[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
[Additional note: Barry Lyndon will screen as part of the Museum of the Moving Image's "See it Big!" series on December 30th and January 1st. Click the links for more information and mark your calendars.]
Jason Bellamy: Both in chronology and in tone, Barry Lyndon is Stanley Kubrick's cinematic middle child. Sandwiched between more provocative films like Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Barry Lyndon is comparatively subdued, straightforward and introverted. Overlooked, too. Released in 1975 to less than breathtaking box office figures and only slightly more enthusiastic reviews, the film has since gained a considerable amount of praise and respect, yet it remains somewhat underground. Part of Barry Lyndon's relative anonymity is due to its surroundings: one mountain amongst a mighty range, all too easily ignored in the vast panorama of Kubrick's achievements. Part is attributable to the self-perpetuating cycle of anonymity (I suspect Barry Lyndon might be the most unseen of the Kubrick films I mentioned above, making it difficult to attain grassroots popularity). Part might even be attributable to the film's unsexy poster, which became its unsexy VHS/DVD cover. (Back in the day when folks used to browse Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, which cover do you think popped off the shelf: this one or this one?) But I suspect the biggest reason Barry Lyndon is overlooked is because of its slow, deliberate, drawn-out pace and, this is crucial, its lack of a signature moment.
What I mean by the latter is that Barry Lyndon, so far as I can tell, has no iconic image or quote or scene or plot twist. Based on the 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, and adapted for the screen by Kubrick himself, Barry Lyndon tells the story of a man who thirsts for love and loses it, thirsts for wealth and finds it, thirsts for status and nearly attains it, and then loses it all. It's the story of a man who engages in duels, war, cons and affairs. And yet despite all that action, despite all that conflict, Barry Lyndon unfolds with astonishing evenness. I wouldn't say it's an emotional flatline, because that would imply lifelessness, but it's certainly an atypically level film. Almost monotonously so. While Howard Hawks said that a good film is three good scenes and no bad ones, Barry Lyndon might be described as a long film with no great scenes and no bad ones. If that sounds like an insult, I don't mean it to. Rather, it's an attempt to capture the feeling of watching this film. As Martin Scorsese said of Barry Lyndon, "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." In many ways, Barry Lyndon is a simple, elemental film, too, is it not?
Ed Howard: I don't know about "simple," but there's no doubt that Barry Lyndon looks, on the surface, like an uncharacteristically direct film from Kubrick, and your list of the films that preceded and followed this one in his filmography emphasizes how strangely this period piece character study sits within the context of his career. But appearances can be deceiving. The film opens with a few indications that this is not the staid period piece it sometimes might seem to be. The detached irony of the narration subtly tweaks the conventions of the historical epic right from the start, highlighting the absurdity of the duel where Barry's father dies, an early foreshadowing of Barry's own future fate. Soon after, Kubrick further announces his sense of humor when, during a scene of Barry and his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) silently, sullenly playing cards, the narrator drolly intones, "First love, what a change it makes in a lad." It's a joke worthy of Woody Allen, introducing a wryly ironic disconnect between words and images that makes the film complex, satirical and multilayered more than simple or elemental—especially when it later becomes clear just what changes this love will cause in Barry's life.
That said, your point that the film doesn't have any scenes that really stand out is confirmed by my own experience with it. Until recently, I last saw Barry Lyndon over a decade ago, when I was going through a big Kubrick phase, like I suspect a lot of young cinephiles do. Though I know I liked it at the time, going into this conversation I can't say I remembered a single concrete scene. What had stayed with me from the film, it turned out, was an overall mood, an aura: languid, beautiful, melancholy. The lighting stayed with me long after the plot had evaporated from my mind. Kubrick shot the film in predominantly natural light for both exteriors and interiors, and the effect is striking, particularly in the indoor scenes where the frame is bathed in the flickering golden glow of candles.
Most of Kubrick's other films have scenes and images that are instantly recognizable and eminently quotable, sometimes to the detriment of the films as a whole, which threaten to be dwarfed by all the parodies and tributes to "Here's Johnny" or the apes in 2001. Barry Lyndon doesn't have any similarly iconic moments, which isn't to say that it doesn't have affecting and powerful individual scenes. It just hasn't passed into pop culture infamy the way so much of the rest of Kubrick's work has. That only makes it easier to appreciate the film as a whole, as a unified work that has Kubrick's characteristic dry wit, his formalist rigor, his slightly detached perspective on the sufferings of his characters. In other words, though Barry Lyndon seems in many superficial ways like a very atypical Kubrick film, an exception in a fairly cohesive career, it's a lot less simple than it seems—and a lot more Kubrickian.
