Eyes Wide Shut: The Woman Not Seen


The author uses Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut and Arthur Schnitzler’s Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, which the film was based on, to illustrate the difficulties inherent in the sexual non-relation. She shows the fundamental place of fantasy in creating an imaginary bridge, where the sexes only appear to meet or to miss each other. Her paper works both as an introduction to the subject of sexuation and Lacan’s graph of sexuation, as well as an example that may be helpful for readers of her latest book, The Logic of Sexuation: From Aristotle to Lacan, published in 2004

The hypothesis I will develop in discussing the film Eyes Wide Shut( ) is that Bill’s (Tom Cruise’s) reactions to Alice’s (Nicole Kidman’s) fantasy and to her dream can be explained in terms of Jacques Lacan’s sexuation graph( ).. This theory becomes increasingly viable as one “reads” Bill’s thoughts in Rhapsody: A Dream Novel (Schnitzler 1927) on which the film was based. Indeed, Kubrick was fascinated by Arthur Schnitzler’s story long before he filmed Eyes Wide Shut. At points in the film where Stanley Kubrick has Bill look questioningly or perplexedly at Alice while seeing her in fantasy in some other lover’s arms, Schnitzler elaborates the thoughts behind those images: Bill’s thoughts are vengeful and spiteful, sexist in the most extreme.

If one views Bill’s “falling apart” as his recognition that Alice doesn’t incarnate, in Lacan’s terms, The Essential Woman as existing (The Woman qua essence of certain supposedly feminine traits does not guarantee a consistency to one’s existence), then his determination to find out more and more about sex becomes a response to his unconscious fantasy having been called into question. The fantasy that supports masculine belief in the One woman who will “fill” the void at the heart of being (Ø/a) is typical of males in Lacan’s sexuation graph. I would argue that Bill falls apart when his unconscious fantasy is smashed. Since the operation is unconscious, however, Bill can neither reason it out nor talk about it with Alice. Indeed, after she confessed her fantasy, she became his “arch enemy.” His acts were then at the level of wanting to know more about sex as “reality,” as a way to re-calibrate his psycho-sexual being more than some determination to take revenge on Alice. This thesis makes sense of the complexity of the film, brought about by the difference between masculine and feminine sexuation, defined here as identity beyond sexuality or gender: identity as “masculine” or “feminine.” Additionally, viewing the film from this level challenges the critics who found it to be little more than a simplistic film about the boredom of bourgeois marriage.

Kubrick’s film follows Schnitzler’s novel very closely. The main event added by Kubrick is a motive for why the woman at the chateau “redeemed” Bill Hartford at the cost of her own life. Kubrick makes her Mandy, the same drug-addicted hooker Bill had saved at Zigler’s party. In Schnitzler, she was some Baroness, and Fridolin (Dr. Hartford) may have earlier performed for her some act of kindness, something like removing a speck from her eye. But the differences between the film and the novel that is the basis for it are noteworthy enough to render a brief summary of the novel, published in 1927, useful in promoting my thesis regarding Bill, not just in looking more precisely at what I propose motivates Bill’s actions, but also in marking the difference between masculine and feminine sexuality, regardless of libidinal object choice.

Schnitzler’s story begins with the ball. Fridolin (Bill) is greeted by two women who seem interested in him. They wear masks and promise to return without them, although they don’t. Bill’s wife, having just escaped a man who’d made an offensive remark to her, takes his arm. Later, at home, their lovemaking is blissful. Yet, the events of the previous night come up, referred to as “neglected opportunities.” As Fridolin (Bill) and Albertina (Alice) discuss these events, neither is honest and each seems a bit vindictive, mocking the other’s jealousy while denying their own. Schnitzler says that each knew that that night had not been the first time that “the spirit of adventure, freedom, and danger had beckoned them” (p. 7), although Kubrick leads us to believe that for his characters it was the first time. As their suspicions grew, each pushed the other to confess. Albertina asks Fridolin if he remembered the young man from the previous summer at the Danish sea shore—an officer: they had exchanged one very deep look. She explains, based only on that look, that if he had “called to her,” she would have gone off with him, giving up everything she had with Fridolin, even though Fridolin was dearer to her than ever. But as events would have it, the officer suddenly received a telegram, he left and didn’t return. Albertina was relieved, but remained certain she’d had “an experience”—a true meeting of desire—with the officer (this is what Lacan would call a rencontre in the real). Fridolin in turn tells her a story of a young blond girl who had beseechingly reached out to him at the Danish shore.

