Thursday, March 7, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.10: Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon remains one of the great “what-ifs” of cinema. The great director never had a chance to make his intended opus, and many a Kubrick fan has pondered over what his take on Napoleon might have looked like. They might get a good idea, however, if they gave Barry Lyndon a look. Undoubtedly the most overlooked and underrated of Kubrick’s late career, Barry Lyndon seemed like a film out of time, the first Kubrick work in a long while that didn’t in some way capture the zeitgeist. Indeed, despite its seven Oscar nominations (including Picture, Director, and Screenplay for Kubrick) and four wins in technical categories, Barry Lyndon was regarded by many as a disappointment. It’s certainly one of his most challenging and least immediately inviting works, a three-hour long, deliberately paced period piece starring the now universally-derided Ryan O’Neal. But it’s also one of Kubrick’s most rewarding works, replacing the visceral violence of A Clockwork Orange with almost unbearable emotional violence.

Redmond Barry (O’Neal) is a poor young Irishman in 1750s Europe. Barry is deeply in love with his cousin, but when a rival suitor, a cowardly English officer, challenges him to a duel, Barry must flee after he fatally wounds the man. Through a picaresque series of events, Barry winds up first in the English army during the Seven Years War, then impressed into the Prussian army, until he finally lucks into a marriage with Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) after her husband dies. Barry assumes the name “Barry Lyndon” and takes charge of the estate, much to the chagrin of Lady Lyndon’s son, Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage young, Leon Vitali adult). Barry has amassed a great fortune, but it will soon all come crashing down.

The three-hour film is split into two parts, both of which feature three of Kubrick’s trademark non-submersible units:

1.    The Young Love of Barry- Barry loves his cousin Nora, but she rejects him for the English Captain Quinn. When Barry insults Quinn, the two come to duel. Barry wins, and now must flee for fear of imprisonment.

2.    Wanderings and Army- After Barry is robbed of everything he owns, he joins the English army. He soon finds war less glorious than legends say and deserts, only to wind up in the Prussian army after he is found to be a deserter.

3.    The Chevalier and Lady Lyndon- The Prussian nation ask him to spy on the Chevalier du Balibari, an Irishman posing as a French lord, but Barry falls in with his countryman. This brings him to meet and woo Lady Lyndon just as her husband’s life runs out.


4.    Married Life and Title- Barry and Lady Lyndon are married, but Barry is less than faithful to his new wife. Her son, Lord Bullingdon, takes umbrage with Barry, and the two wage war over the estate.

5.    Downfall- A grown Bullingdon tests Barry’s patience until he loses his temper and beats the young man in front of a room of guests. Barry and Lady Lyndon are further tested as their young son Brian dies in an accident. Barry takes to drink, where Lady Lyndon attempts suicide.

6.    A Final Duel- Bullingdon returns to demand satisfaction by duel with a now pathetic and drunken Barry. Bullingdon wins the duel, wounding Barry in the leg, which must now be severed. Barry is banished from the estate on a paltry allowance.

Kubrick being Kubrick, everything is meticulously crafted to a near-unparalleled degree. Where most period costume dramas have frilly (if often beautiful) costumes, Barry Lyndon’s are lush and beautifully designed for something that feels better than realism. Every piece of art decoration is meticulously designed. Kubrick uses the zoom lens- something otherwise alien to most costume dramas- as a way to capture the period detail in all its glory, and as a way to turn everything into its own gorgeous portrait. Even more notably, Kubrick used a faster camera lens on a custom-designed Panavision camera in order to be able to photograph candlelit interiors with very little additional artificial light. The glow of the candles on the film brings something truly magical to the design of the film. It’s truly one of the most beautiful films ever made on a craft level.

