Barry Lyndon | Review by Michael Dempsey

Barry Lyndon is utterly the opposite of the loose, improvised movies which are so popular with many critics these days. Every detail of it is calculated; the film is as formal as a minuet.
Barry Lyndon

by Michael Dempsey

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” says the narrator of The Go-Between. The narrator of Barry Lyndon does not, but the film does. During its opening moments, it is hard to guess what Stanley Kubrick has in mind. In an Irish meadow, subtly photographed to bring out its full palette of storm-shadowed greens and browns, duelling pistols pop flatly and Redmond Barry’s father dies, while the voice on the sound track dryly recites his cut-off prospects. Then, Redmond’s mother, clad in a white peasant dress with a light halation around it solemnly steps across her rural yard and faces a vista of hills which seem to roll into infinity. At first, these two shots seem to promise a waxworks exhibit. Then the camera slowly zooms away from an ornament to reveal two cardplayers, 15-year-old Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) and his cousin Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton). The flirting which follows is conventional enough: girl hides ribbon in her bodice, boy becomes too embarrassed to grope for it, girl finally helps him condescendingly. But Kubrick has paced and scored the scene like a ritual, to give it a gauzy, dreamy tone, as though it were being remembered decades later by a romantic mind struggling to review the past objectively.

The entire movie is suffused with this mood of mingled rapture and detachment, as it seeks to transport us to another era. The foreignness of the past is portrayed in The Go-Between through a boy’s discovery of a sexual deviousness which, minor as it may appear from our twentieth-century perspective, has the power to blight his life. Similarly, Redmond Barry’s extreme shyness with Nora looks downright bizarre from today’s vantage point. To make us understand the things done differently there, each film uses a highly studied style. Set nearer to the present, The Go-Between can flash forward every now and then to its hero’s old age in the twentieth century, as he ponders the source of his life’s ruination. Set in the eighteenth century, Barry Lyndon must rely on the stately pace, the painterly framing, the detached tone, the unpsychoanalyzed characters, and the lack of dramatization which have made so many dislike it. But all these criticisms are beside the point. Barry Lyndon is not a drama or a character study or even a satire on the abundant human corruption which it portrays. It is, like Ozu’s films though in a different way, a meditation on the transience of life.

Thackeray’s novel had something else in mind: debunking the kind of lovable rogue which books like Tom Jones had popularized during the decades preceding its first publication in 1844. The storyline is simple. Tricked into leaving home so that Nora can marry money, Redmond Barry becomes both a British and a Prussian soldier during the Seven Years War, advances first to Prussian spy and then to itinerant society gambler under the training of his Chevalier uncle, marries the plushly wealthy Countess of Lyndon, takes control of her fortune, clashes with his stepson, and finally loses everything, landing in the debtor’s prison from which he narrates all but the last two pages of the book. His story is an episodic chronicle of seductions, duels, card-sharping, battles, marriages, births, deaths, parliamentary campaigns, and every kind of Machiavellian scheming. Though gracefully written, it rambles too much and gets a bit too preachy underneath its flinty cynicism about the social climber’s rise and fall. The Red and the Black and Thackeray’s own Vanity Fair put it in the shade, and Kubrick has not bothered to be faithful to it. His ribbon scene compresses pages of the author’s sexual intrigue; acres of subplots (including adventures among thieves in Dublin, an elaborate scheme to marry a well-heeled German princess, Barry’s family ties to the Chevalier, and two Parliamentary elections) have been dropped; a few others (principally Barry’s duel with his stepson) have been added.

One of the most obvious changes is the narration, which, in the book, Barry himself delivers in a preening, bragging style that undercuts his flattering self-portrait. But Thackeray is not Henry James; we don’t have to read far past the opening line, “Since the days of Adam there has hardly been a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it,” to get the point. The film substitutes a nameless commentator (Michael Hordern) akin to those of Magnificent Ambersons, Jules and Jim, and Thackeray’s closing pages. He takes care of certain routine narrative requirements. When Lady Lyndon first appears, he reels off her lineage while the images display her walking abstractedly in a Marienbad-like setting and envelop her with an aura of sadness. But, unlike the usual third-person narrator, this one is not the Voice of God; what he says often does not correspond to what the images show. For instance, his remarks about the Countess, like Barry’s in the novel, generally have a jeering edge to them, which the beauty of the images completely contradicts. At other times, when he debunks the myth of the chivalric age over shots of troops burning and looting, the narration doubles what we see much as Bresson’s narrations do. Minus his relentless self-justification, Barry becomes a less corrupt figure in the film; we view him and his world in a more cosmic, detached perspective. The narration ritualizes every action in the movie, embodying the way that ritual traps the characters.

