In 'Eyes Wide Shut' Stanley Kubrick Captured Horrors of Jeffrey Epstein Era

The arrest of billionaire influence peddler Jeffrey Epstein for the alleged repeated and systematic trafficking and sexual assault of underage girls is more than an indictment of a sexual predator. It's also compelling evidence of corruption among the most powerful political and business interests in the United States. But public knowledge is, so far, founded as much on horrifying insinuation as actual evidence.

Who are the "potential co-conspirators" left unnamed and immunized in Epstein's 2007 non-prosecution agreement, negotiated by Trump's disgraced former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta? Why did Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance's prosecutors intervene in an effort to downgrade Epstein from his Level 3 sex offender status, then fail to enforce—along with the NYPD—the court-mandated check-ins Epstein spurned? What are Epstein's connections to the intelligence community?

There is always the possibility that our institutions defer to the rich as a matter of course; that Epstein's treatment is only a particularly grotesque form of business as usual. But Epstein's penchant for installing security cameras throughout his homes, combined with dinner parties, allegedly stocked with underaged girls, leaves open the possibility of systematic blackmail, further hinted at when federal agents pulled "compact discs with hand-written labels" like "Young [Name] + [Name]" from a safe in his $77 million Upper East Side mansion. Is there, somewhere in this evidence, a video or videos, possibly from Epstein's "Lolita Express" or "Pedophile Island," capable of exposing the depravities of one or many of the politicians, celebrities and financiers in his orbit?

We search for reprieve from this dead air, where the entire moral constitution of some of the most powerful people in the country, including two presidents, hangs uncertain. In this zone, the darkest possibility—a world-spanning pedophile elite, safeguarded by institutions throughout society, by both witting and unwitting co-conspirators in a web of influence and silence—seeks a space in our imagination to unfold.

Art can suffice, by capturing the psychic sensation of an uncertain moment, so we might observe and improve our own fumbling efforts at reconciling ourselves to the world. But there is also the comforts of conspiracy theory: extrapolating from what's known to create an imagined order, built from clues inscrutable to most. Stanley Kubrick's final movie, Eyes Wide Shut, is embraced from both directions. Baffling critics and audiences in 1999, Eyes Wide Shut has become a defining movie of the Jeffrey Epstein era.

In Eyes Wide Shut, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman), explore the possibilities of infidelity, newly possible with their entrance into high society, which lifts them from a state of childish naiveté, until Bill's explorations bring him to places he will never be allowed. In the movie's central sequence, Bill, stung by his wife recounting a sexual fantasy, follows an old friend to a secretive event at a Long Island mansion, where he gains entry to a masked orgy with a password. He is found and turned out. Because of his actions, or possibly not, a woman dies under suspicious circumstances.

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Bill (Tom Cruise) is unmasked. Warner Bros. Pictures

Kubrick's 1999 death of a heart attack, just six days after screening a completed Eyes Wide Shut, left an opening for a conspiracy narrative to grow in the cracks of the movie's ambiguities. In part because it is replete with occult imagery, like a pyramid-faced mask (oozing the same Illuminati energy as the dollar bill), Eyes Wide Shut is subject to the same kind of analysis that lead people to conclude Kubrick faked the moon landing, then revealed his deception to the world on Danny Torrance's sweater in The Shining.

But some outright fabrication was needed to draw concrete connections between Eyes Wide Shut and the secretive cabals central to conspiracy theorizing. One widely cited Nicole Kidman interview was made up by the fake news site NewsPunch. Equally false are descriptions of 24 minutes of lost footage, cut from Eyes Wide Shut to protect the elite. Photos exist of a deleted scene featuring Bill, Alice and their daughter rowing a boat in Central Park, but it's hardly a smoking gun. A dream sequence—which would have counterbalanced Bill's experience at the orgy with the sexual imaginings of Alice—was storyboarded, but never shot.

Those close to Kubrick are in agreement that Eyes Wide Shut is as close to Kubrick's vision as possible. In Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film by Robert Kolker and Nathan Abrams, Kubrick's personal assistant Leon Vitali says "he had completed his final cut," sending the movie on to the studio with the simple message, "This is it." The book similarly documents how closely the post-production team hewed to Kubrick's notes and intentions for the music implementation and fine-tuning still needed at the time of his death. If Kubrick had intended to make specific allegations with Eyes Wide Shut, his close friends and collaborators weren't aware of it.

So what connects Eyes Wide Shut and Epstein? If Kubrick's movie isn't a skeleton key for unmasking specific elite depravities, what is it?