Crying, Albertina asked that they always share such secrets: she’d previously felt safe when he’d told her of exploits from his student days, for he’d always assured her he’d been seeking her in every woman he’d loved before he’d met her. But when Fridolin was shocked by her revelation regarding her attraction to the Danish officer, she went on, insisting she had indeed met someone with whom she would have made love had he asked, and she followed with “Oh, if you men only knew…!” (p. 15). I think we can fairly describe Fridolin’s (Bill’s) shock as an encounter with the desolation of the void place in being, with the raw angst of the barred Ø: S(Ø) which opens onto the real, the side of the feminine in Lacan’s sexuation graph. Normally this void place is filled in by phallic objects, demonstrated by arrows that connect the symbolic order signifiers (_) to the void in the Other. Such signifiers, such as belief in total marital fidelity, are the traditional means for keeping angst at bay. At this point in the novel Fridolin is called away to the home of the dying Privy Counselor. As he reaches the front steps of his own house, he realizes that all the regularity of his normal life, all the security of his existence, is nothing but deception and delusion (pp. 112-113). He feels that his behavior before the daughter of the Privy Counselor will be “to betray, to deceive, to lie, to play a part before Marianne [Mariam], before Albertina [Alice], before the good Dr. Roediger [Mariam’s fiancé], before the whole world. His new goal is to lead this sort of double life” (p. 134). But in the room with her dead father, Mariam tells Fridolin of her engagement to a young mathematics professor, which makes Fridolin (Bill) feel jealousy, both because she is engaged and because he isn’t a professor. She then kisses Fridolin and tells him she loves him and wants only to stay near him, a replay of Albertina’s fixation on the Danish officer. The scene is interrupted by the return of her fiancé, Rodiger. Once he is outside, Fridolin feels incredibly free. He tells himself he already has a wife and if he can find the time, he may also have affairs. (He might be said here to typify Don Juan, about whom Lacan advanced the theory that male sexuation counts itself by the list of lovers taken, whereas the woman thinks of herself—even if she knows she is on a list—as special, outside it, as one-minus to the list of lovers) (ch.1, Encore). He can fantasize having affairs, but Alice can’t.

I would argue that Alice’s (Albertina’s) confession has rattled Bill’s (Fridolin’s) entire sense of himself as a man. When a male student jostles him as he leaves the Doctor’s house, Fridolin wants to fight a duel, but he then decides it would be crazy. Had it, however, been the Danish officer, he thinks, he would have. Working from the thesis that an unconscious fantasy of Oneness has been shattered, we might say that Bill begins to challenge his image of his masculinity given that his previous unconscious base for a pleasure-principle existence was based on the assumption of a consistency of his being—homeostasis Lacan argues—insofar as Woman (be it a wife, a mother, or a religious figure) must be consistent. Once called into doubt by Alice’s confession, he then wonders how much of a coward he is. At this point, a prostitute—Domino in the movie and Mizzi in the novel—comes to him. He goes into her apartment with her. She undresses and sits on his lap, trying to embrace and kiss him, and he keeps drawing away. As he then woos her, she resists and he gets up and leaves. The motivation for his leaving is not explained by Schnitzler. It is clarified by Kubrick in the form of a ringing cell phone call from his wife just at the moment he is ready to succumb. Telling Domino he has to go, he pays her the agreed upon sum of money anyway, again hinting at the kindness of his character.

In the film, as in the novel, Bill leaves the prostitute and feels “homeless, outcast ….ever since this evening’s conversation with Albertina…he was moving farther and farther away from his everyday existence into some strange and distant world” (p. 44). In this context, I’d say his “everyday existence” means that he had never before encountered the void place of emptiness and nothingness that dwells in the Lacanian Other (S[Ø])—and, thus, in one’s own being. But the void is only felt as a concrete place when fantasy and phallic certainties have broken down. Ordinarily, a male’s clinging to the phallic stance he has taken—identifying with what he has–and to the fantasy system he has elaborated around it, protects him from coming into contact with the void located on the feminine side of sexuation, where there is greater proximity to the real of loss and lack through woman’s identification with a logic of the “not (being) all” under the conventions and obligations of the symbolic order. She is always somewhat outside the social law (Encore, ch. 7), although she has a foot in it as well. Arguing this, Lacan says that analytic cure is on the side of the feminine, because the logic found there breaks up identifications with totalizations. It is a logic of the “not all.” Men, on the other hand, are typically locked within the social laws of the symbolic order by identifying with the rules and bonds of the group whose shared oneness comes from a structural, logical necessity; which is the supposition that there is one who lives outside the law. Such a logic must exist in order that law may be conceptualized. Whether this be the Ur-father of Freud’s Totem and Taboo (Freud 1913), or any other superhuman figure who is seen as a supreme lawgiver, the point is a matter of identificatory structure. There can be no law without the supposition of law. Thus, law begins in myth, at the point where structure (order, a series) gives a logic to what would otherwise be chaotic and meaningless (Lacan 1991). And this law requires an identification with difference away from oneness with the primordial mother, an identification with the phallic signifier—itself an abstract third term.

