Friday, December 11, 2015

Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon: adapted from the William Makepeace Thackeray novel and directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Ryan O'Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Lyndon), Marie Kean (Barry's Mother), and Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon) (1975): Stanley Kubrick takes the static shot just about as far as it can go without breaking a movie, from lengthy establishing landscape shots inspired by period painters such as Gainsborough to tableaux involving large groups of actors immobilized by either Kubrick's aesthetic decisions or the necessities of film-making in the early 1970's while attempting to use only low levels of natural light.

Thackeray's novel is often cited as being the first English novel featuring an anti-hero, one specifically designed to be an unappealing and often monstrous creature set up as the antithesis of such lovable picaros as Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. Kubrick takes this idea and runs with it. Ryan O'Neal's Barry Lyndon is often inexpressive and almost always a terrible, terrible person. 

However, pretty much everyone in the movie is a terrible person, or an unsympathetically weak or cowardly one. This isn't accidental. Kubrick clearly means this as a critique of the overwhelmingly terrible society of 18th-century Europe in general, and the godawful gentry in particular.

The end result, as someone once observed, is an awful lot like watching a science-fictional docudrama about an alien culture. Kubrick's movies had been dealing with the inescapability of violence in human culture since at least Paths of Glory, and Barry Lyndon is, among other things, yet another examination of the dark heart of man. 

It may be the most tedious great movie of all time, and that certainly is intentional. John Fowles had to explain the boredom of the gentry in the 18th and 19th centuries in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Kubrick shows it, along with the brutality and general indifference to human life that walked hand in hand with that tedium, punctuating 95% boredom with 5% horror.

There are chilly, funny moments throughout. The drollest touch comes with the narration, which is the warmest piece of acting and writing in the movie. The disjuncture between that narration and what we see and hear in the narrative itself is ironic as all get-out. So, too, the gorgeous, painterly shots of the landscape. Kubrick seems to be looking for intelligent life and finding it nowhere. But Jesus, can he frame a shot! Highly recommended.

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