01 June 2007

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Written & Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Grade: A

Despite his glowing reputation and relative improlificacy, there are still a small number of Stanley Kubrick films that have fallen below the radar of the casual cinephile; most of these are early efforts (Killer's Kiss, anyone?) but stuck in the belly of his hallowed oeuvre is an underseen and often undervalued classic: Barry Lyndon, a flop upon its release that has struggled ever since to claim its rightful place in popularity. While its proponents tend to hyperbolize its distinction, calling it not only Kubrick's finest film but one of the best ever made—it's neither—Barry Lyndon is indeed a marvelous film that deserves a loftier position in the annals of history and criticism, not to mention on the video store shelves. Leon Vitali, who was Kubrick's assistant to his death and has a supporting role in the film, laconically introduced the film recently at Walter Reade in New York by saying, with tears in his eyes, "It brings me great pleasure to say: this is Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, and I just know you're going to love it." As well you should.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by William Makepeace Thackeray—an increasingly forgotten contemporary of Dickens'—Kubrick's film maintains a literary character by being divided into two "chapters" and using voice-overs from an omniscient narrator (Michael Hordern). Ordinarily, narration is as anathema to good filmmaking as Michael Bay, used as a cheap shorthand by unimaginative and insecure directors, but Kubrick's narrator provides a valuable ironic counterpoint to the on-screen images, as he'll go out of his way to undermine a seemingly romantic or heroic scene with a flippant remark, providing the film with a genuinely novelistic depth. But Barry Lyndon is not a film of mere words, which Kubrick emphasizes by allowing many scenes to play out silently, their emotional content expressed only in gesture and facial expression; Kubrick also maintains a proper level of cinematicality to counter the literariness by composing, with his frequent cinematographical collaborator John Alcott, some of the most impressive shots ever seen in film, before and since. The compositions mimic famous paintings, and contributing to the recreated pictorializations effect is that oftentimes many of the characters, placed within the gorgeously arranged tableaus, remain as stationary as the static figures on a canvas. Alcott and Kubrick went to such meticulous lengths for fashioning a proper period atmosphere that they even designed and built their own special lenses, based on NASA technology designed for the moon landings, that would be able to capture natural light; many scenes are amazingly lit by candles alone, providing a startling naturalism to the mise-en-scène. Beholding the stream of evocative images in Barry Lyndon is akin to a three hour walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art while listening to a book on tape.

Even Barry Lyndon's detractors, however, would acknowledge the mastery of its photography, as well as that of the Victorian production and costume design. (Barry Lyndon marks the height of baroque set design in film; it's like Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons taken to the next level, incidentally complemented by the Bach and Vivaldi on the soundtrack.) Their gripes have more to do with its extended running time (184 minutes), its deliberate pacing, and Ryan O'Neal's lead performance. (We may also attribute American audiences' reluctance to appreciate the film to a rejection of all things "too English", as this is certainly Kubrick the expat's most thoroughly British film.) In this regard, Barry Lyndon is nearly as divisive in its reception as Kubrick's swan song Eyes Wide Shut, another undervalued masterpiece. I won't bother arguing about the pace of Barry Lyndon—just to say that it isn't "slow" by any means, and is never guilty of superfluity—though I will mention O'Neal, as I think he's unfairly maligned for his performance. He plays Redmond Barry, the title character, a man of base birth who rises to a position of power and influence only to fall back down, and O'Neal does so mostly with appropriate reserve; in his scenes of youth, he conveys a convincingly deep longing, an idealism informed by lustful and jealous impetuousness that, through the course of the film, ages somewhat but never matures. Barry winds up a scalawag among gentlemen and, as Jim Ridley recently noted in The Village Voice, "O'Neal's gauche inability to fit into the surroundings ultimately suits the role."

Barry Lyndon, divided in two by an intermission (unwelcomely elided at the recent Lincoln Center screening), concerns Barry's rise to title and his fall from grace; it's a tale of coming-up and comeuppance. Part One is primarily a story of fate and chance; the course of Barry's life is determined by a series of random fortunes, starting with his escape from the law after, or so he's lead to believe, killing a competing suitor (Leonard Rossiter) in a duel over the love of his promiscuous cousin. The narrator bemuses about how different Barry's life may have been had he not fallen for that girl, or instigated the duel, as it's the starting point for a series of contingent adventures: stopping for a drink of water, he attracts the attention of bandits who happen to be at the same inn; losing his money and horse to said bandits a bit down the road, he walks to the next town, where he is recruited into King George's forces; deserting the army, he finds an officer's uniform hung to a tree; traveling in that uniform, he meets a buxom Prussian who takes him in; leaving her, he's met on the road by a Prussian officer who catches him in his lie; conscripted by the Prussians, he is assigned to spy on an effete gambler who becomes his employer; and so on, all of these events ultimately leading to Barry's meeting and marrying Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson).