JB: Absolutely. By calling it simple, I don't mean to suggest that it's simple-minded, or that it lacks in cinematic grandiosity. Indeed, if Barry Lyndon has a signature, it would be its breathtaking "natural" lighting. (It's difficult to have a discussion about natural lighting without mentioning Barry Lyndon, and vice versa.) Visually, the film is striking and ornate—anyone with even a cursory understanding of the challenges of shooting with natural light can't help but appreciate its mastery—and yet Barry Lyndon is also, well, natural. Whereas Terrence Malick, another fan of shooting in natural light, spends a considerable amount of time in the magic hour, and Wong Kar-Wai has a penchant for deeply saturated images and Yasujio Ozu's films are rigidly composed, Barry Lyndon doesn't exist in quite the same state of heightened reality. It's an anachronistically clean period piece (as so many are), one in which the costumes always seem freshly cleaned and pressed, as if mud and wrinkles didn't exist in the 18th century. But beyond that, the visual allure feels surprisingly organic, as if Kubrick has discovered a world where, day or night, indoors or out, at play or at war, exquisite beauty is inescapable.
That said, the precision of Kubrick's cinematography is unmistakable, too. An inordinate number of the film's compositions put the focal point of the action in the dead center of the frame. And of course Barry Lyndon is also full of Kubrick's familiar slow pans and zooms (forward and reverse). In those respects, Barry Lyndon is quite Kubrickian. And then, as you mentioned, there's the film's detached tone. As he often does, Roger Ebert summed it up perfectly in his Great Movies essay: "[Barry Lyndon] is certainly in every frame a Kubrick film: technically awesome, emotionally distant, remorseless in its doubt of human goodness. … Barry Lyndon is aggressive in its cool detachment. It defies us to care, it asks us to remain only observers of its stately excellence."
Later, Ebert asks: "How many directors would have had Kubrick's confidence in taking this ultimately inconsequential story of a man's rise and fall, and realizing it in a style that dictates our attitude toward it? We don't simply see Kubrick's movie, we see it in the frame of mind he insists on—unless we're so closed to the notion of directorial styles that the whole thing just seems like a beautiful extravagance (which it is). There is no other way to see Barry than the way Kubrick sees him." So let's build on that. Ed, how does Kubrick see Barry Lyndon?
EH: That's a very apt question. Kubrick has, I think, a very strong attitude about Barry. There's ambiguity and subtlety in Barry Lyndon, but nevertheless Kubrick does seem to have a very particular attitude that he wants to communicate about his main character—and indeed about all the characters in this film. Though this attitude is apparent throughout, I think it's most obvious in the succinct "epilogue," a sentence of onscreen text that sums up the film's thrust perfectly. Such textual codas are often (lazily) used to track the progress of characters after the film's action ends, but in this case Kubrick's narrator has already noted that there is nothing further to say about Barry's adventures after the film's final image of him, limping into a carriage with one leg, fated to disappear into a long, sad decline.
Instead of wrapping up loose ends, the epilogue provides an elegantly stated moral takeaway: "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now." That's the key to the film, and to Kubrick's attitude about Barry. It's a radical historical perspective that upturns all the artificial distinctions and boundaries raised by society and emphasizes the common humanity of all these people, most of them cruel and petty and greedy and foolish, whatever their class or background. They fight and scrape for some material rewards, for a noble title or riches, for the esteem granted by a lordship or a fancy estate, but they are all forgotten by time regardless. They all die and once in the ground there's nothing to distinguish the lords from the low-born, the kings from the con men, the sophisticated ladies from the farmers' wives.
In that respect, Barry Lyndon is the story of a man's wasted life. To answer your question, Kubrick sees Barry as a foolish man who never managed to grasp what's really important in life. He spends his whole life pursuing material rewards, claiming to be taking the long view—he desires security and comfort for his beloved son—but really existing in a very shortsighted manner. The film is about how petty and inconsequential life can be if we allow it to be, and about the folly of living with an eye towards posterity. In the pursuit of wealth and social status, Barry never seems to realize just how miserable his life has become. Kubrick is a master of depicting boredom and ugliness, and the nearly silent scenes of Barry and his wife endlessly shuffling papers and settling bills capture the emptiness of a life devoted exclusively to the material. The film's epilogue negates everything else that happens in the film; it's as though Kubrick is underlining just how little anything Barry does really matters in any larger sense. Kubrick sees Barry as a tragic figure, and the tragedy is not so much that he doesn't get what he wants, but that even if he had gotten it, it wouldn't have meant much, it wouldn't have made his life full or meaningful.
JB: I think that's quite right, provided we recognize that Barry does wind up finding momentary fulfillment in being a father—perhaps the one thing he didn't yearn for as a young man—only to have that meaningfulness taken away from him. While I wholly agree that the epilogue does well to illustrate Kubrick's view of Barry, there's a two-shot sequence late in the film that is equally telling, and nearly as succinct.
