"Barry Lyndon": An ironic Romanticism

The opening shot.

My sense is that Barry Lyndon (1975) continues to occupy a state of under-appreciation within the filmography of Stanley Kubrick—that it’s thought of as inferior not only to 2001 and Dr. Strangelove but also to A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket and so belongs somewhere in the bottom tier of Kubrick’s corpus, a film too lugubrious and not violent enough to hold the attention of his fanboys.  As a young fanboy gorging myself on Kubrick’s work in the late 1990s I myself had little patience with Barry Lyndon, which seemed to me to lack the madness and terror that made the other films so provocative and exciting.  (When I was a child, I thought as a child, etc.)  I’ve since come to appreciate Barry Lyndon as one of Kubrick’s very finest films.  It’s almost certainly his prettiest; nearly every shot could function by itself as a Romantic painting.  But I’ve also come to recognize that it’s every bit as gripping—and as loony—as anything else he ever made.  Barry Lyndon looks like a prestige picture, but its tone, pacing, and rhythm strike me as downright experimental.  (It’s a bait-and-switch move that Paul Thomas Anderson would later repeat in There Will Be Blood.)  A viewer expecting a traditional costume drama in the Merchant-Ivory vein is certain to be disappointed with Barry Lyndon, which, for all its superficial differences, is much closer to The Shining than Tom Jones

Barry Lyndon’s value for me increased immensely once I came to accept its leaden pace—or, rather, once I came to see that its leadenness is key to the tone of the film.  In Barry Lyndon, slowness is exaggerated and elevated to a state of apotheosis.  The spaces between, and even within, lines of dialogue hang pregnant in the air.  Handel’s “Sarabande” is repeated on the soundtrack almost maniacally (it underscores some twenty-eight of the final forty-four minutes).  Kubrick treats his actors like models, using them to stage tableaux rather than letting them move freely through space.  Physical actions are treated with a matter-of-factness that is almost Bressonian.  When the actors are static (which is much of the time) they resemble painted figures; when they’re in motion, they resemble figures in a period engraving or a woodcut, stiff and flattened. 

Painted figures.

The film’s somnambulant action and deadpan tone (much of the latter conveyed by Michael Hordern’s exquisite narration) are taken to such extremes in the final act of the film that it creates an almost unbearable tension.  You think: can Kubrick sustain this?  And can I, as a viewer, withstand it?  It helps, I suppose, that we’re provided with a satisfying turn of the plot in Barry’s climactic duel with Lord Bullingdon.  In the action of a single moment, and for the first time in his life, Barry forsakes his luck and humbles himself before his adversary.  It is a kind of penance.  But nothing on a plot level can really explain why the film’s very final sequence is so curiously moving.  When I watch Lady Lyndon become wistful in the act of signing her name to what is essentially an alimony payment, I don’t know that I’m responding emotionally to her as a character, nor to her situation, exactly.  I think I’m responding to Kubrick’s artistry—his attempt to channel the same cruel, glittering, wry precision represented by the Schubert piano trio that underscores that scene.  To watch Barry Lyndon, and to really enjoy it, one must aim to regard its world not with the Romantic sensibility of the 18th century but through the modernity of Kubrick’s pitiless, ironic lens.

The final shot.

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