United States, United Kingdom, 1975
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
With Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon, born Redmond Barry), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Gay Hamilton (Nora), Marie Kean (Barry’s mother), Leonard Rossiter (Captain John Quin), Hardy Krüger (Captain Potzdorf), Patrick Magee (Chevalier du Balibari), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon as a young adult), Dominic Savage (Lord Bullingdon as a child), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon)
A fool’s ascent: Redmont Barry, a dull and poor gentleman, is forced to leave his native Irish village after a duel his love for his cousin Nora caused. Supported by her family, the flirtatious girl was far more interested in getting married with a rich captain of the English army, John Quin, than satisfying the desire of a foolish boy; but Barry was unable to accept this, and caused the scandal that compels him to flee to Dublin. However, he is robbed on his way to the big town; to survive he chooses to enroll in the English army. He takes part in the Seven Years War (1759 – 1763). Getting bored with the war’s demands he deserts but is caught by the Prussian army, and drafted by Captain Potzdorf.
Thanks to the Prussian officer, Barry is later hired by the Prussia’s Interior Ministry as a spy; but his first assignment turns out to be his last, as he decides to befriend and help his target, flamboyant and mysterious Chevalier du Balibari, a fellow Irishman. Both men depart from the northern kingdom to tour Europe as professional (and dishonest) gamblers. To ensure a more secure future, Barry reckons to get married with a rich and beautiful woman, and by luck meets Lady Honoria Lyndon. Both fall in love, and her Ladyship’s old and crippled husband conveniently dies soon afterwards. Now, the former dull and poor gentleman from a village in Ireland is the nominal head of a very wealthy estate and respected household in England.
A rake’s fall: Barry and Honoria have a son, Bryan Patrick Lyndon, and they are incredibly fond of him. But Barry is faced with the utter contempt of Honoria’s other son, from her previous husband, and her estate’s heir, Lord Bullingdon. However, the main concern for Barry is to get a peerage and a title to secure his future at long last – he thus willfully follows the advice of his dear mother. But he fails to reach his goal, despite lavish expenditures in feasts, parties and bribes, which create an ever-increasing pile of debts. His repute is ruined by a scandal wickedly provoked by his stepson. Worst is to come: Bryan Patrick is killed by a horse. The father becomes a drunkard and the mother insane. Lord Bullingdon can come back to his native place to get his revenge, and Barry Lyndon must leave.
The director of “Spartacus” (1960), a self-imposed exile and a Jewish intellectual, Stanley Kubrick may have felt a strong interest in this life of an outsider ingratiating himself in the British high society of the 18th century. Viewed as a control freak in his work, he may have appreciated the irony but also the poignancy of a character striving to shape his fate and to build great prospects, but stumbling upon cruel personal disappointments. He may even have liked the weaknesses and stubbornness of a rather unpalatable character, and his satirical view of the world. Yet his camera is not keen on giving him a warm and sympathetic embrace.
Kubrick starts with a complete rewriting of the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. Instead of a first person account, the movie becomes a solemn narration of the facts as they unfold by an invisible but omniscient narrator – he has jettisoned the straightforward, personal tone of memoirs to create a pompous distance. The choice as a signature score of the “Saraband” by George Frederick Handel, with its stately and deliberate rhythm, grants an even more prestigious, grandiloquent style to an otherwise lively and funny tale, the trivial and pathetic adventures of a little scoundrel, and implies a grandeur that does not fit with Barry’s real life and sordid actions. It may an ultimate form of irony, but irony looks like an effort to put as much distance as possible between the director and the character (it also proves to be over the course of the first part a fine tool to poke fun at the hypocrisy and nonsense lying behind the blunt arrogance, supposed bravery and obvious petty-mindedness of both the military career and the aristocratic life which Barry learns to cope with).
Many writings have explored, explained and extolled the gorgeous visual complexity of “Barry Lyndon”. Undoubtedly influenced by a careful observation of the 18th century English and Dutch schools of painting, most shots are beautiful and arresting. The work on lighting is terrific. The choice of props and furniture is flawless. The costumes are wonderful. The highest forms and styles of this period are powerfully brought to life to put the characters in genuine and glorious settings, those demanded by their distinguished lives and the realities of the period, wrapping the narrative into a stunning and illuminating environment. This visual style imposes on the audience the same grandeur than the score has conveyed. Technically, this period piece sets a kind of new standard.