Barry Lyndon is utterly the opposite of the loose, improvised movies which are so popular with many critics these days. Every detail of it is calculated; the film is as formal as a minuet. The most noticed feature of its shooting style has certainly been the reverse zoom from close-up or medium shot to extreme long shot. Obviously, this device contrasts the majestic, indifferent beauty of nature with the scurrying, greedy people who imagine themselves to be its center. But, since the movie mutes the viciousness which Thackeray analyzed and may have partly relished, this is only a secondary purpose. These zooms place humanity and its activities in a timeless perspective, highlighting their evanescence. Often, the zoom will begin with a turbulent close-up, such as duelling pistols being loaded against a background of rushing lakewater. As the focus glides into long shot, the turbulence fades. We feel it vanishing into the texture of the long shot. The photography by John Alcott is literally painting with light. The images have extraordinary depth and clarity; the colors can move us as directly as the score’s classical and Irish themes. They face us not just in the homes and castles and parklands of Barry Lyndon’s world but in that world itself, in its moral and intellectual ambience. It is as though the film had been shot on location in the eighteenth century.

The world of Barry Lyndon is a world of ceremonies: duels, formal dinners, musicales, marching, battles, card games, awards, day-to-day arrivals and departures, introductions and farewells. Like the king and his courtiers in The Rise of Louis XIV, the characters of Barry Lyndon seem to be living every moment of their lives by an elaborate code of ritual, which governs even the way they stand or walk. Choosing a world in which this complex of life-restricting ceremonies is easier to see than it is in our world, Kubrick makes ceremony a motif which expresses the restrictions life places on our aspirations. At the same time, he has taken incredible pains to make these ceremonies as detailed and as lovely as possible; they and the natural world around them tantalize us with suggestions of infinite possibilities lying just out of reach. Though blighted, vulgar, and even ridiculous, Barry’s dream of becoming a rich gentleman possesses a measure of this blocked yearning for a state of perfect bliss. The film comments on the death of these dreams even as they are born. The ribbon episode is an elegy for its own reverie of eternal love. Soon afterwards, the camera catches Barry in pensive close-up as he stares at Nora. A few harp notes lyricize his disappointment, in a way reminiscent of the oboe music which, in Pather Panchali, replaces a mother’s scream of grief at the death of her daughter. Other than certain Bresson and Ozu films, the best precedent for the moods and techniques of Barry Lyndon is probably Far from the Madding Crowd, in which, as James Price put it, Terence Stamp, “all flashing eyes and floating hair,” tried “to convey a past of honey-dew and milk of Paradise.” Ryan O’Neal has clearly been cast because his face, both bland and ethereal, can suggest the same thing. Kubrick has made his blond, faintly narcissistic healthiness as opaque and remote as we will be if some similarly disposed film-maker centuries hence creates a Barry Lyndon about our lost universe.

A particularly revealing departure from the novel comes during Barry’s encounter with Lischen, a young German farm woman whom he meets while deserting from the British Army. Barry’s comment in the book reads this way:

For, if the truth must be told, I had made a very deep love to her during my stay under her roof; as is always my way with women, of whatever age or degree of beauty. To a man who has to make his way in the world, these dear girls can always be useful in one fashion or another; never mind, if they repel your passion; at any rate, they are not offended with your declaration of it, and only look upon you with more favorable eyes in consequence of your misfortune. As for Lischen, I told her such a pathetic story of my life (a tale a great deal more romantic than that here narrated—for I do not restrict myself to the exact truth in that history, as in these pages I am bound to do), that I won the poor girl’s heart entirely, and, besides, made considerable progress in the German language under her instruction. Do not think me very cruel and heartless, ladies; this heart of Lischen’s was like many a town in the neighborhood in which she dwelt, and had been stormed and occupied several times before I came to invest it; now mounting French colors, now green and yellow Saxon, now black and white Prussian, as the case may be. A lady who sets her heart upon a lad in uniform must prepare to change lovers pretty quickly, or her life will be but a sad one.

Barry’s crisp cynicism here, with its patronizing banter and nonchalant puns, ought to be just right for a director as misanthropic, not to mention misogynistic, as Kubrick is supposed to be. But he has transformed this episode into a soft, tender “time out of war” comparable to the concluding sequence of Grand Illusion, in which a sympathetic country woman shelters escaping prisoners of war.

