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

The second part of the film commences with a relatively brief capitulation of Barry’s marriage to Lady Lyndon, the birth of their son Bryan (David Morley), Bullingdon’s growing distrust of Barry and attachment to his mother, and Barry’s casual infidelities. It is during this extended sequence that the narrator’s seeming disapproval of Barry becomes more pronounced, most pointedly in how his words relate to the images which they accompany. While riding together in a carriage shortly after their marriage, Barry responds to Lady Lyndon’s request that he put out his pipe by blowing smoke directly in her face, at which point the narrator chimes in that “Lady Lyndon was soon destined to occupy a place in Barry’s life not very much more important than the elegant carpets and pictures which would form the pleasant background of his existence.” In this pairing, the narrator and the image reinforce one another, collaborating to create a darker portrait of Barry than either would have independently. Later, over a reverse zoom out from Barry amorously groping and kissing two topless women, the narrator hammers the point home, emphasizing the obvious: “Her ladyship and Barry lived, after a while, pretty separate.”

In future scenes, however, it is the ironic disparity between word and image that creates a more damning portrait of Barry than would otherwise be drawn purely from the events of the narrative. From the aforementioned shot of Barry’s cuckolding, Kubrick cuts to another reverse zoom, this time from Lady Lyndon reclining in her bed, Bullingdon resting upon her. She stares off vacantly, looking exhausted and depressed, completely inanimate save for one finger, which she dangles over the side of Bryan’s crib, halfheartedly engaging the boy, who grabs ineptly at the pendulous digit. Then, for the first time in the film, the narrator acknowledges the possibility that not everything he has said has been objective or, perhaps, even true: “She preferred quiet. Or, to say the truth, he preferred it for her.” Here, then, does the narrator most egregiously tangle his two modes of expression: the imitation of Barry’s interiority and his bias towards the mores of eighteenth century aristocracy. He goes on to say, “Besides, she was a mother, and would have great comfort in the dressing, educating, and dandling of their little Bryan,” an assertion that is in direct contradiction to the visual evidence at hand.

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Later in the film, after Barry’s attempts to acquire a title of his own have incurred innumerable debts upon the Lyndon estate, Kubrick uses similar contradictions to shift sympathies toward Lady Lyndon and away from Barry. One such example occurs at the drafting table, which has been covered from edge to edge with bills and receipts. Kubrick begins the sequence by zooming in to a check, to which Lady Lyndon signs her name. He then cuts to a medium shot of Barry seated at the desk, flanked on either side by Lady Lyndon and their accountant Graham (Philip Stone). Barry has come, both literally and figuratively, between his wife and her money. Despite the provenance of Barry’s newfound wealth, the narrator ironically attributes it and its doling out to Barry, commenting that “Barry was one of those born clever enough at gaining a fortune, but incapable of keeping one…. Now he was burdened with the harassing cares and responsibilities which are the dismal adjuncts of great rank and property.” To underscore the point, Kubrick cuts to a closeup of Lady Lyndon.

The second half of the film also finds Kubrick reestablishing and redistributing some of the techniques of internal focalization that he used with Barry in the first half. Lady Lyndon, for instance, is granted not only a series of closeups upon her discovery of Barry’s infidelity, but also a psychological reading by the narrator over a reverse zoom. After spying Barry kissing one of her maids, Lady Lyndon — with Bullingdon at her side — is framed in closeup as the narrator confides, “Lady Lyndon tended to a melancholy and maudlin temper, and left alone by her husband was rarely happy or in good humor.” As she turns to walk away, he makes a greater plea for our sympathies on her ladyship’s behalf: “Now she must add jealousy to her other complaints and find rivals even among her maids.” Also worth noting is the narrator’s increasing tendency to refer to Barry through pronouns or contextual qualifiers such as “her husband,” as he does here. Though subtle, this also creates a distancing effect for the audience, who are still being given most of their story information through the filter of the narrator.

Bullingdon, too, is privileged with an instance of Barry Lyndon’s primary focalizing motif. After showing Barry whipping his stepson for insubordination, Kubrick cuts forward eight years to a much older Bullingdon, seated on the ground between Barry and Lady Lyndon’s chairs as they watch Bryan take part in a magic show. As the camera zooms out from Bullingdon, clinging like an infant to his mother’s side, the narrator fills us in the elided time by stating that, “As Bullingdon grew up to be a man, his hatred for Barry assumed an intensity equalled only by his increased devotion to his mother.”

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Bullingdon and Barry’s disdain for one another reaches a pitch several scenes later when Bullingdon interrupts Lady Lyndon’s recital in order to publicly address Barry. Though he arrives to chastise Barry for selfishness and insensitivity, Bullingdon exhibits both in ample stock himself, not only by embarrassing and taking attention away from his mother for whom he professes to care deeply, but also by employing Bryan as a cheap prop in his ostentatious and immature display. After sending Bryan clomping loudly and arrhythmically through the recital hall in shoes several sizes too large for him, Bullingdon addresses Lady Lyndon directly, criticizing her for bringing Barry into their home and for allowing “his shameless robberies and swindling of my property. And yours.” Barry lunges for Bullingdon, quickly taking him down to the floor, where he beats him repeatedly as the guests scream and scatter. This sequence is one of only three throughout the film to feature handheld camerawork, here used not only to heighten the physicality of the fights but also to underscore the breach of decorum by breaking from the rigid and symmetrical framing which has thus far characterized all of Barry’s time flirting with the aristocracy.