Since a movie should be a little more than a perfect reconstruction of historical decors and paintings, it is worth wondering where those artistic efforts lead. Seemingly to the same point raised before: this is too an extraordinary stage for this sordid tale; actions and characters feel a bit smothered by the opulence; they are downsized by the sumptuous nature of the images. Acting does not really help to correct that feeling: there is something stiff, conventional in most performances; Ryan O’Neal can be dismissed as too readily naïve or, conversely, bland; Marisa Berenson is just a walking statue.
Well, most of the time, perhaps; but things are not that simple. The overall awe-inspiring mise en scène does let sentiments transpire at key moments; moving at its peculiar tempo, the film can depart from its long, eventful narrative, and distant and elegant narration, to show touching epiphanies; and a real sympathy for the lead character is palpable. He and others do have basic urges and strong emotions which break through the walls erected by the social conventions which their world is based on, and are reflected in its artistic achievements. The distance was necessary to let their full strength become more strident to hear, more stunning to watch. Irony and coldness belie how sincerely the director is attuned to the depths of their human nature.
Carnal desires are the main urge rushing to the surface. The story’s beginning is centered on the game Nora plays to arouse Barry’s desire; finding her ribbon is opening the way to pleasure; Barry proves remarkably awkward but the lesson would alter his life. The most beautiful observation comes at the end of this first part, with the depiction of the love at first sight felt by Barry and Honoria, an amazingly subtle game of looks and gestures, unfolding in two times, with the camera kept at a distance but still able to capture the careful ballet between the two individuals, first, discreetly, around a table, and then, poignantly, on a terrace, or more precisely, between the corridor and the outside. True, Berenson does not move a lot and express a lot – except for the eyes, and everything is told through the tension between the body and the gaze, an image that would be repeated later, when she decides to keep loving her new husband’s body even if his mind is busy with other pleasures and persons (in a telling move, the ups and downs of their intimate life are not commented by tunes of the 18th century, but by the second movement of Franz Schubert’s Trio D. 929, as if music from another world was the only resource available to illustrate their passion).
But it is the tragic fall from grace of the lead character that enables the film to express the highest emotions. The death throes of Bryan Patrick Barry are a remarkable performance that sounds not just right but truly felt. The despair of the mother is a stunning reversal of performance that reveals a more complete, more human side to the character. The most interesting change, however, copes with the titular character: as he clashed once again with his stepson, he no longer illustrates sadness but conveys a sense of resignation that is as poignant. When he refuses to shoot at Lord Bullingdon during their duel, the contrast between the gestures, as demanded by the etiquette, and the actor’s eyes is once again riveting and astonishing; this is a man fully embracing failure.
The events go fast downward from this point, and his fall is bitter. The penultimate sequence shows a limping and worn-out Barry getting up in a coach, shot at a distance, the focus on his back; the image suddenly freezes as the narrator explains little is known about the rest of his life; the camera stops producing arresting images and instead arrests its motions on a dour note. Barry is a failure and this still image feels like a final epiphany, an expression of powerlessness and sadness. It is followed by the last sequence which brings us back to the Lyndon estate; Honoria is signing checks and orders to her bankers and then notices the authorization for paying her estranged husband an annual stipend. Once again, what is reflected by the actress’ eyes is incredible, and fosters if not a tension at least a malaise in the room where she is surrounded by Lord Bullingdon and her advisers. Wistfulness slowly percolates on the screen; but life goes on, and she signs other documents as the camera tracks out to shoot the last picture, a wide shot on the luxurious office where the sequence has just taken place, the final observation of a beautiful, luxurious, distinguished world which has been so terribly out of reach for Barry.
So, after all, Kubrick feels a lot for these characters. But he shows it in his own, cold, intellectual way, which allows him to survey a privileged world where sentiments were strictly put aside, and put below conventions. Still, human nature is too strong to be tamed, and Kubrick’s camera has been standing all along ready to capture the outbursts, and give them an indelible impact. These shots are made with an intelligence that ends up being more impressive than the gorgeous sets and lights so painstakingly created – because they were the least expected and the most emotional.