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Syzygy Cipher

This pertains to an interesting theoretical component of Eyes Wide Shut that has been occasionally tinkered with in passing by a few commenters, but I haven’t really seen a systematic and corroborated exploration of it, so I figured I’d bite the bullet and have an “armchair psychologist” stab at going further in-depth on the narrative and symbolic incorporation of Jungian archetypes in the movie.

I get the impression that Full Metal Jacket is generally and understandably considered to be Kubrick’s primary meditation on Jungianism, due in no small part to the dialogue namechecking Jung directly and explicitly referencing “the duality of man” in what is far and away the most blatant platforming of subtext in any Kubrick film. However, there’s a good case to be made that Eyes Wide Shut not only brushes heavily with similar themes, but is even a more iterative and expansive continuation of the same conceptual framework. Where Full Metal Jacket is largely focused on the archetype of “the shadow”, Eyes Wide Shut sets its sights on different, dualistic aspects of the individual psyche: the anima and animus.

Wikipedia summarises the anima and animus as follows:

“Jung described the animus as the unconscious masculine side of a woman, and the anima as the unconscious feminine side of a man, each transcending the personal psyche. Jung’s theory states that the anima and animus are the two primary anthropomorphic archetypes of the unconscious mind, as opposed to the theriomorphic and inferior function of the shadow archetypes. He believed they are the abstract symbol sets that formulate the archetype of the Self.

In Jung’s theory, the anima makes up the totality of the unconscious feminine psychological qualities that a man possesses and the animus the masculine ones possessed by a woman.”

From this conceptual outline, a good starting point for analysis is to notice how Jung’s description of the two archetypes resonates strongly with a set of proximally grouped ideas that are subtly addressed throughout the course of Eyes Wide Shut: unconscious projection, intersexual and contrasexual dynamics, homosexuality, emasculation and (especially) gender inversion. Indeed, for all the similarities between his theories and the movie’s story, Carl Jung might as well have been describing the plot of Eyes Wide Shut in 1945’s The Philosophical Tree, where he wrote:

“A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.”

Like the film’s source material, Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (or “Dream Story” in English), the conceit of Eyes Wide Shut‘s plot is oriented around a sort of experiential ambiguity– namely, that the audience is meant to be unsure as to how much of the plot is literal, and how much of what we see is just the insecurity-fuelled outward projections of Bill Harford’s jostled psyche as he realises the matrimonial bedrock of his life with Alice is not the immutable reality he once believed it to be. As it is touched on near the final minute of the film: “reality” can never be the whole truth, and no dream is ever “just a dream”. The film implies that the “real” world is always processed through the preconceived lens of a fantasy, and a fantasy is inevitably the reflection of an underlying truth. In this respect, Eyes Wide Shut is a metaphysical contemplation; prompting solipsistic questions of whether the personal reality is prejudicially dictated by the dream, whether the dream conversely reveals the true reality, or whether the dream and the reality are in fact two indistinguishable halves of a uniform whole, with each simultaneously containing the other like an infinitely recursive pair of Russian nesting dolls.

If we evaluate Eyes Wide Shut as a mixed bag of psychological projections– or, to paraphrase Pablo Picasso, as ‘lies that reveal the truth’– we can reverse engineer a working understanding of the film’s obscured “truths” from its many shards of fickle illusion; as though we are reassembling the splayed reflections from a fractured mirror. Peering through the charade, we can find those points of permanency anchored below the tempestuous seas of change: the archetypes.

The twin notions of anima/animus are woven deftly into the plot of Eyes Wide Shut in a way that may seem incidental upon casual observation. Unlike Full Metal Jacket, the movie does not offer any overt announcement of its thematic undercurrents. Instead, the archetypes are implicitly personified by characters in the film. This is a fascinating and novel concept in its own right, but it also compartmentalizes the film’s phenomenological focal points in such a convenient way that we can follow their interactions and transformations with relative ease, like pieces on a chessboard.

To make a long story short: starting from when the Harford’s smoke cannabis and their marital conflict erupts, it is Alice’s animus and Bill’s anima which are manifested in the film. However, the seeds of their discord are planted a night earlier, at Ziegler’s Christmas party, by the joint occurrence of (A) Bill’s going upstairs to revive the overdosed Mandy, which ignites Alice’s suspicion and jealousy, and (B) Alice getting drunk– somewhat “overdosing” herself– and being seduced by the Hungarian, Sandor Szavost.

