by Matt Levine
Barry Lyndon begins with a killing—the murder of Barry’s father, no less, in a gentlemanly pistol duel. Observed in a static long shot that sees the minuscule characters dwarfed by an awe-inspiring landscape, this opening scene is a perfect encapsulation of the film to come. As the narrator sardonically states, Barry’s father is killed as the result of a disputed horse sale—a seemingly insignificant motivation for murder that emphasizes the “civilized” violence of Britain in the 1750s, as well as suggesting the cruel twists of fate that alternately lead to wealth or ruination. As we’ll see, this opening pistol duel also foreshadows the climactic standoff between Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal) and his stepson, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), as the sins of fathers are hauntingly reaped upon their sons in an act of twisted, cosmic irony. Finally, the fact that this opening duel is viewed so distantly that we couldn’t even describe what the dead man looks like seems to corroborate the common claim that Stanley Kubrick was a cold formalist indifferent towards the people who occupy his frame—though this often wasn’t the case, and certainly isn’t true of Barry Lyndon.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Producers: Jan Harlan, Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray
Cinematographer: John Alcott
Editor: Tony Lawson
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kruger, Steven Berkoff, Gay Hamilton, Marie Kean, Diana Koerner, Murray Melvin, Frank Middlemass, Andre Morell, Arthur O'Sullivan, Godfrey Quigley, Leonard Rossiter, Philip Stone, Leon Vitali
US Theatrical Premiere: December 18, 1975
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick’s adaptation is split into two “acts.” The first—“By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon”—follows a charming but ineffectual Irish roué after he first leaves his modest family home. Seduced by his cousin, the fickle Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton), Barry is devastated when she leaves him for the dandified British soldier John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), who resembles (in both his crimson wardrobe and prancing airs) a peacock forever hoping to attract a mate. After shooting Quin in a duel (the second of many in the film), Barry is forced to abscond to Dublin, where the constraints of poverty force him to enlist in the British army.
Barry’s regiment is sent to Germany in the midst of the Seven Years’ War, whereupon the senseless bloodshed of warfare (including the death of a family friend) leads Barry to avow that he will seek only a life of wealth and stature. He spies his chance when he encounters a British courier, steals his horse and identification papers, and hightails it to Holland—though he’s stopped en route by a Prussian Captain who will return Barry to the British army (which will surely execute him for desertion) if he does not join Prussian forces. This is how the Irishman Redmond Barry proceeds to fight for the British and Prussian armies during the course of the same war—an irony that points out how little national allegiance means both to Barry and the armies who enlist him, though nationalism is the ostensible motivation for the war in the first place.
A further series of events, dominated either by fate or mere happenstance rather than human causation, has Barry working as an agent for the Prussian army, keeping tabs on a foppish gambler named the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), who himself might be a French spy, by acting as one of his servants. Yet Barry almost immediately reveals to the Chevalier that he is an Irishman working for the Prussian army, ultimately acting as an accomplice in his duplicitous schemes to cheat massive fortunes out of Europe’s noblemen. The narrator informs us that it is Irish brotherhood that compels Barry to align himself with the Chevalier (who also turns out to have Irish heritage), though the audience—recalling Barry’s inner vow to attain wealth at the earliest opportunity—suspects that it is the Chevalier’s lavish mansion and elegant clothing that are the real motivations. In any case, it is as the Chevalier’s right hand that Barry ultimately meets the Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), the beautiful wife of aged, decrepit Sir Charles Lyndon (Frank Middlemass), and seduces her shortly before the old man dies in a hideous coughing fit. His marriage to the Countess of Lyndon ensures that Barry will acquire the fortune he has so thirstily (if ineffectually) craved.
This first half of the film is similar in tone to Thackeray’s source novel, which is satirical and mordant in undermining the pomposity of 18th-century warfare and societal mores. After all, in desiring social stature above all else, Barry is merely perpetuating the values that dictated European civility in his time. Barry Lyndon has a reputation as a cold, stuffy costume epic, but the first hour and a half is wickedly funny; indeed, aside from Dr. Strangelove, Act I of Barry Lyndon counts as Kubrick’s only comedy. Not unlike Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), the machismo and vanity of a supposedly civilized era provides plenty of opportunities for caustic wit. This especially comes through in Captain John Quin’s ridiculous attempts at virile brawn (his perpetually upturned lip is hilarious in itself) and the polite highwayman who robs Barry of twenty guineas, graciously allowing him to keep his boots as he forces him to walk the rest of the way to Dublin.
