Last of the Monster Kids

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Friday, August 25, 2017

Director Report Card: Stanley Kubrick (1975)

10. Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick's dream project was a film about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. He became interested in Napoleon following “2001” and spent many years researching and preparing to make a movie on the subject. However, the failure of 1970's “Waterloo” would ultimately scuttle Kubrick's plans. He initially planned to instead adapt William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, “Vanity Fair.” This idea would also be prematurely halted, after an announcement of a television mini-series of the book. Kubrick would then funnel his research into Napoleonic Europe into an adaption of another Thackeray novel, “The Luck of Barry Lyndon.” The resulting film may very well be Kubrick's most challenging work, a three-hour epic which received a frosty reception initially but whose reputation has only grown over the decades.

In 1750s Ireland, Redmond Barry lives a simple life with his mother. As a teenager, he falls in love with his cousin. When she instead expresses feelings for a British captain, Barry challenges the man to a duel. Apparently shooting the man dead, Redmond flees his town. He ends up enlisting in the British army, currently fighting the Seven Years War. Over Barry's adventures, he attempts to desert to Prussia, saves a captain, is sent to spy on and instead befriends an Irish Chevalier, and becomes a professional gambler. It's through this last venture that Redmond catches the eye of Countess Lyndon. The two marry, Barry taking her last name and ascending to the rank of nobility. However, his troubles are far from over.

It's often been said that “Barry Lyndon” was shot entirely with natural light, foregoing traditional electronic lighting altogether. This isn't entirely true but many scenes of the film were, indeed, shot by candlelight. Kubrick intended to re-create the time period as accurately as possible, leading to candlelit interior scenes that softly glow with an amber color. These are far from the only scene that featured a rich color pallet. Every frame in “Barry Lyndon” looks like a painting. The gorgeous sweeping shots of the crisp countryside or castles in a landscape are designed to resemble period paintings. Kubrick provides his trademark precision and perfectionism to creating as beautiful a film as possible. He largely succeeded. “Barry Lyndon” is a feast for the eyes.

In fact, Kubrick is so focused on creating beautiful images, he seems to loose track of the human element. The distant quality seen in “2001” returns with a vengeance. The characters in the film are often reduced to distant figures in a wide landscape. The statement that Kubrick watches his character like a scientist watches protozoa under a microscope has never been truer. His approach is nonadjacent and dispassionate. As men are gunned down on the battlefield, they fall to the side while other soldiers move on. It's rare that anyone stops to help an injured solider. Much of the movie unfolds like this, the audience rarely approaching the cast members as they go through the story.

Adding to this detachment is the novel-like approach to the story. Thackeray's book was written in the first-person, from Barry's perspective. Kubrick, instead, gives this role to an omniscient narrator. Any insight we get into the characters is from this perspective, an on-high position looking down on all the events as they on-fold. Michael Hordern provides the vocal and they are, typically, extremely dry. Sometimes, Hordern's narrator trails off, such as when a minor character dies and his obituary is read, which further emphasizes how little the humans mean in the story's vast narrative. Also adding to this novel-like approach is the chapter breaks throughout the film, the story broken into two halves like the book that proceeded it.

As you might've guessed, this approach does not make for the most involving film. If “2001: A Space Odyssey” was deliberately paced, “Barry Lyndon” is so slow that it feels like it barely moves at time. The events progress on without much momentum, the story at times feeling aimless. The sluggish pacing is combined with a daunting three hour and five minute run time. So “Barry Lyndon” is asking a lot of its audience and, at times, its gorgeous photography and intimately recreated period details do not seem to justify such an extensive length and slow pace.

Thackeray's novel, which fell squarely into the picaresque genre, is widely regarded as one of the earliest literary examples of an anti-hero. Redmon Barry, at first, is motivated primarily by his own selfish wants. After falling in love with his cousin, he antagonizes and eventually duels the man that would guarantee her family continued comfortable wealth. After joining the army, he eventually decides to desert, disinterested in serving for so long and risking death. He lies his way into the Prussian army and continues to lie until he gets caught. Though Barry only acts in his own self-interest, there is admittedly something likable about the guy. He's a rogue, bucking traditional rules in pursuit of wealth and success.

At least, he is likable up to a certain point. Half-way through the film, any redeeming quality Barry has is lost. He seduces the Countess strictly because he wants her money. He abuses her son, using any excuse to whip the boy. He openly cheats on his wife, sleeping with maids and other random women. He takes advantage of the Countess' wealth, spending extravagantly on frivolities. At this point, Barry has graduated from likable rake to full-blown cad. This makes an already slow film even harder to relate to. The only humanizing quality Barry receives during the film's second half is his devotion to his son, which is a story that ends tragically. This turn makes an already difficult to watch film even harder to relate with.

Kubrick only got the film bankrolled by agreeing to let an A-lister star. (Supposedly, Richard Harris was his original pick.) Ultimately, the choice came down to Robert Redford and Ryan O'Neil. When Redford became unavailable, O'Neil got the part. At the time of production, O'Neil was coming off the massive success of “Love Story.” This, it turns out, was the only time O'Neil was considered a bankable star, as he quickly fell from the public eye. O'Neal's performance is as stuffy as the film around him. He works well, embodying Barry as a young rake and later a rich asshole. Ultimately, it's a hard performance to read, O'Neal and Kubrick keeping the title character at arm's length.

The film does see Kubrick revisiting themes that interest him. In “Dr. Strangelove” and “A Clockwork Orange,” he tackled the absurdity of the masculine desire for violence. Similar thoughts are bouncing around inside “Barry Lyndon.” Barry's adventure begins with sexual desire and his libido. His inability to be faithful to his wife eventually leads to his downfall. When he first meets the Countess, she is married to a rich count in a wheelchair that clearly can't please her. By the story's end, Barry has lost a leg, walking with clutches. So Barry meets a similar fate as the man he dethroned, symbolically castrated, his desire for sex and power being his own undoing. (And then there's the stuff involving the two seemingly homosexual soldiers Barry spies on and his one true friend in the story, which repeatedly asks to kiss him. Read into that all you want.)

That's one example of the sense of dramatic irony in the story. Another is the reoccurring duels. The film begins with a duel, Barry's father dying in one before he's even born. Barry's journey begins with a duel, shooting the Captain and later discovering that the entire thing had been staged. The story climaxes with a duel, Barry shooting at his own step-son, who insists on continuing the duel despite being obviously nervous, despite his stepfather allowing him an out. That Barry falls to the same fate as his dad, that he is looses a duel to a tenacious young man, suggests all of these events are happening in a cycle. A man has a thirst for power, becomes complacent in his victory, and is then dethrone by a younger man who wants it more. And so history goes on.

The presentation of “Barry Lyndon” is so stately and still that the occasional emotional outburst startles the viewer. Probably the best example of this is when Redmond becomes so enraged with his step-son, that he violently beats him in a crowded room. Suddenly, Kubrick's distant direction comes alive, moving through the chaotic conflict with the character. Later, Barry is reduced to tears by his son's unexpected death. This too is another island of emotional content in a distant, cold film.

“Barry Lyndon” was not the commercial success Warner Bros. hoped for when they agreed to produce Kubrick's next film. Why the studio would ever expect a film this slow, this long, this difficult to be a box office success, I don't know. Of course, as with everything Kubrick has done, “Barry Lyndon” would be reevaluated in time. It's a favorite of many film scholars and considered one of the greatest films ever made by some. That's an enthusiasm I can't share. “Barry Lyndon” is gorgeous, a technical marvel, but ultimately much too cold to be worth watching more than once. [Grade: C+]

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