is a symbol in many cultures. Since there’s a lot of Masonic references in this film, we might also take the rainbow symbolism as referring to The Rainbow Girls, a Masonic auxiliary club for young girls and women under 21. Combined with the subtle references to pedophillia in other parts of the film, this possible interpretation is a very creepy one indeed.

Somerton. This is the name of the huge, ominous-looking mansion in the countryside where the occult ritual and orgy takes pace. In Old English, it means summer estate or summer place; I’m not sure if the name comes from the original novella or not. It could be an ironic in-joke from Kubrick, as the movie takes place in late December. It could also symbolize the polar opposite/mirror image of the Christmas holiday—summer solstice versus winter solstice (mirrors appear everywhere in the film). It’s notable that there are no Christmas decorations at Somerton, whereas every other location in EWS is overflowing with Christmas trees, lights, and ornaments. To complete the “opposite” theme, the occult ceremony before the orgy features the chanting of Christian prayers backward.

Gillespie’s Diner. This is the name of the diner next door to The Sonata Cafe, the jazz club where Nick Nightingale is playing a two-week gig as a pianist. It’s most likely a reference to Dizzy Gillespie, the famous jazz trumpeteer of the mid-20th Century. I don’t know why Kubrick didn’t call the actual jazz club after Gillespie, instead of the diner. I suppose that would have been too obvious.


I never watched this film and I don't know why that is. Kubrick films tend to annoy me for some reason though :)

Yeah, Kubrick's an acquired taste. I didn't like this film when I saw it at the movies 20 years ago, but after re-watching it I appreciated it. It's got that same dreamy, spooky quality as The Shining and The Shining is one of my top favorite films of all time.

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