Barry Lyndon (1975)
As part of the National Film & Television School syllabus the BFI are hosting a film season called ‘Ecstatic Landscapes’, a season which can loosely be regarded as a series of films where the locales and environment are ostensibly used not only for any formal visual effect of beauty but also to explore the depths of human nature that form the spine of the film’s themselves. Presumably you’ve been paying attention and can imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing one of the most beautiful films ever made on the big screen, I’m speaking of course of Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon‘ which emerged to poor reviews and box office back in 1975. I have seen ‘Lyndon‘ on the big screen once before, the first time I had ever seen it in fact back when I was at college at a screening attended by an audience packed with one other person, two if you count the projectionist. Initially I was mystified by the film, enamored of course with its overwhelming beauty and the plot as it was kept me gripped but it has taken me over fifteen years of research and reading to truly uncover many of its other treasures and strengths. That is one of the things that I love about the movies, as you mature and develop so do they, your own experiences informing and expanding your appreciation and understanding of this wonderful medium. This second big screen viewing was a much richer experience. Before we begin I have to give you the usual spoilers warning as they are many and frequent, I’ve really decided to go for ‘it’ with this entry so be prepared for some outrageous cinematic claims, absurd academic theorising and detailed chin-stroking wankiness.
Based on the relatively unknown book ‘The Luck Of Barry Lyndon‘ by William Makepeace Thackery, the film can be broadly partitioned into two sections, both of which unfold in late 18th century Europe. In the first movement our ‘hero’ Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neil) is introduced as a headstrong Irish middle class gentlemen who falls foul of the law after he supposedly kills a British Officer in a duel over the affections of his cousin Nora. Fleeing the authorities he is robbed of his worldly possessions and enlists into the British Army, his only chance of avoiding the hangmans noose. His military career leads him through a sequence of battles, subterfuge and spying which eventually conclude with Redmond becoming an international cardsharp, frolicking and fleecing his way through the Imperial European courts. Barry eventually decides to achieve more stability in his affairs and seduces Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), an ethereal aristocrat with whom he conducts a loveless marriage as in Barry’s world only property and status can confer the prestige he so evidently desires. In the second section of the film we are presented with the domestic life of a aristocrat in all its pomp and glory, Barry furtively seeking to climb the social ladder whilst managing the rebellious inclinations of his step son Lord Bullingdon who loathes Barry for his preceived exploitation of his mother and slow erosion of the Lyndon estate, both financially and in reputation.
This is quite simply an immaculate film, a film which imperceptibly transports the viewer back to 18th century Europe through the masterful command of pacing, lighting, performance, costume and set design all effortlessly slotting together in each of the films two movements to construct for me the greatest period set film I have seen. Whilst the formal, harmonious symmetrical compositions are typical of Kubrick’s style he abandons his trademark tracking shot technique in favour of a new visual motif – the slow reverse zoom which reflects and supports a brilliant portrayal of the Age of Reason itself as it became fully embedded in human history. This technique focuses on one pertinent element in the frame – the dueling weapons in this scene for example – before zooming out to present an entire tableau of compositions culled from 17th and 18th century art, just look at this wonderful examination for comparisons. As some of the academics have noted, this approach almost feels like Kubrick flirting with the idea of even being able to photographically present an era before photography was even invented, an apt observation given that the traditional close up and shot / reverse shot 20th century formula of cinematic language almost invariably follows to drive the scene and story forward. You can detect Kubrick cinematically flexing his muscles as it were, mirroring those tense fast zooms in ‘Strangelove‘ whilst Spielberg also used both zoom methods as visual homage nods to Stan (2:50 onward) in ‘AI‘ (3:58+) but I’m not gonna get sidetracked into my opinions of that deeply flawed but interesting project here, that’s a whole blog post on its own.
I saw the film three weeks ago on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse and whilst wandering past their Canary Wharf HQ on the way home I pondered over the themes of commerce and status, the financial intertwined with prestige, with position and how all these destructive impulses essentially revolve around games of chance which gave the film a real contemporary resonance. The four duels in the film where life itself is at stake are conducted as the result of financial affairs in quandary (Nora’s marriage to the British officer and the dowry it will attract, two duels at the result of gambling disagreements and Barry’s final tournament with Lord Bullingdon over the control and management of the Bullingdon estate) which all therefore elevate money over humanity, the accumulation of wealth trumping all other worldly concerns.
I despair at some of the reviews that were printed in 1975 and beyond, criticising the film for its supposed coldness and complaining of it being nothing more than a beautiful yet utterly empty ‘coffee table’ book of a movie. Some of the critics complained that is was no ‘Tom Jones‘, a lively jaunt through 18th century Europe with lashings of bawdy sex and comedy. So, you do something different and take an alternative approach and that is rejected? No doubt these same critics also wrote articles on how commodifed and identical films are and have become for the same magazines in the months and years that followed. I’m not saying that trying something different is to be welcomed for its own sake – just look at ‘The Fountain‘ to see it doesn’t always work – but goddamn it I prefer to live in a world where the likes of Aronofsky have the balls and will to do something different and reach higher, even it it doesn’t always succeed. Yes the film is Kubrick examining the species on the autopsy lab, dissecting the conformity and the rigid hierarchy of the era, presenting the court protocols and suffocating society in his own idiosyncratic way but that’s the whole point. Even the so called ‘coldness’ is a deliberate approach as that veneer enhances the two real moments in the film when the restraints of ritual society are punctured, when the shackles of protocol are violated to be all the more effective, namely when Barry beats lord Bullingdon in public (which got a gasp in the audience and yes I know that link’s in Italian but it was the best I could find) and the death of his son Brian which is arguably the most moving and tender scene in Kubrick’s entire career. OK, when it comes to tenderness there ain’t much to choose from but hey….
It’s also a pretty funny movie in places, the audience were laughing at many of the scenes (and not at it but with it I hasten to add) which I think is down to the use of that restrained yet vivid language (as in the robbery scene linked to above) which is refreshing and I think almost unique in the movies, Bresson leaping to mind as the only other contender. It’s obvious to see Kubrick’s fascination with communication and language in his films, the nadsat of course in ‘Orange‘ which initially drew him to that project, the peculiar jargon of the military mindset in both ‘Strangelove‘ and ‘Jacket’, the veiled sexuality and obsession in ‘Lolita‘ – ‘……it was your cherry pies’. There’s no-one who gets so much with so little, like Stan himself said ‘Realistic is good. Interesting is better’ which is the perfect rebuttal of any criticisms of Nicholson being over the top in ‘The Shining‘. Lyndon, like ‘Zelig‘ in Woody Allens film is something of a cypher to take you through the story without distractions in terms of character development or tedious, clumsy ‘explanation’ scenes which Kubrick leaves to the ironic voiceover. It’s a wider scope, a broader canvass that Kubrick is working on, not being restrained by traditional notions of one central protagonist and their journey being the sole raison d’être of his films.
Phew, that’s taken me a while to put together, I hope you liked it and its given you the impetus to pick up the film and give it a whirl. Here are some general links to the film, including my favourite scene to wrap things up. I’m inspired to go back and take another look at ‘The Fountain’ as it happens after writing this, I hope my initial disappointment is dispelled, well we shall see. My second birthday is approaching so keep an eye out for some minor adjustments to the blog in terms of visual presentation which is something I have been toying with for a while, stay safe and enjoy….