Barry Lyndon: Passion's Epitaph

Geoffrey Alexander & Bilge Ebiri

Geoffrey Alexander: Among Kubrick's films, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and ACO represent the director at the top of his game; but they can also be read as as an artist so in control of his talents he has forgotten how to use his art to ask questions of himself (a talent Godard and Fellini never seemed to be without, in my opinion) -- that's is exactly the aspect of his work that makes Full Metal Jacket, for example, the most accomplished of his war-themed films. There's an objectivity to what it portrays that makes it seem a more honest, a more realistic portrayal -- that, rather than portray 'evil things', it portrays things that are, just simply, and lets the evil of them speak for itself. He's surrendered judgment to the viewer, trusting not only to arrive at what the film is ultimately about', but to arrive at what it means -- in the moral sense. Anyone can say "here is why War is evil -- I will tell you...".

It takes a different sort of artist to say "here is War, or it's facsimile -- decide what it is". And for Kubrick, 'war' is 'people making war' -- what they are, and what they become by its auspices. Kubrick seems to say in FMJ, 'war is of us, it is ours; a part of us' -- and implies that we should come to determination about us -- who we are, really, and what we are to become. War is not apart from us.

Obsession, jealousy, love, and regret. They are not apart from us, nor aspects of a plot, nor ingredients in a characteristic. They are our substance, by this formula -- and for the first time since Killer's Kiss they're Kubrick's topic. Compare the relative moral (and narrative) simplicities of Paths of Glory to those of FMJ -- and then imagine what Kubrick will be doing with the less distanced, less abstracted themes of Killer's Kiss in his forthcoming Eyes Wide Shut.

You know, I've always found it interesting (and rather regretful) that Kubrick has never closely focused upon interpersonal relationships (especially romantic ones) without having a secondary purpose -- in Lolita, Hum & Lo's intersection served a story that contained and ultimately absorbed their 'personal' preoccupations (the theme of the film in fact seems to be the bathetic undercutting of their desires & preoccupations by a corrupt an impersonal reality indifferent to them, personified beautifully by the character of Quilty) -- in Barry Lyndon the [incredibly underrated] portrayal of the corrupt & corrupting relationship between Barry and Lady Lyndon serves to shape our appraisal of Barry and his fate; the relationship in and of itself is, strictly speaking, not what is to be examined -- though without a 'feeling' for its corruption, its coldness, its ill-fatedness -- in fact, all the qualities it represents (and listen to how the narrator describes briefly, and with little remark, how it was that Barry's adventures [the comedy of Part I] initiated by his youthful, innocent, and ambitious desires, brought him to such a frame of mind as he found himself with nothing but ambition -- but lacking heart....) -- without a sense of this, of who he tampers with an established order not merely social and political, but emotional, [sexual by implication,] and familial as well, we have little sense of what really draws Fate itself down upon Barry [the tragedy of Part II]. But, as I said, their relationship and its portrayal only completes a story that is larger (and requires a separate essay or two.

In Killer's Kiss alone does the interrelationship of the three leads become a texture within the film in and of itself: two shots in particular seem to express that the idea of passion itself is what makes the image-that-is-the-story meaningful: the embrace between the lovers in the apartment, immediately before the girlfriend's tale of her sister -- and the moment the mob boss has, during the scene where he breaks the mirror. I'd say this underrated little film may be, in the way it beautifully, and by way of immediate and affective images, portrays the passions of the characters, one sketchpad for themes Kubrick has the maturity to explore in Eyes Wide Shut -- without mere facility -- but with probing and intent. Add to this the play between story, image, symbol, and reality we have in The Shining, the almost religious abstention for judgement towards the characters shown in FMJ, and the preternaturally sophisticated wit of Lolita, and you 'd have the potential for a really superlative couple of hours in the cinema; of course, Eyes Wide Shut will be nothing like that, and better....