After Barry loses his composure and beats his stepson, which causes him to lose his fortune and social standing, Kubrick cuts from a slow reverse zoom of Barry and his son (David Morley's Bryan) quietly fishing together in a small rowboat to a fairly tight shot of father and son sitting together and reading. It's an intimate shot: a book on Bryan's lap and Bryan on Barry's lap. Together they flip through the pages and speak in whispered tones, Barry's smile broad and warm, their mutual affection unmistakable. After a few seconds, Kubrick cuts to a wide shot of the same tableau. There are Barry and Bryan, like before, but now the intimacy of their moment is contrasted by the ornateness of their surroundings. The wide shot reveals that Barry and Bryan are sitting on a couch perhaps 15 feet long, in front of a rug that's just as wide, beneath a painting that's just as tall. And yet the massive room they're sitting in feels, if anything, underfurnished. This shot, for me, illustrates the emptiness of all of Barry's previous pursuits better than any other. Barry spends the film looking for wealth and status, but in truth all he needed to be happy was a small bit of quiet space in which to be a father to an adoring son.
The great tragedy is that Barry never seems to realize this. Except when he's playing father to Bryan, Barry is a man without a genuine identity. He begins the film as an Irishman named Redmond Barry and soon is fighting for the British, eluding his scandalous past. He then escapes his military service and briefly plays husband to a German woman he meets during his flight. He then comes across some Prussian officers and pretends to be a British lieutenant. He's then exposed as a fraud and ends up in a Prussian soldier's uniform instead. He's then sent to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari, at which time he's told to pose as a Hungarian, but instead he admits his Irish roots to the chevalier and becomes a double-agent, meanwhile posing as a simple butler to help the chevalier cheat at cards. Barry then poses as the chevalier in order that the two might escape Prussian surveillance and continue their cons indefinitely. Finally, he meets and marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Barenson) and thus becomes Barry Lyndon.
Near the start of the film's second chapter, Barry sits in the back of a carriage with Lady Lyndon, smoking on a pipe with a smug expression on his face that exhibits his pride over fooling all of those around him. But mostly he's fooling himself. In the carriage directly behind Barry rides his stepson who sees his mother's new husband for exactly what he is: "a common opportunist." Barry might accept opportunist, but he wants to be anything but common. It's not enough to spoil Bryan rotten; Barry regales his young son with stories of his heroism in war, spinning a clearly bullshit tale in which he's the first man over the wall before cutting off the heads of 19 men while wounding several others. Bryan loves the tale so much that he requests it on his deathbed. And thus Barry's fraudulence extends into the one thing in his life that was otherwise pure: his love of his son.
EH: Yes, it does, and one of the curious things about the movie is that for some time Barry is defrauding even the audience, at least in part because Kubrick keeps Barry's motivations and thoughts somewhat hidden and obscure. Barry's pursuit of Lady Lyndon is probably the turning point in that respect. His courtship of her initially appears as sincere to the audience as it presumably does to the woman herself. Barry seems genuinely fascinated with her and attracted to her, pursuing her during a card game and keeping constant company with her thereafter. Although the narrator makes some typically snarky remarks about Barry continuing his rise in the world and gaining advantage through his intimacy with the lady, there is otherwise very little hint that this is anything other than a romance, albeit one that takes place largely offscreen.
The wedding helps to disintegrate those romantic notions, because it's staged as such a joyless affair, with Kubrick's characteristic flat affect and ironic distance. The preacher, with a bland and expressionless face, drily recounts all the church-sanctioned justifications for marriage, but love doesn't enter into the equation. Instead, he suggests that marriage is important mainly as a "defense against sin," a way to avoid fornication, which in a very different way is as utilitarian and unsentimental a view of marriage as Barry's own perspective on it. And then the carriage ride exposes the true nature of Barry's ambition: having achieved his goal of wooing and marrying Lady Lyndon, he lets the mask drop, both to her and to the film's audience, by coolly blowing smoke in her face while the narrator informs us that Barry soon views his wife as little more than decorative furniture. Like Barry's new wife, only then do we really grasp the full extent of Barry's emptiness and deception, only then do we realize just what kind of a man he actually is.
Shortly after this scene, Kubrick cuts from Barry and Lady Lyndon in bed, cradling their newborn son—"her ladyship presented Barry with a son," is the narrator's stiff, emotionless way of putting it—directly to Barry in the midst of an orgy, making out with a pair of topless girls. Kubrick then cuts back to Barry's wife lying with her older son resting his head on her shoulder and her new baby in a cradle that she's distractedly rocking. Both Lady Lyndon and her son look narcotized and distant, staring blankly past the camera without seeming to see anything. The composition is static and still, with only one of Kubrick's slow backwards tracking shots introducing some movement into the frame, pulling away from the figures to enhance the sense of absence and emotional deadness. The narration juxtaposes Lady Lyndon's zombie-like demeanor against Barry's belief that she should be taking joy in the raising of her sons while Barry concerns himself with society and pleasure. By this point, Barry, who started out as an unfortunate young man struggling to better himself, has become the villain of his own story.
