Like the sustained cinematic fugue it is, 'Barry Lyndon''s opening scenes provide a theme that will be treated to increasingly virtuosic variations throughout. Barry's father is killed in a duel. Barry lives with his mother who refuses to remarry. Barry loses his virginity to a woman playing a role while playing cards. These are the great threads - Fathers, Duels, Mother, Sex, Women, The Unattainable, Masks, Games, Gambling - weaving into the web that will eventually trap Barry Lyndon, Fate like a spider picking him off sadistically limb by limb.
'Barry' is structured around duels - the film begins and climaxes with one; key plot points centre around duels and 'organised' brawls. These duels are not just of the fencing/shooting type - they can be a stand-off in gambling; the deceptive games men and women play; the punishment meted out by fathers on stepsons, elder brothers on young half-brothers; a summons to redundancy; the phlegmatic defiance of a crippled cuckold; the attempt to hoodwink an officer. it doesn't even have to be negative - Barry's introduction to the chevalier begins with tacit antagonism, ends in a moving and genuine friendship. these duels are tests Barry must pass, traps he must avoid in his forward movement towards status and wealth.
But this duality has more thematic resonance than that, signified in the name-change form Redmond Barry to Barry Lyndon. It is a conflict between the individual and society, between that individual's genuine self, if there is such a thing, and the masks he adopts to hide any defects that self might have. The moral significance of the duels change as Barry moves from being a passionate lover to a ruthless schemer. For all Thackeray's ironic wit, there is a moralising streak in his novel, not necessarily of the 'Don't rise above your station' variety, but suggesting the unhappiness waiting for anyone who will forsake their true character for glittering, but fake baubles.
Kubrick takes this material and makes it his own, framing another story about a criminal outsider and a rigid, immovable social structure far more powerful than its individual constituents. Masks for Barry aren't necessarily a fragmentation of his identity, a degeneracy of his values. They are his way of beating the system, of infiltrating the fortress and destroying it from within. Far from becoming a monster, Barry is deliberately shown as both a debauchee and a loving father (the theme of fathers, from Barry's dead one, to his two benevolent father-figures; his replacing Bullingdon's father and his relationship with his own son, contrasted with the figures of mothers, is a powerful theme throughout)
It is a cliche that Kubrick is a bleak misanthrope and 'Barry Lyndon' doesn't suggest otherwise, with its farcically horrifying vision of war, and the more lethal machinations of society. The film deliberately sets in conflict (another duel) two 'times', a historical time of war and Great Powers, linked to Barry's journey from fugitive to aristocrat, and a circular time, in which events simply repeat themselves, and nothing ever changes. This is the Age of Enlightenment, where 'progress' was the soundbite, the idea that the sum of human knowledge and hence the sum of human happiness could be improved.
kubrick, bleakly, counters this - visualised in a film of staggering beauty, a successful attempt to fuse all the progressive art forms of the of the era (painting, theatre, sculpture, architecture, landscape gardening, music etc.) into a blinding whole - with scenes, especially the climactic duel with Bullingdon, suggestive of regression, primitivism, a reversion to tribalism (which, in effect, is what happens, a social order regrouping and expelling the outsider). The Church is now a henyard covered in straw, dark stage for a primitive rite, one that has been repeated throughout the film, denying all progress. the ritual, tribal drums make this overpoweringly apparent.
Barry ends up back where he began: worse, with the loss of a leg. Decades on, nothing has changed for Lady Lyndon either, signing cheques for her new 'husband', her son. The last date we see is 1789, that famous date of Revolution in France, spiralling out everywhere else, but not here, and Kubrick implies, not really anywhere. the old cliche, 'Plus ca change...'
Call me sentimental (or Irish) though, but in that final duel, when Barry refuses to kill his enemy, the light shining behind him through the narrow slits, the white doves flapping around him, suggest a religious interpretation, a suggestion that Barry may lose the world, but is somehow saved, redeemed: condemned to repetitious purgatory on earth, but beyond, who knows? Because this is Kubrick's second duality, his own, a miraculous balancing act between a film of pure abstraction, and a moving, funny, horrifying character study. Throughout Barry is made ridiculous, the dupe, the victim, and yet always retains our sympathy (largely through that heartbreakingly pained face) making even us atheists desire some salvation for him.
The film's greatest scene - the gambling table, where Barry and Lady Lyndon stare at each other in the candlelight like clockwork figures forced into humanity, is a masterpiece of cinema translating minimalist acting into genius - Ryan O'Neal in this film gives one of the great performances thanks to Kubrick, worth a thousand of yer celebrated hams.