Savage Messiah (UK 1972)

Producer and director: Ken Russell. Screenplay: Christopher Logue from the book by H. S. Ede. Photography: Dick Bush. Editor: Michael Bradsell. Production designer: Derek Jarman. Music: Michael Garratt. UK 1972, 100 minutes. In Metrocolor.

This screening at the Hyde Park Cinema was part of celebration of the films artistic protagonist, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is hosting an exhibition Savage Messiah: The Creation of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. We had been hoping to hear Ken Russell introduce his film. However, he is unfortunately in hospital after suffering a ‘little’ stroke. So his friend and long-time editor Michael Bradsell introduced the film, reading out a letter from Ken’s sick- bed. He told us this was the favourite among his many fine films. Understandable that British films foremost maverick should love a film about an early C20th artistic maverick. The film primarily focuses on the stormy and unconventional relationship between Gaudier [Scot Antony) and Polish writer Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin). The joined surname is a symbol of their union, and Russell described one facet of it as ‘solitudes join up’, [quoting the German poet Rilke].

Michael Bradsell suggested that film had not been seen in a public screening for forty years, [the original West End release only ran five days: it was screened on television in the 1980s]. My memory of the film was that uneven, brilliant, but not completely. The new screening fitted that memory. The film does depend on the central characterisation of Gaudier. Scot Antony seemed to me a one-note performance. He captures the restless and exuberant energy of youth, but not the complexity and angst that I certainly sense in Gaudier’s artistic work. But opposite him as Sophie Dorothy Tutin is magnificent. Her Sophie is contradictory, emotional, passionate, critical and obsessive. I felt that the best scenes in the film were when she was fully involved.

Henri and Sophie are [I believe] the only historical characters in the film. Gaudier was involved with British Vorticism, a movement also enjoying renewed interest at the moment. Russell and his screenwriter Christopher Logue have created a set of fictional characters embodying some [but not all] of the characteristics of this artistic group. Their particular brand of experimentalism provides a grand opportunity for the sort of camp display that Russell enjoys. These include two visits to The Vortex club where their unconventional behaviour and performance are gloriously dramatised. This group also includes an early film outing for Helen Mirren (‘Gosh’ Smith-Boyle], outlandish but performed with great assurance.

The screenplay is developed from a biography of Gaudier by H. S. Ede. This provides the title of the film: it also used the many letters between Henri and Sophie to develop their story. This effectively provides a continuing and illuminating dialogue on the up and downs of their relationship and of his art.

The film offers two major settings, Paris and London. I found the Paris sequence fairly unconvincing; [the locations all appear to be English]. However, when the poverty-stricken couple cross the channel the film improves immeasurably. The focus in London is Gaudier’s Putney studio, a basement where a grill at eye-level, running the entirety of this long room, looks out on the street. Russell uses this as a canvas on which passes the rapidly developing social events of the day. This is a rather theatrical device, but one which Russell [as in other films] delivers in beautiful cinematic form. The camera work is extremely good: apparently shot mostly in natural light by Dick Bush. The dark and shadowy basement is frequently illuminated by the wider world of the street.

It is in the basement that we see most of Gaudier’s artistic endeavour, especially the sculptures for which he is famous. Russell captures the effort and the energy that produced his work. There less sense of his artistic purpose and philosophy, though there are a couple of monologues where he does expound his ideas. So the film captures the visual rather than the mental state of this artist.

Apparently Russell and his collaborators have reworked Gaudier’s biography fairly freely in their dramatisation. He arrived in London in 1911. By 1915 he goes off to the trenches of World War I where is he killed. The film presents this as a contradictory response to the devastation of the war: apparently the actual Gaudier was quite gung-ho about supporting the war, certainly in keeping with Vorticism and its major influence Futurism]. The death is followed by a posthumous exhibition of his works, with the camera focusing on the many, varied and innovative sculptures. This sequence is intercut with the grieving Sophie. And the final shot shows her standing by a massive, unfinished sculpture in the studio. It is a beautiful visual image to close to a powerful film.

Whilst it is a film of light and shadows, it is not all doom and gloom. There is a delightful scene where Sophie serenades a dinner party with a pseudo-folk song. In another sequence Henri and Sophie explore and romance among the piles of stones at Portland. A night scene in a cemetery shows Gaudier and his friends purloining a marble for a sculpture: a scene, which takes us back to Russell much earlier work on the Pre-Raphaelites. And at the start of the film Gaudier drapes himself round a stature to the consternation of Parisians and the police. This last reminded me of the opening of Chaplin’s City Lights, not the sort of reference I usually associate with Russell.

The qualities of the film certainly outshone its limitations. And the print, restored with assistance from the Institute, looked really good and showed up well on the big screen. Hopefully, its availability will temp more exhibitors to offer screenings of this important film. And perhaps we may also get to see again The Devils and Women in Love.

One comment

  1. Bill Lawrence

    Definitely my favourite of Russell’s films. I’ve only seen it once, not long after it came it. I was very excited by Gaudier-Brzeska’s and saw those owned by the Leeds Gallery many years ago. Thanks for letting me know about the exhibition. I will pop in next time I am over. Savage Messiah captures the excitement of the times and creates a thrill about the work. Also Scott Anthony’s finest hour, and Dorothy Tutin was always worth watching

    Like

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