JB: He's become the villain, yes, but it's important to note that he's never the hero. Over the first half of the picture, Barry is repeatedly shown to be a fool—and his foolishness is exacerbated by his lack of self-awareness (he doesn't realize he's a fool). It all begins with that early scene of Barry playing cards with his cousin Nora, for whom he has a crush. The narrator suggests that love flows "instinctively from a man…like a bird sings," but not for Barry. Nora stuffs a ribbon in her cleavage and urges Barry to find and remove it, saying she'll think very little of him if he doesn't, but Barry is so intimidated by the moment that he gives up without trying. Only when Nora takes his hand and places it on her breast does Barry locate the ribbon, but even then he can't quite find his manhood. At this point, Nora notes that Barry's hand is trembling, and when he suggests that it's due to excitement, not fear, Nora calls him on it. "You're a liar," she says, and as she bends down to kiss him, Barry closes his eyes and waits submissively.
It's a testament to Barry's foolishness that his uncle arranges to con him through a fake duel with Captain Quin (Leonard Rossiter) in order to get him out of the way. And it's further testament to Barry's foolishness that Captain Feeny (Arthur O'Sullivan) so quickly sizes him up as a ripe target for a robbery. But the best evidence of Barry's ineptitude is found in his interactions with Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger). We can tell from their first meeting, when Barry says he's riding toward a town that in fact is behind him, that he's in over his head, but Barry's deception fully unravels later on, in a private candlelit conversation with Potzdorf in which Barry seems to think he has the upper hand. What's telling isn't that Barry is exposed as liar, imposter and deserter, it's how he's exposed, through what the narrator describes as a combination of "questions and flattery." Essentially, Barry is so full of himself that when Potzdorf says that all he knows of England is that it's the "bravest country in the world, and that we're really lucky to have such allies," Barry doesn't detect that he's being led on. Indeed, even when Potzdorf summons a sergeant to perform an arrest, Barry momentarily believes he can still talk his way out of the jam; up until then, he's found himself quite convincing.
Of course, later on, Barry will indeed con Potzdorf, with the guidance of the Chevalier de Balibari. And he'll con Lady Lyndon. And he'll con his son with stories of heroism in war. So Barry isn't completely lacking in cleverness. But his weakness is his inflated self-perception. He's so convinced that he's a man of intelligence, grace and stature that he assumes everyone around him thinks so, too.
EH: Barry is a paragon of self-deception, and at the heart of this deception is a popular democratic ideal that he's fully internalized, the idea of class mobility. Barry, for all his faults and follies, is a real believer in the possibility of advancement; he's an American-style social striver in an earlier era and another continent, who thinks that he can force himself upwards from poverty and ruin to the highest strata of society. In that sense, Barry isn't just a fool or a villain—he's also a victim. A victim, primarily, of a social structure in which his ambitions and his ideals would be impossible to realize even if he had gone about things in a more intelligent manner. Kubrick isn't just crafting a portrait of a fool, which would be all too easy. He's suggesting that Barry's particular brand of foolishness is a symptom of a society that restricts the opportunities of the lower classes at every opportunity.
Barry learns this lesson most ruinously when he contrives to earn a title for himself through bribery and flattery, believing that he can propel himself into a lordship and earn the respect and status he so desperately wants. Instead, he destroys his wife's fortune for naught, setting up the devastating sequence of tragedies in the film's final act. It's telling that when Barry assembles a troop of soldiers to fight in the Americas, hoping to impress the English king, the blunt, somewhat sarcastic response is that he should gather more troops and go fight himself. To the end, Barry is seen as good enough to be a soldier but not to be a lord. Earlier in the film, the scenes of Barry at war, first with the English army and then with the Prussians, establish that these wars are motivated by upper-class concerns, rooted in the interests of lords and kings, but fought by the poor, by criminals and conscripts. The armies are assembled by force and trickery: some people are literally kidnapped from their homes and forced into duty, while others are offered some small amount of money to serve in the (slim) hope of escaping poverty. When Barry is recruited into the army, the recruiter says that they need new men to replace those who have retired with a pension, a laughable and transparent ruse. But Barry, always a fool, and with few enough prospects anyway, truly believes that the army will be his route out of poverty, his first step towards respectability and prestige.
One crucial battle of Barry's brief but bloody military career is a skirmish over a section of road that the English army wants to cross. As the narrator says, this is not the kind of epic battle that the history books immortalize. It is a petty, insignificant exchange, a fight over a small strip of land of dubious importance, one with little ultimate impact except for the men who die during its course. Kubrick's compositions emphasize the absurdity of this style of battle, as the English soldiers march solidly forward towards the enemy lines, not breaking ranks as the enemy fires on them, many men dropping to the ground with each barrage as the men next to them continue marching forward without even looking around them. Kubrick maintains a characteristic stoic distance that emphasizes just how meaningless any individual life is in the midst of this absurd, anti-human war machine. Men fall and die and their comrades simply step over them, eyes locked straight ahead on the enemy, marching towards death with the determination of men whose lives aren't valued any higher than the cost of a bullet. Barry, through some outrageous luck and his own oversized ambition, eventually does transcend this low level, but in a deeper sense he never quite escapes this devaluation of his life and his worth. Even when he is being honored by the Prussian army, the officer who presents him with his award can't resist delivering a speech about what an anomaly his bravery was, about how Barry remains low class trash in spite of his achievements. Actions don't matter nearly as much as origins. That's the dominant ideology of this society, and though Barry occasionally manages to circumvent its rigid boundaries, they will ultimately suffocate him.