Since the 1968 release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick wanted to adapt Traumnovelle, or Dream Story, by Arthur Schnitzler. He held the rights from 1970 on. A 1927 German novella doesn't immediately suggest the movie's applicability to a modern understanding of sex crimes among the governing elite. That Kubrick's screenplay with Frederic Raphael hews close to the novella may suggest Kubrick had Freudianism on his mind (Freud, a fan of Schnitzler's, described the author as his "double" in a letter) more than politics, for Eyes Wide Shut.

Kubrick made his own interest in Traumnovelle known in several interviews, spread over decades. "Traumnovelle speaks of the fact that men have a desire for stability, security, repetition and order in their lives and that at the same time they have a tendency to want to flee, to meet the adventure, to destroy..." Kubrick told the French film magazine Positif in 1972.

In 1999 he described the book as an opportunity to "explore the sexual ambivalence of a happy marriage and try to equate the importance of dreams and hypothetical sexual relations with reality" to film critic Michel Ciment.

But reading Eyes Wide Shut narrowly, as a dreamlike parable for the complications of monogamy, is partly to blame for the movie's initial reception. After trailers promising a steamy thriller, there was no hiding how Eyes Wide Shut was actually rooted in 1920s sexual mores—the movie's frank conversations about infidelity and desire outside of monogamy sounded old-fashioned to viewers jaded by the 90s spate of high-profile sex scandals. Rather than underlining the different moral universe of a secretive elite, the mannered, abstract and unsexy orgy scene lead the Washington Post to call Eyes Wide Shut "the dirtiest movie of 1958."

While subsequent years of child abuse cover-ups and political scandals—Epstein following the Catholic Church, Dennis Hastert, Operation Yewtree and Westminster's missing "paedophile dossier"—hasn't made Eyes Wide Shut any more or less shocking, they have made the extremities of orgiastic ritual more plausibly imaginable as a political or systemic phenomenon. Like the Yellow King of True Detective, Eyes Wide Shut's orgy came to stand for a whole complex of elite degeneracy.

Reality is catching up to political reads of Eyes Wide Shut, like Norwegian historian Håvard Friis Nilsen's essay "Deterioration of Trust: The Political Warning in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut," which sees the movie as a warning against "a society where the social fabric of trust deteriorates into a hermeneutics of suspicion, paving the way to an increasingly authoritarian political climate." Nilsen compares the gilded inequality of Traumnovelle's 1920s with the inequality of finance capital blossoming in the 90s.

In Eyes Wide Shut, Bill is summoned to Ziegler's (Sydney Pollack) Billiards Room to be told barely disguised lies about a woman's death. Confronted by Ziegler's brazen deception and the casual tone of the rich man's threats, Bill is forced into a limbo, between his justified suspicion of a grand evil and the lies that will enable him to continue his striving life, now colored by the realization of its limits.

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“Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names—I’m not going to tell you their names. But if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well,” Ziegler tells Bill. Warner Bros. Pictures

"There is no apparent heroic resistance against the secret society of the power elite," Nilsen writes of Eyes Wide Shut's ending. "What we see is an acknowledgment of the futility of control: they can neither control superior powers nor each other; loyalty is never guaranteed; they must be thankful for the moments in which they are awake." How many people in close proximity to Epstein turned away because of this same sensation?

Bill and Alice can only achieve a brief moment of clarity. It's a thin victory, but likely a familiar one to anyone who has separated themselves from the sheeple, taken the red pill or otherwise defined themselves in a sliver of realization: online pantomimes of Kubrick's sought after dream state. In Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick suspends his characters between the reality on offer and looming hypotheticals. We find ourselves in the same place. Eyes Wide Shut tells us we are not likely to find our way out.

"Stanley always spoke of movies as dreams, dreams about dreams, including daydreams and nightmares (although I don't think he ever spoke of them as only dreams), and never made any distinction—this is the kind of materialist I think he really was—between a dream and a vision," journalist and co-writer of Full Metal Jacket Michael Herr wrote in his memoir, Kubrick.

Unlike Eyes Wide Shut, in which a courtier of the powerful gets a glimpse through the keyhole, Epstein's depravities were laundered in the open, in magazine profiles and in the halls of power. But the arrest of Epstein and its unfolding aftermath leaves us in the movie's dream state, between our suspicions and the reality we are allowed. Now we wait to learn where we can know no further.

In 'Eyes Wide Shut' Stanley Kubrick Captured Horrors of Jeffrey Epstein Era | Culture