Once again, Kubrick compresses and simplifies the novel, dropping extraneous characters and dividing the sequence into four scenes: Barry and Lischen meeting on a pastoral path, a candlelit meal during which she invites him to stay with her, Barry driving a cow toward her farmhouse at dusk, and their leavetaking. Kubrick allows the first two to run for several minutes apiece, leisurely developing the growing response of Barry and Lischen to each other. In contrast to the jaundiced description which the book provides, Lischen in the movie (Diana Koerner) has a delicate, inviting face, and the candles which light their dinner heighten the intimacy which flowers between them. The photography and the slow pacing turn the scene into an island of romantic enchantment. We sense that Barry is investing Lischen with the memory of his love for Nora, as we never do in the novel. The editing holds onto the scene just as Barry would do if only that were possible. But the joyful, privileged moment cannot last and, after keeping it on the screen for as long as he could, Kubrick then reduces the remainder of their idyll to three comparatively brief shots. The first, Barry entering the serene peasant landscape at twilight, suggests a potential state of grace; the next two show him rejecting it, as he kisses and leaves Lischen to resume his climb up the social ladder. The gentle pastels of their goodbye makes them both touchingly beautiful, as the photography does for almost all the characters no matter how squalidly they are behaving. Over these images, the narrator utters the two italicized sentences from the novel, in reverse order, just to twist the knife. For many viewers, this touch probably undercuts the images. But the images are so dazzling that they make the words sound lying or irrelevant; we believe the camera instead of the narrator. This kind of transformation gives the film a grandeur and a poignance rarely present in the book.

Barry Lyndon contemplates death—the death of dreams, emotions, people, life itself, all swirling away in the eddies of time, like Barry’s interlude of love with Lischen. Kubrick’s style is based on the ability of film to capture both life and death—at one and the same instant. As Jean-Luc Godard has commented:

Cinema is the only art which, in Cocteau’s phrase, “films death at work.” The person one films is growing older moment by moment and will die. One thus films a moment of death at work. Paintings are static. Cinema is interesting because it captures both life and the mortal aspect of life.

Film not only records death: it also embodies our movement toward it. The images come to life when the arc light first hits the screen, remain alive throughout their projection, die when the last of them fades out, retaining only the dim afterglow that they leave in our fading memories. Kubrick stresses the deaths of his characters much more than Thackeray did: the phony demise of Nora’s cowardly fiancé during a trumped-up duel with Barry; the cold and distant passing of Barry’s father; his mentor and friend, Captain Grogan, bleeding to death from battle wounds as Barry kisses him on the lips; the shattering final moments of Barry’s son, Bryan. In most cases, these deaths come as no surprise to us. Either the narrator has already told us about them, or they are so obvious an outcome of the characters’ activities that—except in the duels—there is never any suspense involved. The most wintry example is Barry’s first taste of combat as a British infantryman marching with his comrades straight into the enemy gunfire which is brutally shredding their ranks. The film shows an entire world living and dying in ceremonial lockstep. By telling us in advance when characters are about to die, the narrator obliges us to contemplate what lies in store for us as well.

Such a portrayal of life would be unbearably grim if Kubrick had not, in counterpoint, made such magnificent images out of it. Throughout the film, he avoids a number of key story points—the “bad company” Barry is accused of falling in with by his Prussian commander, for instance, or how he becomes an expert swordsman—preferring to linger over moments which have less, often no, narrative significance: Barry chopping wood in the evening; the Prussian Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger) slyly toying with him by palavering about “your country of England” and then lowering the boom by demanding, “Will you join and take the bounty, sir, or will you be given up?”: a powdered, rouged German prince with concave cheeks and a death’s head slowly accusing the Chevalier of cheating at cards. Each of these scenes, and many others also, could, from the point-of-view of a storyteller or a dramatist, be trimmed or cut, just as so many of Thackeray’s high points have been. Instead, Kubrick lavishes attention on them, making them visually bewitching. Or he will take an essential episode, such as Barry’s entrapment of the Countess, and replace Thackeray’s pages of detailed parry-and-thrust with one blue tracking shot of the two walking on a balcony until she yields to his kiss. Kubrick sacrifices drama, psychology, and narrative wherever possible for visual power because he wants to stress the transience of the very images and moments which he works so hard to create. His style deliberately gives the film’s visual beauty an ominous, oppressive undertone. It is as though the images were trying to escape the flow of time by turning into paintings.

We get a feeling of escape from this awareness of death during certain violent moments—Barry outboxing another dragoon, rescuing Potzdorf from a burning building, strangling his stepson during a music party—when raw energy is bursting through the film’s formal restraints and Kubrick switches to a handheld camera in order to plunge us into it. These outbursts are like those intense moments in life when we feel its pulse most vividly and soar into ecstasy. Along with the romantic interludes and Barry’s affectionate scenes with Bryan, they are the only moments in the movie when we lose consciousness of time’s passage. Each is brief; we are inexorably pulled back into formalism and ritual, into awareness of mortality. The two feelings blend powerfully at the end of Part One, when Barry confronts Lady Lyndon’s aged, raddled husband, Sir Charles. Raging in a hell-red drawing room, the bitter old man rasps out his defiance of the contemptuous upstart, snarling maniacally as a stroke begins to cut him down. The narrator dispassionately reads his obituary before he dies—until a tolling musical cue and a fade-out silence them both. It was a bold choice for Kubrick to have made (Thackeray has Sir Charles linger for a year) and the result is uniquely terrifying.

