BARRY LYNDON (STANLEY KUBRICK, 1975)
THERE HAS to be a nice contrast. It's not the most original double bill, but I would go to see them back to back, especially with Kubrick in all our minds right now. They are both English historical films, but are such radically different takes on the same genre, and I find them both compelling for completely different reasons.
On the surface, Tom Jones is the more engaging of the two. It's got that wonderful British new wave energy, whereas Barry Lyndon is compulsively controlled, methodical and deliberate in its pacing. And yet, whenever I catch Barry Lyndon on cable, no matter what point the film is at, I sit and watch it to the end.
Barry Lyndon is difficult first time around. You think: "Gee, I'm not sure I really like that. I'm not sure why Ryan O'Neal is in it. I think that was slow." But, like a lot of Kubrick's films, it sticks in your brain. Really, it's an unending parade of arresting images. But there is a sense that something is going on behind those images. Its pleasures increase each time.
Tom Jones is pleasurable every time you see it, but always in the same way. You have this historical film with crazy helicopter shots, speeded- up action, freeze-frame and actors looking at the camera.
The differing intent of the two films is most obvious in the lead characters. They are both rascals, but it's hard to imagine two more different treatments of what you would call a rascal. It depends upon your sympathies. In Tom Jones you sympathise with the rascal. Every guy ever born wants to be Tom Jones (Albert Finney), but I don't think anyone wants to be Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon - which is how it should be. Lyndon ends up empty - he always has been and always will be. His pleasures are entirely superficial and when these superficial feelings are taken away there is nothing left. So it illustrates the downside of leading a charmed life.
Both films explore a certain type of decadent sexuality. There is the very famous eating scene in Tom Jones where the two characters are seated at a table in a brothel devouring a meal in the most lascivious way possible.
By contrast, there's a scene in Barry Lyndon in which O'Neal and a host of actresses are in various states of undress, but it's all very asexual. There is no pleasure in it and no eroticism; there is no joy.
I have never seen these films directly juxtaposed and I don't know whether my little mind could handle it.We will probably never find out.