Lars von Trier identifies Barry Lyndon as an influence on his 1993 experimental film, Dogville; his choice to break his film up into chapters was inspired by Kubrick’s film, as was his use of a detached, ironical narrator (John Hurt). The films have other similarities – a three hour runtime and a protagonist (Ryan O’Neal and Nicole Kidman) whose minimalist performance belies a rich character arc – but stylistically they couldn’t be more different.
Barry Lyndon is famously filmed using predominantly natural light; it’s regularly described as ‘painterly’ and it’s a potent, even necessary comparison (you can almost see the gilt frame). Every shot is both gorgeously ornate and beautifully naturalistic. Dogville, on the other hand, is shot on a soundstage representing the small town of Dogville. That stage is scant on props, with actors miming their way through invisible doors indicated by chalk markings.
The starkness of the set is suited to the stripped-down allegory at Dogville’s core. When Grace (Kidman) stumbles into Dogville, escaping pursuing gangsters, she is a figure of vulnerability and generosity. They debate over the risk of protecting her then begin to take advantage of her, until things progress into Lord of the Flies territory and beyond. This is a tale of how communities prey on weakness, taken to its extremes. It directs an unflinching gaze into the darker side of human morality, and it’s profoundly uncomfortable.
Dogville and Barry Lyndon each reflect their director’s perception of humanity. Von Trier sees people as fundamentally corrupt and immoral. Kubrick has a more aloof perspective; he watches Redmond Barry (O’Neal) from a distance, never truly sympathising with him. Barry Lyndon’s narrator’s irony extends to the film itself: the characters of this era talk of honour, but Barry is a man of deception, lying and cheating his way through life. The beauty of the landscape stands in contrast to the ugliness of its people.
Barry Lyndon is often held up as one of Kubrick’s greatest films, but while I respected it as a complete artwork I found it fell short of the greatness of films like The Shining, 2001 or Dr Strangelove. Dogville, however, moved me deeply. Neither director seems to have much sympathy for their characters. The difference was that I felt sympathy for Grace that rarely extended to Barry. Barry Lyndon may be the more beautifully, technically accomplished film, but Dogville finds desolate power in its unique simplicity.