Bilge Ebiri: But again, while the relationship of Barry and Lady Lyndon "is not what is to be examined," it is the final act of a tale that hinges on sexual desire -- which is not a petty term, but, in reality, the central (albeit hidden) motivation for a whole host of Kubrick characters as well as people throughout history.

Redmond Barry's adventures begin over his unrequited love for Nora Grady. Look at the scene where he watches her dancing with John Quinn: Quinn is controlled, confident, pleasant, a great dancer, Mr. Smooth, if you will. Barry is boyish, morose, pouting, melancholy, almost ridiculous -- which O'Neal conveys perfectly, by the way. This is a creature being selected against. What was it Humbert wrote to Quilty? "Because you took advantage of my disadvantage".

The struggle of Barry's tale is one for control -- not necessarily over others, but over oneself. He learns not to show emotion,and learns to make small-talk, to control his actions, to let others come to him. Look at the way Kubrick's camera movements correlate with power moves throughout the film. As Barry learns to manipulate his way through this film (and the camera learns to track with him when it moves) so does he become devoid of emotion. But what saves him for us is his inability to control himself. The scene when he attacks Bullingdon during the recital is such a total release of aggression that I have trouble finding a more viscerally satisfying fight scene anywhere in the history of cinema. As well as the tears he sheds over his son's death. It is this loss of control that redeems him for us, but also, ironically, seals his fate.

Does Barry love Lady Lyndon? This is one of the central mysteries of the film. While what Barry does may indicate that he doesn't, and certainly most who've seen the film may agree that he doesn't, how can we be so sure? Aren't Barry's duplicities and adulteries simply a sign of his position? Despite its public nature, Barry's two-timing doesn't seem to hurt his standing any. The last words of the narration is, "He never saw Lady Lyndon again." And the corresponding freeze-frame, which is the last time we see Barry -- why do I find this moment so heartbreaking? I think that maybe Barry has learned to love Lady Lyndon. Their lives grow apart, but I think that the moment of Brian Lyndon's death brings them together, yet rips them asunder immediately afterwards. Barry's promise to his dying son is not an empty promise -- it is probably the one promise he would keep if he could. It may be that Barry has in fact come full-circle -- he is, finally, emotional, morose, ridiculous, boyish, and defeated again, and this humanizes him for us. He has lost all control. It's the end for him.

And, in the end, what is obsession but a loss of control? A tragic weakness, if you will? But also a humanizing factor. And if you look at Kubrick characters, you will find whole legions of the obsessed. This is what makes these characters human for us, and, in the end, seals their doom. Maybe the conclusions we reach from this aren't optimistic, but nobody ever equated humanism with optimism.

So, this whole question of Eyes Wide Shut being "foreign territory" for Kubrick, as many have said, is in my opinion pure bunk. Obsession is, as you state, "a part of us," and it is also one of Kubrick's central themes.

GA: There are two scenes involving Lady Lyndon which further underscore your observations: The shot of her at prayer with Runt following Brian's death, with her almost catatonic expression of anxious pain (matched in some way, I feel, by the scene in which Barry's mother has her son carried to bed), and the scene where LL tries to kill herself, with her screams and convulsions recorded dramatically by Kubrick's held-held camera.

BE: The scene of Lady Lyndon's suicide attempt has always been particularly intriguing, because it is so loud -- every time I watch the film, her screams get so loud that I have to turn the sound down lest my neighbors think somebody is getting killed in my house -- and so overplayed, which is then undercut and made to look ridiculous by the narrator's interjection that Lady Lyndon hadn't taken enough dosage to kill herself. The feeling here is threefold: an initial identification with LL; a chuckle (perhaps) when she is undercut by the narrator; and finally, a realization that actually, this is the last straw in Barry's downfall, the culmination of the dissolution of his family and his hopes and dreams, symbolized by his wife crawling and screaming pathetically on the floor.

