Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

A Departure from Futuristic Themes

Renowned for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove, loyal fans perceive Stanley Kubrick as a visionary of the future. His knack for depicting futuristic insights in his films underwent a four-year hiatus with Barry Lyndon, released in 1975. This departure marked a deviation from his customary futuristic themes. While taking place in the 18th century, the film maintains characteristics reminiscent of science fiction even though it was created earlier. Barry Lyndon, derived from the book authored by William Makepeace Thackeray, depicts characters with questionable moral values. The protagonist aspires to become a true gentleman. In Kubrick’s rendition, the material transforms into a third-person narrative detached from historical opulence while challenging the audience’s connection with the amoral protagonist, Redmond Barry.

Illuminating the Visual Narrative

Within the film Barry Lyndon, candles assume a pivotal role. Frequently, they serve as the sole source of light within scenes. This remarkable visual accomplishment necessitated the use of a particular lens from NASA. Moreover, Kubrick’s meticulous control over every frame becomes apparent through his meticulous attention to detail. Amidst grandiose settings, the film engenders an intimate atmosphere. Initially planning an epic centered around Napoleon, Kubrick shifted towards the lesser-known novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon due to funding setbacks. Despite being less grand in scale, the novel’s narrative echoes the tale of Napoleon. The adaptation’s choices remain enigmatic when comparing the film and the book.

Beyond its emotional detachment, Barry Lyndon possesses a characteristic synonymous with many of Kubrick’s works. Despite the lavish decor and sumptuous visuals, the film challenges viewers to transcend societal class and appearances. It prompts them to engage with characters on a human level. Through its meticulous historical details, Kubrick deviates from conventional storytelling, questioning the essence of the narrative itself. In the remastered release by the Criterion Collection, which highlights candles, the challenges of illuminating scenes become apparent due to smoke production and rapid candle burning on set. Amidst minimal lighting, the struggle to encapsulate the scenery is evident in the behind-the-scenes feature.

A Comprehensive Narrative Journey

Loyally, Kubrick’s adaptation preserves a comprehensive narrative of an Irish youth’s journey from humble beginnings to assuming various roles as a gambler, soldier, fugitive, and lover. Ultimately, he marries a wealthy noblewoman only to lose everything. Ken Adam, the production designer of Barry Lyndon, noted that the novel served as a foundation for the film’s coherence. Nevertheless, Kubrick significantly modified the material. In a relaxed manner, he extends the film’s duration to three hours while maintaining the significance of each moment. The film underscores the repercussions of unchecked ambition and its impact on Barry’s life, culminating in financial ruin and estrangement. As he embarks on a new chapter, the narrator suggests that Barry’s later years are veiled in uncertainty. His futile pursuit of gambling persists.

Apart from being deserving of enjoyment on the big screen, Barry Lyndon is often revived in cinemas. Occasionally, it is accompanied by a live orchestra playing its impactful classical music. However, the Criterion release also effectively captures the cinematic impact of the film at home. In every shot, it allows the audience to appreciate intricate details. Unlike typical period works that aim for historical authenticity, Barry Lyndon makes the past feel like another world. Thackeray’s novel presents the life of a rogue with rough comedy. An unreliable raconteur narrates it. Frequently, the protagonist’s actions reveal a cruel and drunken card harp. In addition to turning him into a virtual captive, his marriage to Lady Lyndon is achieved through subsequent abuse and coercion.

MGM’s Cancellation of the Napoleon Project

Initially, MGM canceled the Napoleon project due to the failure of a similar film titled Waterloo. Kubrick saw parallels between his meticulous approach and Napoleon’s organizational mindset. Despite this setback, he created A Clockwork Orange, featuring Beethoven’s music and influence on Napoleon. The film garnered criticism for its violence, leading to Kubrick’s withdrawal from the public eye. Later, he chose to adapt Thackeray’s novel for his next project, allowing him to explore European settings and military themes he contemplated.

Over 300 days, Kubrick filmed Barry Lyndon in various locations, including Germany, England, and Ireland. The technical choices in the film resemble those in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though not overtly apparent, cinematographer John Alcott’s natural lighting creates stunning visual effects reminiscent of 18th-century paintings. The production designer researched period authenticity, and costumes followed the era’s style. Leonard Rosenman’s orchestral composition accompanies the film, featuring works by George Frideric Handel, Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. With seemingly insignificant characters, the contrast of production extravagance underscores their place in history. Based on Thackeray’s novel, the film follows Barry’s rise, success, and eventual downfall in 18th-century society. It portrays him as a complex character with both negative and positive traits.

