I am not certain what to think of “Barry Lyndon.
When I found that a Stanley Kubrick was coming up, I was very excited. Kubrick usually does not let me down and no two of his movies are alike. In that was he is literally the opposite of Hitchcock.
Secondly, “Barry Lyndon” is a period film, taking place in the eighteenth century. I do read a lot of books from that period, and it is exciting to get some images to go with the stories, so definitely a plus.
Yet, watching it I am a bit at a loss. I simply do not understand what story it is Kubrick is trying to tell.
What he does spend three hours on is a story about a young man (at least in the beginning), Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), who through odd turns in life ends up a nobleman, only to squander it all away again. Redmond is not a hero or even an anti-hero. He is kind of an asshole, not terribly smart and making bad choices on a regular basis. Such as hitting on his cousin, a know flirt, and sabotaging her marriage to a wealthy army captain. He has loyalty to no-one but himself, which we see several examples of as he joins the army fighting in Germany. In Prussian service he becomes an agent, then a double agent, then, escaping the Prussians he goes around swindling the wealthy with his compatriot. Until he makes his big move and court Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a countess.
Marriage is for Redmond merely a ticket to wealth, style, more women and spending money. Soon he has spent the fortune, alienated his wife and her son and disgraced himself to his new peers and he is left with nothing, not even his leg.
There is definitely a picaresque element to the movie. Redmond drifts from one situation to the next without a larger plan, but merely reacting to the situation at hand. He is an opportunist, but for short term gains, and he rarely seems to think his actions through. This makes his life a pretty random affair with many stops on the way.
I cannot root for Redmond. For Redmond there is only Redmond. That makes it somewhat hard to watch the movie. In the beginning I am sitting with a hope that through his adventures he will mature, but he is a lost cause and by the end I just feel sorry for his victims. Except that all these dandies and coxcombs have it coming.
So, I am left a bit perplexed. Kubrick always had a point, but what was his point with Remond Barry? To showcase an asshole and see him get what he deserves? Hardly, but then what? The randomness of life when you think with your gut rather than your brain?
Nothing, however, can take away the pleasure of watching the settings, the magic light and the authentic costumes. The cinematography is just stunning, maybe the most beautiful I have seen from Kubrick. It is matched by a magical score of classic music. A lot of baroque, but also more contemporary Handel and Mozart and even some Schubert, which is actually a bit ahead of this period of second half of the eighteen century. The Handel score used as the recurrent theme is perfectly moody and magic.
A technical wonder of a movie, but a not very sympathetic story where I feel I am missing the point. I feel I have been here before, but then I am not very smart.
I could definitely listen to that score again, though.