JB: Considering all that we've said about Barry thus far, it's probably past time for discussing the actor who plays him: Ryan O'Neal. It's certainly an interesting casting choice, perhaps more so in retrospect than at the time, and that's saying something. When Barry Lyndon was released in 1975, O'Neal had been a regular on TV's Peyton Place, and he'd starred in one of the most successful modern romances in cinema history, 1970's Love Story, so he was hardly anonymous, but I'm not sure there was anything about his early career that suggested that he was on the path to playing complex leading men—although perhaps I'm letting my awareness of O'Neal's post-Barry Lyndon roles overly influence that analysis. In any case, I think it's safe to say that O'Neal's performance here is an outlier in his career, a rare opportunity to work with strong material and a talented director.
That said, despite the fact that Barry Lyndon is almost always thought of as a Kubrickian achievement, I think O'Neal's performance is one of its great strengths. O'Neal is what you might call memorably forgettable here. By that I mean that it's impossible to think of Barry Lyndon without thinking about O'Neal, because indeed O'Neal's character is the focal point of nearly every scene in a lengthy film that even by title alone announces itself as a one-man character study, and yet O'Neal's Barry doesn't dominate our consciousness as a distinct character. He isn't Charles Foster Kane, or Michael Corleone, or T.E. Lawrence, or Daniel Plainview; indeed, Barry often feels like the supporting player in his own film. Opposite Nora, Quin, Potzdorf, his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) and so on, our attention is repeatedly drawn to those opposite him.
Barry is a blank. I'm not an actor, but I suspect that's much harder to play than it seems. O'Neal isn't totally without big acting moments—his brawl with his stepson and his tearful exchange with his dying son leap to mind—but for the most part his performance is quiet, reserved, inward, even when Barry is puffing out his chest with pride or arrogance. It's an approach that serves the character well, underlining Barry's lack of original character, right down to that light Irish accent that sounds as if Barry was never fully invested in his roots. O'Neal is, in essence, an actor playing an actor. And what's remarkable is that while Barry is always in the midst of a performance, O'Neal never seems to be.
EH: O'Neal's unshowy performance is indeed another example of this film's admirable restraint. In terms of performances, O'Neal's portrayal of Barry reminds me very much of Tom Cruise's turn as the similarly blank, unsympathetic Dr. Bill in Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Barry and Bill are both intentionally flat protagonists whose emotional range is rather stunted, and who seem rather clueless and lost when faced with the realization that they are not, in fact, the centers of their respective universes. Like Bill, over the course of this film Barry must come to terms with a cruel world that foils all his plans and continually shatters his illusion of himself as a strong, clever schemer. Both Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon are Kubrick's stabs at masculine pride, though the two films go about tearing down their male archetypes in very different fashions.
If Eyes Wide Shut is all about male identity as defined by sex, Barry Lyndon is about worldly masculine ambition, the desire for power and money. That's because Bill has accomplished the ideal that Barry can only haplessly reach for: Bill is rich and successful, his life furnished with all the conventional signifiers of status and prestige. Bill doesn't need to grasp for a higher status the way Barry does, but the fact that he's still striving for something more, that he still feels unfulfilled, suggests that this is a neverending quest. Bill is a Barry-like figure who has attained what he thought he wanted and now channels his unquenchable desire into sexuality, desperately trying to feel fulfilled in the same way that Barry is continually setting new goals for himself in his one-step-forward-two-steps-back attempts to climb the social ladder. In contrast to Bill, who is engulfed by sexuality everywhere he turns, Barry, with the exception of his supposedly genuine feelings for Nora, seems ambivalent about sex. He pursues the lovely Lady Lyndon but as soon as he has her he wants very little to do with her. Sex is a means to an end for Barry; he defines himself not by his sexuality but by his ambition, by his desire for social and economic status. Bill, who has the social and economic success that Barry craves, instead feels inadequate in his sexuality. It's as though these blank-faced, remote men are yawning voids who feel a profound absence in their lives and attempt to fill it with whatever they think is missing. If they achieve success in one area, it only makes them aware of what they lack elsewhere.
JB: It might be a bit misleading to suggest that Barry is ambivalent about sex, considering that once he's married we see him cavorting with a few women not his wife. Barry uses sex as a means to an end with Lady Lyndon, sure, but he also seems to view wanton extramarital sex as a status symbol—although I agree it's a desire for status, not for sex itself, that seems to give Barry his hard-on. Of course, broadly speaking, you're correct that Barry is seeking to gain the same kind of status and prestige that Bill already has in Eyes Wide Shut. The biggest difference between those two lead characters is that while both of them operate as if they are the center of their universe, and while both of them are surprised whenever someone around them sees them as anything less than that, Barry knows exactly what he wants, while Bill spends the majority of Eyes Wide Shut more or less pretending to himself that he knows what he wants. (Bill, too, is actually driven by something other than sex itself: a need to reassure himself that he can have whatever he wants, thus living up to the status he has achieved.)
