Communication in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



1 Introduction

2 How does film communicate with the audience?
2.1 The problem of defining a sender
2.2 Means of communication
2.2.1 Metalanguage in film
2.2.2 Symbolic meaning in film
2.3 Characterization
2.4 How is characterisation realised in “Eyes Wide Shut”?

3 How do characters communicate with each other?
3.1 Verbal communication
3.2 Communicational disorders
3.3 Sexuality as a form of communication
3.4 Body Language

4 How does the unconscious make itself understood?
4.1 Alice’s realistic dream
4.2 Bill’s dreamlike reality
4.3 Confronting the unconscious

5 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

Film has for a long time been neglected as an art: Sophisticated analysis has mainly been dealing with written literature as ‘the real thing’. In recent years the making of films has become more and more accepted as an art. Films are analysed and dealt with at universities and have become an essential part of school curricula. Nowadays cinematic theory is treated equally to written literature and “as a fully matured art, film is no longer a separate enterprise but an integrated pattern in the warp and woof of our culture”[1]. In order to develop an ability to understand this art one has to learn to read its codes and interpret their meaning.

The following paper will deal with the role of communication in film and examine different levels on which filmic articulation takes place. Communication is an indispensable element for films, not only do characters communicate on the level of the plot but also the process of creating, showing and perceiving a film can be regarded as communication. It is this communication that allows the course of an action to be told and understood in the first place. A film is information, it is a message that is transmitted to a recipient, i.e. the audience. There are, however, problems to define who the sender of this message is. In Chapter 2 of this essay I will try to find a solution to this problem. Chapter 3 will put a focus on communication between the characters in this movie including some ways of non-verbal communication. Chapter 4 deals with a special way of communication which is a central point in Kubrick’s film: I will show how the unconscious can send messages to the conscious and how these messages can be interpreted.

A lot of parallels can be drawn between film and written literature. There are, however, some vital differences between the two genres. I will therefore make general comparisons between the language of books and that of cinema where it appears important and promotes understanding. I will apply examples from the movie “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) by Stanley Kubrick to illustrate the theoretical approaches of my work. The main points of this paper are summarised in a conclusion in Chapter 5.

2 How does film communicate with the audience?

Literary communication is generally regarded as transmitting a message from a sender to a recipient through a certain medium (in the case of books this medium is the written word). In the following I will define in how far this communication model can be applied to narration in film and I am going to point out difficulties in synchronizing models of literary and filmic communication. I will investigate the problem of defining a sender in this model and then identify filmic means of communication. Film is a complex system of successive, encoded signs[2]. Viewers of a film perceive this code and decode its meaning. I will explore how meaning is transmitted to the viewer and how cinematic codes are interpreted. Finally I am going to illustrate my theoretical statements by analysing a bedroom-scene from “Eyes Wide Shut”.

2.1 The problem of defining a sender

Narrative communication is originally understood as the “process of transmission from the author as addresser to the reader as addressee”[3]. This definition, however, relates mainly to literature as written texts such as books. For narration as it appears in movies one has to apply a quite different definition. The viewer as the addressee of a film can be compared to the reader of a book but instead of reading words and interpreting them through rules of syntax and semantics, the viewer perceives sequenced single shots and connects them to comprehensible images and from these he constructs a story.

To find out who the sender (the addresser of a narration) is, it is a good start to apply a differentiation of the term ‘sender’ into author and narrator[4]: The author is the inventor of a story and its discourse. This role is taken by the script writer. In addition one could also name the director as author of a film as he has overall responsibility and functions creatively when shooting a movie.

Finding the narrator of a story, however, is a lot more complex. Unlike in written literature we do not have a first- or third-person narrator who communicates purely verbally (in film there are pictures, sounds and music etc.). According to Metz the narrative instance is what guides the viewer’s perception when “leafing through an album of predetermined pictures”[5]. Lothe points out that the film narrator is “a heterogeneous mechanical and technical instrument, constituted by a large number of components”[6]. The sum of these can be divided into components of an auditory and a visual channel. The auditory components involve different kinds of sound such as voices, music or simply noise. These can originate from on-screen and off-screen. The visual components in a movie appear to be even more numerous than the auditory ones. There are the so called symbolic codes, which give meaning to a film: The most obvious symbolic codes are actors and the way they appear and perform. For instance a character’s changing appearance in a film often indicates a change in the narration. Also a film’s location and props (accessories and costumes) are necessary for most stories to be convincingly told. Narration in a movie is not only influenced by symbolic codes which create the image, but also by technical codes, that is, what Lothe calls the “treatment of image”[7]. A setting can appear in several kinds of light and consist of various combinations of colours which create very different kinds of atmosphere. The way the audience perceives parts of the narration also depends on distance, movement and angle of the camera, e.g. viewing an action from a low angle can make characters seem threatening whereas looking at them from a high angle may make them seem helpless.

As we have seen, filmic narration consists of much more than verbal communication. Therefore David Bordwell suggests a definition of narration as “the organization of a set of cues for the construction of a story”[8]. The whole of this set in combination with the script writer’s story and arranged by the director is the true sender of filmic communication.

2.2 Means of communication

Filmic communication differs from literary communication not only concerning the question of who is sending and who is perceiving but also concerning the quality of communication. The most striking difference is what Lothe calls the “intensely visualizing force of film”[9]: Whereas literary texts usually only stimulate mental images in the readers mind, film presents the viewer a “cornucopia of visual details”[10], it “gives the complete picture, with no holes”[11]. Metz makes another important point in connection with this argument: Due to this perceptual wealth of images film is perceived by the viewer just like reality: Books are material but the images that are perceived from them are mental images. In the case of film the filmic apparatus is material and so are the images. Thus “the activity of perception which it involves is real, […] but the perceived is not really the object, it is its shade”[12]. It is this “dual character of its signifier”[13] that makes cinema a unique form of communication.

Film is a sequence of images which come to life when shown at a rate of 25 pictures per second. This is another peculiarity of film which makes it different to most other media: Images on the screen are not only revealed on a spatial level as in paintings or on photographs, but film enables the spectator to experience the temporal dimension as well.

Some of the information in a film is important to the strict plot and some is irrelevant. But the essence of all the images is more than just plain portrayal of the action. Just like language in written literature, film has a metalanguage and images can carry symbolic meaning.


[1] Monaco, p. 424

[2] see Metz 1974

[3] Lothe, p. 11

[4] see Chatman, p. 133

[5] Metz 1974, pp. 20-21

[6] Lothe, p. 30

[7] Ibid., p. 31

[8] Bordwell, p. 62

[9] Lothe, p. 11

[10] Ibid., p. 40

[11] Chatman, p. 40

[12] Metz 1977, p. 45

[13] Ibid., p. 45

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Communication in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut"
University of Cologne  (English Seminar)
Film Makers at Work
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
497 KB
Communication, Stanley, Kubrick, Eyes, Wide, Shut, Film, Makers, Work, Filmanalyse
Quote paper
Benjamin Althaus (Author), 2004, Communication in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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