Barry Lyndon. The Eighteenth century and beyond



[Spoiler alert]


The film by Stanley Kubrick has always been controversial. Barry Lyndon (1975) is perhaps the most valued and praised film by the critics and the least loved by the audience, that still today think it is boring. Irrespective of personal taste, no one can deny the absolute technical and formal perfection of the film, in which highly deep topics and reflections are concealed. Kubrick originally intended to direct an ambitious epic film about Napoleon starring Jack Nicholson and Audrey Hepburn, but this project never saw the light, and was replaced by Barry Lyndon. The film revolutionised the canons of period drama, and was aimed at achieving total realism. Some of the emerging directors of that time, such as Martin Scorsese, Miloš Forman and Ridley Scott, were greatly impressed by it. Scott, in particular, paid a very original homage to Barry Lyndon in his first feature film as director, The Duellists (1977). One of the main topics, the ‘duel’ was extrapolated, deepened, and transposed from the Eighteenth century to the Napoleonic period.


The plot

Ireland, mid-eighteenth century. The young Redmond Barry, whose father is killed in a duel, lives with his mother in a modest and quiet country cottage. He falls madly in love with his cousin Nora, who seems to reciprocate his affection, but who then ends up getting engaged to the mature and well-off Captain Quin as part of her family plan to improve their finances. Blinded by jealousy Redmond challenges the English officer to a duel, something that will later turn out to be a farce staged precisely to get rid of the boy. From now on, Redmond’s life will be a continuous succession of vicissitudes, from joining the English army, to deserting, to being forced to enlist the Prussian forces, until he meets the Chevalier de Balibari, a refined gambler. Travelling across Europe with him, Redmond encounters Lady Lyndon, a noblewoman who soon becomes his wife and will give him a son, Bryan. Having achieved success, Redmond takes the Countess’s last name and becomes ‘Barry Lyndon’, but he is unable to manage his fortune: he squanders money and begins to be unfaithful to his wife. Thus, he inevitably enters a collision course with his stepson, Lord Bullington, and his tutor, Reverend Runt. The clash becomes increasingly violent and the decline of Redmond begins to take on tragic traits…



Redmond Barry (Ryan ONeal) and Nora (Gay Hamilton)


Structure and technical aspects

Kubrick loved The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844), the picaresque novel by William M. Thackeray which dusted off the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ in a sparkling and ironic way. The film is divided into two sections matching the rise and fall of the protagonist. In fact, it revisits the events described in the book, which the director has suitably compressed and stripped of redundant details. The use of the omniscient narrator, instead of the first-person narrator in the book, presents the story more objectively, avoiding both farcical or melodramatic tones. Furthermore, the voice-over is used to avoid long expository scenes with dialogues in a film which is already lengthy, and to increase the likelihood of the events described.
A realism sought in every aspect, starting from the settings, carefully chosen among the spectacular views of the Irish countryside, the superb English noble residences, such as Wilton House and the iconic Castle Howard, going through the sober Teutonic elegance of Sanssouci and Ludwigsburg. Furthermore, the care for costumes, make-up, hairstyles and accessories calls one’s attention, no more embalming tools for events simply ‘set’ in the past: Barry Lyndon is not a story ‘set’ in the Eighteenth century. It is the Eighteenth century as it truly was.
The contribution made by the cast is undeniable, in particular by the protagonist, Ryan O’Neal, who was initially only a second-best to the better known actor Robert Redford. Despite the 250 days of shooting and the countless takes per scene, as well as an oxygen tank used to support the immense effort, the experience was so significant for the actor that he was forever marked by it. He even called Redmond his fourth son.
Back to the technical aspects that contribute, as mentioned, to the realism of the work, many forget that the very ‘slow’ nature of the film is in line with the rhythms of the pre-industrial world, still devoid of modern hustle and bustle. What is clearly evident to everyone is instead the extraordinary photography, with a daring choice of lighting, without the recourse to artificial light. Although at that time there were no lenses sensitive enough, the feat was accomplished thanks to a lens developed by Zeiss to be used by NASA, so that the director could actually ‘transform’ a cine camera into a sort of photographic camera.



Young Lord Bullington (Dominic Savage) and Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson)


Art and music references

A series of pictures, or rather, paintings: this is what Barry Lyndon is first and foremost. Almost as if we were faced with a silent film, where the means of expression of figurative arts are preferred to words: shapes, colours, symbols, the position of objects and characters compared to the surroundings. A succession of solemn and evocative images, which progress in a dramatic crescendo, almost a via crucis, so to speak.
Countless authors are quoted, from Daniel Chodowiecki, a pretty unknown German artist and etcher of Polish ancestry, who was chosen due to his simplicity and immediacy. Followed by the main English figures of the Eighteenth century – ironic William Hogarth and his two great rivals, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds – who are the main artistic references to reproduce the faces, gestures, and poses of that time. Obviously, the typical atmospheres of the international Rococo style are depicted, with that mixture of carefree happiness and subtle sadness and Antoine Watteau as its greatest exponent, but with some obscure pre-Romantic nuances by Johann Füssli. Everything goes beyond a simple and formal reuse, though, because the relationships between references and iconographic elements outline a path, or rather, a discourse, to interpret the film in a much broader sense than a mere academic lesson. It is striking to see how there is an obvious ‘out of epoch’ quote of a work that has no connection at all with the Eighteenth century, namely the romantic The Kiss (1859) by Francesco Hayez.
The splendid soundtrack, which Kubrick wanted to listen to while shooting, simply underlines the previous considerations. Entirely made from classical pieces, it is dominated by the expressive power of the saraband by Georg Friedrich Händel, taken from the Suite No. 4 in D minor (1733), to which traditional Irish melodies, military marches, and pieces by Vivaldi, Bach, Paisiello and Mozart are added. Yet in this case, there is a clear anachronistic quotation, found in the Romantic Trio No. 2 in E-flat major (1827) by Franz Schubert.
This suggests that the semantic spectrum we are analysing is probably wider than the Eighteenth century and embraces the whole of history. An ‘amplification’ metaphorically underlined, by the director, by enlarging the images as the result of the frequent use of the zoom.



