“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in . . . but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.” — Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”
“Fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him, and that he should finish his life poor, lonely and childless.” – Narrator, “Barry Lyndon”
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is a big, beautiful tomb, a rhythmically hypnotic death march, an exquisite painting that traps a man within its brush strokes and never lets him go. It’s also startlingly moving and emotional; a film of sadness and humor and, at times, painful splendor. It’s not, as some critics have opined, a walk through a museum, a magnificent coffee table book, a cold exercise in art direction and mere Kubrickian geometry (though Kubrick’s design is essential to the story). Kubrick wrenched our hero (young to older Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon) from the pages of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 serialized novel, the ironically titled “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” and imprisoned him even more than Lyndon’s author-master Thackeray (and Lyndon’s own unreliable narrator – himself). Barry Lyndon lives in a movie now, and a Stanley Kubrick movie – an imperious place to inhabit. Lyndon’s new master wields a camera and as the Irish rogue attempts to escape his fate, he can’t. Like Jack Torrance haunting the halls of the Overlook, Lyndon’s never busting out of this life, not even in death. He’ll end up stuck in time, in a Kubrick freeze-frame, omniscient narrator asserting his future. He’s as fixed as Torrance is in that topiary maze. But unlike Torrance, Lyndon’s entrapment fills us with sadness. Barry Lyndon is a flawed hero; a potentially detestable fuck-up, but a fragile, bullying, duplicitous, charming and stupid man. In the end, he’s profoundly human.
At that time an All-American heartthrob; Ryan O’Neal played our sad-faced fuck-up Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon. An odd choice it seemed to many in Love Story-sick 1975 (Kubrick originally wanted Robert Redford), but O’Neal was/is perfect, which Kubrick swiftly learned while filming his pretty protagonist. There’s something about O’Neal’s face that’s just right – his blankness hides either a mysterious hurt or a void (or both); he’s soft-skinned and just a bit doughy, and though handsome, he’s not chiseled-handsome in that way tough leading men are when they, well, lead. He can’t properly bargain with a robbing highwayman and, yet, the man will let him keep his boots because, look at that poor, lovely face. His lips curl with an almost female sensuality but also a smirk. He’s perpetually boyish, making his aging feel all the more ragged and strange – the dark circles under his eyes against his supple skin seem extra pronounced, extra haunted (and surely given Kubrick’s demanding amount of takes, O’Neal was genuinely tired and aged by the time filming was completed).
Kubrick is expert at torturing our All-American movie stars – he did the same with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut in which Cruise played a somewhat similar character, one who is in over his head and moving through a world of wealth and Bohemian Grove-like hedonism that he can’t understand. Cruise is all lost-eyed and stupidly, humanly upset – wandering through places he doesn’t belong, trying to enjoy an adventure or solve a mystery or simply get laid (Barry Lyndon has more success in all of those areas but, still, never quite belongs). Like O’Neal, he’s both meaningful and hilarious without even knowing it himself (as character and probably as actor too). You feel Sydney Pollack stepping in as Lyndon narrator: “Bill, do you have any idea how much trouble you got yourself into last night just by going over there? Who do you think those people were? Those were not just some ordinary people. If I told you their names… no, I’m not going to tell you their names… but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well at night.”
Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon seems to sleep OK (though his eyes show otherwise) as he moves up the 18th century ranks from the ordinary, a young Irish man so trembling with love for his cousin, he can’t find the neck ribbon she alluringly hides in the top of her dress, buried in her bosom: “If you find it, you can have it. You are free to look anywhere for it. I will think little of you if you do not find it.” Jealous with her love of another, and with little means to support her, he shoots his rival in a duel (which turns out to be a set-up). He then moves on to fight in the Seven Years War, and then, in a series of circumstances, enters the Prussian Army. He becomes a gambler and an operator, realizing he’d better marry into wealth to secure any kind of future for himself, which leads him (romantically, yet with little soul – Kubrick manages to convey both) to the beautiful Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) and her son (Leon Vitali) who will come to loathe him and later avenge himself and his mother. That vengefulness will result in a duel, circling back to the death of his father in a duel (Barry Lyndon is searching for a father figure throughout the movie, only to become a father) and his own tricked duel over his cousin. It all encloses Barry towards tragedy – at this point he’s already lost his spoiled biological son (David Morley), he’s losing his unhappy marriage (understandably, he cheats, lies, spends), and is going flat broke due to his stupidity and social climbing. Barry Lyndon ruins everything — by his own doing, by his sensible need to survive (handled, without sense) and by fate. It all falls apart.
That it falls apart in these resplendent frames gorgeously lit (by John Alcott) with available light and candlelight (using special lenses -getting into the technical detail of this picture is another essay), moving unhurriedly with slow zooms, gives viewers the sensation of truly watching a painting come to life, its creations ominously trapped inside. The coldness some critics complained about and the knowing eventuality of their fate (as narrated) is the point. We understand it’s all going to hell for Barry Lyndon, but we are transfixed, wanting to know how, wanting to watch how. Kubrick’s perfected aesthetic inspired by 18th century paintings and music tuned to, among other composers, Handel, Schubert, Vivaldi, Bach and Verdi, creates a stunning, lyrical universe of relentless insensitivity and cynicism spiked by moments of sloppy violence (his brutal outburst to his stepson which makes society turn against him) and heartbreaking anguish (his biological son’s death, the death of his friend whom he kisses on the lips). Even as you know what will happen next, you’re held in suspense, worried and tense with both a pervasive dread and a dark sense of humor. Kubrick works a certain kind of magic, not through talk so much (which might be another reason some critics don’t appreciate it – not enough memorable dialogue – I think there is, but perhaps “If you find it, you can have it” didn’t quite catch on), but through his inspired, innovative understanding of everything cinematic. Everything. Barry Lyndon is a masterpiece.
As John Hofsess wrote (in 1976) of his reassessment of the film for The New York Times: “‘I have no head above my eyes,’ replied Thackeray to these criticisms – a line that Kubrick could borrow to advantage. A second viewing of the film did not alter my lack of resolution. Then one night about another week later, I played the soundtrack recording – Handel’s ‘Sarabande,’ Women of Ireland’ by The Chieftans, and so on, and suddenly experienced a strong surge of emotion… Kubrick’s films have a way – at least with some people – of working on in the mind, of passing through all the stages from irritation to exhilaration.”
Yes. Barry Lyndon moves along from scene to scene, building up inside of you with varied emotions — it soaks into your subconscious almost alarmingly so. It “gets” you when you least expect it. Suddenly, this good-for-nothing rogue moves you or, you’re just moved by the melancholy and inevitability of tragedy – what many of us feel when challenged by life or observing its punitive absurdity. It’s almost creepy that way – how Kubrick makes a movie that riddles you with reflection and, in some cases, overwhelms you with sadness.
Barry Lyndon lingers. It lingers so much that I will often think of Ryan O’Neal’s stupid tragic eyes, yearning to reach for that neck ribbon, an innocent who will enter a world of rot and become rot. And then I think of him drunk, collapsed in his chair, a broken man. There have been many neck ribbons by that point and so what? And what does it mean? You have to think about it, search within yourself while these beautiful images soak into your soul. And Kubrick knew this power. As Kubrick said, “The most important parts of a film are the mysterious parts – beyond the reach of reason and language.”