That men and women have different relations to the law—either as One or as Other—is something Lacan found in Freud. For Freud, law is for men, based on a matter of shared guilt for murder, while the female superego is supposedly more flexible. Lacan reverses this proposal and argues that since women are already “castrated”—i.e., women are not men—each one is universally free to have a portion of her being outside the law of social convention. This is only one premise Lacan makes regarding law in the context of his sexuation graph.

While Bill’s rage at Alice, and his determination to get even with her before he returns home, can be explained by the shattering of an unconscious myth he holds vis-à-vis “The Woman not seen,” the one he has chosen as his partner, such a fantasy is a myth kept in place by unconscious identification with certain fantasies that fill one’s void with The Woman. The essentialized Woman (essentialized in a totalizing fantasy, not in terms of biology) becomes a structural construct in a crossing—and interlinking—of the bar which serves as an unconscious divider between the sexes (__/Ø). The phallic signifier fills up the void in the Other for the one identified with the masculine because there is no universal or essential Woman. She is barred in reality. After hearing Alice recount her dream, Bill sees her innocence, her wifeliness, her motherliness, her unflagging fidelity to him, as being just a sham. But Alice doesn’t think with the same totalizing logic. She is “not all” enclosed within a rigid symbolic construct of what The Woman should be as sex partner and she thus has greater freedom and flexibility toward her sexuality, and toward sexuality in general. She quite unabashedly tells Bill the story of the Danish officer, just as later she freely tells him her dream. He does not embody for her “the essence of the masculine.” He is not “the man,” but “a” man, she has stopped from adding more women to his list—in the imaginary logic of the woman who fantasizes herself as The One who will stop male desire from wandering. From this perspective, Alice follows the structural (mathematical) logic of the woman who believes that Don Juan’s list, even if it does include her, doesn’t include her. Her “special” properties make her see herself as one-minus on the list, and not as just one more (Morel 1999). By “counting” this way, women can have it both ways. She sees that a man makes a list of women that may include her. But by believing herself to be “unique,” “not all” under the symbolic rule, she can exempt herself from the list and see herself as the one held outside, the transcendental one.

Thus, while Alice fears no harm from recounting her dream to Bill, he responds to his unconscious fantasy. He becomes driven by his quest to get even with Alice, to abandon if not to kill her, in fantasy. This comes through in Schnitzler’s story more clearly than in Kubrick’s film. The film covers Bill’s thoughts about Alice by showing him staring at her while looking perplexed, but imagining her with another man. In the film, the look Bill gives Alice is more quizzical while in the novel his thoughts are of hatred and murderous rage, leaving no doubt as to the content of his thoughts. Given this, it is thus not surprising that he can’t return home. He becomes the seeker of another kind of truth, a kind of truth about sex in its links to love and desire outside love. His fusion of love and desire are no longer reduced to a totalizing One. When he meets Nick Nightingale, a former medical school friend who plays piano in a coffee house, he listens to him with pleasure. This man from his past had been neither serious nor diligent, but he had at one point paid Bill an eight-year-old debt. Bill was fond of him and bemused over his roaming the earth in search of piano jobs while plainly proud that he had a wife and four sons back in Seattle. In their conversation after the musician’s performance, Nick tells Bill that he is sometimes privately engaged “in…circles both public and secret.” He is going to play for one such group that night for the third time. Each time the audience had grown larger. He knew this even though he played blindfolded because he could see through the silk blindfold and he saw amazing naked women. Bill insisted on going along, while Nick protested, saying he was driven there in secret and you could enter only if you knew the password. Bill persuades Nick to tell it to him, saying he knows a masquerade store that may still be open. He goes there and Mr. Millage agrees to outfit him for an extra $200 above the rental fee for the costume. He asks only for a dark cassock with a hood and a mask.

Meanwhile, we see another sexual scene as the old man’s young teenage daughter comes out of a room with two men dressed up as judges. Her father calls her a whore and a degenerate and threatens the men with the police. This scene takes its relevance only later in the movie, although less so than in the novel where Fridolin is again depicted as kindly, for trying to save the young girl.