At Ziegler’s party, the film cuts back and forth between Alice with Sandor and Bill with Mandy, with the intoxications of the women in each case being parallel to each other (Alice even goes so far as to say she ‘desperately needs to go to the bathroom’, where Mandy is). Essentially, these scenes are showing the concurrent ‘awakening’ of the psyche’s dual aspects, with Sandor being the film’s personification of the animus, and Mandy being that of the anima. These two encounters have a marked impact in both the literal, consequential sense of the events as they occur in the plot, and the Jungian sense of the Harford’s psychological states.

It is sensible that the Sandor only appears in one scene, since Alice appears in relatively few scenes throughout the film, and it naturally follows that Bill’s anima plays a larger role in the film, since he is the protagonist who appears in every scene. However, for the sake of chronology, let’s first have a closer look at the animus– the unconscious masculine aspect of a woman.

The Animus

In the film, the animus is being unconsciously projected by Alice, and it manifests during the scene where she and Bill argue in their bedroom after smoking pot (note that both of her brushes with the animus thus far coincide with intoxication). There is a nice piece of supporting evidence for this which is presented by correlating lines of her dialogue. This is a parallel which is actually fairly easy to miss on initial viewings of the film.

Read the final exchange between Alice and Sandor at the Christmas party:

SANDOR: I must see you again.
ALICE: That’s impossible.
ALICE: Because… I’m married.

Now, compare this with what she says to Bill when they argue:

BILL: What makes me an exception is that I happen to be in love with you. And because we’re married… and because I would never lie to you or hurt you.

ALICE: Do you realize that what you’re saying… is that the only reason you wouldn’t fuck those two models is out of consideration for me? Not because you really wouldn’t want to.

What you’ll notice is that Alice admits herself as guilty of precisely that which she accuses Bill. This patent projection and hypocrisy, in which she substitutes Bill’s desires for her own, feeds into the gendered “role reversal” dynamic that is alluded to all throughout the film (“Was that Mrs. Doctor Bill?“, the prostitute Domino later asks). It is during the bedroom argument scene that the ‘animus’ subtext comes closest to outright surfacing, as Alice outlines the normative sexual dynamic which is about to be inverted by her recount of the naval officer: “Men have to stick it in every place they can, but for women, it is just about security and commitment and whatever the fuck else!” Other lines of dialogue from the bedroom argument offer us ‘double entendre’ indications of sexual reversal. Alice says to Bill, “I’m just trying to find out where you’re coming from“; a veiled reference to genitalia which casts him as an indeterminate androgyne. She also gives him the angry criticism of “Why can’t you ever give me a straight fucking answer?“, seeming to bring Bill’s heterosexuality into question. We should note how these lines highlighting sexual ambiguity arrive after the start of this one tumultuous encounter, whereas the dialogue ‘puns’ prior to the emergence of the Harford’s marital issues are not as un-affirming. In the montage scene just before the argument, Bill’s secretary Lisa hands him an envelope and says “Good morning, Doctor. Your mail [You’re male].”

Crucially, Bill also says in the argument that he thinks the different sexual proclivities of men and women are not quite so “black and white“, while he is wearing black underwear, in contrast to Alice, whose underwear is white. When weighed against the broader thematic context of the film, the presented association of “black/white” with “woman/man” appears almost certainly to have been drawn from the Chinese ontological dualism of Yin and Yang, which itself describes the cosmos as an interaction of feminine and masculine principle. Very interestingly, white (Yang) is considered the “masculine” side, meaning that Bill in these scenes is being given a feminine connotation; further supporting the encoded “gender reversal” thread.

During the pivotal argument sequence, the film further verifies a linkage of the sexes with “black and white” through a subtle visual communication which corresponds with the opening scene. In the opening, Bill retrieves his wallet from the right-hand bedside table, where it is seen placed beside a change bowl and a white house phone. We can see that the left-hand bedside table– presumably Alice’s– bears only a few random articles.

When the Harfords are arguing, a different house phone (now black) suddenly appears mid-scene, on the opposite table from where the white phone was. Bill’s wallet and the change bowl have moved to this side of the bed, too. The black phone appears right as the fight begins, and is first seen in the shot where Bill mentions “black and white”.

When Bill answers the mysteriously apparating black phone, we can also see that the white one from the opening scene has now disappeared from the other bedside table. The arrangement stays like this for the remainder of the film, and the black phone can be seen when Bill finds the mask placed on his pillow towards the end.