Certainly Barry is the center of this film's universe, and yet we're constantly reminded of his smallness, his insignificance. And that leads us to perhaps the second most significant "character" in this film: the narrator. It's impossible for me to imagine how Barry Lyndon would function without "him." Voiced by Michael Hordern, the narration has a children's storybook quality that on first viewing conjured in my mind images of Winnie the Pooh and the 100 Acre Wood. (Turns out I wasn't far off: Hordern eventually went on to narrate a TV adaptation of Paddington Bear.) The narration is quaint, soothing, sympathetic, and yet at the same time it can be wry and critical, commenting on the action in a way that provides necessary context or sharpens our focus. It's often argued that filmmakers should strive to "show not tell" the thoughts and emotions of their characters, but Barry Lyndon is a film that finds a happy marriage doing both. The narration never serves as a replacement for portrayal, it simply enhances it, allowing Kubrick to impart great emotional depth into scenes that, due to the story's broad and episodic nature, often have very little opportunity for physical build-up.
A terrific example is the scene in which Barry first meets the Chevalier de Balibari, having been sent by Potzdorf as a spy. Barry isn't supposed to know English, but once in the presence of the chevalier, Barry is overcome by the chevalier's regal appearance and nobility, and by an accent that reminds him of home, and he finds it impossible to continue with the charade. These details are imparted to us almost solely from the narration; Kubrick's camera simply shows Barry's pensive face. But through the combination of the narration and physical action, the scene delivers a sharp emotional punch. "Those who have never been out of their country know little what it is to hear a friendly voice in captivity," the narrator says, as if admitting that even he is at a loss to explain completely the tearful scene that follows, when Barry drops his disguise and the chevalier consoles him. But in Barry's pained face, we feel what the words can't describe. In this scene and others, the narration is crucial to our basic understanding of what's happening, and it's also a key to a deeper understanding.
EH: What I love about the narration in Barry Lyndon is that, as you say, it breaks what is often considered to be one of the central rules of screenwriting and writing in general: show, don't tell. That idea is sometimes considered such a hard-and-fast rule that voiceovers are disparaged on principle, but here Kubrick demonstrates just how powerful and effective a voiceover, even or especially one that tells us outright what the characters are feeling, can be. The narrator is crucial to the film because he provides a perspective outside of Barry. The narrator, with his removed, quasi-omniscient perspective, is evidence that Barry's delusion of himself as the center of the world is just that, a delusion. The narrator's irony is necessary because it undermines Barry's earnestness at every turn. Throughout his rise to high society, Barry keeps telling himself that he'll never again allow himself to be lowered or prevented from attaining what he believes is his deserved status. But we only hear this through the narrator, whose wry, detached tones—and the repetition of this mantra after each of Barry's failures—suggests just how ridiculous Barry is, just how distorted his vision of the world actually is.
If the film were narrated by Barry, or if Barry made his feelings known more directly, there would be no distance from Barry's skewed perspective on his own life. The narrator allows Kubrick—and the audience—to observe Barry's flounderings from a greater distance, to see his self-deceptions and blatant manipulations for what they are. We feel for Barry, but not in the same intimate way that we would in a film that was more closely aligned with his point of view. Instead, we're encouraged not only to sympathize with Barry and to share his emotions, but to understand him; in that sense, you're absolutely right, the voiceover is the path leading to a deeper understanding of Barry the man and the social forces that define and drive him. It strikes me that Woody Allen definitely took a page from Kubrick's book when making Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which similarly uses a wry, detached voiceover to obliquely comment on the misguidedness of his characters' strivings.
The narration isn't the only way in which Kubrick undercuts Barry's progress into high society. One of the funniest scenes in the film is the one where Barry, in a rage over his stepson Lord Bullingdon's open insults, leaps onto the young man and beats him during a concert. Despite the strong emotions that provoke Barry's actions, this is a comic set piece, as the assembled nobles go slipping and falling in an attempt to break the two men apart. One man slides across the floor towards the camera, and it ends with all the powdered wigs in a football pileup on top of Barry. This scene shares with the narration a wry tone that finds the comedy and the absurdity in emotions and incidents that are deadly serious for the people involved.
JB: Barry's attack on his stepson reminds me of Daniel Plainview's brawl with Eli Sunday at the end of There Will Be Blood. It's violent, terrifying, oversized and, yes, at the same time it's hilariously absurd. Kubrick seems to delight in the sight of dandified men trying to mix it up in a scuffle, and so after Barry gets in a few licks, Kubrick hangs around to watch all the other men ineptly trying to break up the fight, giving us a broad shot full of wigs, powdered faces and stockings running up to the knee churning in a rugby pile of immaculately dressed men.