GA: It's at these points (the suicide attempt especially) that we realise the story has gotten somewhat away from the narrator -- he tries to keep up, but no longer offers much in the way of his wry observations and arch sardonics, and capable only of a recitation of facts. Realise, that if the were for example, a Merchant-Ivory film (god forbid!), the action of the film throughout -- beginning to end -- would have been as arch and mannered as the narration -- and melodramatic without pause --

BE: In fact, it's as far as any film could possibly get from the staid, measured tone of the earlier parts of the film. Compare this contrast with the two sets of killings that punctuate the two parts of Full Metal Jacket. For someone whose tone and style is so often assumed to be so distinct, Kubrick sure as hell runs the gamut of tonal and stylistic devices in both of these films. And, in both cases, the transformations the films have undergone have hindered them in the eyes of many critics who, I'm afraid, fail to get the point and whose expectations are too tempered by the rest of the cinematic zeitgeist.

GA: It's a moment for which the director has prepared us, though; beginning with Barry's attack upon Lord Bullingdon (also shot hand-held, if I remember right) -- and picking up again with the slo-mo fall of Brian from his horse -- Kubrick's story (that is, Kubrick's manner of telling Thackeray's story) begins a definite movement into passion and realism, with a distinct psychological focus, contrasting explicitly with the picaresque humors of Part One and the mannered social posturing of the first half of Part Two, and which comes to a head with the arrival of Bullingdon at the club to challenge Barry, and the slow reverse tracking shot of Bullingdon (a direct imitation of Alex in ACO, IMO, complete with derby, walking-stick and swagger....Barry, in this scene, is the old drunk in the underpass...). The duel is completely without narration.

And it's the Duel, a central motif of the film, which is the perfect image of passions & emotion under the strict control of social custom....

BE: Yes!...and speaking of parallels,I recently noticed a startling resemblance between Bullingdon's challenge of Barry and the opening scene of Lolita (though the latter is much shorter) as well. What shall we make of that? Is Barry also a Clare Quilty of sorts? I would align him earlier in the film with the love-starved Humbert Humberts of the world. But then again, this isn't a war, and there aren't really sides.What does seem to occur at that point in Barry Lyndon is a further doubling, with Bullingdon becoming, in some sense, the young Barry. Somebody (was it Ciment? Kolker? Nelson?) once pointed out the similarity in their names. Obviously, though, the roles being played here are much more complex. But when Barry wakes up to Bullingdon's challenge, out of his drunken stupor, there is a moment of recognition in his face. The shot of O'Neal waking up becomes almost transcendent: Is he thinking, "Oh, yeah, it's that Bullingdon guy." Or is he thinking, "I was like this once." He has gone from being the challenger to the challenged. Bullingdon's smashing of protocol in the later half of the film resembles Barry's smashing of protocol in the first part (the breaking of the wine-glass, "Here's my toast to ye, Captain John Quin," etc.).

And as for the duel itself, there are some parallels worth mentioning. In the duel with Quin, Barry remarks that "These are not my guns." And he becomes a victim of circumstance as a result (albeit a staged one -- the guns are full of tow, and Quinn isn't killed). In the last duel, Bullingdon's gun goes off before he can fire. And yet, he is able to re-seize his opportunity, and thus become the victor. We get a human glimpse of Bullingdon, briefly, after he shoots Barry. The camera is hand-held, and the composition is interrupted by figures rushing in the foreground (I think) -- there is a moment of joy and relief in his face. For an instant, he becomes not the scheming Bullingdon, but a young boy relieved to be through this grueling experience. This is our last human glimpse of Bullingdon. The complexity of feeling and audience alignment (not to mention the blinding suspense) in this scene is really hard to describe with words. The truth of this thing is definitely in the feel of it, as Kubrick might say. What I carry from it is the sense that I have seen real life at work. As Jean Renoir said, in The Rules Of The Game: "Everybody has his reasons."

