When MGM refused to finance Savage Messiah (1972), filmmaker Ken Russell so completely believed in the project that he took out a second mortgage on his house in order to get the film made. What resulted can be described as “the Ken Russell movie for people who don’t like Ken Russell movies,” but the truth is that it’s also the film for those who not only like, but love Ken Russell movies. This biography of French sculptor Henri Gaudier (Scott Antony), whose life was changed when he met the lonely Polish writer Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin)—he was 18 and she was 38—is one of Russell’s warmest, richest, most emotional and, sadly, least known films. It’s also long been one of the hardest to see of the director’s theatrical films, a situation this screening goes a small way toward correcting.
When it was first released, MGM didn’t exactly pull out the stops to promote it. Its subject was obscure. Its stars were an unknown Scott Antony and the highly regarded stage star Dorothy Tutin. Neither name was marketable. The young Helen Mirren was not much better known—though in the UK her extended nude scene was a selling point—and the film was not exactly a commercial success. The pity of this is that nearly everyone who does see it falls completely in love with it at first sight. Here then is a chance to see why—and to see the notorious scene that “reveals Miss Helen Mirren full frontal in a scene longer than the normal glimpse.” (For those with an interest in this matter, there’s a glimpse shorter—and less revealing—than the actual scene to the right.)
On its simplest level, Savage Messiah is a love story—a love story about a somewhat unusual couple, but a love story all the same. And that can be enough, but it’s so much more than that. I don’t think I realized how much more when I first saw it. It wasn’t until I started really digging into the film for the chapter in my old Ken Russell book that I understood the complexity of the movie. When I started the chapter, I’d assumed it would be one of the shorter sections of the book. Instead, it was one of the longest. It turns out that Savage Messiah is not a film that gives up secrets easily.
It’s worth noting that Russell wanted to make the film as his tribute to its subject. The H.S. Ede biography of Gaudier-Brzeska—also called Savage Messiah—had a profound effect on him as a young struggling artist barely making ends meet in the 1950s. In fact, Russell has credited the book—and Gaudier-Brzeska’s unwavering belief in his own talent—with keeping him going through those lean years. Well, since Russell had become a world-class filmmaker with a reputation for biopics and historical dramas, what was more natural than to turn the story into a film? So he had poet Christopher Logue (who had played Cardinal Richelieu in Russell’s 1971 film The Devils) work up a screenplay, and what followed was this remarkable little low-budget movie that fulfilled its obligations and then some.
Owing to the nature of the story, it provided a perfect platform for Russell to incorporate his own views on art in several instances. We see it in the park just after Henri and Sophie have met when he decides to give a impromptu lecture on art (“Art is dirt! Art is sex! And art is—revolution!”). We see it in the amusing Louvre Museum scene where Henri has a run in with a stuffy guard (Peter Vaughan), who objects to the young man’s manner of dress and enthusiastically boisterous nature—objections that reach a peak when Henri climbs atop an Easter Island head (“Now that, sir, is stone—and very valuable stone—and if we allow one person to touch, then everyone will be wanting to touch it”). From that perch, Henri showers the crowd with his own drawings and offers another lecture—“Art is alive! Love it or hate it, but don’t worship it! You’re not in church!”
But Russell saves his strongest statement on art in what has been called the “torso scene”—where Henri spends the entire night chiseling away at a block of marble (stolen from a cemetery) to produce a nude female torso “in the neo-classical style” that he’s lied to the art dealer Shaw (John Justin) about already having done, and which Shaw has agreed to come see in the morning. As Henri works on the statue, he tells funny stories, obliquely cites W.B. Yeats, and expounds on the nature of art—and the relation of the artist to the world at large. “I need an audience!” he announces at one point, continuing, “There’s no such thing as an artist who doesn’t need an audience.” This goes on at length—and is quite beautifully done—to the point where he sums up the need for the work to be seen, “If there’s no one there to see it—‘Zut!’ as my divine sister would say. Just a lump of stone. Put St. Paul’s Cathedral in a cardboard box, and what have you got? A heavy box.” (Years later—in the wake of PBS cutting two key scenes out of his 1974 film Mahler—Russell sadly remarked to me, “Maybe St. Paul’s is better off in a cardboard box. At least there it’s safe from vandals.”)
There is yet another level to the film—one that seems often overlooked—and that’s its relationship to the time in which it was made. It may be more or less coincidental that Scott Antony as Henri could pass for a rock star of the era, but his reassessment of Michelangelo with Beatle lyrics (“I have to admit he’s getting better—getting better all the time”) is certainly no accident. Nor was having Derek Jarman design Shaw’s nightclub in bright pop-art colors. There’s even one character presented in that scene with face painting that would be at home at Woodstock. And, of course, the connection between—and contrasts of—WWI and the Vietnam war are inescapable. The idea was clearly to make a movie that reflected—not always approvingly—the current (1972) era as well as the period in which the story takes place. It was meant to be relevant to a modern youthful audience. And it might well have succeeded had it been better promoted. It certainly succeeds artistically.
It’s remarkable to realize just how little money was at Russell’s disposal on the film, because nothing about it looks or feels cheap in the least. But to get some grasp on the situation, consider the use of classical music in the film. Russell uses Debussy’s “Three Nocturnes” and a stretch of Alexander Scriabin’s “The Divine Poem.” It would be impossible to imagine the movie without them (try thinking of the final scene without Debussy’s “Nuages”), but the budget didn’t actually allow for the rights to any recordings of them. The solution? Well, since the Soviet Union didn’t recognize foreign copyrights, neither did anyone outside the USSR recognize theirs—so the music came from Soviet LPs that were carefully edited to remove any pops or clicks. Someone back in the pre-DVD days asked me if I thought the film might have surround sound if it ever made it to laserdisc (it never did). I could only answer, “It’s lucky to have a soundtrack.”
In the end, of course, what matters isn’t intent or how it was done, but the final film. On that score, Savage Messiah succeeds beautifully. It is, if anything, better today than it ever was. Now, we needn’t so concern ourselves over the lack of fame of its stars, and can simply assess the strength of the performances. Scott Antony may have never achieved stardom and Dorothy Tutin may have remained mostly known for her stage work, but here—for 99 minutes—they will always be stars. Helen Mirren would go on to bigger—not always better—roles and considerably greater fame, but whether she ever outdistanced the bravery (and I’m not talking about taking her clothes off) of this performance is open to question. In fact, everyone is splendid in the movie, which is always so obviously a labor of love—and that love shines through in every scene.
And as for that “simple” reading of the film as “The story of a young French art student and the lonely Polish woman he met in Paris just before the First World War,” the film never forgets to be that. And a wondrous, touching, ultimately heartbreaking story it is. Honestly, I have never made it through the film dry-eyed. I doubt I ever will. And I’m not sure I want to meet the person who can.