Eyes Wide Shut and the Ninth Gate
Much has been written about the esoteric messages in Stanley Kubrick’s swan song Eyes Wide Shut, some silly, some quite illuminating. That some of us are still watching and analyzing it seventeen years later (and probably many more to come) illustrates that the great director knew what he was doing despite the horrendous reviews it received on its release. I remember seeing it in a mall cineplex with my sister in law as a break from a weekend centered around our father-in-law’s funeral. Let’s just say I wasn’t at that moment ready to receive the arcane messages in the film, but then who is on the first go-around. The film in itself is a puzzle requiring multiple viewings (if you are committed to wasting that much time) and perhaps a bit of online reading. There is much dross on that front, but whether you believe in the Illuminati or not, many of us, especially those drawn to the occult, enjoy a good puzzle. I am no expert on the former, but definitely an explorer.
Although it is fun to pick apart the film for symbols–Oh look, there’s another star!–I think the film itself is in a way a work of arcane magick, using visuals and music to entrance the viewer. The title itself is a riddle and a challenge, and the film causes those who have become mesmerized by it to continue circling back into the riddle, while more clues are revealed. In other words, you can really geek out on this thing. Is there any solution to the riddle? Not sure if there is a definitive answer. If there is anything I’ve learned about life (and the occult) is that anyone who tells you they know the answer is lying. I do suspect that the plot of Eyes Wide Shut is very surface, and not that important. The head scratcher for many of us is why Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a pretty Hollywood power couple at the time, but no great shakes in the acting department, although they’ve both gotten better with age. When you realize that both of these characters are puppets in a show, and the reason you are not drawn into their drama emotionally is because (maybe) you’re not supposed to. The true story is behind the actors, and some of that can’t be explained, only experienced. For example the secret ritual party is fascinating and terrifying. The music with its weird, backwards lyrics combined by the stunning visuals of the naked women (yes, they are beautiful but also strange alien bird creatures, a rare body type Kubrick has used before) entrances the viewer. It is not just Bill undergoing the initiation into a hidden world, but the viewer as well.
If anything, the film is allowing the viewer to experience a lesson in duality, as symbolized throughout the film by the use of mirrors, and other objects. The most obvious examples of duality are the two party scenes that form the pillars of the story (pillars btw are also used as symbols throughout). The ritual party in masks is the reflection of the Christmas party (where hosts and guests are wearing social masks, evidenced by the fact that Ziegler has a naked od-ing girl in his bathroom while his wife entertains downstairs). The same girl, presumably, dies at the ritual party after she offers herself as a sacrifice to save Bill. Each party is a ritual revealing what the other hides, and vice versa–the Christmas lights holding occult star symbols that appear in almost every scene magically disappear at the ritual. Much of the symbolism in the film, and there is a lot, can be seen either as illuminating deep meaning or Kubrick just fucking with us–or both. But I think it’s fair to say he was trying to show us that there is a hidden world, the Christmas party and, its inverse reflection, the ritual party–Nick Nightingale plays at both, the same guests are at both, there is sexual innuendo/overt sex at both–are one in the same. As above, so below.
Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate was released the same of summer as Eyes Wide Shut, and both were equally derided. I remember one scathing review expressing how sad it was to see these two old men (Kubrick and Polanski) still trying to be edgy with their embarrassing depictions of dated, 1960’s era occult sex parties. Uh, I think there’s a bit more to it than that. Both films depict hidden worlds, but The Ninth Gate deals directly with the Devil. One may read a lot of incoherent ramblings online about Luciferianism–this particular dark side seems to appeal to meth heads, unfortunately. But The Ninth Gate is an intelligent exploration of the subject, not without Polanski’s wicked sense of humor. Polanski’s other occult films (Rosemary’s Baby and Macbeth come to mind) reveal that although he openly denies it, he has if not a studied than at least an innate understanding and artistic curiousity about the subject. Some conspiracy theories goes so far as to suggest that he was directly involved with The Church of Satan and that the Manson murders were a kind of retaliation (one of the murderers Susan Atkins hung out with Anton LaVey apparently). If Polanski was (or is) that heavily involved with that dark side, he is wise enough to not spill his guts about it. After all, the first Gate says Silence is Golden. The word arcane means secret, so anyone blabbing about how they are a Satanist with some kind of god-like power is revealing himself to be a complete ass. And Polanski certainly understands this in the way he makes buffoons of many of the Satanic characters in The Ninth Gate. Boris Balkan, played brilliantly by Frank Langella, provides an extreme example of the perils of this type of hubris.
As in Eyes Wide Shut, there is much symbolism in The Ninth Gate, but instead of hiding in the Christmas lights, its revealed in the nine engravings that spur the mystery. The protagonist, Dean Corso, played by Johnny Depp in his usual deadpan fashion, is just the type of hedonist ripe for the do what thou wilt Satanic philosophy. We learn from the start of the film that he is an unscrupulous mercenary in the rare book trade–he pilfers a priceless set of Don Quixote from a collector who’s had a stroke. Polanski’s insert shot of the paralyzed man’s hand gripping with rage during the sale is an example of the director’s great attention to detail and (again) sense of humor. Don Quixote (the first gate is an image of a knight riding to a castle) is an apt symbol for Corso–a man on a quest. He is reluctant at first, but as he passes through the nine gates, he becomes more and more drawn in and committed to the journey, with a seductive, witchy girl as his guide. Like Eyes Wide Shut, the story parallels two worlds–one man journey’s (Boris Balkan) towards destruction, the other’s (Dean Corso) towards enlightenment. Two paths–right and left handed? One depicting Satan as the Devil, the other Lucifer as the Promethean bearer of light? I’m not knowledgable enough to say, but if you search online you’ll find many opinions about it, although unfortunately few intelligent ones. From Marlow’s Doctor Faustus and beyond, this material is ripe for fools, and Polanski certainly gets that.
For those of us interested in the Tarot, there are many similarities in the engravings and the cards, the most obvious being the hangman of the Sixth Gate. And like the Tarot, there are many hidden symbols in each card that are only revealed under close examination. The engravings depicted in the film include discrepancies with each image, including one penned by Lucifer, one by the book’s author. This, in itself, may represent the two paths. I tried reading the book The Club Dumas on which it’s based once, and gave up pretty quickly. Maybe I’ll try again.
I love a good mystery, and I’m fascinated by the occult. Both films delight my curiosity, and my respect (healthy fear) for the dark side.