Yet if Act I of the film is amusingly acerbic, Act II tragically proves the axiom that money is the root of all evil. After marrying a beautiful countess and attaining a massive fortune through the scantest possible effort, Barry’s life falls into ruins, flooded with hardship and misery. He openly flaunts his infidelity and spends most of Lady Lyndon’s money on outsized expenditures (including some of the most expensive paintings in Europe), all the while forcing his wife to remain secluded in their opulent estate. The countess’ ten-year-old son by Sir Charles, Lord Bullingdon, despises his stepfather and considers him (aptly) a disloyal opportunist. Barry and the Countess have a son of their own, Bryan, whom Barry dotes on adoringly, yet the spoiled boy is killed in a horse-riding accident (a plot point lifted from the novel by Margaret Mitchell for Gone with the Wind some years later). The tragedy sends a grief-stricken Barry into debilitating alcoholism and Lady Lyndon into a pious religious zeal, thus ostracizing both of them from their noble peers. Ultimately, Barry’s downfall is swift and all-consuming: penniless, loveless, and missing a leg—the result of yet another pistol duel (with Lord Bullingdon, one of the movie’s finest scenes)—Barry is forced to leave England and never return. In a shockingly sad turn of events, the only remaining connection between Barry Lyndon and the Countess is the annual annuity checks that she signs in order to ensure his permanent exile: if money initially ensured Barry’s attraction to (and, perhaps, love for) the beautiful Countess, it is money that will remain their only trivial tether.
The theme that materialist greed destroys everything in its path is a common one, though it’s conveyed with especially tragic power in Barry Lyndon. A subtext of greater interest in the film is more existential: is it fate, destiny, mere chance, or human agency that controls our lives? Given the narrator’s repeated allusions to fate, one might assume that Barry’s bleak downfall was preordained before he even existed: “Fate had determined that [Barry] should leave none of his race behind him, and that he should finish his life poor, lonely and childless,” prophesies the voiceover early in the film. Barry’s astonishing lack of initiative would seem to verify this point—he must be one of the most passive antiheroes in all of cinema. Things happen to Barry Lyndon; he rarely instigates them. True, the entire plot is set in motion when Barry challenges Captain Quin to a duel for the affections of his cousin; but it was she who seduced Barry in the first place (by daring him to fetch a ribbon hidden within her cleavage) and stoked his jealousy. From then on, Barry stumbles from one situation to the next; he joins the British and Prussian armies only because he happens upon them, and allies with the Chevalier because he is forced to spy on him by his superiors. He has no need to seek out his future wife, as she miraculously sits across from him at a gambling table; and he seduces her merely by kissing her wordlessly (in a ravishingly gorgeous scene).
And yet, just when we think Kubrick has no faith whatsoever in human agency, choices are made which determine the outcome of Barry’s life. (Here, I have to reveal major spoilers in order to discuss some of the film's significant themes.) It is not, in fact, fate that solidifies his downfall; the climactic pistol duel with Lord Bullingdon (an episode absent from Thackeray’s novel) is especially important in this regard. Barry has a choice: he can easily kill his stepson, and thus inherit Lady Lyndon’s fortune (depleted though it may be). That Barry magnanimously chooses not to fire upon Lord Bullingdon seals his fate; for better or worse, it is one of the only ethical decisions that he consciously makes in the film.
It might seem that Barry Lyndon proves Kubrick’s coldness, his indifference (or even abhorrence) towards his characters. His detractors (notably Pauline Kael) have often claimed that Kubrick’s meticulous style, his bitter bemusement at his characters’ actions, prove how disinterested he is in the human experience. Certain moments in Barry Lyndon might suggest this, most notably the death of Sir Charles Lyndon, which arrives at the very moment he venomously accuses Barry of cuckolding him: as we watch Sir Charles desperately search for his array of pills, the narrator begins voicing an obituary of this nobleman allegedly printed in London newspapers—though this elegiac voiceover fades out abruptly into the film’s Intermission, seemingly ridiculing both this character’s life and death.