Armed with the password “Denmark” in the novel and “Fidelio” in the movie, Bill gives the cabdriver a large sum and promises more if he’ll wait for him an hour, or longer. Fidelio is an opera by Beethoven in which a woman has to dress up like a man to try to retrieve her lost husband from Hades. In any case, 16 or 20 people dressed as nuns and monks pass by Bill, while one woman whispers, “Go away. You don’t belong here. If it’s discovered, it will go hard with you” (Rhapsody, p. 72). Then Bill sees that the women are wearing dark veils down to their necks and masks, but they are otherwise completely naked. As varied couples begin to perform sexual acts, a woman starts to lead Bill away. At that point, the first woman comes back and again warns him to leave, telling him she can’t leave with him or they’ll both die. At this point, Bill is encircled by the group and the leader asks him for the second “house” password. When he says he’s forgotten it, the group cries for expiation. When the unknown woman speaks up, saying she would redeem him, the leader asks her if she knows what she’s doing and she insists that she does. Bill is then sent away in a carriage, as his cab had already been dismissed.

What is so dangerous about this masquerade? Clearly the masquerade is a gesture made to ordinary sexual repression, insofar as denial of sexuality is demanded by symbolic order codes of acceptable behavior and desire. The masks represent that, as well as the requirement of absolute privacy and secrecy that the Other exacts. Yet, this is not the point of Schnitzler’s story, nor Kubrick’s film. The point has to do, rather, with why sexual orgies would not be the standard lot for sexual beings. Bill says to himself that he felt so betrayed by Alice that only by uniting with all other women could he allow himself to return to her (p. 96). Such revenge places him within the logic of a Don Juan who thinks he can prove his masculinity by adding more and more lovers to his list. Moreover, Bill feels that he can redeem his lost sense of manhood through sex as well as through a duel with the rough student. In the film, the students are replaced by a village gang that mocks him and pushes him around, calling him effeminate. He asks himself in the novel: “Is one always to stake one’s life just from a sense of duty or self–sacrifice, and never because of a whim or a passion, or simply to match oneself against one’s Fate?” (p. 96). Then, he decides he was having a delirium and had caught diphtheria from a child to whom he had given medical care. Another way to put it is that, in encountering the void place of anxiety where there is nothing but knowledge of loss, he had paradoxically lost the confidence he had taken for granted when he’d held the unconscious fantasy of the essence of woman as a safety measure, a guarantee that all is well and whole.

In the film, the movie starts with the annual party given by Dr. Zigler. The pianist at the party is Nick Nightingale, which is how Bill comes to learn he is playing at the Sonata Café. At the start, Bill is taken away by two young beauties promising to take him to the end of the rainbow. His wife, standing alone, drinks too much champagne. An older seductive man asks her to dance. He is Samdor Salas, a Hungarian. Salas is not in Schnitzler’s story. In the film, he gives a concrete reality to what Schnitzler describes as some man who had insulted her. Your husband wouldn’t mind if we danced, would he, Salas asks. She agrees and tells him that she had previously managed an art gallery in Soho, but that it had gone broke. He offers to help her start up again through his friends in the art world. He then gives her his wisdom on marriage: marriage makes the search for another lover necessary to each partner. Women used to marry only to be free to do what they really wanted, with another man he adds. As these scenes coalesce, Dr. Zigler calls upon Dr. Bill. In a private room a naked woman lies unconscious, having had a reaction to an overdose of cocaine and heroin. She is Mandy, the prostitute. Meanwhile, Salas is offering to show Alice Zigler’s gallery of Renaissance bronzes, upstairs. She says “no,” she can’t go, because she’s married. She understands that “upstairs” means sex. At the same time Bill—who is again painted as a kind doctor—is concerned that Mandy needs rehabilitation and cannot be moved for an hour, after which someone needs to take her home.

Back at home after the party, Bill and Alice smoke pot before having sex. She asks him if he had sex with the two girls at the party. He is astonished by her question and tells her about Zigler. He, then, asks about the man, and she says he wanted sex, upstairs, then and there. Bill is not surprised because she’s “beautiful.” This makes her angry and she draws the analogy that Bill wanted to fuck the two beautiful models he’d been with. No, he says. He is an exception because he loves Alice and he wouldn’t hurt her. But you still want other women, she says. When she begins asking how he separates the personal and the professional in his capacity as a doctor, he replies that women must not know how to think. When she says, “If you men only knew…!,” he responds with what I am calling the Lacanian underlying theory of the terms of his unconscious fantasy of an unseen Woman, essence of all goodness, femininity and support: “You’re my wife and my child’s mother and I’m sure of you. You’d never be unfaithful. I’m sure of you.” Her response is peals of laughter, at which point she tells him the story of Cape Cod and the young naval officer: even when she and Bill made love that afternoon—and he was never dearer to her—she could not erase the naval officer’s image and said she was ready to give up Bill, their child and their future for him. When she discovered the next day that he was gone, she felt relieved.