In addition to exposing Barry as a "common opportunist" in a nobleman's clothing, Kubrick seems to be skewering the supposed nobility of the era at large. I mentioned earlier the scene in which Barry meets the chevalier, and that's another good example. The narrator says that Barry was swayed by the "splendor" of the chevalier's appearance and the "nobility" of his manner, but to our eyes there's nothing striking about the chevalier whatsoever. His painted pink cheeks are especially clownish. The painted moles on his face seem randomly placed. And then there's his eye patch. Splendor? Hardly. As for his manner, the chevalier seems less noble than spiritless, bored. This is what Barry finds glamorous? Why? Only a silly people—the kind of people who would give their young son a sheep-drawn carriage to ride on his birthday and then use that same sheep-drawn carriage as a hearse when the son dies—would dress and behave this way, Kubrick seems to be implying. And, furthermore, only an especially silly people would duel.
Barry Lyndon is punctuated by no less than three duels: the one that opens the film, in which Barry's father is killed; the one that sends Barry on the lam, in which Barry appears to kill Captain Quin; and the one near the end of the film, in which Barry and Lord Bullingdon seem determined not to kill one another. Each scene has a slightly different mood—from swift and deadly to drawn out and inconsequential (relatively speaking)—but each scene highlights the absurdities of dueling, and thus the foolishness of any people who would partake in the ritual. In the first duel, the absurdity of the activity is made clear when the narrator notes that Barry's father's promising life was cut short because of something as trivial as "the sale of some horses." The stakes are even more ridiculous in the second duel, between Barry and Captain Quin, because if Barry loses the duel he's potentially dead, but by winning the duel he is cast out by the very family that he hoped to impress so that he might continue his love affair with his cousin; a true no-win situation. The greatest absurdity of this duel, though, turns out to be the revelation that Barry's duel with Quin wasn't a duel at all but a ruse designed to trick the ignorant youngster into leaving town.
As for the final duel, Kubrick milks it for all the tension he can: showing the guns being carefully loaded, observing the pre-duel coin-toss, watching the men take their places 10 paces apart, letting the referee's instructions echo through the cavernous space, all while menacing strings and kettle drums of the score groan and pound in a steady rhythm. But there's absurdity here, too, in the constantly cooing pigeons, in the accidental discharge of Lord Bullingdon's gun and in the way Barry bravely and nobly faces his death only to be shot in the leg, leading to a lot of undignified moaning. You mentioned earlier the "all are equal now" epilogue, and sure enough there are clues throughout Barry Lyndon that this era, like this main character, wasn't nearly as special, noble or otherwise impressive as the people within it seemed to believe.
EH: The duels are indeed one of the primary vehicles for Kubrick's satire of the "noble" class and their silly, artificial rules for living. As you say, the film opens with a duel, which immediately establishes the absurdity of staking one's life over minor slights of "honor," so that a life is erased in mere seconds. This absurdity calls into question the whole concept of honor as it's understood by the society depicted in this film—duels as presented by Kubrick are not so much showcases for honor and nobility but evidence of fragile egos forced by convention to respond to even the slightest of imagined insults. Wojciech Has' The Saragossa Manuscript, released 10 years earlier, similarly skewers the aristocratic class for its eagerness to waste lives in petty duels: the main character remembers that his father once fought 10 duels in a single day in order to avoid an argument, a hilarious formulation that wouldn't be at all out of place in Barry Lyndon.
The interesting thing about Kubrick's approach to duels is that, as absurd and wasteful as he makes them seem, he doesn't eliminate the genuine tension and emotion of these showdowns, at least in the two duels in which Barry takes part. When Barry faces Captain Quin, Kubrick emphasizes the fear and hesitance of the duelists, who quiver and tremble, barely disguising their terror at facing death. The romanticized ideal of dueling—stoic nobleman bravely staking their lives to maintain their honor—is quite different from the way Kubrick presents dueling, as this pointless face-off between shaky-handed men who stare at one another in abject horror. Quin's wide-eyed expression is both poignant and comical—but tips more towards the latter in light of the eventual revelation that he knew the duel was a farce all along, so in hindsight we realize he was scared not of death but of being shot with a blank.
In Barry's second duel, Kubrick draws out the preparation for the showdown with such portentousness that the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The martial strings drone in the background, blending with the cooing of the birds and the papery rustle of wings as pigeons flutter around the barn. The scene is solemn, even ritualistic, with thin slit windows and crosses carved into the stone walls behind the duelists, letting in slivers of bluish light that make the scene seem holy and eerie, a place of worship rather than a place of idiotic death and maiming. The long shots of the barn with the two men setting up to shoot each other are especially breathtaking, finding a weird kind of beauty in this slow, mechanical ritual. The aesthetic gloss of this scene, however, only makes it all the more startling when the duel itself quickly descends into comedy. The arcane rules for this particular duel, where the men take turns shooting each other, with chance determining who shoots first, make it especially silly, and then Lord Bullingdon's accidental firing of his gun into the ground—and his terrified, little-boy-in-trouble expression afterwards—only exacerbate the lunatic surrealism of this practice.