But that would mean very little if it weren’t a deeply emotional film, which it most certainly is. Kubrick revels in the décor of the period- how could one not, it being so lush? What Kubrick does not do, however, is idealize the period. This is a time of great emotional repression, of societal constraints, and a time where explosions of emotion are at best frowned upon, and at worst cause for being ostracized. Kubrick’s use of narration here (omniscient rather than first-person) is his best outside of A Clockwork Orange, undercutting the pretensions of the characters and the era in general. Some choice quotations:

“This skirmish was not recorded in the history books, but it was memorable enough for those who took part.”

“There is a difference in dreaming of glorious warfare from a snug armchair and experiencing it firsthand”

On Lady Lyndon after she marries Barry: “She preferred quiet, or rather, he preferred it for her.”

Kubrick’s film is jam-packed with irony and dark comedy throughout, with every turn seeing either A. Barry’s good fortune undercut by misfortune or tragedy, or B. the formerly righteous Barry behaving monstrously. Barry gets satisfaction in his duel with Capt. Quinn, but it takes away his chance for happiness in Ireland (he’s further rankled when he finds he was given a dummy bullet to shoot Quinn with anyway). Barry later meets a hilariously erudite and polite pair of bandits in a forest, who exchange pleasantries as they take everything he has (“How do you do! And now, on to the more regrettable state of this…”). It’s a brutish act, but it’s not altogether very different with the litany of cruelties Barry suffers in the army or at the hands of the idle rich.

What Kubrick intends is to show a story of a man whose quest for greatness took away any sense of dignity he might have had- stripped away by a cruel and pretentious society. The casting of the comically limited Ryan O’Neal as a scrappy Irish hero may seem like a poor choice made entirely for box office appeal, and it’s not entirely untrue- Kubrick was told he needed a major star if he wanted to embark on this chancy (and ultimately financially unsuccessful) endeavor, and it came down between O’Neal and a too-busy Robert Redford. And true, O’Neal doesn’t give the best performance in the film (that belongs to Leon Vitali as the callow, snobbish, but righteously angry Bullingdon), but his casting is bizarrely perfect. Barry is honestly a not particularly bright kid swept up by the winds of fate, his success based less out of intelligence and more out of sheer dumb luck, which only lasts him until his success brings about arrogance.

Much of the first half of the film is shot in the lush green hills of Ireland or the open, natural spaces of Europe, at which point Barry is still “Redmond Barry”, essentially an innocent boy. His early scenes with his cousin Nora are shot in a gorgeous soft focus as she tempts him with a sexual game- stuffing her ribbon down her dress him if he can find it. Barry responds that he cannot, but it is but a boyish hesitancy, complete with a tremble as she brings his hand to her breasts. It’s a disarming moment (made better by the use of the gorgeous Irish tune “Women of Ireland”), but Nora wants a man, not a boy, and so she takes with the pompous and pretentious Captain Quinn. Barry lashes out in anger at certain points while Quinn retreats and whines about how British soldiers deserve better. The genuineness of Barry’s actions are admirable, but the first seeds for his downfall are planted as he sees what ultimately gains favor in the world.

Barry then faces a gauntlet of dehumanization as he stumbles towards a brief flirtation with greatness, first robbed, then forced to do battle in a senseless war (which, make no mistake the Seven Years War was). His innocence, while relatable, makes him ill-suited to the horrors of the world. When he complains about the poor condition of the food and drink he has, the other soldiers mock him. As the soldiers march towards a battle, always forward in spite of the several crumbling ranks of men before them, Barry sees the folly of the situation, particularly as his friend (and secret admirer) Capt. Grogan falls. His desertion may be seen as cowardice by some, but Kubrick finds the whole situation pointless and Barry’s decision understandable, if naïve. When he’s thrown into the Prussian army, we soon see him in even worse conditions as a gauntlet of whips is brought out for minor offenses (mutilation and death are mentioned as punishment for major offenses).