When Bill receives the call from Mariam about her father’s serious condition, he’s relieved, because he doesn’t want to “show his face” after what Alice had just confessed to him. The next scene is the one in which Mariam tells Bill she has a fiancé, and confesses her undying love for Bill. This repeats for him the fear of infidelities and the threat to his fantasy of the unruffled harmonious union between him and his wife who incarnates The Woman. Mariam portrays another example of Woman’s infidelity, while Bill, mysteriously, feels jealous that she has a fiancé and will be leaving to live at the University of Michigan. When Mariam kisses him, saying “don’t despise me,” he replies that they hardly know each other. This scene, along with the later scene, in which Mr. Millage’s teenage daughter is a prostitute, complicate Bill’s feelings about Alice. Is he to place her among these other women, when he had assumed she was of a different type? After nine years of marriage, Bill is shaken to the core regarding who and what his wife is. After leaving, Bill rents a cab to go to the secret address Nicolas Nightingale had given him. Again, he fantasizes about his wife with the Danish officer, in Schnitzler’s story thinking his vengeful thoughts. He thinks “down in the bottom of his heart, he was through with her, no matter how their surface life continued” (p. 122). At this time, a young girl passes him and presses her breasts up against him: “They’re all alike, he thought bitterly, and Albertina [Alice] is like the rest of them – if not the worst. I won’t live with her any longer. Things can never be the same again” (p. 124).

In the film, Bill goes home after the masked party and hears his wife laughing in her dream hysterically. “What were you dreaming?” he asks. She tells him the dream in detail in the story by Schnitzler. They were in a deserted city and were naked and she was terrified and ashamed and was angry and blaming him because he’d rushed away. Once he was gone, she felt great—stretched out naked. A man from the hotel laughed at her and then made love with her and, then, she was fucking hundreds of men. She knew Bill could see her and she wanted to laugh in his face. Having listened to this dream, Bill is even more embittered. He decides the next day to return the costume and to look for Nick Nightingale and for the woman who had “redeemed “him at the masked orgy.

In the dream in Dream Rhapsody, Alice (Albertina) says it had begun in the house she lived in when she and Bill became engaged. There she found costumes in her closet, but no wedding dress. Then, slaves rowed him to her in gold and silver clothes. They went to a chamber and made love, but, she said “it was filled with a presentiment of sorrow” (p. 105). In an Adam and Eve kind of scenario, she depicts herself as knowing even before the wedding that the knowledge of sex was filled with confusion between sin and shame and glorious innocence. In her dream, they had to return to the world from their chamber and their clothes were gone. She said, “I was seized with unheard of terror and a shame so burning it almost consumed me” (p. 105). Curiously, she blamed Bill and he accepted the blame, saying he knew he should run and get their clothes for them. While he was gone she told him she “danced merrily, naked in a city buried a long time ago and forever” (p. 106). Could this be the Freudian city of childhood innocence and polymorphous perversity? Meanwhile she lay naked while the Dane looked at her, but she ignored him, watching Bill buy clothes for her. The Dane appeared and disappeared and she said she “laughed seductively as I have never laughed in my life” (p. 108). Then she saw countless couples uniting and exchanging. She said something at that point that can only be taken as being on the side of Woman’s supplemental jouissance, in Lacan’s teaching. Because woman is “not all” under the symbolic order phallic conventions of law and public decorum, woman is free to experience her sexuality on the side of the real in a way Lacan refers to as a supplemental jouissance. This refers to a jouissance of the whole body, not to just genital orgasm. The point is that woman already has one foot out of that camp in that she is not doubly castrated, as are men. While women are as susceptible to sexual scandal as are men, men, paradoxically, use social order decorum to hide their libertinage. This is probably because man is already more fettered by the social order than woman. By this I mean, the man –to define himself as a male—must first learn that he is not the same as his mother, a castration of monstrous proportions. Second, he must recuperate enough enjoyment from his fantasies and experiences to perform sexually. Often, he has been so thoroughly castrated by superego dicta, that he undergoes a secondary castration of impotence. All this adds up to the fragility of what is referred to as “the male ego.” But by the same token women are not required to identify away from their mothers. Moreover, they never have to concern themselves with performance anxiety because they can always masquerade. Yet when women are socially discredited for sexual indiscretions, the same kinds of adjectives of scorn arise that characterize Bill’s thoughts about Alice.