It would appear that Bill has symbolically “switched sides” in the wake of Alice unveiling her animus. From here on out, he finds himself in complete psychological ‘freefall’. There is some sense in which the rest of the film after this point is a purposeful and systematic antagonism of the masculine mind; utilising a provocative psychological toolkit to target routine areas of insecurity with sequential precision– fears of feminization, infidelity, rejection and intimacy; sexual inadequacy, “impostor syndrome”, gay panic, guilt, the “saviour complex”, powerlessness, and inferiority.

To demonstrate, consider the example of this later sequence. Not long after Alice confesses her lustful story, when Bill is walking down the street while envisioning her with the naval officer, two mannequin torsos sporting underwear just like the Harfords can be seen in a shop window– again, the female wearing white and the male wearing black. This display belongs to a store identified by a sandwich board as the “Pink Pussy Cat Boutique“, with the name and style having seemingly been chosen to invoke common cultural “femininity” tropes. Not incidentally, this is seen moments after another sandwich board is shown, reading “LADIES NIGHT”, and moments before Bill is homophobically berated and verbally emasculated by the YALE frat-boys.

Having met with the topic of Bill’s latent femininity, let’s now have a look at his anima: Mandy.

The Anima

The film’s introduction of us to Mandy in Ziegler’s bathroom is a great illustration of the mechanical and literal-minded way in which Eyes Wide Shut wields its subtexts: Bill’s unconscious feminine side is unconscious, physically, from a drug overdose.

As was mentioned earlier, it is due to Bill disappearing upstairs and reviving Mandy that the events of the following night are first set into motion. At the Jungian level, Mandy’s first appearance precipitates a contrasexual shift in Bill’s psyche which is thrown out of balance; causing him to project his unconscious outwardly as he descends into the androgynous confusion of his psychosexual odyssey.

I can understand if the above detailing of Mandy’s first scene reads somewhat like jargonistic, neo-Freudian nonsense, so for some additional confirmation, let’s look to the masked Somerton ball/ritual, where we next see her again. Here, we get a more prominent symbolic indication of Mandy’s archetypal role. This was actually something which I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed earlier, and I was surprised that I’d never seen anyone mention it.

Bill and Mandy’s masks are variations on one another.

The masks of the Somerton party guests run a gamut of broadly varying degrees in anthropomorphism, aesthetic style, and colour. Many have garishly twisted attributes, or are animalistic in their appearance. Most of the masks that look vaguely human are set apart from all the others by bearing unique patterns and facial contours. Of all of them at the party, it is only Bill and Mandy’s masks which display a white, purely humanoid face with a neutral expression, the same general face shape and features, and gold ornamentation around the eyes which covers from the cheeks to the top of the forehead. It would seem that Mandy’s mask, with its decorative headdress and red lipstick, is the counterpart to Bill’s, and signals her as being his own feminine aspect.

The masked ball scene offers more clues. Red Cloak asks Bill to remove his clothes on the same ceremonial floor where he prompted Mandy to disrobe, which again plays into the aforementioned “gendered role reversal” concept. Mandy then sacrifices herself for Bill, harkening back to one of his earlier lines– “That is the kind of hero I can be sometimes“– which further paints Mandy as a version of himself. The use of the word “hero” in this context parallels Mandy’s cause of death (heroin), coinciding it with the fateful act of her sacrifice and presenting us with a gendered “hero/heroine” dichotomy which reinforces the idea of a sexually juxtaposed shared identity between the two characters.

Also, lest we overlook a most glaring hint: the woman’s name is MANdy, suggesting the masculine.

Let’s quickly jump back to the small scene immediately prior to the masked ball, where Bill is negotiating payment with the taxi driver. Here, the film gives us a curiously memorable image: Bill holds in each hand either half of a torn hundred dollar bill, with his left hand gloved and his right hand naked.

If this visual fills you with an odd resonance, it’s probably because it foreshadows what you have subconsciously recognized from the masked ball scene– the nude Mandy alongside the black-cloaked Bill. We even see Bill’s right hand “disrobe” and the black glove drop towards to the floor, just as Mandy’s black cloak does.

With a hand each representing a character and holding either half of the ripped bill, we are once again being primed to consider Bill and Mandy as two halves of the same whole. What appears to be happening is that Doctor Bill‘s namesake– the literal “bill“– is symbolizing his collected Jungian “Self“; the sum total of his psyche’s aspects.

As part of some additional evidence for this, note that this is not the first time that the film has craftily likened “Doctor Bill” to an actual paper “bill”. Remember, when Bill is with Domino (again, negotiating payment), he tells her “I’m in your hands” (to which Domino responds “Ok. And how does 150 sound?“). Their encounter ends a few minutes later with Bill literally and emphatically pushing the paper money into her hand.

