Freud Eyes Wide Shut and Human Sexuality Essay

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Eyes Wide Shut and the Psychoanalytic Theory of Human Sexuality

The film Eyes Wide Shut (1999) by Stanley Kubrick may be interpreted from the standpoint of human sexuality by using the psychoanalytic approach developed by Sigmund Freud. The film is, in a sense, a representation of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and descends by layers through the various stages of the human personality -- the Id, Ego, and Supergo.

Eyes Wide Shut is based on a short novel by Arthur Schnitzler entitled Dream Story. The story focuses on human sexuality in all its various manifestations, from the sexual exploitation of a young nymphet to an orgy at an elite club to the relationship between a husband and wife and the threat of infidelity that arises between them. Human sexuality becomes a specter in the film that is only barely understand by the characters, as it on occasion imperils them, gives them a promise of pleasure, tempts them to do things that are out of character for them, and asks the question of where boundaries should be when the subject of sex is looked at objectively.

The main character is Dr. Bill Harford played by Tom Cruise. Bill is married to Alice played by Nicole Kidman. At the opening of the film, Bill and Alice are at a party and Bill is flirting with two young attractive women, both of whom are flirting back with him. Alice meanwhile is dancing with another man. There is in the air the heavy scent of sex and sex appeal and yet no obvious lines have yet been crossed: there is only playful flirting and pleasuring of one another's Ego and Superego, driven by the reservoir of psychic energy which is the Id (Carroll 28). Alice and Bill are each enjoying a kind of sexual daydream as they flirt and receive flirtations at the point.

Bill, however, is called out of his reverie by reality (the Ego principle asserts itself): a friend has a naked woman in his room -- she has overdosed on drugs and the friend is panicking. Bill, being a doctor, is asked to check on her. He does and saves the woman's life as well as the friend's reputation (which could be delivered quite a blow should it turn out that a dead naked woman were found in his chambers -- obviously such a thing would violate society's taboos). This is the symbolic representation of the Superego coming to the rescue and acting as the "conscience."

The next evening Bill and Alice talk about the night before and jealousy begins to grow as the question of sex and affairs is brought up. Underlying the argument is the unconscious Id and sexual energy. The two are smoking marijuana, so it could be that their natural guard is being dropped and real, frustrated impulses being revealed -- which the Ego interprets wrongly and, in Bill's case, is offended (and in Alice's case is confused and overwhelmed). It happens in this manner: Alice tells Bill that she would have slept with another man once if he had only made a move -- an admission of a willingness to be unfaithful on her part. This confession upsets Bill, as he does not know how to absorb this information. His Ego (the reality principle) is reeling. While his flirtation with the two girls from the night before was harmless in his eyes (the impulse of his Id, controlled so he obviously felt, by his Superego). At no point did it seem to him that it was leading to anything like infidelity. Yet his wife's Ego interpreted this differently and suspected her husband's Id. Both of them have an Id (two can play at this game) and her way to "get back" at her husband is to expose hers. Alice's admission sets Bill off on a journey in which he questions his own awareness of sex and sexuality. His Ego is now being awakened to his Id, and whether or not his Superego is prepared to deal with this is now the question.

Thus, he embarks on a kind of sexual odyssey -- yet only as an observer. His participation never is really consummated directly: that is, he is faced with various propositions and moments wherein he might actually commit adultery, but he never does. Various incidents symbolically take place to represent the Superego sparing Bill from the threat of an emergent Id, given "free" reign in a manner that does not suit his position as a married man. Something comes up and takes him away from opportunity, or he delays in acting so long that the opportunity passes by. Yet he witnesses scenes that paint the picture of human sexuality for him in an entirely new color or shade: the reality of the Id becomes clearer and clearer, forcing his Ego to begin to adjust. For instance, he meets a young girl, the daughter of a costume shop keeper, who is being propositioned by two foreigners. Bill is attracted to the young girl at the same time he senses the "impropriety" of this attraction. It is a "Lolita"-like fascination, and reveals to him the essence of sexuality for just a moment: the fact that it arises as a biological and perhaps psychological need between two genders. He is nonetheless mystified and must continue on his journey through this sexual dreamscape as his mind is opened by the uniqueness of the sex instinct. The education of his Ego has only just begun.

He crashes a party by wearing a disguise and using the password to enter given him by a friend. At the party is an orgy and Bill appears drawn to the erotic energy on full display in every room. Before he can participate, however, he is called out for crashing the party. It just so happens that the woman whose life he saved at the beginning of the film now "sacrifices" herself to save him. It is later revealed that she makes herself into a sexual slave for the evening in order to allow Bill the liberty of leaving the party unharmed (it is not made clear what sort of harm would have befallen him, only that some threat is evident). Nonetheless, Bill is grateful to escape. This is a moment where his Ego is in danger of being overwhelmed by the force of Id -- symbolically represented by the masked strangers who order Bill to unrobe.

Bill is also treated to another "escape" when it is brought to his attention that a woman he sought to proposition for sex is revealed to have HIV. This was a moment when his own Superego gave in to the impulse of Id: Had Bill had sex with her he might too have become infected. (Perhaps there is a moral lesson here for his Superego to take home). Thus, Bill experiences two threats connected to sex, back to back. And yet there are others: the threat of infidelity, for instance, and the emotional baggage that this entails. Indeed, Bill has been struggling unconsciously with his feelings about his wife's admission throughout his odyssey. Does she have an Id too? How can we co-exist with all this frustrating impulses and yet still remain faithful to one another? These are the questions that seem to bother Bill. Only upon returning home and realizing that he too has been wearing a mask does he confess both to his wife and to himself what it is that he has been up to: he has been just as guilty of desire as his wife; but happily neither has "acted" on the impulse and to this extent their marriage has not been sullied. Yet the question is implied: what does "sullied" even mean? Weren't the two simply being honest about their own human sexuality?

This question is answered in the last scene of the movie, when Bill and Alice are shopping and "making up" by talking it out. As they leave the store, Alice tells Bill that she still loves him but that they must do something when they get home. Bill wonders if this is another threat. When he asks his wife what they must do, she answers, "Fuck." The movie ends. The Id, Ego, and Superego are reconciled: the sex instinct is now in the open, admitted, recognized and harmonized between them. They may fuck -- each other.

From the perspective of psychoanalytic theory, the ending is clear: human sexuality is a natural phenomenon that occurs or is felt between persons regularly; some may use this occurrence to their advantage for personal gain, for pleasure, for the stroking of the Ego or of the Supergo or for fulfillment of the Id. Yet, in the world in which Bill and Alice are participants, there is another dimension to human sexuality: that is the spiritual connection that is attached to it as they are married to one another -- which means they have made a vow to be sexual within one another and no…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

Carroll, Janell. Sexuality Now: Embracing Diversity (4th ed). University of Hartford:

Thomson Wadsworth, 2013. Print.

Kubrick, Stanley, Dir. Eyes Wide Shut. LA: Warner Bros., 1999. Film.

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