Barry Lyndon, Euro-cynic

Stanley Kubrick’s picaresque appraisal of a continent torn between its noble ideals and venal reality suddenly seems so not very 250 years ago.

Phil Hoad
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Barry Lyndon (1975)

The BFI’s re-release of Barry Lyndon arrives most fortuitously – with the UK, as at the start of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “in a state of great excitement”. That is thanks of course to our freshly signed divorce from Europe, rather than the feared French invasion of the film (much as some UKIPers would relish sharpening their pitchforks for that one). But with Barry Lyndon’s first half unfolding during the upheaval of the Seven Years’ War, it’s full of a nicely synchronised sense of a continent in flux. Amid the talk of candle-lit sets and Nasa-built lenses, what’s been ignored down the years is the idea of Barry Lyndon not just as a film set in Europe, but about the idea of Europe – transfixed by its refinement, but sidling off mutinously in search of a sharper vantage point on the continent and its civilising mission.

Eighteenth-century Europe – which Kubrick, according to Film Quarterly writer Hans Feldman, viewed as “Western civilisation at its most formal stage of development” – has already assumed a familiar pattern. Ruled by an aristocracy that straddles borders, it’s a playground for courtly elites whose gilded existence is expressed in the aesthetic ideals and social codes of the day.

But those are ripe for exploitation – which is where William Makepeace Thackeray’s hothead Irish scion Redmond Barry comes in.

Kubrick chose to adapt the 1844 novel after his failed attempt to make a Napoleon biopic. Not only does the September 1969 draft floating around on the internet show the same fascination in Enlightenment values, as played out in military formations, honour codes and the like, but Bonaparte’s ostensibly grander arc also has a little Redmond Barry at its kernel. Napoleon’s rise from modest Corsican nobility to scourge of Europe is Barry’s story played out on a good day; the hierarchy-bucking Bonaparte myth provided a model for later arriviste antiheroes like Julian Sorel in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. So perhaps it’s not surprising that figure of the continent-roving chancer is what survived when budget worries and rival projects forced Kubrick to forget about the dictator.

Redmond Barry becomes the agent of Kubrick’s brilliantly droll commentary on European ideals in the first half of the film. The exquisite harmony echoing through the music, dance, rituals, architecture and – crucially for Barry Lyndon – painting is constantly exposed as a veneer.

Take duelling. Barry’s love for his cousin, Nora Brady, sees him demand satisfaction from a rival suitor, the English captain John Quin; it’s later revealed that the cowardly but wealthy Quin’s death was staged, forcing Barry to flee and so preserving the Bradys’ financial future.

Or military glory: the brisk choreography of battle manoeuvres beautifies the carnage that Barry, though physically courageous, is unable to stomach. He escapes from the British army by stealing the regalia of a messenger waist-deep in a pond enjoying a gay dalliance – a genius bit of comic invention by Kubrick to prod high society’s double standards. But Barry, en route back to Britain, is found out and forced to join the even less fun Prussian corps. He’s sucked into an immigrant underclass of conscript European labour that is grist to grand unifying ambitions – another timely echo.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry, though, gets the hang of opportunism. He’s assigned to go undercover to surveil an Irish spy posing as an Austrian libertine at large in Berlin. He turns double agent and enters the card-sharping service of the ‘Chevalier de Balibari’ (a transparent riff on his own ancestral seat, Bally Barry).

Europe seems awash in fakery and self-administered blue blood, more circumstance than pomp. Its aesthetic values, all the posturing and powder, just serve to dress up nationalist agendas and personal ambitions. Thackeray’s inspiration for Barry, the infamous Irish rake and one-time MP for Newcastle Andrew Robinson Stoney, takes the biscuit in this respect: supposedly on his deathbed after a duel (probably staged), he made one of Britain’s richest heiresses promise to marry him before brutally mistreating her.

Underlying it all is violence there to enforce the social order: Barry’s duelling prowess, for example, sees him become the Chevalier’s debt enforcer. The Europe Kubrick unfolds for us is a colossal game there to be won by those who best divine the rules. A certain ennui appears to have already set in for Barry Lyndon’s narrator: “It would require a great philosopher and historian to explain the causes of the famous Seven Years’ War,” is his stab at a resume, a sentiment that still applies to Common Agricultural Policy reform.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Kubrick put together this grand waltz of trans-European cynicism during the early 70s, as Britain, Ireland and Denmark were enlarging the EEC, so it’s intriguing to speculate about his politics. It’s probably too much to say that Barry – milking the continent but firmly out for number one – is a proto-Brexiteer; he’s too happy to swap flags at a moment’s notice. But there could be a kind of Euroscepticism underlying the manner of his pretender’s progress through all those stately homes – or a kind of realism about a unified continent. One striking moment of sincere emotion is Barry’s flush of homesickness and Gaelic camaraderie that leads him to switch allegiances to the Chevalier. Home is still where the heart is.

Again, it’s dangerous to draw political conclusions from this, but Kubrick is at least dipping into questions of identity and belonging at play in the European project. Some of them may have visited themselves on the director during filming in Ireland: a bomb threat was called into the production’s hairdresser in January 1974, and Kubrick fled the country for a hotel in Holyhead. Possibly it was a hoax, but some speculate the IRA may have taken umbrage at the material. “What’s interesting is the manner in which the film portrays the British army as being unproblematically a part of Irish society [at the time],” Dublin City University lecturer Roddy Flynn told Irish radio station Newstalk. “From a Republican perspective, that’s an awkward truth.”

The director’s admiration for lofty pan-European ideals comes back into play in the film’s second half, when the briefly ennobled Barry Lyndon is put back in his place. After his lack of discipline brings the Lyndon estate close to ruin, his leg is amputated after a duel with his adopted son, who seizes back control. Kubrick cements his climber back into the social order with high European style: slow reverse-zooming him into the margins of history in a mounting succession of 18th-century-style tableaus, that Schubert piano trio lulling him to his exit.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

But even here there’s a kind of tension. Kubrick’s visual reference points weren’t just the harmonious likes of Constable and Gainsborough, but the more scabrous Hogarth, too, whose Marriage-à-la-Mode series may have influenced the long tracking shot taking in the dissolute lackeys chez Lyndon. And the director had to step outside, to a more individualistic era, to find a musical motif that bled enough sympathy for the antihero: Schubert’s Piano Trio in E Flat, Op. 100. “One of the problems which soon became apparent is that there are no tragic love themes in 18th-century music,” he later told interviewer Michael Ciment. Even as the film is gearing up into a curtain call for unrufflable European order, it still can’t totally repress these anarchic, wayward energies.

This is the imperfect cadence Barry Lyndon ends on: both undermining and affirming in its Europeanism. Teasing out the last trills of Schubert as Lady Lyndon stalls over signing her financial kiss-off to Barry, Kubrick intimates that a second’s misgiving is still capable of scuppering the grand-historical course of things. The date on the annuity is December 1789. Perhaps, in the remake, it could be June 2016.

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