Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon has been judged by many to be either a masterpiece or a monstrous bore. For years after its release in 1975, the common opinion was shared with that of the noted late film critic Pauline Kael, who called it “an ice-pack of a movie.”
I am a big fan of the Baroque era’s arts, crafts, and architecture, as well as being a fan of Kubrick’s films, and thus have admired the film ever since its first release. Admiring this particular Kubrick film is a bit of a guilty pleasure, bearing no judgment on the quality of the film, but rather on my own guilt in admiring it so for its baroque aesthetics and overwhelming beauty, while downplaying its devastating depiction of human vanity, aggressiveness, and greed.
The first scene could be a metaphor for the entire movie: a beautifully composed view of a bucolic countryside, in the distance two men fight a duel, and one of them will die. It will be the protagonist Redmond Barry’s father, as it happens, and so begins this picaresque story based on the novel by William Thackeray.
In my opinion, Barry Lyndon has few equals in harnessing the arts to the service of film making. Kubrick poured over and drew inspiration from the oil paintings and watercolors depicting 18th century European pastoral and courtly life, especially those of Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth, and Francois Boucher. Many of his scenes are purposefully composed as would a period landscape painter. Kubrick also listened to all of the European 18th century classical music he could find, and the soundtrack is so perfectly blended with the film that it is hard to listen separately to one of the pieces without envisioning the unfolding scene, perfectly in sync with its soundtrack. In this sense, Barry Lyndon is primarily a visual and auditory experience. Its dialogue is brief, and we depend on the excellent voice- over narration given by Michael Hordern, spoken as Thackeray had written it, or in a very similar style.
Redmond Barry is played by Ryan O’Neal, whose plain good looks made a good stand-in for the plucky character inadvertently set off on a life of adventure. As narrated, his attractive cousin Nora Brady was “the cause of all his early troubles.” After seducing him to a soundtrack of the Chieftain’s “Women of Ireland,” she promptly takes up with an English officer of means. The duel that ensues between the jealous rivals (one of many duels fought in the film), forces him to take to the road with a pouch of money his mother gave him. Though he was mightily impressed with the cut of a soldier’s scarlet uniform, it was only a highway robbery that left him penniless and forced him to enlist in the army. After many adventures and mis-adventures in various armies in various countries he vowed that, “never again would he fall from the ranks of a gentleman.” But this was not before his experience among the dregs of the Prussian army had ensured that he was “far advanced in the science of every kind of misconduct.”
Redmond Barry gambles, but meets the beautiful Lady Lyndon
The life of a gentleman rake was close enough for our intrepid hero. He had fallen in with a fellow Irish libertine who called himself the Chevalier di BaliBari, and thus did he meet the Lady Honoria Lyndon, “a woman of vast wealth and great beauty,” played by Marisa Berenson. His slow seduction of her at the gambling table and on the palace terrace is a masterpiece of film-making. No greater contrast exists to the current methods of filming scenes of seduction. The scene on the terrace is wordless, and indeed, nearly motionless. It develops through the beautiful, inexorable beat of Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2. The gestures of the actors are slow, with each slight movement invested with meaning. When Lady Lyndon stands outside on the terrace, only a slight sideways glance conveys the understanding that she awaits him. After he advances to her, their hands show their anticipation, reaching out slowly and deliberately, grasping just before they kiss.
The role of the Countess Lyndon is played stylishly but with dignified restraint by Marisa Berenson. Her beauty is magnified by impressive period-styled wigs. The costumes throughout are authentically and beautifully designed and add to the richness of the scenes and the characterization of the actors. The fabrics and laces used blend perfectly with the rich tapestries, linens, and upholsteries in the film. The make-up too provides the white-powdered, beauty-spotted, 18th century style adopted by both men and women. And these personal adornments and the great palace interiors, are richly bathed in light – the strafing of natural light through open windows during the day and the incredible glow provided by candle-light and chandeliers at night. For the candle-lit scenes, no artificial lighting was used, and such was Kubrick’s obsessive compulsion in replicating the look of the era that when no camera lens was found capable of filming such scenes, he used a lens built by the Carl Zeiss company for NASA: the Zeiss 50mm lens with the largest aperture of any ever built for a movie (f/0.7). Thus are we provided with that candle-lit chiaroscuro so beautifully used by painters such as Caravaggio and de La Tour.
The fortunes of Redmond Barry are looking up as he courts Lady Lyndon, the wife of a moribund Lord. Their quick marriage after the Lord’s death soon turns Barry into the lord of the manor, especially in his own mind and demeanor. He is now known by the name of Barry Lyndon.
Before long a son is born to them, which Barry loves above all else and dotes on. Such behavior is in contrast to the treatment he gives Lady Lyndon’s first son by her late husband, and the pair develop a mutual animosity.
Aside from doting on his son, Barry Lyndon reverts to his womanizing. His attempts to aggrandize his name and to secure a title of his own leads him deeper and deeper into debt. Barry’s luck has changed again, and his bad behavior compounds his difficulties.
The artfully composed picture above of Barry and his son foretells the isolation that Barry will soon endure. The inexorable beat of Handel or Schubert still plays, in ever more mournful tempo, as one disaster after another befalls Barry Lyndon. Even the panoramic landscapes are now shown devoid of people that formerly had decorated these scenes.
A climactic duel between Barry and his step-son was fastidiously filmed, shot in such slow and deliberate actions that it paralleled the earlier seduction scene, this time to the music of Handel’s Sarabande, the movie’s theme music and itself of measured tempo. The scene is filmed in a barn, not in the pastoral settings used earlier. It is here that Barry Lyndon finally displays true gentlemanly behavior, but alas it is all for naught.
Stanley Kubrick has set the last scene with Lady Lyndon, her son and their attendants,signing documents that will place their world back in order. The date that she signs the documents is 1789. This perfectly composed tableau shows the English aristocracy in their element. Kubrick has again presented a beautiful scene which belies reality and the events taking place across the English channel, where the French Revolution has begun. Soon such palaces as these will be looted there, and many of their aristocrat inhabitants will be sent to the guillotine.
Kubrick’s film-making techniques were unified throughout Barry Lyndon. His use of deep-focus was prevalent, which was used along with zoom-in and zoom-out shots that either clarified an action or gave a very different perspective on the events. His devotion to the authentic bordered on an obsession.The gathered packets of paper documents on a desk for example were held together with nearly imperceptible straight-pins, as they would have been before staples or clips came along. Over eight minutes of screen time and weeks of filming and editing were devoted to the climactic duel scene, in which moments pass ponderously as men face off with pistols, their seconds standing by and following every protocol.
Costume design for the film was recognized by an Academy Award given to Milena Canonero and Ulla-Brit Soderlund. This was the second film designed by the distinguished costume designer Canonero, whose first had been for Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange. Barry Lyndon also won awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Music. Stanley Kubrick, although nominated, has never won an Academy Award for Best Director.