Barry Lyndon: A reappraisal of Stanley Kubrick’s 18th century odyssey

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Impeccably directed and elegantly staged, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is an exquisite period piece of such overwhelming sophistication, beauty and authenticity that I think the only other period film which comes quite close is Milos Foreman’s Amadeus. Like an 18th century painting in motion, the film is a superlative audio-visual experience that enthralls you with its lush imagery and pleasing background score which features heavenly symphonies penned by some of history’s finest. Before I go further, allow me to bring your attention to a specific scene from the film. It’s this scene that I show whenever I introduce this film to somebody who has never seen or heard about it before. I do that because I think it does a much better job of getting someone interested in this film rather than the trailer.

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This particular scene I am talking about is a seduction scene that appears just a little further of the 90-minute mark. Ryan O’Neal, who plays the eponymous character, is seated across Marisa Berenson at a gambling table, their faces bathed in the golden glow emanating from the candle lights. Occasionally she throws a glance at O’Neal who has his eyes sharply fixed on her. After a while, she excuses herself from the table and proceeds to the terrace. O’Neal follows her a moment later. He slowly approaches towards her and her sideways glance reveals to him everything he needs to know. He then reaches out to her hands and without any rush, grasps them before he kisses her. This sequence lasts for a total of 4 minutes and is set to Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2. It’s an exceedingly elegant scene, perhaps the best seduction scene I’ve come across and is a masterpiece of filmmaking. Now, the reason I show this scene to others is because it scene tells them everything they need to know about the quality of the overall film, provided they are interested in this sort of filmmaking.

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The film is based on an 18th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray and follows the life of a rogue named Redmond Barry, a man who is extremely confused about where he should really belong. At a very young age, he loses his father to a duel. His mother spends the rest of her life declining proposals from other suitors and instead devotes herself to looking after her only son. An unseen narrator describes Barry’s life to us and proceeds to tell us next of “the cause of all Barry’s early troubles” – his romantic liaison with his cousin Nora Bady, in his teenage years. When she dumps him for a high-ranking officer in the English army, Barry is supremely insulted and the resulting jealousy leads, inevitably, to a duel. This is first of the few duels that Barry was to take part in, and instantly reminds you of his father’s duel in the opening scene, which acts as a foreshadowing of the events to come.

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Several adventures and misadventures later, Barry ends up as a minor officer in the Prussian army. There he somehow manages to get into the good books of his superior officers and seeing as how he was trying hard to redeem himself, they ask him to spy on a man, a fraud called Chevalier du BaliBari, who happens to be an Irishman just like himself. Once he meets Chevalier, Barry goes back to his previous ways and offers him his loyalty and services. Barry, now in cahoots with Chevalier, sends back information that they both have fabricated together. It’s this new life that takes him to a Countess named Lady Honoria Lyndon (played by a divine looking Marisa Berenson, a former model) and we are now back at that seduction scene that I had mentioned earlier. They soon marry and it would’ve been a match made in heaven had it not been for the conniving ways of the man who is only marrying her for her fortune.

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I think this is why Kubrick chose to use Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 for that seduction scene because this is a tune that was romantic yet had a tinge of melancholy in it. I love a good romance as much as the next guy but seeing a man as Barry, and the trajectory his life has taken so far, we can sense that things are not going to go well for both of them if they end up marrying each other. As expected, the marriage turns out to be an unhappy one. Barry now becomes Barry Lyndon. Before long, a son is a born to them and as unlikely as it seems, he is very attached to his son. But he doesn’t display the same affection to Lady Lyndon’s first born son from a previous marriage. Barry’s luck changes for the worse and a series of disastrous events shatter him emotionally. Lady Lyndon too is affected by one of those events. Years pass by and Barry’s relationship with his step-son worsens and eventually he finds himself in a most unusual predicament – a duel provoked by his own step-son. This is the climactic duel in the film and is the most intense sequence in the entire film.

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As you would expect from a filmmaker of Kubrick’s caliber, Barry Lyndon is another one of the maverick director’s immaculately conceived masterpieces and served as another showcase for several innovative techniques which has by now become the director’s trademark. Kubrick was hell-bent on recreating the look of that era and wanted to avoid the use of artificial light as much as possible. Naturally this was an extremely challenging situation for both him and the crew. But Kubrick loved challenges and he came up with the idea of employing those massive Carl Zeiss lenses that were used by NASA for the Apollo moon landings. Some of his crew members must’ve thought that he was insane but I’m sure they finally changed their mind as soon as they saw the stunning results. The candle lit scenes are truly spectacular and after watching the film, I developed this obsession with photographing candles (this is apart from the obsession I have with photographing bulbs, which I got after seeing Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love).

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Kubrick also turned to the works of many eminent 18th century painters like William Hogarth, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Johann Zoffany, and George Stubbs for inspiration and as a result of this, we are treated to some truly breathtaking and stupendous imagery on-screen. The film won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Music and Best Art Direction. All well-deserved, in my opinion. I was surprised to learn that this is Kubrick’s most underrated and least seen film and I can see why. As they have done with Kubrick’s earlier films, especially 2001, critics were once again eager to deride the coldness of the film. I find these criticisms absurd. I mean, why does every film have to be the same way? I think it’s time for a reappraisal.

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Director Martin Scorsese is a huge fan of the film and this is what he had to say on it:

I’m not sure if I can say that I have a favourite Kubrick picture, but somehow I keep coming back to ‘Barry Lyndon’. I think that’s because it’s such a profoundly emotional experience. The emotion is conveyed through the movement of the camera, the slowness of the pace, the way the characters move in relation to their surroundings. People didn’t get it when it came out. Many still don’t. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you’re watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness – and it’s all a matter of simple, elemental survival. It’s a terrifying film because all the candlelit beauty is nothing but a veil over the worst cruelty. But it’s real cruelty, the kind you see every day in polite society.’ “ 

                                           
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4 comments

  1. This has always been Kubrick’s most underrated movie even back when it was released in 1975. And that’s because it’s a demanding film that you actually have to sit and WATCH and pay attention to. It’s not a movie made for today’s audiences who demand an explosion or a dick joke every two minutes. But it is an extremely rewarding movie for those with the patience to let it take you where it wants you to go. I’m always amazed by those who claim to be Kubrick fans but yet have never seen this one. But then again, most people’s Kubrick education begins and ends with “2001” and “The Shining” They watch just those two films and thinks that makes them a Kubrick expert.

    Liked by 1 person

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