I first saw Barry Lyndon in its initial theatrical release. Hostile reviews had suggested you needed dedication to sit through it, but I was transfixed. Even today Pauline Kael’s snide description of it as a “three hour slide-show for art history majors” seems to prejudice response. Certainly it is not something for audiences expecting a movie to be a trim package with everything worked out for them. Whatever else you might say about it, Barry Lyndon places demands on viewers.
It is certainly thus a product of its times, not in the sense of being dated but because it was produced when entertainment was seen as the give and take between an artist and an informed viewer. Even the film’s art historical references would be problematic today. A film in which beauty is a primary goal conflicts with today’s reactionary focus on story-telling. A contemporary director can’t linger on a shot purely for its visual impact. He/she is supposed to get on with things in order to push the next emotional button.
Precisely because of its intelligence, beauty and stately pace, I enjoy isolated moments in the film more than ever. Nonetheless, there does seem to be something missing from Barry Lyndon, although to cite individual moments is not to suggest that the problem is unevenness. Few films are so consistent in tone and approach, as a matter of fact, but that consistency might be part of the problem. The film’s fastidious craftsmanship seems to be what the film is about. The most compelling scenes are formal, satisfying purely as audiovisual spectacle. Whenever story takes over, the payoff almost never occurs.
Compare, for example, the scene where Barry (Ryan O’Neal) seduces Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) over their card play to the final duel between Barry and Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). In the former, it hardly matters what is going on in the story. The dancing candlelight, the understated Schubert accompaniment, the concentrated stares of O’Neal and Berenson are utterly entrancing in themselves.
In the latter, on the other hand, the focus shifts to the story question “Who will win the duel?” The execution is just as deliberate, but lacks the visual excitement of the card playing. When the moment of truth arrives, it falls flat, because the narrative payoff has been subordinated to predetermined execution which, however, has been subdued visually to serve the story. In other words, depending on your predilections, the film is either too formal or not formal enough.
That’s the problem when a mainstream director “borrows” techniques from filmmakers working with fewer constraints (in this case, possibly Straub and Rossellini). If the balance isn’t just right (as Kubrick managed in 2001) then form competes with the very different expectations of story-telling. So perhaps the “thing” that Barry Lyndon lacks is the synergy that allows formal experimentation and narrative development to complement each other. That, or the freedom to create the abstract work the director seems secretly to want to make.