Alice continues recounting her dream in the story: “Just as that earlier feeling of terror and shame went beyond anything I have ever felt in the waking state, so nothing in our conscious existence can be compared with the feeling of release, of freedom, of happiness. Yet I didn’t for one moment forget you” (p. 109). In the dream, he had been arrested and was to be executed. Her dream carefully follows the film’s story of the warnings and death threats Bill has received. As she goes on, he “sees” her in the Dane’s arms, and then, the Queen (Mandy, The Duchess) comes to pardon him and he is whipped. The Queen is then suddenly the young girl from Denmark (Cape Cod) of their previous summer—bathing nude in the morning. He refuses to marry her and comes toward Alice. She says, “I wanted to make fun of you…because you had refused the queen’s hand out of faithfulness to me” (p. 113). “I was laughing shrilly as I awoke because they were nailing you to a cross” (p. 113).

Bill’s reaction to her dream is as extreme as his previous reaction had been to her confession of her fantasy. He decides that his own experiences seem trivial and he would conclude all of them by taking vengeance on her – as she had revealed herself as “faithless, cruel and treacherous, and as he now believed he hated more than he had ever loved her” (p. 114). Once more, he concludes, he won’t live with her any longer because things can never be the same again (p. 124). After hearing her dream, he decides he definitely wants to lead a double life. “And the most delightful part was that at some future time, long after Albertina fancied herself secure in the peacefulness of marriage—and of family life—he would confess to her, with a superior smile, all of his sins in retribution for the bitter and shameful things she had committed against him, in a dream” (p. 134).

One can see the unconscious structure underlying the sexuation implicit in sexuality. Unconsciously, Bill still believes in The Woman who exists, only this time she has taken the form of the woman who had redeemed him at the ball, a good Woman who has risked her life for him. He is then determined to find her. He returns to the house where the masked ball had taken place, and a servant comes out with a letter for him: “Give up your inquiries…we hope this will be sufficient warning” (p.129). Later Fridolin picks up a newspaper and reads that the Baroness D. had taken poison in a hotel room at 4:00 am. He immediately goes to the hospital and learns that Baroness Dubieski died there at 5:00 p.m. He begins to put the pieces together, to realize that the imaginary Woman, the essence of the feminine that “leads ever on”, as Goethe put it, has the feature of his wife’s face. “He now shuddered to realize his wife had been constantly in his mind’s eye as the woman he was seeking” (p. 151-152). But he was still driven to see if this woman was the same one he had helped at Zigler’s party. He visits the morgue—in the book and the film—and verifies that it is Mandy who is dead. In Dream Rhapsody, he merely takes the Baroness’s hands, as if to revive her.

The Schnitzler story develops the theme that, given one woman has died for him, this gives him the possibility of returning to Alice with his own story—which is quite a different thought than that he will live out a life of duplicity. Fridolin will tell Albertina everything he had experienced, but describe it as if it were a dream. And if she points out his failure, his futility, he will then tell her it was real. At this point, he goes home and sees the mask he’d thought he’d lost when he returned his costume, lying on his pillow. Albertina awakes and he begins to cry, saying he will tell her his whole story. Afterward, he asks what they should do now and she says they should be grateful to have come unharmed out of their adventures, whether real or dreams (p. 166). Her last line is wise: “Just as sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth” (p. 166), and he adds, “And no dream…is entirely a dream” (p. 166). She ends by saying that now they are awake for a long time to come (p. 166). He says “forever,” and she says, more realistically, “don’t inquire into the future” (p. 166).

In the film and in the novel, the scene with the prostitute, Domino, occurs before the masked ball, so we know that Bill has already decided to get even with his wife, by going to her. After Bill returns home and hides his costume, his wife tells him her faithless dream. The next day, he returns the costume and goes in search of Nick Nightingale. He gets the address of Nick’s hotel and learns that Nick had been taken away by two strong men and that he had a bruise on his face. He left no forwarding address. Then Bill goes out to the chateau, still looking for Nick, or for the woman who had redeemed him. Once again he is warned. He even calls up Mariam and hangs up when her fiancé answers. Still unable to go home, he returns to the prostitute, with a gift for her. A roommate flirts and he opens her blouse and touches her breasts. But, first, she feels he must know that Domino learned just that morning she is HIV-positive. He leaves and begins to realize he is being followed. Shortly after, he reads of the drug overdose of an ex-beauty queen in the newspaper, Ms. Manda Curan. Like the Baroness, she died the next afternoon. After having verified this at the morgue, he is summoned by Dr. Zigler who tells him all is well, but he is out of his depth. The implication is that the people at the chateau are famous, heads of states and governments. The hooker overdosed on her own and Nick is on his way home to his wife and kids, says Zigler. All is well, except that Bill is not invited to return to any ball of the sort from the evening before. A simple costume cannot hide who you are, Zigler tells him. Indeed, there was no second password. Moreover, Bill had left the receipt for his rental in his coat pocket, assumedly with his name on it; and he had arrived in a cab, while the others had come in Mercedes, and so on.