The ruling class at the gaming table


Historical references

After Louis XIV, the «Sun King», died in 1715, the era of true absolutism ended and the doors opened heralding the Eighteenth Century proper, which ended with the French Revolution in 1789. A short and intense century, turbid and decadent, but in which many elements of modernity were also born, in the economic, scientific and technological fields. However, the greatest novelty came from the cultural aspect: the light of reason became the emblem of the human ability to improve both life and society, hence eliminating superstitions and obscurantism that had so pervasively influenced the past.
Everything was rationalised, and that included war as well, with ordered divisions, compact ranks, well-groomed and disciplined soldiers, and strategies designed to minimise losses. Yet conflicts did not disappear. On the contrary, the pivotal confrontation of the Eighteenth century, the so-called «Seven Years’ War» (1756-1763), saw the victory of the modern emerging powers – England and Prussia – over the traditional ones – France and Austria. This was such a large-scale conflict that it could be considered the first true world war. It was also fought overseas, as it is described in Michael Mann’s superb film The Last of the Mohicans (1992). In Barry Lyndon this war is described in a disenchanted way to underline the contradictions of the ‘cult of reason’ and its main supporters. It is no coincidence that perhaps the most iconic representative of the «Age of Enlightenment» is clearly mentioned, the King of Prussia Frederick the Great.
Even the ruling class is extensively analysed in Kubrick’s film. The Eighteenth century was a century of transition, in which the aristocracy, unable to cope with the growing complexity of the world, postponed or deferred problematic issues and preferred indulging in pleasures and frivolities, essentially to fill in a void of meaning. A new social class was emerging – the bourgeoisie – and this is precisely the class to which Redmond Barry belongs. Overall, the historical reconstruction in Barry Lyndon is flawless. But even here a clearly incorrect element is mentioned – the «Kingdom of Belgium» – which was established in 1830. Another pretext to get out of the narrow constraints of the Eighteenth century, and go further beyond.



Seven Years’ War, Battle of Minden, 1st August 1759


Key themes

Redmond Barry is a petty bourgeois to the core, stubborn, enterprising, an opportunist who tries to exploit the ups and downs of fate to climb up the social ladder, thus abandoning his mediocrity. Defeat is his fate, does not abandon him, and it is imprinted from the first frame, when his father is killed in a duel. Initially driven by ideals and feelings, in a sort of pre-Romantic ardour, Redmond, however, is progressively emptied and destroyed along his adventurous journey. On a closer look, Redmond is not a typical Eighteenth-century character. He is so melancholic, essentially lonely, in a constant search for a father figure, and crushed by the dynamics of the emerging ‘modern’ society. A proto-capitalistic world whose mechanics he does not know, and that is described in terms of individual and collective contrasts. The two main themes of the film are embedded into these assumptions. First of all, the omnipresent reference to money, a key element of modernity. The initial duel originated over a sale issue; his arranged marriage to his cousin was to improve his finances; the protagonist is first robbed, and then, goes on to rob the nobles at the gaming table. Then, he squanders his fortune again, and everywhere there are references to costs, debts, wages, annuities, etc.
The second theme of the film, and perhaps the best known, is found in the duel, which is nothing more than an attempt to ‘institutionalise’ violence. The film opens and closes with a duel; Barry’s adventurous events start with a ‘rigged’ duel and, throughout the film there are really all kinds of duels, from real ones, with a gun, sword or even bare hands, to figurative ones. Individual clashes that rise to a universal dimension, and reach that large-scale duel called war. Quoting Carl Von Clausewitz, «War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale…two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: each endeavours to throw his adversary, and thus render him incapable of further resistance». Moreover, in the mysterious poster a duellist is also represented deliberately without the upper part, almost as if to ‘depersonalise’ the events described.



Stanley Kubrick and Ryan O’Neal at the set



The film is therefore not only about Irish petty bourgeois Redmond Barry seen as a menacing intruder by the British aristocracy. It is about every man who, however willing and dynamic, but basically weak and disoriented, tries in vain to ‘rise above’ but does not know the mechanisms that drive the society that surrounds him. Redmond in fact possesses the same irreducibility and ‘Dionysian’ vitality (to put it in Nietzsche’s words) of Alex, the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange (in a significantly less marked manner, though), he is also a basically inadequate person to be part of the system; a malfunctioning prototype, with unacceptable emotional flaws, be them fits of anger or gestures of mercy. Quoting Von Clausewitz again, «in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are just the worst». Yet the spark of life in Lady Lyndon’s eyes at the end of the film tells us that probably this man proves, for better or worse, or rather, beyond good and evil, to embody what is truly noble, authentic and humane in mankind.



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