GA: Fundamentally, the film's manner of telling the story is representative of the story's deepening concerns -- and see this movement towards 'seriousness' being told in the details too -- compare the comical character of Quin the English officer in the opening of the film with the later character of Potsdorf, the Prussian officer, and then later Potsdorf, the Berlin Gestatspolizei. If one is sensitive to the gestalt of each scene, one can easily see the narrative changing right before one's eyes.

I want to comment here, parenthetically, on the acting in duel-scene itself -- in a way I think it may be the first time we, as an audience, are really 'present' at the scene, no longer witnessing through they eyes of the narrator or even the storyteller. Bullingdon (superbly reaslised by Leon Vitali) reveals himself the opposite of what he and his society pretend he is: a nobleman -- while Barry's act of largess in firing into the ground is perhaps the most significantly & sincerely mature act we ever witness of him -- answered by Bullingdon without mercy or gratitude. The facial expression O'Neal uses in reply to Bullingdon's bullying ingratitude is brilliant, is priceless, and is absolutely perfect.

BE: But as I said before, I believe there is more here. Bullingdon ceases to be a nobleman in our eyes. And yet, the emotions he reveals here (pain, fear, anger, ingratitude, relief, etc.) all go to make him more human. And after this, he becomes the perfect nobleman. He is now in charge, and he seems to age years within a matter of minutes. Yet another example of how much this scene becomes representative of the film -- culminating the story and deconstructing it at the same time, without having to resort to pseudo-Brechtian theatrics and tactics.

GA: You asked, Bilge, "Does Barry love Lady Lyndon? This is one of the central mysteries of the film....Barry's promise to his dying son is not an empty promise -- it is probably the one promise he would keep if he could...."

I do believe Barry loves Lady Lyndon, and I believe they both keep that promise to their son unconciously, but are incapable of knowing or benefitting -- which is ultimately the tragedy of their relationship. It's a fairly sophisticated observation Kubrick is making here.

And yes, I believe Lady Lyndon loves Barry too. Ultimately this is the tragedy, or a part of the tragedy, of the story -- that love can be so thoroughly overcome by a society and culture whose continued operation depends upon far more commercial & quotidian attitudes. Compare the two very contrasting images of Barry & Lady Lyndon's union -- when they meet on the moonlit terrace, in what Kubrick himself described as a similitude of silent film (even the lighting contributes) -- wordlessly, passionately -- and the daylight-soaked image of the marriage itself (and listen to the words being spoken by Reverend Runt) -- the 'battle-lines' between these competing life-sensibilities are well demarcated. Follow up in your mind these scenes with the final scene of the film, as LL signs Barry's annuity....

BE: By the way, in this scene, at the end, the Schubert we hear on the soundtrack is the same that we hear during Barry's silent seduction of Lady Lyndon. The look on her face, coupled with the freeze-frame and the narrator's "He never saw Lady Lyndon again." There is a depth and complexity of feeling here that only the cinema could ever hope to communicate.

GA: Certainly, the reverse-zoom at Brian's funeral procession you discuss in your essay "The Shape of Things To Come" (a procession led, as in the wedding, by the meaningless ministrations of the Reverend -- a husband & wife, in solemn social ceremony) -- which ends in close-up upon the two, together -- is as eloquent a statement as can be made of the futility of love in the face of a society which consumes and sublimates passion for its own ends. No less was it the theme of Lolita, and even Killer's Kiss -- which ends with love's triumph, interestingly (and features his then-wife in an extended sequence) -- and was the last totally original script young Kubrick wrote.

If passion itself furnishes the 'protagonist' of the story (a youthful Irish lad undone by his striving for Imperial English respectabilities), the villian of the work is the World -- or, more precisely (yet more abstractly) it is Time & History, as Bilge has illustrated -- and this makes Barry Lyndon an examplar of Romantic fiction -- it's means in telling it's story are explicitly apposite & contrary to Romanticism, which is very much the point. But in reality this film, which far too many viewers regard as being without passion, is in truth its greatest manifesto. Or its epitaph.