Intricate Catalog Form and Layering

With careful layering and framing, including landscape views, narration, and chapter titles, the catalog form within Barry Lyndon is intricate. The film’s opening shot sets the tone, featuring a tableau with a tree branch in the foreground, duelists in the background, and mountains. Michael Hordern’s intermittent narration adds depth, functioning as a knowledgeable historian. The reason for the opening duel is revealed as a disagreement over a horse purchase, highlighting the film’s ironic tone. Furthermore, Kubrick employs deep framing and historical details akin to paintings. He presents characters as museum exhibits. Often, the camera pulls back to reveal historical details. Close-ups are rare, emphasizing attention to detail and historical grandeur. The film aims to captivate through history. However, Kubrick also challenges sophisticated viewers beyond objective historical appreciation.

Barry represents a typical picaresque hero who ascends from low status to aristocracy. However, his primary function lies in enabling the audience to observe the moral decay of the elite. Intentionally, Kubrick creates distance from Barry by utilizing landscape shots and expansive grand houses that diminish his presence. Apart from distancing the audience from him, the film’s narration and visuals unfold rapidly. With a narrator’s voice describing events and characters before they occur, the narrator provides a sense of ease in understanding. This comfort must be more accurate despite guiding viewers through a complete story. Similarly, even though the film’s captivating visuals are mesmerizing, predictions of impending disasters do not reduce their impact, which persists throughout the three-hour runtime.

Creative Freedom in Historical Details

In adapting a lesser-known novel, Kubrick had greater creative freedom with historical details than his more controversial adaptations. Unlike his alterations in A Clockwork Orange and Lolita, Kubrick’s changes to Barry Lyndon mostly went unnoticed, garnering criticism from passionate readers. Instead of adhering to Thackeray’s first-person perspective aligned with the protagonist’s desires, Kubrick shifts the narrative to that of an impartial observer. By distancing the audience from manipulation, the film unfolds through the smooth evolution of Barry’s life. Unburdened by suspense as the narrator precedes them, the narrator transforms the audience into spectators rather than participants. Despite intriguing modern viewers, the anachronistic setting adds to the film’s enchanting nature.

Barry Lyndon features a diverse soundtrack in which the music follows its purpose. At times, it contrasts with or complements the visuals. In addition to narration and music, harmonies, colors, and parallel scenes reflect unrealized possibilities. Seemingly, the knowledgeable narrator offers historical commentary and insights. However, his judgments often diverge from what is seen. He holds a subjective stance, passing judgment and displaying disdain for Barry. His perspective influences our viewpoint.

Neutral Imagery and Discrepancies

Nonetheless, the film’s imagery remains neutral. In cases like Barry’s romance, the narrator’s understanding differs from what is shown. It unveils his speculations, and phrases like “seem to” highlight hearsay and assumptions. It unveils his assumptions, and the narrator represents Kubrick’s subtle challenge to observers. Hence, it expects a more discerning film audience.

When Kubrick opted to create Barry Lyndon, there appeared to be a departure from his futuristic works like 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, the unsettling nature of the 18th-century upper-class society depicted in the film aligns with the disconcerting aspects of his earlier films. The beauty of the landscapes evokes the paintings of artists and the visual grandeur without obscuring true contentment, benevolence, or the absence of happiness. Nevertheless, moments of delight exist, such as the thrilling scene where Barry departs after dueling. Kubrick does not merely capture the characters’ actions but also their perceptions of those actions.

Living Reality and Sense of Distance

Kubrick’s characteristic emotional detachment results in the selection of actors chosen more for their appearances than their acting range. A former model, Marisa Berenson, displays a distant demeanor with occasional bursts of emotion in her limited screen presence. Significant scenes depict Barry’s pride as he blows smoke from his pipe onto Lady Lyndon’s face, met with her enduring acceptance. Kubrick portrays Barry as the most expressive character in contrast to the reserved society. Like HAL-9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick evokes sympathy for a character struggling to survive. Despite the label of opportunism, Kubrick urges viewers to observe without prejudice. As seen in the epilogue, Barry, as an outsider, traverses social circles and military ranks, becoming a gambler and eventually marrying a noblewoman. Through Kubrick’s still shots and innovative use of candlelit scenes, viewers are immersed in an unfamiliar setting that captivates them with its uniqueness.

