My Friends are the Best People: Narrational Bias in Barry Lyndon

Kubrick is noted for frequently utilizing a series of framing techniques which can visually establish a sense of internal focalization within a film, including 90 degree camera placement, 180 degree cutting, centering of the figures in medium closeup, point of view shots, and the use of tracking and zoom shots. All of these are in evidence in Barry Lyndon. Barry is introduced in the third shot of the film, which begins on a marble statue of a child and slowly tracks backward to reveal Barry, screen left, playing cards with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton). As the narrator speaks of him directly — “First love. What a change it makes in a lad.” — Kubrick cuts to a medium closeup of Barry gazing longingly at Nora. Here, in both the timing of the cut as well as the pairing of Hordern’s voice and Barry’s face, the film seems to be telling the audience that the narrator will be speaking on Barry’s behalf. Barry, for all his questing for wealth and stature, is largely depicted as pliant and passive throughout the film, often at the mercy of circumstance, and his psychology as a character is therefore susceptible to the narrator’s raconteuring, a fact that the narrator, Kubrick, or perhaps both are quick to exploit.

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The image and the narrator continue to conspire throughout the first section of the film, in which the flirtatious Nora’s affections are drawn away from Barry and toward the visiting British soldier Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter). Watching Captain Quin lead his troops through a preening pageant that displays their formal rigor, Kubrick slowly zooms in on Barry’s face as the narrator informs us, “Their scarlet coats and swaggering airs filled Barry with envy,” as though voice and image were both penetrating Barry’s poker-faced exterior. Kubrick then cuts to Captain Quin, and next to a closeup of Nora watching Quin; though pangs of desire are swelling now in Nora as well — albeit for romance rather than regality — the narrator is silent. Later, by foretelling events before they are depicted, the narrator will establish his knowledge as not restricted to the spatial or temporal linearity of the image; at this point, however, his refusal to comment upon the emotions of any character besides Barry can be construed as a confidence play meant to convince the audience that he is our privileged surrogate for the protagonist and that it is through him that we are to relate with Barry.

The narrator remains silent throughout the next sequence, in which Barry watches Nora and Quin dance. Nora and Quin are filmed with a fixed telephoto lens which narrows the depth of field, making them the only subjects within the frame to be in focus. Kubrick next makes a 180 degree cut to Barry watching them from a distance; the narrow depth of the field from the previous shot, coupled with the shot of Barry’s gaze, creates the effect of a mental focal point within Barry’s point of view, an effect which is furthered in the next three shots. First, Kubrick returns to Nora and Quin in a full body shot. Quin stops dancing and slowly approaches Nora. As Quin takes Nora’s hand, Kubrick cuts in closer to a medium shot with an even more narrow depth of field which highlights both their proximity to one another and their detachment from their surroundings. Finally, Kubrick returns to Barry, this time in closeup, watching their courtship unfold. When the narrator steps aside, the enframement and cutting take over the task of focalization.

Interior narration continues to be linked with slow zooming and tracking shots throughout the film, with one of the most obvious examples coming just after Barry’s friend Captain Jack Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) is killed during a battle, which the narrator archly notes, “was not recorded in any history books, [but] it was memorable enough for those who took part.” After Barry carries Grogan off the battlefield and into a nearby ravine, Grogan offers Barry what little money he has left, telling him, “Kiss me, my boy, for we’ll never meet again.” Barry sobs over the body of the departed soldier, the only time in the film in which he is granted such an outward display of emotion (after the death of his son later in the film, Barry attempts to stifle his tears, exhibiting his grief through the self-medication of drink). The next shot cuts to Barry, later that evening, standing silently beside a campfire while his fellow soldiers are asleep. As the camera pushes in, the narrator tells us:

It is well to dream of glorious war in a snug armchair at home, but it is a very different thing to see it first hand. And after the death of his friend, Barry’s thoughts turned from those of military glory to those of finding a way to escape the service to which he was now tied for another six years.

