MoM’s ‘Have You Heard Of…’ series continues with Dawn Dabell taking a look at Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972), depicting the short but turbulent life of sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
When thinking of Ken Russell’s films one invariably anticipates something controversial, something likely to bombard the viewer’s senses: like The Devils (1971) and Lair Of The White Worm (1988) which burst with outrageous imagery and confrontational themes. Russell also had a penchant for biographical films. Throughout the 70s he directed a number of movies which fit nicely under that umbrella: The Music Lovers (1970), about composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; Savage Messiah (1972) about sculptor Henri Gaudier; Mahler (1974) about composer Gustav Mahler; Lisztomania (1975) about composer Franz Lizst; and Valentino (1977) about actor Rudolph Valentino.
These films are only bio-pics in the loosest sense of the phrase. They are actually more flamboyant and cinematic than a standard, plodding bio-pic; more often than not Russell aims to shock his audience while offering up insights into the subjects’ chaotic life.
One of these uniquely Russellian bio-pics is the subject of this article – Savage Messiah (1972), based on a book of the same name by H. S. Ede (aka Jim Ede).
After Gaudier’s death, Ede acquired sculptures, paintings and personal letters (sent between Henri and his lover (of sorts) Sophie Brzeska) from his estate, and used them to pen a biography about Henri’s turbulent, tragically short life. Russell acquired the rights to adapt the book, and also directed this loosely biographical account of Gaudier and Brzeska’s unconventional relationship.
Henri Gaudier (Scott Anthony) is a passionate, flamboyant young man who has developed his own rough-hewn style of producing sculptures. He enters into a largely platonic relationship with Polish woman Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin) who is many years his senior. He also has a peculiar relationship with liberal-minded suffragette Gosh Boyle (Helen Mirren), who poses nude for his sculptures. In his own lifetime, Henri finds little demand for his work and spends much of the time penniless. He is killed in combat during WW1, and only later does his extraordinary talent receive the recognition it deserves.
The characters of Gosh Boyle and Sophie Brzeska are extremely different sorts of women. Mirren happily parades around fully nude as the spoilt suffragette, demanding and expecting male attention, whereas Tutin’s Sophie dresses all prim-and-proper and acts frigidly whenever sex is discussed, claiming she’s had more men in her past than Gosh has had hot dinners. She feels she is beyond the realms of sex, instead giving Henri money to pay for whores rather than parting her legs for him. Sophie is a woman of intelligence and creativity, feisty and independent yet in some ways scared of giving too much of herself to the man she loves.
Scott Antony plays Henri in his first film appearance. His fine performance in Savage Messiah promises a thriving film career ahead but, alas, he only ended up with seven acting credits to his name – including Dead Cert (1974) and The Mutations (1974). His entire acting career lasted three years from first role to last. He has since become a photographer: it would seem he prefers holding a camera over performing in front of one. Antony’s performance is memorable: full of energy and vigour. He creates a picture of Gaudier as an optimistic, opinionated and flamboyantly talented young man.
Scott and Tutin share great on-screen presence: their chemistry is wonderful and they enjoy numerous scenes of banter. Michael Garrett’s score perfectly mirrors their chaotic relationship, their ups-and-downs – his music manages to be energetic, turbulent and beautiful all at the same time. Triumphant scoring which makes the film as enjoyable to listen to as to look at.
At one point, Gaudier touches upon a subject which is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s overly politically correct world. He raves about art and sex, using a naked statue to emphasise his argument. He declares that naked statues may corrupt an innocent child’s mind for life – “Art rots your moral fibre!he bellows. Yet a few scenes later his point-of-view has changed completely. The chaotic, contradictory nature of Gaudier is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the film.
Vincent Canby, of the New York Times, felt the film was not flamboyant enough for a Russell offering. “Although the performances are full of hysteria, Savage Messiah is so tame that it almost makes one long for the excesses of the earlier Russell films, which so overwhelmed the senses as to become anaesthetically soothing, like loud rock”, he said. Canby has a point of sorts with this remark – Savage Messiah is tame in comparison to many other Russell films. There is very little of Russell’s trademark nudity, sex or violence throughout (although we are presented with Mirren in all her glory, slowly walking down a staircase in nothing more than a pair of shoes… a scene which no doubt gets many a male viewer hot under the collar). Aside from this, there are only brief shots of a prostitute posing nude for Gaudier. Like Canby notes, this is extremely subdued and restrained for a Russell offering. Having said that, I think the film is better overall than Canby’s rather glum and disappointed assessment suggests.
The film ends with a nice tribute to Gaudier, in which we are treated to a mini-showcase of his sculpture work. I am not – and don’t profess to be – an expert on sculpture, but his pieces seem to me to be creative and intriguing and unique.
For anyone who comes to Savage Messiah expecting shocks galore in the usually unrestrained, confrontational Russell manner, the film will leave you wanting. If you come expecting to learn more about Henri and his artwork, again the film won’t fill in many blanks. If, however, you want to learn a little more about the chaotic relationship between Henri and Sophie, and grasp something of the arrogant vigour of this talented youth, the film provides plenty of insight and cinematic flair, as well as plenty of laughs along the way.
(A bit of trivia to end on – the film features Ken’s son Alex in an uncredited role. This was not the only time where this was the case. Alex can also be seen on screen in – Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Women In Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1970) The Devils (1971), Mahler (1974), Tommy (1975) and The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher: A Gothic Tale For The 21st Century (2002). Nothing like a famous director dad to get you a few cameo roles in his movies!)
MoM Rating: 7/10