Just in case any of the linkage between money and the ‘Self‘ might be lost on the audience, the film is laced with a bonus, veritable strain of confirmation. With conspicuous frequency, Bill is seen wielding or putting away his wallet (a total of 11 times in the movie), mostly using his money and identification to finesse some kind of access or information from people. He is seen paying with money 7 times (plus a few times which are implied but not directly seen), and brandishes his identification four times. This is a semiotic pairing which is presented repeatedly throughout the film to quantitatively establish a link between “money” and “identity/’Self‘”.

Back in the masked ball scene, we can see how its events echo the taxicab sequence. Just like how the note is torn right after Bill’s glove is removed, Mandy and Bill engage in a ritualized masked kiss after she removes her cloak. This display seems to symbolize a sort of momentary “reunion” between the split halves.

After Mandy kisses and talks with Bill, we are given another revealing “dialogue pun”. The next line to be spoken comes from one of the female party guests, who says to Bill: “Have you been enjoying yourself?”

There is another very revealing but unannounced detail relating to this sequence. From where we are watching, directly behind Bill and Mandy’s “kiss”, we can spot the party guest whose mask resembles not only a single face formed by the union of two faces, but also the ‘Eye of Providence’ as featured on American paper money such as we saw Bill tear in half.

It should also be noted that the “Eye of Providence formed by two kissing faces” motif is echoed in the film’s official theatrical poster.

There is at least one more proximal association which the film forms between the paper money and the divided masculine/feminine halves. We have already referenced it briefly: Bill’s wallet, from which he draws the money, is first seen on the “masculine/white” side of the bed before relocating to the “feminine/black” side.

This concludes the analysis of the two archetypes. Let’s now contextualise them within the totality of the film’s conceptual framework.

Yin and Yang

In the earlier section on the animus, I mentioned in passing that Eyes Wide Shut‘s symbolic employment of ‘black and white’ was almost certainly sourced specifically from Chinese (that is to say, Daoist) ontological dualism. Since the film makes no overt reference to Chinese philosophy, let alone ‘yin and yang’, I suppose I am obliged to demonstrate my reasoning. This will also provide a nice opportunity round out the Jungian subtext and singularly unite the threads of the film’s core metaphysical premises.

The creatively-minded reader has perhaps already realised a parallel between two of the concepts that have been thus far presented: the “Jungian” and the “existential” facets of the movie are analogous to each other. Both of these are oriented around paired opposites which contain the ‘seed’ of each other.

In the Jungian case, man and woman are paired to each other, with the man containing the feminine anima and the woman containing the masculine animus (Jung called this coincidentia oppositorum— the coincidence of opposites). In the film’s metaphysical aspect, the “reality” and the “dream” are juxtaposed, with each being contingent on the other in order to have any kind of discernible relative meaning. They are two indivisible halves which are innately co-dependent at the level of conception.

Eyes Wide Shut‘s recurring focus on coincidentia oppositorum at different levels of application puts this idea forward as a kind of permeating, central thesis of the film. It is not simply included as a piece of ancillary subtext, but is in fact the narrative’s governing mechanism which frames the relationships of the main characters, guides the events of the story, and defines the phenomenological syntax by which the film communicates with its audience.

In opening, I wrote of fractally self-contained Russian nesting dolls– the one inside the other inside the one. The dream inside the reality inside the dream. This principle of dualistic intertwinement is core to the theoretical relationship of Yin and Yang, and is at least visually familiar to most people, if nothing else. Even to those unversed in the doctrinal bodies of Daoism, this symbol is the ubiquitous short-hand for duality:

We see the black inside the white inside the black, meeting at inverse angles in a fashion not wholly unlike Mandy and Bill’s masked kiss, and reminiscent of Bill’s black gloved and white de-gloved hands as they move in opposing radial directions to tear the bank note in half.

It is evidently by no coincidence that traditional Daoism extends Yin and Yang as an explanation for the dichotomy of masculine and feminine, as well the generative syzygy which defines the material substance of being– the same topics which are dealt with expressly in Eyes Wide Shut.

Lest we be guilty of oversimplifying matters, we should say that the film’s Daoist existential sensibilities are not merely limited to the dualism of “dream vs. reality“, but are also responsible for a transformative version of this which is aimed to blur the edge of the narrative frame– a meta-cinematic device which could be called “movie vs. real life“, or “fiction vs. fact“, or perhaps even “Bill and Alice vs. Tom and Nicole“.

That, however, is another cipher for another time.


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