Though there is nothing within the profilmic to verify the narrator’s assertions of Barry’s psychology, the audience is primed to trust him from the previous times in which the narrator, speaking over a moving camera, has given psychological descriptors which were verifiable by the images on the screen. By the campfire, however, the narrator’s assertions break the temporal linearity of the narrative; if we are to assume that the narrator does not in fact have privileged access to Barry’s psychology and that his claims to Barry’s thoughts and motivations are conjecture based upon empirical evidence, then what this transaction does imply is the narrator’s freedom from the temporality of screen time, a suspicion supported by his use of the past tense and confirmed, later, by his selective disclosure of key events well before they occur within the narrative.

One of the first examples of this selective disclosure occurs two scenes later, just before Barry spies the bathing soldiers from whom he will steal a uniform, a horse, and an identity. Over a reverse zoom from Barry carrying two barrels to the riverside, the narrator states, “Fate did not intend he should remain long an English soldier.” This is followed by three shots which pan from left to right, following Barry’s walk toward the river. Barry stops when he notices first the soldier’s two horses tied to a tree. As he rounds the tree, he spies the two soldiers bathing in the water below; the camera zooms in past Barry, who stands with his back to the audience, and toward the soldiers, implying Barry’s point of view. Kubrick then employs a 180 degree cut back to Barry; while zooming in, the narrator again chimes in: “Here was the opportunity to escape from the army for which he had been searching.”

Again, the narrator is using his knowledge of the impending series of events to feign a level of psychological access which he does possess. Furthermore, his tendency to speak over zoom and tracking shots does imply an awareness of the image, a point which is crucial to the narrator’s use of irony in the second half of the film. Immediately after Barry steals the soldier’s belongings, the film elides to Barry in his new courier’s clothes riding through the countryside towards Prussia. Over a reverse zoom of Barry on horseback, the narrator offers an increasingly conjectural explication of Barry’s motivations that — although a firm basis for such speculation will be borne out as the film progresses — remains contingent upon the audience’s acceptance of the narrator as an authority: “As he rode away, Barry felt once more that he was in his proper sphere and determined never again to fall from the rank of a gentleman.”

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Upon arriving in Prussia, Barry’s first interaction is with Lischen (Diana Koerner), a beautiful young mother caring for her newborn son while her husband is away in the war. Barry stops her to ask if there is an inn where he might find a bite to eat; when she tells him that there is nothing within a commutable distance, he asks if she would be so kind as to offer him food and shelter for the night. The scene that follows bears a striking number of similarities to the earlier scene of Barry and his cousin Nora which merit mention. In both Nora’s seduction of Barry and Barry’s seduction of Lischen, man and woman are seated on either side of a table with an infant between them — in the former, it was a statue, but in the latter, it is Lischen’s baby boy. The difference of a living boy versus a cold, stone representation is indicative of the consummation of this mutual attraction, as opposed to Nora’s teasing and insincere overtures. Once again, there is a storm outside, perceptible by the sound of rainfall and thunder, an example of pathetic fallacy, telling the audience that Barry’s romantic pursuits will likely be tempestuous.

Barry, tellingly, gives Lischen not his own name but that of the soldier he is impersonating, Lt. Jonathan Fakenham, a name which could scarcely be more appropriate for the conniving opportunist and army deserter. Tender though their time together is, Lischen nonetheless marks Barry’s first use of a woman for personal gain. This is a far cry from the nervous and passive Redmond Barry who was strung along by his promiscuous cousin; Barry now is emboldened and purposeful, calmly and intently pursuing his target. Though a meal, a roof, and a bedfellow for the night are quaint compared to that which Barry will ultimately take from Lady Lyndon, his selfish and singleminded ways are already in evidence. As the camera zooms out from Barry and Lischen exchanging tender goodbyes the next morning, the narrator alludes obliquely to the weather metaphor as well:

A lady who sets her heart upon a man in uniform must prepare to change lovers pretty quickly, or her life will be but a sad one. This heart of Lischen’s was like many a neighboring town and had been stormed and occupied several times before Barry came to invest it.

