Eyes Wide Shut Ending Explained: No Dream Is Ever Just A Dream

Stanley Kubrick's final film "Eyes Wide Shut" is loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler's novella "Traumnovelle (Dream Story)," and transfers the action from 1900s Vienna to the late 1990s in Greenwich Village. Kubrick was notorious for his grueling shooting schedule and the psychological games he played on actors in order to get out their best performances. According to Vanity Fair, Kubrick's "theory was that once his actors bottomed out in exhaustion and forgot about the cameras, they could rebuild and discover something that neither he nor they expected." Kubrick tested this idea on his powerhouse stars Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in their roles of Dr. Bill and Alice Hartford.

Kubrick's obsessive filmmaking techniques were well-suited for the high tension of his part-psychosexual thriller, part-marital drama about a doctor who goes on a labyrinthine journey through New York City after he learns that his wife fantasized about another man. Bill wanders through the concrete jungle in search of his own adulterous experience and ends up at a secret society's masked orgy. It is a hypnotic film with many interpretative layers and meanings about sex, matrimony, and morality.

The Film Has a Dream-Like Quality

"Eyes Wide Shut" is not an easy film to decipher because of its dream-like quality, where nothing is as it seems. The soft twinkle of Christmas tree lights in the background and buoyant camera lends Kubrick's mysterious drama a fantastical atmosphere. The entire film feels like "something that you can't look away from even if you want to, like in a nightmare whence you are partially self-aware of what's happening and even the fact that you are dreaming and it's not real, but cannot break free," writes TheCinemaholic. But there is a sobering moment of reality that completely rattles Bill. 

After Bill and Alice return home from a Christmas party (where they both flirted with strangers), they have sex and smoke weed; in their late-night haze, Alice reveals that she once daydreamed about leaving her family to run off with a handsome Naval Officer she spied on their Cape Cod vacation. She never acted on her desires, but Bill is baffled by the idea that his docile wife has her own urges and is not sexually passive. Bill is used to having all of the power in their relationship, so her admission leaves him bewildered and emasculated as he aimlessly wanders the city streets. 

The Mask Symbolizes Hidden Truths

Kubrick's erotic odyssey is ultimately about the nature of seeing: what is hidden in plain sight and what we choose not to see. Bill is in a state of denial about both his wife's sexual autonomy and his own temptations. His eyes may be open, but they are metaphorically shut to the truth of these secret desires. 

This theme of wilful ignorance is symbolized by the object of the mask. The ornate masks worn at the orgy allow the secret society to remain anonymous and engage in salacious and disconnected sexual relations. These soulless copulations at the orgy mirror Bill and Alice's potential affairs: they would be nothing but meaningless physical encounters that could never replace the profound intimacy of their marriage — a genuine type of closeness that allows them to be their true selves. Bill wears a mask in order to infiltrate the private ritual, but he also wears a figurative mask in real life to be an ideal husband and conceal his own sexual curiosity outside of his relationship with Alice. Meanwhile, Alice wears her own mask in the role of perfect wife and mother. 

In one of the final scenes, Bill sees the mask on his pillow beside his sleeping wife. The object that shields the truth sits in clear view, causing him to break down and reveal to Alice the details of his journey. But who left it there? There are three popular theories, several of which are detailed by ScreenRant. The first is that Alice found the mask and left it out in order to provoke a confession. In line with the film's illusory mood, the mask could also be an imagined indication that Bill's brush with infidelity would always haunt him. Or perhaps members of the nefarious secret society placed it there as a threat. What matters more than who put it there is why it's there: as a bold reminder of how Bill hides from what is real. 

The Final Scene Confirms the Couple's Commitment

In the final scene of "Eyes Wide Shut," Bill and Alice take their daughter shopping for Christmas toys, and Alice delivers the serious monologue:

"I think we should be grateful. Grateful that we've managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real, or only a dream. Sure as I am that the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime can ever be the whole truth. And no dream is ever just a dream. The important thing is we're awake now and hopefully for a long time to come."

Bill and Alice both acknowledge that they have awakened from their dreams of infidelity just before turning their reality into a nightmare. They aim to work hard on their marriage so that they never face such tribulations again. "Eyes Wide Shut" recognizes how earth-shattering disloyalty can be, even if it just occurs in your mind. Dreams and the subconscious are powerful, and have the ability to transform our waking lives. 

Alice also proposes that there is another thing that they must do as soon as possible: "F***." The blunt delivery is a bit comical, but it comes from an honest place. Alice is not suggesting they engage in the kind of unfeeling coitus Bill observed at the orgy, but a raw physical intimacy that can only come from a deep, emotional bond forged over many years of commitment. Having sex will help them find their connection to one another again. 

"Eyes Wide Shut" is an incredible drama that, as /Film's Bryan Young writes in his 20th anniversary retrospective on the film:

"...speaks to the complicated nature of relationships and how fragile they can be and how communication and honesty can work to heal those things. It's also a story about the constant temptation in a world that over-emphasizes sex." 

The film's dreamy nature may be confusing, but what is important to remember is that ultimately "Eyes Wide Shut" is about the reconciliation of a couple who intentionally blinded themselves from the hard truths of their insecure relationship.