Paradoxically, Barry Lyndon brings the audience closer to living reality while simultaneously creating a sense of distance. Deliberately, Kubrick’s attention to detail depicts material elements and recreates a genuine past and historical rituals, contrasting with earlier historical films. As reality becomes more vivid, these characters appear remote and ephemeral. Kubrick’s gradual zoom-out from close-ups to landscapes amplifies this duality, conveying a telescopic journey through time and space. Despite his fame, Ryan O’Neal departs from the typical Hollywood role. O’Neal’s intentional passivity and expressive eyes prompt viewers to interpret his emotions. Rather than prioritizing appearances over demanding conventional acting, Kubrick employs other cast members. Overall, O’Neal’s role blends into Kubrick’s mise-en-scène, often functioning as an insignificant or unremarkable part of his environment.

When Kubrick trims certain moments from the ongoing narrative, Barry Lyndon employs a unique approach. It captures scenes resembling surveillance footage. These moments hold significance, whether it is Prussian recruits undergoing punishment, a magician performing tricks at an opulent event, the mechanized greeting of the English king to guests, or Barry, seemingly awakening from sleep after a night of revelry. Another pivotal scene involves Barry’s cousin and first love, Nora, concealing a ribbon in her corset. His trembling hand searches for it, and Barry’s response contradicts the opportunistic label. Despite his intentions, Barry seldom breaks his passive pattern and defies the narrator’s perspective. Barry’s displays of emotion often yield unfavorable consequences due to social norms that value composure over emotion. Thus, this recurring motif imbues the film with a tragic undertone.

The Protagonist’s Unordinary Journey

Fundamentally, Barry Lyndon centers on a protagonist who does not aspire to be extraordinary. The film’s two parts trace his journey from rural Ireland through Europe, achieving high social status by marrying Lady Lyndon, only to decline due to the misuse of success and conflicts with his stepson. Amidst other characters influencing his fate, Barry remains the focal point. The theme of the absent father is established early on, as Barry seeks a father figure who shapes his life. Captain Grogan’s death leads to desertion, Captain Potzdorf’s leadership molds him as a soldier, and Chevalier de Balibari guides him in criminal activities. Barry’s yearning for a father figure culminates with Chevalier and Captain Feeney, underscoring his profound need for paternal guidance. In short, the film delves into Barry’s pursuit of a father’s influence, rendering him more complex than a mere opportunist.

Despite their limited dialogue, many minor characters in Barry Lyndon leave a strong impression. Collectively, they create well-developed portraits, including Lord Wendover and Lord Ludd. In its unique atmosphere, the film’s peculiar silence contributes to and is filled with distinctive personalities. In the second part, the film’s structure shifts to a chamber drama set against the opulent backdrop of the Lyndon estate. Barry’s quest for a father figure takes a back seat as he becomes Lady Lyndon’s husband and Lord Bullingdon’s stepfather, who rejects him.

Nonetheless, Barry is a tender parent to his son, Bryan. Bryan’s death leaves Barry despondent, and his conflict with Bullingdon resurfaces when Bullingdon returns as an adult demanding a duel. Their prolonged duel sees Barry lose his shot. The contrasting action with Bullingdon’s detachment marks Barry’s failed final attempt to forge a father-son bond he never experienced.

Kubrick’s Intellectual Depth and Directorial Style

Barry Lyndon is a film that encapsulates Kubrick’s intellectual depth, introspective nature, and meticulous directorial style. It is characterized by narrative complexity and technical precision, traits shared with Kubrick’s other films. Initially met with indifference, it took a quarter-century for critics and film historians to recognize its intricate brilliance. The film challenges viewers to appreciate its unique methods and empathize with its protagonist. While stunning, its lavish presentation requires deeper scrutiny for a fuller understanding. Beyond prompting audiences to look beyond the period and characters’ biases towards the hero, it questions the narrator’s perspective, which is intricately linked to Barry. When viewing Barry Lyndon as an unconventional human tragedy that unveils historical biases, audiences perceive humanity and history through Kubrick’s lens. One explicit action Barry takes is shooting his pistol without peril, causing his downfall as his opponent seizes the opportunity. Ultimately, it leads to Barry’s leg amputation. The film concludes with Barry’s ignominious return to Ireland, with frozen wastelands embodying the agony of his stumbling figure.


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