Back home the end occurs much like it does in the novel. Nick tells Alice everything. They spend an awkward next day Christmas shopping with their little girl. Only the following night can they sum up their interpretations of their faithlessness to one another. Alice adds one final line that is not in the novel. “I do love you and we need to fuck as soon as possible.” Such a conclusion sounds something like the sex cure, a refutation of the “no rapport” that Lacan puts forth. But while it also seems that this movie is about the boredom of the “no rapport” of a typical bourgeois marriage, Bill’s thoughts of hating Alice, his overreaction to her fantasy and her dream, reveal that it’s really about something else. Indeed, it is about the concrete connection of fantasy and dream to life and to the unconscious.

Bill’s excessive reaction to his wife’s fantasy and dream may be accounted for, in Lacanian sexuation, by the theory that the man is all enclosed within the symbolic order except for his reaching across the bar in the sexuation graph in the sex act, the divided (castrated) subject reaching out to an object, a beloved ( $—_a), and in his overall relation to the inexistence of the imagined essential WOMAN, wherein stereotypical roles and ways of thinking function as phallic signifiers (symbolic-order conventions) that fill in the void created by our first experiences of loss of objects ( __-_ S[(Ø]) supported by The Woman who does not really exist. But more profoundly, man reaches across the bar of sexual division in order to be attached to the real of his deeper repressed feelings—sexual, vengeful, all those constructed by loss and trauma that make up the real—by an indirect connection to woman. It is myths and fantasies of The Woman, whom he believes to exist and with whom he identifies at the level of phallic signifier, taking her as master signifier—wife, mother, Madonna—that fills the void place in the Other (Ø) through his connection to her as essential. Thus, the burden of securing existence is placed on the linkage of the phallic signifier—representing man here—to the void in the Other (Ø). The myth itself of The Woman who exists fills the void place in the Other, making him feel emotionally anchored and uniquely supported in his sexuality.

But what of the difference between Bill, whose whole life is undone by the shattering of this myth, and the men who go out nightly to a masked ball where libertinage is the law of the group? At a certain level one can speculate that they too live by the myth of “The Woman who exists.” The women they take as partners at the masquerade are masked. Many of them are hookers—non-people to these men. Others are famous aristocrats, women who retain the mark of honoring “The Woman who exists” by the secretiveness of their identities. This seems to me as viable an interpretation as that by which they are all masked simply because repression demands secrecy when sexual norms are not observed. There have been many historical examples of sexual orgies where the people were not masked, such as the Profumo scandal in England, and others. For each of these men, “The Woman who exists” may be someone other than their partners at the orgy—maybe a mother, a wife, a religious figure. Still, the masks of both sexes reveal that even “unbridled” sexuality must honor repression and secrecy in some way. Indeed, if this film were a praise to the undoing of repression Marcusian style, the overtones of danger, threat, going beyond the pale, wouldn’t be necessary.

The masquerade, like Bill and Alice’s marriage, reveals that there is no sexual rapport. There is no natural sexual behavior of automatic harmonious oneness and naturalness that prevails, be it Bill’s or Alice’s, each of whose partner is the Other sex. Nor is there a sexual rapport for the people at the ball who reveal that there is danger in revealing sexual libertinage. It is quite clear that Schnitzler’s conclusion and Kubrick’s differ. Schnitzler’s story ends with a reunion of the couple, with the proviso that the jouissance of the One be observed. Thus for Schnitzler there is rapport between the sexes. Schnitzler keeps love and sex coupled, although admitting that the fantasy and the dream bear greater resemblance to reality than one would like to think.

Kubrick, because he follows the novel so faithfully, can be said to differ in painting a contemporary picture of the gap between the typical love/sex marriage and the divide between love and sex that accompanies much of sexuality. I would conclude that Kubrick’s subtle emphasis on the constancy of the women in the film, as juxtaposed and contrasted to Bill who is thrown into emotional disarray, supports Lacan’s logic of the “not [being] all” contained in symbolic conventions for sexuation. Briefly put, the logic by which one identifies as either male or female—not masculine or feminine—is given in Lacan’s rewriting of Freud’s and Aristotle’s thinking about the difference between the one and the universal. To become male, the man must agree with other men that there is one who is omnipotent, superhuman, uncastrated. As a result, it follows that universally (except in psychosis) man is castrated because he must defer to the symbolic laws and conventions which exist in the name of the exception set up by men in the first place: _x _x _ x _x.

A social order’s laws and conventions regarding the sexual difference structure the exception in which they, in turn, believe. Women too share a part of this phallic castration insofar as they have one foot in the symbolic order: _ S(Ø)

The Woman. Yet, women do not live by the logic which gives rise to the phallic signifier as a signifier of difference between the sexes, a signifier without a signified. Rather, women can identify with one another in there being no exception to the rule of oneness of identity, based on identification with woman as mother. Lacan writes that this way in his sexuation graph: _x _x
_x _x.

