The first and most obvious choice for subtext in this movie would be the attempt of the Hungarian, Sandor Szavost, to seduce Alice at Ziegler’s party. It began with Szavost asking her, “Did you ever read the Latin poet Ovid on the ‘Art of Love’?” This was, of course, a flagrant invitation to adultery, because “Art of Love” was essentially about the art of taking on mistresses. Ovid was a dirty-boy version of Emily Post offering up rules of adultery-etiquette for Rome’s elite. It’s full of poetic advice about bribing the porters and the servants, becoming friendly with the girl’s maid, buying gifts, sending flattering letters, and basically stalking the intended target. In fact, Szavost drinking Alice’s glass is a move he lifted right out of Ovid’s manual. You get the impression that the Hungarian probably had to leave (or was banished from) his country much the same way Ovid was kicked out of Rome by Augustus.
But there’s more. The subtext I’d like to really focus on has to do with Bill and Alice’s interaction with their daughter, Helena, scenes I’m sure nobody cared to watch because they paid to see an adult film. However, I think there’s an important deeper meaning behind that interaction full of subtext unlike all of the other subtext in the movie. I have to set this up correctly first. I don’t know how well I can articulate this, but I’ll try…
We all know that Kubrick’s movies are never simply about the lead character’s journey. He doesn’t write stories like we do. He’s always thinking in broader terms and he’s making statements about mankind, history, civilization, power, etc. As Tim Kreider so aptly pointed out, a Kubrick story should not be weighed by its psychology but by it sociology. He’s absolutely right. We went to see this movie with our eyes wide open for a wildly erotic visual feast in a normal psychological kind of story. Well, Stanley doesn't work that way. So then we (and the critics) all walked away saying, “What the hell was that all about?”
Kubrick tells us in the title that we're not going to really see what we’re looking at. And he's right, of course. We didn't see it. We still don't see it. We’re so blinded by the beauty, by the eroticism, and by that little orgy in the mansion that, like Bill and Alice, our eyes are wide shut to the deeper meaning of what we’re seeing. We’re still not acknowledging what was really going on. This is not a movie about sex and fantasy. In a way it was, but it wasn't. Kubrick’s deeper meaning here was, in fact, his condemnation of the ultra-wealthy and their devouring, demoralizing impact on society.
Consider the way Bill used his position and money time and again toward immoral ends. I’d go even further to say that the subtext of all the talk about money is really about sex. It’s also made very clear that Bill is not part of the ultra-elite in which he serves. (He has to sneak in to the orgy.) Just as Nick Nightingale is on call to play the piano wherever they tell him to go, Bill is on call to fix and cover up the things that go wrong like Mandy in Ziegler’s bathroom. Kubrick’s point was not simply to show Mandy’s perfect body so we can be titillated by it and recognize her later at the mansion, but in fact, it was to show us that beyond the façade of civilized society, beyond the beauty, glamour, and supreme wealth, there is gluttony, exploitation, and death. And yet, oddly enough, Bill wants to be a part of that club. In the opening scenes, he cares more about going to Ziegler’s party then looking at Alice and answering her question about how she looks. When he says “to be continued” to the model-nymphs at Ziegler’s party, we know that he is, indeed, tempted to go to that place “where the rainbow ends,” which coincidentally leads him to that Rainbow Costume Shop and on to the orgy at the mansion.
The orgy was not about the orgy. It was not even about reality. New York was not meant to look exactly like New York, which was a big complaint critics had at the time. For God’s sake, Stanley grew up in the Bronx. When Jon Ronson was invited to dig through the archives of Kubrick’s estate after his death, he found a box full of HUNDREDS of photos of doorways because Kubrick was obsessed about finding the perfect doorway for the hooker’s apartment. Of course, in the film, it looks no different than many doorways you’d find in Lower Manhattan. How can you not think that every detail in Kubrick’s film was not meticulously and intensely staged? Or that there was nothing in his movie that was not obsessively calculated? Stanley is not to be underestimated. You cannot disregard the work of a genius because you didn’t get it the first time you saw it.
