Savage Messiah (1972; Ken Russell) is probably infamous director Ken Russell’s most personal film, one into which he invested roughly $1m of his own money out of passion for the project as well as to maintain maximum creative control, using the biopic—despite (or enhanced by)
“necessary exaggeration of the facts”—as the delivery system for his artistic manifesto.
Russell has created an intense and vibrant, but sometimes necessarily off-putting film, exploring volcanic creative talent, warts and all.
Wisely following LERNER INTERNATIONAL’s Rule of Biopics: Only the most important five to ten years of that person’s life should be presented in the film,
Savage Messiah covers the last years of sculptor Henri Gaudier, one of Ken Russell’s heroes: As a young man, KR had discovered H.S. Ede’s biography of Gaudier, and been deeply moved. (Ede’s biography was also the inspiration for screenwriter Christopher Logue’s literate and dense script.)
The film follows the artist as he carves his greatest triumphs and develops his philosophies—
while having a very verbose and intellectually invigorating platonic relationship with Polish poet/philosopher Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin, all sparkles and prickles), the both of them living in grinding, abject poverty. (She’s such an influence on him, he calls her his sister, and even adopts her name, becoming Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.)
Played with infectious energy by Scott Antony, Henri never seems to be not working: sketching, carving, chiseling, provoking. At one point, he carves one marble piece in an incredible six-hour burst of energy; only to have its intended recipient never show up—so Henri flings it through the rich art collector’s shop window, is promptly arrested; and then proceeds to throw a fit when charges are dropped!
Gaudier-Brzeska was part of that wild pre-Great War zeitgeist that laid the seeds which would blossom into Dada, Surrealism and all that groovy Modernist “Art Kunst” that the Nazis hated. Stick around to the end of the film, when director Russell lovingly puts Henri’s sculptures on display, using movement and music to great effect.
Like his best works, Savage Messiah is a dense flick, with great use of sound—in the cities, the noise is oppressive, and constructed to be maddening.
Visually, Russell is that most kinetic of filmmakers, and his kind won’t be seen again anytime soon.
While his actors motor-mouth volumes of dialog, the director never lets things get dull by using lots of edits, as well as a mobile, roving camera. These are contrasted with KR’s elegant compositions which jolt viewers via shocks of recognition and beauty: as much as Russell may pull back the curtain to reveal the ugly, unvarnished truth, he will also focus and linger on unutterably beautiful objects, whether created by man or nature.
Unlike most biopics that falsely assume the audience’s love of the biographical subject equals that of the film’s producer(s), Savage Messiah is really about (and celebrates) the process rather than the end result.
The fact that you’ve never heard of Henri G. (and that he’s still not that famous) is in this film’s favor: Savage Messiah reinforces the need for artistic principles—we (the viewers) can never be tricked into saying, “Oh, So-and-so is right because he’s famous and successful;” if anything, Henri is right because he lives his life 110% as an artist.
The film’s Gaudier-Brzeska is a utilitarian as well, using all materials (out of necessity usually, as he can’t afford “real” supplies), stealing headstones for the marble, using a jackhammer to cut an image in the macadam, and towards the end, carving a Madonna & Child out of the butt of a rifle.
The film is very intelligent and very literate, but certainly not high-brow, despite being about a semi-obscure sculptor: This flick has the smarts of an autodidact, and makes its pronouncements in a plain language that can be understood by all.
This is not a flick for everyone, however, especially those whose bourgeois sensibilities are easily offended—not that there’s any particularly gratuitous about the film (young Helen Mirren’s delicious nudity notwithstanding; see below), but it’s rude in the sense that it is not polite, not staid, not hidebound. It wants to shake you up!
Savage Messiah celebrates Art (and the Artist) that does not sit placidly in the corner. This movie isn’t for people who buy a painting because it matches the wallpaper. As Henri says (shouts, actually—the boy can get on the nerves sometimes) throughout the film, “Art is alive!”
In a letter to Sophie, Gaudier-Brzeska once wrote,
“In Art one must exaggerate: as the sculptor deepens a depression, or accentuates a relief, so the writer accentuates a vice, diminishes some quality according to his needs; and it is only here that the imagination comes into play. Grandiosity, sublimity and luxury… go with that necessary exaggeration of the facts which helps secure greater truth.”
(Letter quoted from Ken Russell: Monarch Film Studies (1976), edited by Thomas R. Atkins.)
And that is Ken Russell in a nutshell: he makes “necessary exaggeration of the facts” to get to that “greater truth.”
It amazes me that critics complained about KR’s playing fast and loose with facts, when no biopic ever seems to “stick to the facts.” If anything, it’s KR’s earthiness that bugs the snobs, the fact that KR is not whitewashing the subject’s life, but celebrating the blood, sweat and toil that it takes to create.
I’m a big fan of the flicks KR made in the early-1970s when he was allowed to “go crazy,” especially The Devils and The Music Lovers (which drove Tchaikovsky purists crazy with it homosexual-married-to-a-nymphomaniac storyline, but is an excellent film about a man whose “forbidden”—and unrelieved—sexual urges help drive his artistic urges), as well as Russell’s very weird Mahler. (I need to see Lizstomania again to have a proper opinion; originally screened a long time ago via a poor quality pan-&-scan VHS dub of a dub of a dub, I didn’t like it at the time.)
Yes, you could say KR was trying to be the “Savage Messiah of Cinema;” he certainly was ambitious—as well as ahead of his time, and critics and audiences—programmed like Pavlov’s dogs to only to respond to “art” when it’s dead and on a pedestal—couldn’t deal with it.
Savage Messiah is especially vital these days when “Art” has been completely commoditized, with a secret cabal of dealers, gallerists and buyers determining pricing and “value,” ignoring everything to do with genuine creativity or originality to maintain their “investments’” value.
Too bad no one has ever made flicks based on the lives of Bosch or Breughel…What nightmare visions could we have then—especially had Russell been behind the camera. Sigh… Wild Man Ken will be sorely missed…
Unavailable in any home viewing format that I know about, I managed to catch Ken Russell’s excellent Savage Messiah HERE.