Barry Lyndon (Preview)
Reviewed by Darragh O'Donoghue
Produced, directed, and written by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray; cinematography by John Alcott; production design by Ken Adam; music by Leonard Rosenman and The Chieftains; costumes by Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund; edited by Tony Lawson; starring Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Marie Kean, Leon Vitali, and Michael Hordern. A two-disc Blu-ray and DVD, color, 185 min., 1975. A Criterion Collection release.
Misguided notions about the work of Stanley Kubrick in general and his eighteenth-century costume drama Barry Lyndon persist, despite the film’s growing reputation since its initial lukewarm reception, and the work of conscientious scholars and critics.
First stock notion: Kubrick was a techno geek obsessed solely with lenses and lights, grids and viewfinders, film stock and camera tracks. According to this view, Barry Lyndon is primarily a technical tour de force—Criterion’s extra disc of supplements and the accompanying booklet are packed with exhaustive and exhausting accounts by mostly minor technicians about such arcana (gaffer, focus puller, and Leon Vitali, the actor and Kubrick’s longtime assistant, responsible for the hideous conversion of the film’s original mono soundtrack into 5.1 Surround Sound). These supplements discuss, for example, how a NASA-developed lens was adapted so that Kubrick could shoot interior scenes by candlelight; or how the slow backward zooms that punctuate the film were achieved; or how “real” costumes and fabrics were sourced from museums and stately homes. There is no attempt made to understand the reason for any of this innovation—apart, it seems, for its own sake, with no consideration of how it served Kubrick artistically or thematically.
Second stock notion: alternatively, Kubrick is treated as a visionary genius, an American (and more easily digestible) equivalent of the European auteur, a deliberate fabricator of hermetic and timeless masterpieces that engage with Big Themes—TIME, WAR, POWER, LOVE, HATE, OBSESSION, MASCULINITY—studded with pompous references to “high” culture, but who was hermetically sealed from the world in which he lived. There is little in the Criterion set about Kubrick as an artist working in a particular place (Ireland, England, Europe) at a particular time (the mid-1970s, at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, second-wave feminism, and the academic critique of the fine arts inspired by John Berger’s Ways of Seeing TV series and book). This imbalance of emphasis, this pandering to received fanboy opinion, is an abdication of critical responsibility.
Thankfully, there remains the film itself. Like his great (and equally sporadic) contemporary Sergio Leone, Kubrick constructs—paces, blocks, and edits—Barry Lyndon “musically,” creating a kind of dumb-show opera. He prefers lengthy, circumscribed, almost discrete sequences to the more dispersed, continuous narrative of classical cinema, and introduces, distributes, develops, consolidates, varies, and disrupts visual and aural leitmotifs across the three-hour-plus length of the film.
The first three scenes function as a kind of “overture” or nested thematic statement. In the first, a duel is fought in the distance, a shadow play almost lost in the bleak and indifferent Irish winter, staged before picturesque mountains and behind a crumbling stone wall. This is the first in a cycle of duels that structures the narrative and the life of Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal). These include actual duels and instances of corporal punishment meted out by class superiors and parents, but also the various and equally vicious personal or spiritual standoffs that converge and lead inexorably to the final fight between a grief-sodden, dissipated Barry and his aggrieved, class-conscious stepson, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali).
This endless repetition, together with the suffocating tangerine glow of the candlelit interiors, suggest that Barry has fallen from a spurious Eden of maternal love, social status, and sexual fulfilment into a kind of living hell. If so, it is a hell of Barry’s own making. The text on the back cover of the Criterion box set repeats the assumption that Barry Lyndon is some sort of satire on the ossified social rituals of the eighteenth-century British aristocracy, rituals that stultify and eventually defeat its antihero. This is surely wrong; how can you satirize something that is long gone? In any case, far from moribund, the upper classes in the film are a dynamic, opportunistic caste, perpetuators of a system whose genius it is to adapt to all situations and to absorb all newcomers who will enable it to survive. Barry is given plenty of chances to “play the game”; it is his arrogance, dissipation, overreaching, and uncontrollable temper that undo him; it is his cruelty to his stepson and patriarchal tyranny toward his wife that turns Castle Hackham into a spiritual prison.
The nature of the film’s opening shot is clarified by Michael Hordern’s narrator, a figure who always knows more than the audience and the characters, supplying the information and interpretative framework lacked by the former, while seeming privy to the inner lives and fates of the latter. The relation between this narrator and his narrative seems complex, but is actually a rationalization of Thackeray’s far more layered storytelling. The Luck of Barry Lyndon: A Romance of the Last Century was serialized in 1844, and reworked and published in book form as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon Esq., of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1856. It purports to be a contemporary edition of a memoir written around 1800 relating to events of the second half of the eighteenth century. Thackeray’s Barry relates his own story, giving him a measure of narrative control and personal agency that is denied to his cinematic counterpart. It is, however, only a measure—Thackeray undermines his protagonist’s deluded and self-serving account with an open and even mocking irony, while an editor-figure occasionally questions Barry’s outlandish claims or stated motivations in finicky footnotes. It is this inchoate figure, rather than Barry the memoirist, who is the model for Hordern’s narrator.
Barry Lyndon was by many accounts Kubrick’s most personal project—along with his previous film A Clockwork Orange (1971), it was the only feature he wrote on his own, and he refused to make any cuts despite his willingness to do so on other films. Barry is one of Kubrick’s despised and marginalized figures, a wanderer and displaced person, the protagonist of a film made by a self-exiled American Jew in post-Holocaust Europe. The facts of Kubrick’s Jewishness and his frustrated hope to make a Holocaust film have been brought to bear on recent accounts of his next film, The Shining (1980). Perhaps such an approach to Barry Lyndon would be equally productive...
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Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2