I think Kubrick hints at a way of viewing Eyes Wide Shut (1999) towards the end of the film: when Dr. William (Tom Cruise) and Alice Hartford (Nicole Kidman) are Christmas shopping in the final scene, they discuss the distinction between “reality” and “dream[s]”. As they edge around the events of the night before, they settle upon a middle ground of sorts, placing the goings-on somewhere between consciousness and slumber. While Alice accepts she can’t know entirely what Bill did, he points out that her dreams can’t just be dismissed as subconscious babbling: “the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth.” “And no dream is entirely a dream.” It is a complex and loaded exchange but, in one sense, the blurred distinction between the experiential truth and a dream provides a useful lens through which a viewer can consider Kubrick’s last film: it’s neither the whole truth nor just a dream but instead something in-between.

As Bill’s journey through the night unfolds, causation is presented as seamless: events lead so easily to other events that Bill seems to be guided by a force other than his own will. The impeccable logic of the flow of occurrences and locations lends to Bill’s movements a sense of inevitability. If the viewer thinks back from the climax of this section, from the orgy scene, to the normal beginnings of the Hartford home, she is jarred by how far Bill has come: the sense of inevitability is retrospectively tempered by the night’s sheer oddity. The night is dreamlike because Bill moves with an ominous ease towards the strangest of spatial and moral places without receiving answers about what’s really happening.

The narrative unfolds linearly but tangentially, then, as Bill moves (or is moved) from the Christmas party to a secret ritualistic orgy, apparently without scope to escape once his journey starts. Kubrick’s aesthetic choices strengthen this dreamscape in a different way: colours, images and linguistic phrases interact associatively, remaining present, rather than leading sequentially from one to another. While the narrative unfolds in time, motifs interweave throughout the picture, being refracted as the film progresses but consistently resurfacing. If the events of the narrative have the strangeness of a dream in their progression, the visual and aural motifs of Eyes Wide Shut achieve a kaleidoscopic playfulness.

Take, for example, Bill’s exchanges with the two girls at the opening Christmas party. He asks “Where we going girls?” One replies “Where the rainbow ends.” The other asks “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?” The question is allowed to hang for a moment but Bill quickly forgets the proposition as he is drawn away to more practical matters: he must help an overdosing girl who is lying naked upstairs in the host’s room. The end of the rainbow, then, hints at carnal satisfaction (with the two women, in this instance) but in fact leads to a more ambiguous blend of sexuality, vulnerability and, in a sense, self-objectifying voyeurism (the overdosing girl is unaware of her own nakedness, when Bill enters). This cluster of images – the rainbow, idealistic carnality and a more complex reality – embodies Bill’s larger movement. 

Later in the film, the first image resurfaces: the shop from which he hires his costume is called Rainbow. An aural utterance (“where the rainbow ends”) is transplanted onto the shop’s sign, an image accompanied by printed text (RAINBOW). The second image also appears: while he does not take it, his brush with a prostitute presents Bill with an opportunity for pure sexual fulfilment.  Such idealistic carnality slides into something more complex: when it is revealed later that the girl has been diagnosed H.I.V. positive, Bill is left ambivalent, thankful that he did not sleep with her but nonetheless sorry for her situation. At the out-of-the-way mansion that holds the ritualistic orgy, the motif of carnal delight is intensified: the women increase in number and beauty, if Nick (Todd Field) is trustworthy; he apparently has “never seen such women.” The purity of the moment is increased with anonymity: these beautiful women, as well as the men, are objectified with their identities hidden behind masks. Sex becomes nameless, an action free from individuals.

The forced removal of Bill’s mask muddies the social hierarchy within the mansion. It restores his identity among this group of faceless bodies, in one sense, returning his subjectivity. Equally, the action renders Bill the ultimate object: in an environment in which people wish to hide their identity he is made to flaunt his own. He cannot stop the combined gaze of everyone in the room, as they take more than he wishes to give, at once understanding who he is in the world proper. He is exposed, vulnerable and emphatically himself.

Throughout the film, the apparently inevitable progression from one event to another combines with the kaleidoscopic resurfacing of images and phrases  to achieve the dreamscape quality. Alice ends the picture with a monosyllabic snap: “there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible.” “What’s that?” “Fuck.” In contrast with the earlier dreamlike presentation of carnality, Alice’s vulgarity feels pragmatic: it is something that needs to be done to set things right. The bluntness of delivery, as well as of sentiment, brings the dream to a close and confirms that, as Alice says, “We’re awake now.”