Though this piece of narration is in keeping with the tone of detached irony and the deflation of passion and suspense through arch commentary, it is unique in that it presents a detail of personal history about a character other than Barry. While the narrator does often allude to the greater scope of European history, as well as to details of the Lyndons, there is no other instance of him recounting events which could not be known by Barry either generally as historical or anecdotally through association. While it is possible that Lischen confided her previous infidelities to Barry, this curious assertion can otherwise be qualified in two ways: first, the chauvinistic tone in which the narrator dismisses the sweet young Prussian as something of a trollop can be viewed as another example of his presuming psychological authority in his recounting of Barry’s travails; second, this remark could be seen as one of the first instances of the narrator turning on Barry, passing a sort of passive judgment upon his actions, and sullying what may have been one of Barry’s few moments of genuine affection.

As the evidence suggests, however, it is more likely that Barry’s one night stand is more an act of self preservation than of passion. Kubrick wastes little time establishing romance as inextricably linked to the demonstration and exchange of power and property. In her mocking seduction of Barry earlier in the film, Nora stands in front of Barry, who is still seated, and goads him to locate a piece of ribbon which she has hidden in her cleavage. Kubrick films both Barry and Nora in profile from the same angle, but does so in closeup and from different heights so their faces do not appear on screen together. Nora, clearly acting from a position of advantage, looks down upon Barry, who, in his closeups, shares the screen with Nora’s bosom. Barry is young, inexperienced, aroused, and vulnerable; in Nora’s breasts he beholds power, manifest through sexuality, as well as property, in the ribbon which will serve as a cheap proxy for his true desire.

Class is later invoked when a jealous Barry attempts to upset the union of Nora and Captain Quin: “What business have you to come quarreling here with a gentleman who is 1500 a year?” he is asked by his relatives, who will later reduce marriage to a business transaction. Love and money are further entwined when Quin’s comrades inform Barry that, per the terms of his marriage to Nora, “Quin has promised to pay off the 4000 pounds that has been bothering your uncle so.” Thus, when Barry subjugates the emotions of Lischen and, later, Lady Lyndon to the practical mechanics of his ascent, he is only enacting the callous lessons he has been inadvertently taught. (It is also in keeping with this theme, and is thus worth noting, that the film’s only depiction of genuine romantic affection — between the two bathing soldiers — leaves its practitioners vulnerable and robbed of both property and identity.)

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After Barry leaves Lischen, there is a series of wide static shots of the German countryside, into which Barry rides; unlike previous shots that centered or followed Barry, the enframement now treats Barry as an intruding force entering foreign lands. Shortly thereafter, he is stopped by Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger), a Prussian commander who questions Barry’s identity and intentions. Barry tenders his stolen papers and informs Potzdorf that he is carrying important correspondence from Prince Harry to Bremen. Potzdorf invites Barry to ride with his army and to spend the night with them. While Barry shares libations with Potzdorf in the capital, the narrator again betrays a growing bias against Barry, hinting at Potzdorf’s suspicion that Barry is not who he says he is, but refusing to be explicit about the outcome. “His host seemed quite satisfied with these stories,” the narrator tells us, “but at the same time he led Barry on with a skillful combination of questions and flattery.” Besides merely compressing what could have been hours of real time into a few seconds of narrative time, the narrator’s coy refusal to warn the audience of Potzdorf’s subterfuge makes him complicit with the Captain’s aims.

When Barry, having been exposed as an army deserter and an impostor, is taken into the Prussian army, there is a none-too-repressed tone of judgment as the narrator states that the military “was composed for the most part of men from the lowest levels of humanity, hired or stolen from almost every nation in Europe.” There is little qualification or exception made for Barry when he continues, “Thus, Barry fell into the very worst of courses and company, and was soon very far advanced in the science of every kind of misconduct.” This aspersive description, however, is contrary to what we are shown on screen in the next sequence, in which Barry valiantly rescues Captain Potzdorf from underneath a fallen cross-beam during a skirmish. For his valor, Barry is rewarded two Friedrich d’Or and a promotion to the Prussian secret police, where his job will be to help Captain Potzdorf capture a roving gambler and possible spy who travels under the assumed name of the Chevalier du Balibari (Patrick Magee).

It is when Barry receives his assignment by Potzdorf that Kubrick first utilizes the rigid, highly symmetrical composition for which he has become known. More than just being a sumptuous and flattering use of the film’s period locations, Kubrick uses the aesthetic rigidity henceforth to accentuate the emotional austerity of his characters, boxing them within the frame just as the aristocracy will later be shown to be constrained by their rules of decorum and the trappings of their wealth. Thus, such symmetrical interiors are linked with Barry’s assuming of airs, as his behavior is to become as delineated as the architecture that surrounds him.