That last bit is a case of theatrical violence, as are the details regarding the duel. But it’s not the only case: when Bullingdon disobeys Barry, Barry becomes the perpetrator rather than a victim or unwilling participant, whipping Bullingdon for calling him a commoner and opportunist…which he is. Barry has gone from the oppressed to the oppressor, from a man thrown about by society’s rules to a man who lives by them. Contrast this with the very real outburst of anger after Bullingdon declares his hatred for Barry at a party and rebukes his mother. Rather than being cold and controlled, Barry pummels Bullingdon within an inch of his life. Where much of the film uses elegant tracking shots, here Kubrick resorts to a crude hand-held technique. This burst of violence feels more real than anything we’ve seen for quite a while, but dispassionate violence behind closed doors is more acceptable than passionate violence in public, and now Barry is ostracized.

There’s also a sly difference in the way Barry approaches sex throughout the film. His encounters with his cousin are boyish and light, while Barry’s later dalliance with a German girl feels like a short burst of genuine passion and affection (“Women of Ireland” plays again) for two lonely people seeking comfort. That’s completely different from the way Barry woos Lady Lyndon. Martin Scorsese- who has named Barry Lyndon as his favorite Kubrick film and as an influence on his own masterpiece The Age of Innocence- frequently cites the scene in which Barry approaches the Lady as a favorite scene. It’s a perfect bit of blocking and cinematography, with O’Neal moving perfectly in sync to the sounds of Schubert as he slowly walks behind Lady Lyndon and kisses her. The scene has an equal amount of desperation to the one between Barry and the German girl, but the circumstances are different- Lady Lyndon wants a healthy husband who can properly romance her, where Barry wants a chance at bettering his status in life. It’s a beautiful moment, but also a moment of ritualistic, calculated romance rather than passion.

And yet, it makes perfect sense. The film is, more than almost any of Kubrick’s other films, about repression. Barry cannot show real emotion, lest he be dismissed by society (as he is later in the film). Emotion is the action of a boy of improper background, not a man of status. Barry escapes the unhappiness of the army and of his impoverished life, but his victories are largely hollow. He has chosen a woman he does not love (and frequently cheats on dispassionately) for status, and he is given no title in return, not to mention the judgment of all of England after his one emotional outburst. Lady Lyndon, meanwhile, languishes in melancholy and depression as she’s stuck in a second unhappy marriage. Bullingdon hides his hatred for Barry until he can no longer stand it, and he is thrown out as a result. And when his one true joy left in life, his son Brian, is taken from him, he cannot escape but for in drink.

The final duel between Barry and Bullingdon has to rank as one of Kubrick’s very finest moments. It’s a battle between a young man with something to prove and a pathetic older man, as with the earlier duel between Barry and Captain Quinn. But now the roles are reversed, with Barry as a pathetic drunk and Bullingdon as a young upstart. Yet Barry retains a sort of composure compared to Bullingdon’s panic, accidentally shooting off his own pistol and then vomiting when he’s forced to stand his ground. Barry chooses not to kill Bullingdon- which backfires, as Bullingdon takes another shot and wounds him- but it could be just as much out of resignation as pity. Barry has nothing to live for anymore, and he’s in a society that will allow him very little. Perhaps death is his only escape from this repressed life. Of course, he doesn’t die, but is instead coldly banished to an ignoble end back to his near-penniless beginnings, with Bullingdon assuming his place as the head of a house. Barry has nothing, while Bullingdon is now just as much an empty shell of a man- all wigs and pancake make-up- with an abundance of riches but not much humanity.

The film’s action takes place from the 1750s to the 1780s, a few decades before most of Napoleon’s greatest accomplishments, but it still plays much like a hint at what Kubrick was trying to do with that grand abandoned picture. Both take place in times of heavy decorum. Both feature a protagonist who, against all odds, increases his standing in life (one by genius, the other by luck). Both cheat on their wives, who then fall into melancholy and self-ruin. Both bring about their own downfalls, only to fall further after a final battle that establishes how broken they are. It isn’t a perfect comparison- Napoleon loved Josephine, where Barry does not love Lady Lyndon; Napoleon’s failures go beyond the personal, where Barry’s do not. Yet within Barry Lyndon lay the seeds of a cancelled potential masterpiece. Instead, we had to make do with another.

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