Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Savage Messiah (1972)

When Ken Russell died in 2011, British cinema lost one of its true originals. His work was infuriating, often tasteless, but never boring. As Mark Kermode has said, he ‘proved that British cinema didn't have to be about kitchen-sink realism—it could be every bit as flamboyant as Fellini.’

Savage Messiah, released in 1972, is less flamboyant than most. I always thought it one of his more successful feature films, perhaps because the low budget (he financed the movie himself) forced him to rein in his imagination. That said, it’s still full of trademark Russell pyrotechnics. In telling the story of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, the French sculptor who died virtually unknown in the trenches of the First World War, the director couldn’t resist turning the volume up to 11 in every scene. Gaudier – a one-dimensional turn by newcomer Scott Antony – does little but rant and jump about a lot while proclaiming his genius. The standout performance in the film comes from Dorothy Tutin as Sophie Brzeska, the Polish woman twice his age with whom Gaudier lived for the last five years of his life. Until watching the film again recently, I’d forgotten what an accomplished actress she was. She alone provides any light and shade.

So Sophie is the most interesting character in the scenario – which left Russell with a problem in setting out to tell Gaudier’s story. One suspects he recognised that. The film ends with a long sequence representing the posthumous exhibition of Gaudier’s work. As the camera lingers over those sensuous forms, forms inclined to abstraction yet still recognisably human or animal, you realise for the first time what a damn fine sculptor he was. This realisation goes some way to answering the question that has dogged the viewer up to that point: why would anyone make a biopic about someone so irritating? I say only ‘some way’. For me, Russell’s best work was on TV, especially in the superlative Song of Summer, his portrait of the troubled relationship between composer Frederick Delius and his amanuensis, Eric Fenby. The Delius film succeeds where Savage Messiah (arguably) fails, in that it forces you to take seriously a second-rate creative artist whom you didn’t rate before you saw the film.

No shortage of talent fed into Savage Messiah. The poet Christopher Logue wrote the screenplay, based on HS Ede’s biography of the sculptor. Derek Jarman was set designer and Lindsay Kemp turns in a cameo role as Gaudier’s pal Angus Corky. And then there’s Helen Mirren playing a suffragette and occasional arsonist, an upper-class rebel at odds with her class (at least until the outbreak of war shocks her back into her default mode of jingoism). The character of ‘Gosh’ Boyle is inspired by an unnamed figure in Ede’s biography, a girl whom Gaudier noticed admiring his ‘Wrestler’ sculpture in a gallery. He spoke to her and found her ‘intelligent’, neither ‘prudish’ nor ‘hypocritical’, but ‘dashing and brilliant’. At the outset she informed him that ‘she had no pretensions of being a pure woman, and that she had felt very much annoyed with some man who had lectured her on the beauty of virginity.’ Sophie, the sculptor’s complaisant companion, let it be known that she had no objection to Gaudier making love to this woman so long as she could stand behind a screen while the event took place. This incident, inevitably, is picked up in Russell’s film, as are the model’s unformed ambitions as artist and performer:
[She] went to Paris for a few weeks, and came back with sensational tales of how she had danced naked, greatly to the delight of the artists there; how Isadora Duncan had wanted to meet her, and how several theatres had offered to engage her. Also Modigliani had wanted to sleep with her, but she had refused because he drank and had no money.    
In the film we see her pose for Gaudier, who has been employed to produce a sculpture of her father, an army officer. The scene that follows was evidently suggested by an incident elsewhere in Ede’s biography where Gaudier is commissioned to make a bust of one Major Smythies:

The Major watched the building up of his head with great interest, but objected to everything, as is, perhaps not surprising: his nose was too flat, his forehead too high, and so on. At first Gaudier took no notice, but after a bit changed his tactics. ‘I believe you’re right. See, I will alter it.’ And taking up some clay, he proceeded to make the alteration. After Major Smythies had gone, Zosik protested against his being so weak-minded as to be deflected in his own vision by an outsider.
‘Poor Zosik,’ said Pik. ‘to be so blind. I only took up a little clay and put it on the bust so as to satisfy him, and then, when he wasn’t looking, took it off again, and he never noticed.’  
(‘Pik’ and ‘Zosik’ were the affectionate names that Gaudier and Sophie used to each other.)

Reviewing the film in The New Yorker, veteran critic Pauline Kael put her finger on Russell’s problem:
He’s not trying to deal with the age any of his subjects lived in, or the appetites and satisfactions of that age, or the vision of a particular artist; but is always turning something from the artists’ lives into something else – a whopping irony, a phallic joke, a plushy big scene.
It was a ‘plushy big scene’ in this movie that provided the young Helen Mirren with one of her most eye-catching on-screen moments. Mirren’s performance is unbuttoned, in every sense. She descends a grand staircase delivering an artistic credo while wearing nothing but a necklace and a pair of shoes: ‘I don’t care what I do as long as it’s creative. I want to leave something behind me that was never there before.’ My memory of this scene from first seeing the film in the 1970s was that the nudity, however pleasurable, was entirely gratuitous. Watching it again now, I’m not so sure. If anything was expendable it was the preceding scene, set in the fictional ‘Vortex Club’ – Gaudier was one of the leading lights of ‘Vorticism’ – where Russell requires Mirren to sing. This versatile performer has many qualities, but it has to be said that she is better at descending staircases than she is at singing. In fact, she convincingly plays an artist’s model, with the right amount of disinhibition. Just as the ‘suffragette’ was costumed in Edwardian dress, so the ‘model’ was costumed in her birthday suit.


HS Ede, Savage Messiah (1931, reissued 1971)
Joseph A Gomez, Ken Russell: The Adaptor as Creator (1976)
Pauline Kael, ‘Hyperbole and Narcissus’, The New Yorker, 18 November 1972