A more quietly chilling moment comes a few reels earlier during Barry’s baptism of fire when, over impeccably composed shots of British and French troops preparing for battle, the narrator remarks that the coming skirmish, though memorable enough to its participants, was not recorded in any history books. We cannot help thinking of the totalitarian state of 1984, which erases people by erasing their pasts; as we watch the toppling soldiers, all but Grogan anonymous to us, we are struck through with the sensation that, more than merely dying, they have never really lived. The richly detailed images of this and other scenes have been called more suitable for a museum wall than a movie screen, a comment which misses the point perfectly because it forgets that “paintings are static.” Moving images exist in time; they die. The central irony of Barry Lyndon is that all its awesome detailing of eighteenth-century life creates not the realism of a historian but the mirage of a dreamer; the film conjures up the past only to waft it away, as though it had never existed except in fantasy. Even the candlelight scenes, shot with special lenses so that they would look exactly as they did in the eighteenth century, exist to make us realize that no one alive today has ever before seen them, because their world has vanished. They are the brief candles of life itself.

Bryan’s deathbed scene brings this theme to an overpowering climax. Kubrick confounds his detractors, who belabor him for coldness, and many admirers, who try to make a virtue of this charge, by prolonging the boy’s final moments of life, as though stylizing a favorite episode out of Dickens. Wrapped in gauze, Bryan is already a mummy, reminiscent of the frozen astronauts in 2001, as he feels his limbs going numb. Barry is helpless to cope with this vision of destroyed hope; all he can do is blurt out a desperate description of his glory days on the battlefield when Bryan asks him for a story. As Bryan grasps the hands of his parents and makes them promise to stop fighting so that they will be able to rejoin him in heaven, the film becomes incandescent with the beauty of his naive wish. Yet, at the same moment, our minds hurtle back to the dying Grogan saying to Barry, “Kiss me, for we’ll never meet again.” The film is a funeral ode to the charms of existence.

Unlike Thackeray, Kubrick allows Barry to comprehend this, if only for a moment. In the novel, he remains an egomaniac to the end, never concerned about the havoc he has caused throughout his travesty of a life. Switching to the third person, Thackeray laconically reports that Barry’s stepson, Lord Bullingdon, reappears and thrashes him. Kubrick has replotted the story; now Bullingdon demands satisfaction, and the two meet for a duel. Like so much of the movie, this sequence is an elaborate ceremony, decorous on the surface, murderous just beneath it; the dry-as-dust rhetoric of the duel’s referee—“Are you ready to receive Lord Bullingdon’s fire?”—and his steadfast attention to the rules are profoundly horrifying. Kubrick builds it methodically, riveting us to the spectacle for what seems like a near-eternity. But Bullingdon, unable to hide his fear of death, trembles and vomits, botching the rituals like a terrified altar boy. Barry, on the other hand, drifts through the ceremony in a virtual trance. When Bullingdon’s terror makes him miss a shot, Barry has the opportunity to destroy his most relentless enemy and salvage his status. Yet, haunted by the memory of his own dead child, he fires into the ground and allows Bullingdon the second shot which annihilates the remnants of everything he has striven for in life. Barry’s love for Bryan, though corrupted by selfishness and egotism, had been his one surviving shred of human decency: now it ruins him, yet briefly ennobles him in the same stroke.

Kubrick makes neither a triumph nor a tragedy of this, as he lets the film fade away throm a series of intentional anticlimaxes. But Barry’s moment of transcendence is a genuine affirmation, and so is the passionate dedication to film-making which Kubrick has poured into this magnificent work. Neither may be the traditional religious or liberal-humanist sorts of affirmation, but they are truthful and comforting nonetheless. There are a handful of flaws: a miscalculation in eliminating Barry’s personal relationship to the Chevalier, perhaps a bit too much reliance on the planes of Marisa Berenson’s gaunt face and the pools of her melancholy eyes to suggest Lady Lyndon’s psychological entrapment. But I mention them no more than dutifully; they don’t matter. Barry Lyndon may be a death song; but it is a song, and an eloquent one. I am grateful for its existence.

Film Quarterly, Vol. 30 No. 1, Autumn, 1976 (pp. 49-54)

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