JB: By the time Barry enters into that final duel, he's seemingly lost everything. We've seen him shunned from his old social circle. We've watched his son die. And then, in the duel with his stepson, Barry is shot by Lord Bullingdon even after he spares his stepson by intentionally firing into the ground. Barry's sacrificed shot seems less a matter of etiquette (you wasted a shot, so I will) and more like an olive branch, an admission of guilt, an act of atonement. Barry knows that he has treated his stepson poorly, so he understands Lord Bullingdon's rage, much like Captain Quin must have understood Barry's rage all those years ago. There's a sense when Barry fires his shot into the ground that he hopes Lord Bullingdon will shoot him dead and end his misery, but when Lord Bullingdon announces that he has not received "satisfaction" there's a subtle expression of surprise that flashes across Barry's face, as if the last thing he imagined is that Lord Bullingdon would continue with the duel after Barry spared him.
Of course, Barry's ultimate fate in the duel is the worst thing he can imagine. He isn't spared. He isn't killed. He's maimed, blasted in the leg. In the next scene, the doctor examines Barry's leg and says he'll have to amputate. "Lose the leg? What for?" Barry asks. "The simple answer to that is 'to save your life,'" the doctor replies. This, it turns out, is the low point for Barry. Suddenly it registers for him that there's no coming back from this duel, the way he'd reinvented himself all those years ago. He'll forever be crippled, and he'll forever have a physical reminder of his sins. And as Barry comes to this realization, weeping in bed, a church bell tolls in the background.
The next scene finds Lord Bullingdon heading to the Lyndon estate by carriage, hatching a plan by which to get Barry's mother out of the house before he steps foot through the door. While Lord Bullingdon schemes, the same priest who married Barry and Lady Lyndon can't suppress a smile, realizing in that moment that Barry has been cast out by a man who shows signs of being as conniving as he was. Kubrick seems to be reminding us that when one selfish asshole steps out of the spotlight, another one comes along to take his place.
EH: That sense of progression is important because Barry Lyndon is, in the end, as much about society as a whole as it is about the one man who gives the film its title. All of this maneuvering for wealth and prestige doesn't actually make anyone happy, neither the victors nor the losers like Barry. In the last scene of the film, Lady Lyndon and her son somberly shuffle through piles of paper for Lady Lyndon to sign, the endless bills and paperwork associated with their life of privilege and success. This scene intentionally mirrors the earlier one in which Lady Lyndon and Barry joylessly went through these same paper rituals: there's no pleasure, no contentment, in the management of the massive wealth for which these people fight so tirelessly.
Instead, there's only loss and sadness. Kubrick alternates closeups of Lady Lyndon and her son in the final moments of the film, focusing on the moment when she has to sign for the annuity paid to Barry to keep him away from the family. Lady Lyndon seems lost in thought, and her red-rimmed eyes, used to crying, well up a bit. But there's also the very slightest of smiles dancing briefly at the corners of her mouth, as though she's remembering whatever small happy moments the couple might have had together, or the son they'd so loved. Those fleeting moments of pleasure are ultimately lost in the struggle to live, not for the moment, not for the sake of enjoying life, but for accumulating reputation and wealth for posterity. Barry Lyndon demonstrates the folly of such an attitude, and it does so by completely embodying it in Barry, an empty vessel filled almost entirely with base urges and stupidity. Kubrick harshly satirizes this man and the grabby approach to life he represents, but more remarkably he also makes us feel for Barry, lamenting the waste of time and life that disappear into the vacuum of Barry's ambition. That's why the final moments of the film are so devastating, so sad, embodying in the exchange of glances between Lady Lyndon and her son a lifetime's worth of bad decisions and lost opportunities.
JB: It really does feel like a lifetime. The coupling of the narration and the deliberate pace give Barry Lyndon a decidedly novel-esque feel, as if we're paging through Barry's life in Thackeray's original. Like so much of Kubrick's work, the atmosphere of the whole is more telling than any specific gesture, line or scene. Barry Lyndon is an experience more than a plot, wrapping us up in its colorful panoramas and moody candlelit closeups to create a precise sense of time and space. If it's best remembered for the way it looks, perhaps that's fitting, given that it's about a man who at his height only appears remarkable. But clearly there is more to Barry Lyndon than lush visuals. It's a film with character about a man who lacks it.
Nevertheless, the praise for the film's visual splendor is hardly misplaced. Kubrick gives us a bland character in a movie dominated by visuals that are anything but. To quote Scorsese again, Barry Lyndon really is "one exquisitely beautiful image after another," and it's the consistency of those breathtaking compositions that gives this deliberately methodical film its undeniable momentum. It's not a film one is drawn to so much as a film one can't break away from. For all of Barry Lyndon's cool detachment, the obvious care of Kubrick's filmmaking gives it a strange warmth.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler. Follow his updates on Twitter.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema. He can also be found on Twitter.