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Savage Messiah Britain 1972

Posted by keith1942 on August 10, 2016

Savage Messiah

This screening at the Hyde Park Picture was part of celebration of the film’s artistic protagonist, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 2011. The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds was hosting an exhibition ‘Savage Messiah: The Creation of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’. We had been hoping then to hear Ken Russell introduce his film. However, he was unfortunately in hospital after suffering a ‘little’ stroke; he sadly succumbed and later died. 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. It was 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 it was uneven, brilliant, but not completely so. 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.

savage_messiah_sophie

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 that moment. Russell and his screenwriter Christopher Logue created a set of fictional characters embodying some [but not all] of the characteristics of this artistic group. Their particular brand of experimentalism provided a grand opportunity for the sort of camp display that Russell so enjoyed. These included two visits to The Vortex club where their unconventional behaviour and performance were gloriously dramatised. This group also included an early film outing for Helen Mirren (‘Gosh’ Smith-Boyle], outlandish but performed with great assurance.

The screenplay was developed from a biography of Gaudier by H. S. Ede. This provided the title of the film: it also used the many letters between Henri and Sophie to develop their story. This effectively provided 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 past 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. And there is the memorable design work of Derek Jarman.

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 is 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 reworked Gaudier’s biography fairly freely in their dramatisation. He arrived in London in 1911. By 1915 he went off to the trenches of World War I where was 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. His 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.

Savage_Messiah_sculpting

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 (1931), not the sort of reference I usually associate with Russell.

The qualities of the film certainly outshine 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 would temp more exhibitors to offer screenings of this important film. And then we might also get to see again Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). In fact I have seen both the latter films again since 2011 but there has been no further sign of Savage Messiah.

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.

Originally posted on ITP World.

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