This violent outburst is the final straw in Barry’s quest for a title, and his expatriation from the privileged class is depicted through both his chilly public reception and the ever-growing pile of bills sustained during his fruitless attempts at gaining peerage. Twice more the narrator refers to Barry’s debts, and both times the accompanying image is of Lady Lyndon paying them. However, it is not until the death of Barry’s son Bryan — foretold by the narrator’s ominous proclamation that “fate had determined that [Barry] should leave none of his race behind him, and that he should finish his life poor, lonely, and childless,” — that Barry’s fortunes truly sour. Perched at Bryan’s bedside, Barry and Lady Lyndon spend an agonizing two days comforting their son following a horse riding accident that ultimately costs him his life. Kubrick films this vigil with static shots, using elliptical cutting rather than zooms or pans to move among the characters. The narrator remains reverent. Barry and Lady Lyndon rarely share the frame. Bryan’s dying wish to his parents is that they “Promise never to quarrel so and to love each other so that we may meet again in heaven.” Kubrick cuts to a closeup of Lady Lyndon, who begins to weep and averts her eyes downward. He then cuts to Barry, who answers “We promise,” but neither he nor the camera look back to Lady Lyndon for corroboration; the narrator’s portentous declaration from before has already informed us that Barry will die alone, and what little affection he and his wife have shown had been focused upon their now departed son.

The narrator now seems to take pity upon Lady Lyndon, attempting to lionize her and, in the process, once again betrays an awareness of the images with which his voice is paired. He tells us, “Her ladyship, always vaporish and nervous, plunged into devotion with so much fervor that you would have imagined her almost distracted at times.” Within the profilmic, however, Lady Lyndon clearly is distracted, shedding tears over the loss of Bryan and paying no mind to Reverend Runt, who kneels beside leading their prayers. What is curious is that the narrator accounts for this discrepancy, making a point to note and debunk what would seem, from the visual evidence, to be the most accurate interpretation. But rather than convince us of her piety, the narrator instead confirms the long festering suspicion that his insights into character psychology are spurious conjecture, owing equally to his knowledge of the narrative’s outcome as to the prevalent ideology of the culture. When he later comments on Lady Lyndon’s attempted suicide — an act that should cast doubt upon, if not completely refute, her religious devotion — that it “drew an intervention from a certain quarter which was long overdue,” he is clearly editorializing.

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Throughout the film’s later scenes, however, the narrator is largely silent. The extended final duel between Bullingdon and Barry is depicted in real time through a complex elliptical editing pattern that eschews voice over, non-diegetic sound, and zoom and tracking shots. The final sequence of the film, which shows Lady Lyndon dutifully signing her checks and pausing in contemplation upon a check made out to Barry (for his yearly annuity, promised to him by Bullingdon in exchange for his leaving the country) plays out without dialogue, relying again upon alternating shots of Lady Lyndon and Bullingdon to convey the film’s thematic resolution. In between, however, in the penultimate sequence depicting the amputation of Barry’s duel-wounded leg and his subsequent convalescence, the narrator does speak, although he does so only briefly and in uncharacteristic fashion. Disregarding some rhetorical flourishes (“What was the lonely and brokenhearted man to do?”), the narrator limits himself to the condensation and capitulation of the later events of Barry’s life, which we are told consisted mainly of failed attempts at reviving his lapsed career as a gambler. In a rare showing of effacement, however, the narrator admits, “His life there we have not the means of following accurately.” Feigned humility aside, the esteem in which he holds himself requires the narrator qualify that admission with the plural pronoun “we” rather than referring solely to himself. This is in keeping with his earlier remark that “It would take a great philosopher and historian to explain the causes of the Seven Years War.” The narrator doesn’t say that he himself is not such a man, but rather implies that such a digression is not pertinent in this story and that his brief summation will suffice. Thus, the narrator is guilty of the same vanity which the film systematically condemns and strongly implies that while he exhibits qualities of omniscience within the temporality of the narrative, he is nonetheless beholden to the temporal and cultural limitations of the setting.

That Kael mentioned Barry Lyndon’s narrator only in passing (and dismissively at that, likening him to “one of those museum tour-guide machines”) points toward an understanding of how she could possibly have noticed and properly understood the function of Kubrick’s various other formal devices — and, particularly, their peculiar distancing effect within the narrative — yet so greatly missed the filmmaker’s thematic intent. Following not only Kubrick’s own hyper-stylized A Clockwork Orange, but also a long line of costume dramas which favored the melodramatic over the intellectual, Barry Lyndon was certainly an unprecedented anomaly, especially arriving on screens mere months after Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which would forever change American audience’s expectations for big ticket Hollywood entertainment. Now seen within the continuum of Kubrick’s entire filmography — which encompasses not only the great technical innovations for which he was contemporarily renowned, but also an ongoing redefinition of narrative structuring techniques through the manipulation of diegetic forms — Barry Lyndon can be seen for the masterpiece it is, deserving of praise equal to that which is bestowed upon the director’s more widely acclaimed works.

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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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