Art/Artists as Rebellion/Rebels: ‘Savage Messiah’

[6 May 2011]

By Michael Barrett

In France, aspiring sculptor Henri Gaudier meets aspiring writer Sophie Brzeska and the two of them live tempestuously if platonically until World War I. In line with his times, Ken Russell presents this story of artists as a celebration of anti-establishment rebels and misfits along the lines of A Fine Madness or Isadora or Russell’s own Debussy Film for the BBC. This long out-of-circulation movie at last arrives on disc as one of Warner Archives’ made-on-demand DVD-Rs.

Gaudier (Scott Antony) and Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin) are presented as something akin to pains in the ass who find sympathy in each other. Gaudier is especially raucous, even buffoonish, and always on the verge of a tiresomeness saved only by his handsome youth. The middle-aged Brzeska has no such refuge, and Russell presents a sharply etched portrait of the bohemian community of opportunistic dealers and arty types who like Gaudier better than the vulgar woman. The convincing atmosphere of pre-war France is presented with Russell’s eye for careful compositions in wide-angle lenses mixed with exuberant moving camerawork and flashy cutting.

So much of this is pure Russell, such as a shot of the naked Helen Mirren (as a spoilt aristocratic turned bomb-throwing suffragist) posed in the middle of a lavish set designed by Derek Jarman. One of the most remarkable sequences shows Gaudier carving a marble sculpture, uttering various observations while he chips and chisels. All at once, we see a serious artist at work. The final sequence is a dazzling parade of some of the museum pieces he left behind, that we can finally understand how this cliched “artistic temperament” got around to producing something real.

On no account should this be confused with a 2002 movie of the same name about a Canadian cult.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/140589-savage-messiah/