Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Has there ever been a film as challenging as Barry Lyndon?

Posted by Max Lalanne on August 13, 2012

Barry Lyndon

A typically picturesque scene from Barry Lyndon.

I watched Barry Lyndon today as part of my self-imposed and rather lax mission, if you will, to watch all of Stanley Kubrick’s illustrious filmography that he left behind (so far, I still have The Shining, Lolita, Paths of Glory, and The Killing left out of all his most known). Barry Lyndon. What a tough piece of work to slog through. Yes, of course, it’s a brilliant, fantastic film when you delve deeper into it, but there’s no denying it’s one of the most challenging movies you’ll probably sit through. And you should.

It’s not hard to watch in the sense that the subject material tackled is particularly affecting or difficult to swallow; in contrast, Barry Lyndon is set in the late 1770s and deals with a young Irishman’s misadventures throughout the years. Barry Lyndon is all stately, poised and restrained elegance that always, always beautiful to look at, whether it’s British redcoats marching straight into French gunfire in the countryside, a fancy couple sitting in a gondola on a lake with no words exchanged between the two, or the endlessly excruciating formalities spoken and acted before a pistol duel. But that’s exactly the point.

It’s the way Kubrick set forth to telling this odyssey, dealing with an impeccable eye to visual beauty that ultimately, in retrospect, does nothing but accentuate the deliberate lack of emotional involvement from his part. He plays God, merely showing us the epic turmoils and quarrellings of the human beings he sets up for our entertainment, and letting us be the judge of our emotions. He’s always done that, with 2001: A Space Odyssey being the most obvious of the available. At least, until I saw Barry Lyndon, a cold, manipulative experiment masterfully disguised as a breathtaking film. You don’t quite feel for the main character (Ryan O’Neal), and his philandering, heartless ways. He’s presented quite manner-of-factly, as is the entire story. Are you supposed to care about what happens to him?

It’s certainly a film that requires a lot of thought. There’s no doubt Barry Lyndon is quite an exceptional piece of cinema, but it’s not an instant easy sell, either. Have at it in the comments below.

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