There is no boundary of law of the symbolic to tell woman she must fully agree with a symbolic set of rules. All women, being castrated—lacking the symbol of difference that marks the male—are paradoxically in the universal, free to identify with the real place of a lack in the Other, and, consequently, to go one by one in their relation to the symbolic order strictures placed on men. This interpretation, paradoxically, makes women psychologically potentially sexually freer than men. This is particularly true of Alice in Kubrick’s film. She is the first to break the idyllic union of a fantasized oneness.
A final way to look at the difference between the rigid logic which undoes Bill when an unconscious set of assumptions is shaken by Alice’s openness about what women are really like can be seen from the angle of the possible, impossible, necessary and contingent logics by which Lacan rewrites the four modes of jouissance. Referring to Aristotle’s “On Necessity,” Lacan takes these as four modes of being which he rethinks, not in terms of universals and particulars, nor even in terms of being. Rather, he argues, these are limit points placed on a person, limit points in a jouissance beyond which one cannot go and still maintain imaginary ego cohesion. He divides these between masculine and feminine modes of existence which accompany sexuation, which explains, for example, why Alice might be thought of as the “freer thinker” of the couple. He writes these as four modes of negation: the necessary which does not cease writing itself; the impossible which does not cease not writing itself; the possible which ceases not writing itself; and the contingent which ceases writing itself. In Lacan’s thesis the negations of jouissance yield a modal logic from universal logical propositions, from truth, and from existence. Lacan places the necessary on the side of man, as that which does not cease writing itself (Lacan 1972). What does not cease writing itself in the symbolic are the terms of an exception to the rule on which the rule may, then, be based. Given that the masculine is defined as an exception to the rule of not being feminine, this logic will remain masculine within sexuation. The feminine takes up the impossible as that which does not cease not writing itself; that is, there is always an unfathomable, unspeakable gap at the heart of the real which will be felt on the feminine side of sexuation. The possible also charts its course on the side of the masculine in sexuation. Since no universal can reduce itself to the possible, the possible is what ceases not writing itself; perhaps castration, the lack-in-being whole ($). A universal castration, as the terms by which law can be given, marks the masculine side. Finally, the contingent marks the feminine as that which ceases writing itself. Something can step outside the bounds of writing and be known in a beyond-writing, a beyondsex (horsexe). This supplemental enjoyment is also that which gives rise to the possibility for change in analysis and for the growth of love.

If we look at Bill as imprisoned within the necessary and possible, the possible reducible only to castration and ultimately to the universal of death, then it makes sense that he be driven within the realms of the visible and conscious world to re-establish law—even if it is the law of transgression—and to confront his own castration which he accepts again at the story’s end. If we think of Alice as having nothing to lose, insofar as the impossible already writes intolerable conditions of the real, coupled with the contingent as that which finds commonality with “undecidability” as well as with “discordential logic,” then it figures that she will not have the limits bequeathed by social law that her husband has. She has always already transgressed the symbolic in being on the side of the real and, therefore, has access to the contingent as one mode of jouissance.

The basic meaning of Kubrick’s film could thus be said to be that there is no sexual rapport, neither in the reality of fantasy, dream, everyday life, nor within the modes of jouissance open to men and women in different relations to castration and the phallic law—be they within the strictures of bourgeois morality or within the beyond-limits of sexual freedom. “Eyes Wide Shut”, taken as much more than a film about sexual reality, is also a film about the limits of jouissance for men and for women within the larger field of the sexual non rapport.


Freud, S. (1913) Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics [1912-1913], SE 13, pp. ix-162.

Lacan, J.:
– (1972) « L’étourdit », Scilicet, no. 4 (1973), pp. 5-52.
– (1972-1973) Seminar XX: Encore, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. by B. Fink (New York:
Norton, 1998).
– (1991) Le séminaire, livre XVII: L’envers de la psychanalyse (1969-1970), ed. by Jacques-Alain
Miller (Paris: Seuil); to appear translated into English by R. Grigg.

Morel, G. (1999), “The Hypothesis of Compacity in Chapter 1 of Encore: Seminar XX”, in Ragland (1999), pp. 149-160.

Ragland, E. (1999), ed., Critical Essays on Jacques Lacan (New York: MacMillan, 1999).

Schnitzler A. (1927), Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, trans. by O. P. Schinnerer (New York: Simon and


1)”Eyes Wide Shut,” directed by Stanley Kubrick (1999).

2)Lacan (1972-73, ch. 7, “A Love Letter”)

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