Everything was designed to be very dream-like, wasn’t it? Do you think that when Bill was sitting in the cab imagining (which we see in black-and-white) Alice’s fantasy, that his dreams ended there? It could be argued that almost the entire film takes place in Bill’s mind. “Wait, wait, Mystery Man! Just hold on! How do you explain that part at the end when he found the mask on his pillow, which led to his breakdown and confession? That was real, wasn’t it? Didn’t Alice put that mask on the pillow to confront Bill?” Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to say that the organizers of the orgy snuck into his home and put the mask on his pillow to scare him. And yet another way of looking at it is to say that only Bill saw a mask on a pillow. When Alice woke up, she never once acknowledged a mask.
So what was the orgy really about? It was not about an orgy. The visit to the mansion was the stuff of dreams and nightmares, of myths and legends. Bill finally reaches “the rainbow’s end,” the inner sanctum of the ultra-imperial-elite only to discover that they are horrifyingly evil. Kubrick gives an allegory through dream-like imagery to show us that the ultra-elite is depraved, soulless, gluttonous, and exploitative. That’s the point of the orgy. All those people who are so supremely powerful and wealthy (that if Bill knew who they were he “might not sleep so well”) begin their feast of collective consumption with an openly satanic ritual led by a high priest in a crimson gown, a figure no less scary than the devil himself. The kissing with the masks is so sterile it robs the exchange of any real human emotion. In fact, the masks and the cloaks turned all the men inside the mansion into variations of the same thing – empty, soulless, dehumanized figures of self-indulgence. And you just know that all of the women in the opening ceremony are going to be abused and passed along from one man to the next. This place is, at its core, a living organism of evil capable of killing anyone in order to preserve itself, which is why Bill’s life was in danger for penetrating the orgy (pardon the pun). This may have also been why Mandy was willing to give her life to save Bill’s because he once saved hers, because he was in her eyes the only decent human in the mansion worth saving.
And that brings us back to Alice (which will bring us to Helena). Because of Bill’s interest in a different life, in being part of the ultra-elite, he became uninvolved and disconnected from his wife which in turn made her nothing more than an object to him to be used whenever he wanted her. And her resentment of his attitude surfaces only in her dreams and when she’s stoned. From that first opening shot, she is presented to us as an object of desire, as she casually strips off her clothes for our amusement. Everyone from the babysitter to Ziegler to Szavost praises her only for her looks. Her daily regimen is pretty much devoted to rigorously maintaining her looks. She's constantly looking at herself in the mirror. During the film’s iconic moment (pictured at the top) of her husband walking up to her and starting to have sex with her, she looks at herself in the mirror, amused at first, then aroused, and just before the shot fades, she almost self-consciously acknowledges to herself in a disturbing way what she really is or even perhaps, what she’s managed to get for herself in life.
And then there is Helena, their daughter, named after the most beautiful woman in history. The subtext of all of their interaction with her is really about her being groomed to be the same kind of high-class object as her mother. During the day, she is always with her, observing her, learning from her. She wants to stay up to watch “The Nutcracker,” which is, of course, about a little girl whose toy comes to life and turns into a handsome prince. The fact that this story takes place during Christmas-time is no coincidence. This is when consumerism is at its height. Later, when Helena reads the bedtime story, she recites, “before me when I jump into my bed.” Alice mouths it along with her. In the dining room, Alice helps Helena with a little math problem - how to calculate which boy has more money. There’s a photo of Helena in a purple dress in Bill’s office, eerily reminiscent of the one worn by Domino the night before.
In the final scene in the toy store, Helena’s carefully observed actions speak volumes. Alice said she was “expecting” them to take her “Christmas Shopping” (even though they already have piles of presents under the tree). Perhaps the trip was so Helena could shop for her friends, which is telling, because she only thinks about herself in the store. She wants everything in sight. She wants the blue baby carriage (similar to the blue stroller we saw twice outside Domino's door). Then she grabs an oversized teddy bear. Then she shows them a Barbie doll dressed as an angel, which was no coincidence, because Helena herself wore an angel costume in the opening sequence when she asked if she could watch “The Nutcracker.” Should I even mention the mound of bright red board games called “Magic Circle,” an allusion to the ritual involving the ring of prostitutes at the mansion? The red color of the boxes certainly bring to mind the carpeting in the great hall. Helena runs down an aisle full of stuffed tigers that look suspiciously similar to the one on Domino's bed...
While her parents decide to forget (and ignore) their deeper problems with a “fuck,” Helena dances around the store losing her soul. Their eyes, like ours, are still wide shut.