Part Two deals with Redmond Barry's, now Barry Lyndon, fall from the status that he's married into. If Barry was brought up by chance, he is brought down by action and poor decision, particularly the ill treatment of his stepson (Vitali), and eventual mortal enemy; their antagonism culminates in a dragged-out and unbearable duel, a sequence accompanied by a ceaseless and unbearable beating of the timpani, punctuated from time to time by violent string trills. Ritualized violence plays a prominent role in Barry Lyndon, whether it's the twisted custom of dueling, the ring formed by soldiers when Barry boxes a man who embarrassed him, the gauntlet hazing of the Prussian Army, or, most devastatingly, when a line of English soldiers marches on the positioned French army, unflappable even as large numbers of them are picked off. Never has war made less sense than it does in that moment, and Barry thankfully gets it quick and runs off. While Barry Lyndon is certainly a romantic film in some regard, it does not romanticize violence, nor does it afford its characters with any sort of cheap heroism—indeed, Barry is not a hero by any means, and Thackeray's novel is considered by many to be the first English-language novel without a respectable hero as its protagonist. War is grim, war is fire, and war is death, an observation underlined by a sermon from the narrator. (Cf. "It is well to dream of glorious war in a snug armchair at home, but it is a very different thing to see it first at hand...")

The two sections of Barry Lyndon vaguely parallel one another, up to a point at least; they both feature a session of fisticuffs, instigated by an insult to Barry's hono[u]r, as well as Barry engaged in a competition for the attentions of a woman—this time with his stepson for his wife's—that ultimately results in pistols at dawn. But while the Redmond Barry of Part One is a forgivable youth, the Barry Lyndon of Part Two emerges as nothing short of a categorical cad, mercilessly caning his insolent stepson and engaging in extramarital affairs right under his wife's nose. In one scene, Barry hovers lovingly over his wife and his newborn son, but Kubrick immediately cuts to Barry osculating with two topless sexpots, neither of whom happen to be his betrothed. Even Barry's mother, who in Part One was a kindly Irish peasant, is by Part Two transformed into a shrewy, manipulative Lady Macbeth type; she's used to help reveal another of Barry Lyndon's many themes, the corruptibility of stature. (Though the film is thematically dense, it's never convoluted, and the clarity of its execution is a mark of its master director.) Barry strives throughout the film to reach the level of gentlemanhood, but once he does it destroys him; even his one redeemable trait—his genuine and unqualified love for his son—proves to be a deciding contributor to his undoing. "Behind my back I am despised," Barry acknowledges near the film's conclusion, adding, "and quite justifiably so." Barry Lyndon is the tragic tale, told with grace and patience, of an antihero's decline, ruthlessly concluding with Barry legless and alone; it's a melancholy reproach of war and money, of polite society and powerful institutions. Sprawling in length, ambition and thematic intent, it's an emotional epic and a roaring success.

5 comments:

Clayton L. White said...

Barry Lyndon fits in there with The Killing and Paths of Glory as Kubrick's most underrated work. I haven't seen it since I was a teenager, but the film has really stayed with me. I think it's sad that O'Neal doesn't get more credit for his performance, because he nails it. He's funny, he's awkward, he's just great. I'll never forget, I think it's the opening scene, when his cousin puts the handkerchief down her dress trying to get him to go after it, and he just starts to cry. At first I laughed, but then I began to realize how tough of a role it is, and I just stared in amazement. Now I want to watch it again.

Very good review, Hank.

H. Stewart said...

Seeing the film last weekend, I was really impressed by O'Neal's performance. That scene in the beginning you mention with the ribbon is a case in point--it is a very funny scene (the theater was raucous) but it's funny because of how convincingly terrified and upset O'Neal looks. Anyway, it wasn't till I started reading some reviews afterwards that I noticed people were so down on him for it. People just love hatin' on Ryan O'Neal I guess.

james flames said...

well, this of course is one of my favorite movies, if not my actual favorite. i've seen it more times than i can count - the first time being in a little theatre in minneapolis - and i don't think i ever realized my attraction to it being that there IS no hero in this story. i mean, there's probably no hero in a clockwork orange either, but that's a different kind of story. barry lyndon is pretty shy about how much of an asshole barry really is - until of course it becomes glaringly obvious.
and i think the running time adds to that too - we all know it's a long movie going into it, so you keep waiting for that redeeming quality, that heroic act, to show up and make you breathe a sigh of relief that all is not lost.
i've never had a movie experience that has so trasported me into its own world as i have with barry lyndon. it doesn't act like a movie. and the lighting and cinematography add to the un-movie like aspect. it's historical without you having to rely on your grade-school history; it's incredibly well-acted, without you noticing that those are actually actors; and it's the simplest of morals - karma's a bitch.

very well done review hank - i know we've talked about this movie endlessly, but it's nice to hear a concise and complete (cine)opinion from you. with all the new things you point out, i have more of a reason to go watch it again.
and i think i will....

H. Stewart said...

Two things:

1) I went to see Barry Lyndon with my friend Dan, who later noted to me what he thought it was all about: the myth of class mobility. That's definitely there, and maybe another reason why American audiences were unresponsive; after all, the idea that we can all go from log cabin poverty to the White House is an ingrained part of our culture that I bet many Americans don't want to discredit, lest they have nothing to live for.

2) SPOILER One of my favorite little things in Barry Lyndon: on his son's birthday, he throws that big party and you see the kid having a hell of a time being pulled on a sheep-drawn cart; then later, when his son dies, we see the same cart and the same sheep, presumably, pulling his coffin. Just a beautiful little detail; kudos to the filmmakers again.

RT said...

I love your description of Barry Lyndon, the museum book on tape thing. Exactly. And I can dig it, unlike your eventually, eventually to be dismissed crap Eyes Wide Shut. (It WILL happen! :-)