Kubrick #9 – Barry Lyndon (1975)

“He who laughs last, laughs longest.” – Redmond Barry

The Film: The saga of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), born poor and with delusions of nobility, begins with a botched duel over a woman and an escape to avoid prosecution. From there, Barry spends the following years flitting about Europe and getting involved in matters well above his competency. He deserts two wars, spies for the enemy, and eventually marries into wealth after wooing Lady Lyndon, the wife of a dead man he fleeced at cards. His rise is followed by the inevitable fall as Barry wastes his wife’s fortune on women, status symbols, and the chance at a permanent title.

And that title is Hunk of the Month.

None of this sits well with Barry’s stepson, Lord Bullingdon, who waits for Barry to hit his lowest point before striking. Bullingdon defeats Barry in a duel and forces Barry’s exile, where he lives out his days in poverty, sustained by a small annual allowance from his wife, who allows herself only a small moment of pause each year before signing.

The Production: If there is one unmade Kubrick project that matters, one lost film (not eventually finished by Steven Spielberg) that Kubrick nuts spend restless nights dreaming about, it’s Napoleon. Kubrick spent the early 1970s painstakingly cataloging the life of the French dictator and collecting thousands of photos and historical notes in a quest so frikkin’ epic that a book simply about the search sells for more than a used car.

I can make people stand around and stare at each other for a mere fraction of that price.

The collapse of Napoleon isn’t a mystery. The same thing happened to that film as happens to so many. The money disappeared, a competing film ramped up, and Kubrick gave up, finding himself the sudden owner of enough wasted research to fill Scrooge McDuck’s vault. Legend states that Kubrick read dozens of novels set in the same time period until he came across William Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon. This legend is kinder than my preferred theory, where Kubrick snatches a random novel from the history section and flings it at his producer while screaming “Fine! This one!

The beauty mark-to-female ratio is way out of whack at this party.

Everyone knows the story about Kubrick using a rare NASA-owned lens to film the movie using only natural light, but this is a bit of movie legend. There are scenes lit naturally with candlelight, and a NASA lens made this possible, but the vast majority of the film was shot with old-fashioned studio lighting, arranged to mimic the real stuff.

Best Moment: Barry Lyndon is not a passionate movie, which is a little bit like saying that Betty White sort of knows her way around a joke. One of Kubrick’s fascinations, summed up in this brilliant article by Matt Cale, is that rituals are the death of emotion; by assigning a pattern to an action, we can detach ourselves emotionally from it. Well, the people that inhabit Barry Lyndon are drowning in the familiar. There is hardly an action, even war, that the nobility cannot make rote and routine with just a small bit of pomp and a stiff upper lip. Lady Lyndon ignores painful memories by signing checks. A highwayman politely explains the procedure to his victim. Even courtly romance is no more than an applied bit of flattery and a well-timed gift. Love would be so gauche.

This climactic scene is the movie’s best and exposes its comedy agenda.

Lord Bullingdon has challenged Barry Lyndon to a duel to reclaim the family’s honor and the result is a laughable, methodical charade of what is, essentially, a final gunfight. By this point, Barry has lost everything, including his will to fight back, but custom insists. It’s an ironic companion piece to the hot-headed duel that began Barry’s adventure in the first place. After all his climbing and struggling, Barry just wants it over with.

Lasting Impact: One of the few hints of legitimacy in Ryan O’Neal’s brief career as a movie star. Beyond that, Barry Lyndon seemed destined for obscurity following its lukewarm release, but home video and sustained interest in Kubrick’s work have slowly raised the film’s reputation. It’s still one of Kubrick’s lesser seen works, but it has just as many rabid fans as it has critics. Plus, the bit of myth about the natural lighting has done wonders for Kubrick’s legend as an exacting visionary madman.

Overall: I’ve been around the block with this movie since I first found it while devouring Kubrick discs in the wake of a life-changing 70mm screening of 2001. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t get it. Lyndon is a movie mostly about inaction. The main character, by design, is a worthless puffball played (again, I’m convinced, by design) by an actor with an empty bucket where his charisma should be. Barry Lyndon makes meaningful events seem as if they aren’t; lives are altered and wrecked over tumultuous decades, but it’s all so plain and flat that I crawled the walls until the film ended.

And yet, months later, I went back for more. This time, my girlfriend walked into the room about halfway through, saw Barry Lyndon on my TV, and nearly walked out again. Such is its power to bore. Now, after four viewings and counting, I believe I get Barry Lyndon, but I’m still not sure I like it very much.

Here, in the action highlight of the film, she’s just about to look up.

The film is as much about Barry’s society as it is about Barry himself. The film portrays a group of people so stuck up their own back ends that they allow a useless cad to bluff and marry his way into their club just because he knows how. Play the game well enough, my son, and you can join the league. There is no mistaking Kubrick’s contempt for Barry, his supporting cast, or for the nobility at large. We’re meant to laugh and howl at these fools just as Kubrick did. It’s a film with no protagonist, like 2001 and Strangelove before it.

Or possibly, that moustache is the protagonist.

In those films, however, at least there’s something to root for. It can be argued that the bomb is the hero of Strangelove; humanity’s will to survive might be the hero of 2001. But what is there to root for in Lyndon? I can think of nothing, absolutely nothing, except for Barry’s much-deserved demise, which the film’s narrator assures us will come. In the meantime, we’re invited to look at this fool on the pedestal and help throw rocks at him until he falls. Feel-good cinema, it ain’t.

The images are why you watch. Kubrick and director of photography John Alcott produce career best work here and Alcott received an Oscar for his trouble and for his work with the innovative lens. The movie is nothing but gorgeous, and the spread of HD TVs make a compelling argument to watch. But with an agenda as poisonous as Barry Lyndon‘s, not many would want to. And, while I appreciate the film on its own merits, I can hardly blame them.

The Stanley Kubrick Project

8. ???

9. Barry Lyndon

10. Lolita

11. The Killing

12. Killer’s Kiss

13. Fear and Desire

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