July 6: #23, Barry Lyndon
It's Forrest Gump meets neo-noir in an 18th century period drama.
Barry Lyndon tells the story of cousin-lover, womanizer, gambler and ne'er-do-well Redmond Barry as he floats, fumbles, fibs, and fucks his way through a life where he stumbles into opportunity after opportunity in a way that can only be surpassed by Forrest Gump himself.
Unlike Forrest Gump, Barry is not meant to be a good person. Played by Ryan O'Neal, Barry is unabashedly imperfect, and even after three hours, you may not feel like you or anyone in the film ever truly knew who he really was. The only thing I feel like I know for sure about Barry is that he was always motivated by purely selfish means. Whether it was his lust for his cousin, self preservation, the search for adventure or the drive for wealth, Barry makes a string of unpredictable decisions throughout the film based on one thing - what he wants at the time.
That's not to say that Barry Lyndon is not a good film. No, because you see, it's not as if Stanley Kubrick was unaware that he was filming the story of a complete scoundrel. But Kubrick wants us to see that even a person as simple as Barry is still pretty complex, and that neither the selfishness of his scams or the love he has for his child later in the film are as pure as we might assume.
As Barry goes through his life and finds himself in a pretty good place, he eventually loses it all through events that aren't intended to shock or surprise us. In fact, the narrator spoils the major events of the film, making it clear that it's not what happens to Barry that's important. The film even avoids any kind of simple moral by refusing to make Barry Lyndon a karma fantasy where a selfish person gets theirs in the end. After all, plenty of good people are hurt in Barry's wake, and Barry makes out pretty good at the end, in some ways.
If anything, Barry Lyndon is a rejection of such simple comforts as karma, which puts it squarely in my wheelhouse, since I also abhor the concept. In the world of Barry Lyndon, bad stuff happens to good people, good stuff happens to bad people, and everything in between. Unfortunate situations are thrust upon some folks and at other times, people suffer or profit from their own choices, regardless of where they may fit on any morality scale.
|Oh, come on, like you never played a harmless game of "dig the ribbon out of the boob cleavage" with your cousin.|
It's that emphasis on complexity, which continues in scenes such as Barry's last duel with his stepson, where you can appreciate this film for refusing to tie anything with a neat little bow. There's also a lot to like in O'Neal's performance in a film that he really had to carry. His love interests are a succession of interchangeable blank slates, which is perfect because it fits Barry's view of them.
At first, I didn't like O'Neal much in the role, but he really grew on me as I realized that he was really playing the character appropriately. The narrative decisions make sense when you understand Barry, too. Things that can be seen as noble gestures, such as Barry's willingness to let the stepson who he wronged best him, become more clear when you consider that Barry simply appreciated the boy's determination because his idealized version of himself included the same quality.
Still, a good portion of the film feels like Kubrick really buying into his own genius. It's his most masturbatory film besides 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that's saying something. He gives us some beautiful shots of the Irish countryside in what is often a visually striking film. He also engages in the same excess that the lead character does from time to time in a film that didn't really need to be three hours long. Like its protagonist, Barry Lyndon is flawed, yet memorable.