Yet if Kubrick’s attitude towards his characters is rough and cynical, there is sympathy in his bitterness. At the very least, he identifies with their confusion at the incomprehensibility of life, and with the combustible emotions we experience in our deepest despair. One scene late in the film is a turning point in this regard: following the death of young Bryan, we observe a black-cloaked Lady Lyndon, consumed by despair, kneeling at a church altar, praying austerely. Many shots in Barry Lyndon begin with a medium-shot or close-up and then steadily zoom backwards, moving from the personal to a tableau. Yet this moment is one of the few in which the camera zooms inwards, towards Lady Lyndon, clearly identifying with her all-consuming grief. It is with the countess that the final shot of the film allies as well: the camera is unmoving as it registers her beleaguered emotions, which she stoically (and unsuccessfully) attempts to conceal. She has been taught by her society to strive for calm reserve, for meek obligation; yet this “civilized” impassivity has led her to a life of misery.
While Barry Lyndon was received somewhat coldly upon its release, both commercially and critically, its stylistic accomplishments have never been in doubt. Indeed, it does not seem hyperbolic to claim that this is one of the most visually stunning films ever made. Kubrick’s copious period research (conducted when he was initially planning his biopic of Napoleon, following 2001: A Space Odyssey) is manifested in the astounding costume design (by Ulla-Britt Söderlund and Milena Canonero), art direction (by Ken Adam, Roy Walker, and Vernon Dixon), and cinematography (by John Alcott), all of which won Academy Awards. Though based in historical detail, each stylistic decision serves the film’s emotional tone: certain palatial foyers carry an alienating opulence to them, while the Chevalier du Balibari’s ostentatious costumes portray a man forever desperate to prove his own significance.
Much has been made of the technical innovations that went into John Alcott’s cinematography, most notably the reengineered Zeiss 50mm lenses that enabled shooting in candlelit interiors with no other artificial lighting. (The narrow depth of field necessitated by these lenses’ huge apertures results in a soft focus for many interior nighttime shots—which is appropriate, as it recreates the dreamy intimacy of such 18th-century painters as William Hogarth.) Yet the cinematography is stunning not only for its visual beauty, but for its uniqueness and intelligence. As mentioned before, many shots begin at a relatively close distance, only to slowly retreat backwards and end at a distanced tableau of the scene. Kubrick’s indebtedness to painting has never been more prominent, as these backward zooms seem to point out the emotional volatility taking place within discreet fragments of classic pre-Romantic paintings (in addition to Hogarth, Barry Lyndon’s aesthetic recalls the work of Antoine Watteau and Thomas Gainsborough). It’s important to remember that Kubrick began as a still photographer, and was therefore well-versed in the differing capabilities and resonances that moving and still images could convey. One of Barry Lyndon’s most fascinating ambitions is to propel landscape painting into motion, to hint towards the dramas that might be playing out in the scenes created by the classical masters—in other words, to make the kind of film that Watteau or Gainsborough might have in the late 18th century.
Barry Lyndon’s initially tepid reception has been refashioned since its original release in 1975; Jonathan Rosenbaum, Martin Scorsese, and Roger Ebert have all championed the film’s uniqueness and richness, allowing the film to take its place among Kubrick’s finest. It may be flawed—the two acts of the film are jarringly contradistinctive, and certain plotlines (such as Bryan’s death) are emotionally lukewarm thanks to Kubrick’s steely remove—yet to paraphrase Jean Renoir, no masterpiece is perfect, and most masterpieces are made more interesting by their imperfections. Each time I rewatch Barry Lyndon, I become increasingly convinced that this is Kubrick’s most eternally rewarding creation: it may be less mind-bending than 2001, less haunting than Eyes Wide Shut, and less prescient than Dr. Strangelove, but it has more mysteries and oddities smuggled into its ravishing frame than any of those films. It is simply (and profoundly) the story of a man stumbling through life, thinking he knows what happiness is yet beset by cruel, cosmic torments—and who can't relate to that?