Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Notes on Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick, England: 1975, Berlin Filmfestival 2017 V.-Homage Milena Canonero

One thing is sure: one of the finest films screened on this year´s Berlinale is Kubrick´s Barry Lyndon. Released during a time when Kubrick´s films were discussed much more controversial than today the film was /except in France) not very successful. No need to talk again about Kubrick´s technical virtuosity. First of all - there not much films who tried to approach a far distant epoch through light. There was the experimental lightning in John Ford´s She Wore a yellow Ribbon (1949). And this strange feeling sitting in a time machine instead of a film theatre was achieved very seldom after Barry Lyndon: for example in Terrence Malick´s Days of Heaven and The New World or in Hou Hsiao Hsien´s Hsimeng Rensheng (The Puppetmaster) and Yin Nie Yinniang (The Assassin). 

One can consider Barry Lyndon as the perfect complementary piece to Kubrick´s other masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. While 2001 unfolds it´s glory only on these over dimensioned and curved big screens especially designed for 70 millimeter projections (which hardly exist anymore), the film created a nearly three dimensional illusion. Our conventional perception of gravitation and spatial orientation were suspended. Compared with 2001 Barry Lyndon can be considered as Kubrick´s most minimalistic approach. The dominating elements are zooms backwards, only a few scenes filmed with handheld cameras and very few tracking shots. Especially the extreme long zooms backwards let the characters often disappear in the space - even more they reduce them as a tiny part of a far distant global history. 

The scenes only lightened with candles and with the help of this famous extreme light sensitive special lens, created very coarse grained and flat images almost without depth of focus. That means in these moments the cinematic illusion is often totally lifted. Kubrick is not just quoting the paintings of this epoch, he examines in this film the relationship between paintings and cinema.
The usual negative cliches about Kubrick are often that his films are “boring” or his aesthetic “intentions” are only to overwhelm the audience. Which is of course, nonsense. His films have a balance between enchanting the audience and keeping them to a certain distance and his films often move between these two extremes. 

Barry Lyndon the film but also the novel the film is based could be considered as an “Entwicklungsroman”, a character´s development in its confrontation with the world and himself. But Redmond Barry changes from a relative likeable young man to a cynical imposter. He internalizes all the bad experiences he goes through, betrayal and, wars. Later after  he is is uncovered as a deserter they force him into the Prussian army whhich was infamous for it´s depravity at this time. For a protagonist in an epic period drama he is quite a very weak character. He turns even to be very disagreeable. His violence against his step son, his greed , his opportunism turns him into a monster among monsters. The changes in the face of Ryan O´Neil (who offered here one of the finest male performances in Kubrick´s work) are some of the the more subtle but indeed the most impressing aspects of this film. 
Only at the end, when Redmond Barry has lost nearly everything, hist own son his social rank, the film allows something like sympathy for it´s character. Mentally broken and crippled after a lost duel he leaves in his last scene the story  and also the history of the 18th. Century without a trace.
For several reason, Barry Lyndon is one if not Kubrick´s most uncompromising film. As sad as we might be about the failure of Kubrick´s Napoleon-project (Barry Lyndon probably benefits a lot from Kubrick´s extensive researches for Napoleon), this film is the best imaginable compensation.

Barry Lyndon  is one of the best film adaptation from a novel and one of the rare examples that the adaptation goes far beyond the book, I can remember. It is very enlightening  to compare Kubrick´s masterpiece with the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray for getting an idea how hard Kubrick worked to transform a novel into pure cinema. And there is much more to say about and even much more to discover or re-discover in Barry Lyndon, one of the greatest most precious gift to cinema, Kubrick ever offered.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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