Barry’s first professional espionage — following his assuming the identity of Lt. Fakenham — is the impersonation of a German servant in order to enter the employ of the Chevalier. Barry, however, is so overwhelmed by the opulence of the Chevalier’s lodging and accoutrement that he immediately confesses his deception; this unheralded display of emotion and admiration endears Barry to the Chevalier, who confides his own Irish ancestry to Barry and vows to take him under his wing. Throughout this sequence, Kubrick chooses to shoot the Chevalier in deep focus, placing the man and his surroundings on a more or less equal focal plane. Barry, however, is most frequently shot with a telephoto lens and a much more narrow depth of field which renders his surroundings out of focus, highlighting his status as an outsider, accentuating that he is not one with the privileged class within whose walls he currently stands.

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The Chevalier’s life — as befits a professional gambler — is a nomadic one, and it is in traveling alongside him that Barry finds himself in the estate of Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon (Frank Middlemass) where his attention is drawn to the elderly Lord’s much younger wife (Marisa Berenson). Over a tracking shot that scans the length of the ornately landscaped promenade before landing on the Chevalier and Barry sharing a bistro table overlooking a pond, the narrator lays out what is to be Barry’s next course of action:

Five years in the army and some considerable experience of the world had by now dispelled any of those romantic notions regarding love with which Barry commenced life, and he began to have it in mind, as so many gentlemen had done before him, to marry a woman of fortune and condition; and as such things so often happen, these thoughts closely coincided with his setting first sight on the lady who will henceforth play a considerable part in the drama of his life: the Countess of Lyndon.

Again, Kubrick employs a slow zoom which commences just as Barry turns his head to notice the Lyndons strolling with their son Bullingdon (Dominic Savage, later Leon Vitali) and his tutor, Reverend Runt (Murray Melvin). The zoom — just as it did by the riverside, during Barry’s first attempt to steal property and identity from someone of privilege in a state of vulnerability — reconfigures the shot as representative of Barry’s subjective point of view, which is compounded by the next shot, a 180 degree cut back to Barry in closeup watching Lady Lyndon perambulate. The narrow depth of field of the telephoto lens once again emphasizes the singularity of Barry’s perspective within this sequence.

Barry’s seduction of Lady Lyndon is one of the greatest sequences in the Kubrick filmography, unfolding virtually wordlessly over a game of cards in which Barry and Lady Lyndon exchange glances, alternately furtive and lingering, while Reverend Runt eyes the both of them suspiciously. Kubrick cuts back and forth between Barry and Lady Lyndon using a combination of medium and closeup shots and eye line matches to build a simmering sexual tension between the two. Lady Lyndon politely excuses herself and steps out on to the veranda, where the cool blue moonlight serves as a striking contrast to the soft orange glow of the candlelit interiors. In the background, we can see that Barry has followed Lady Lyndon to the veranda, visible as he moves slowly past the large glass doors. Kubrick cuts to Barry in profile, following him as he approaches Lady Lyndon, who turns to face him as he reaches for her hand. He pulls her in for a stately, prolonged kiss, having won Lady Lyndon’s ardor without having spoken a single word.

The narrator, however, dryly summarizes the transaction, pointedly making no mention of Barry’s emotions, rather only his strategizing: “To make a long story short, six hours after they met, her ladyship was in love; and once Barry got into her company, he found innumerable occasions to improve his intimacy and was scarcely out of her ladyship’s sight.” Part one of the film ends shortly thereafter with Lord Lyndon expiring in a coughing fit, over which the narrator reads his formal obituary. The image cuts abruptly to black, as the voice of the narrator slowly recedes into inaudibility; life ends as abruptly as it began, but the legacy, the words, the story of one’s life — reductive though it may be — continues so long as it is told.

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One response to “My Friends are the Best People: Narrational Bias in Barry Lyndon

  1. Interesting read, I remembered the narrator being a bit odd when he made those comments after Barry’s night with the Prussian farm girl. Now I’ll definitely have to watch the film again. Thanks.

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