Sunday, September 30, 2007

Savage Messiah (1972)

(Directed by Ken Russell, UK, 1972)

"Savage Messiah" is an intriguing film from director Ken Russell. After a trio of great films: "Women in Love", "The Music Lovers" and "The Devils", "Savage Messiah" was a failure. The film depicts a fictionalized version of the pre-modernist artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier (as played by Scott Antony). At the very beginning of Russell's film he meets a Polish poet Sophie Brezska (played by Dorothy Tutin) in the Bibliotheque National in Paris and they lived together in London, he eventually co=opted her name to his, and is now known as Henri Gaudier-Brezska.

If one can get past the annoying British accent of Antony's portrayal of Gaudier, the film is a rather high-spirited portrait of an artist trying to defy poverty and create. While not a strict bio-pic on an artist, Russell tries to give a visual rhapsody of the artist creating in an absolute vacuum, combining a total lack of recognition on the part of British art critics and snobs of the Edwardian period and the existence of an artist's absolute poverty. While not at all true to life, (what Ken Russell movie is?) it is exhilarating to watch, as an invention of one filmmaker's response to an artist he truly admires. The highly visual sets support this, (thanks to Derek Jarman, set designer for this film): several scenes take place in a garret reminiscent of a setting for the "Lower Depths" and a 'Vorticist' nightclub that wouldn't be out of place in a German Expressionist film (say "Cabinet of Doctor Caligari").
Helen Mirren is on hand in one of her early roles as a suffragette, and an unlikely patron of the sculptor.

"Savage Messiah" ends abruptly with the mention of Gaudier's death during the First World War and the camera cuts several times to Brzeska crying and to a memorial exhibit of the sculptures. It's a very moving sequence, visually taking Gaudier-Brzeska's sculptures from the realm of the film into the here and now. The sculptor was one of the more unfortunate casualties from the First World War, he died an early death at the age of 23.

This film deserves to be seen, and is ripe for a re-evaluation, at least as a genuine DVD release. I can't think of any other film on an artist that is so joyful, so crazy and so colorfully vivid as this film.

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