Dancing Up a Storm in ‘Valentino’

Filmmaker Ken Russell will never be accused of subtlety. However, his wide-eyed and over-the-top stylizing in Valentino is undeniably engaging.

A hothouse fusion of high camp and hyperbolic docudrama, Ken Russell’s often maligned work, 1977’s Valentino, stumbles on historic accuracy but soars in the glitzy, ham-fisted affectations for which the filmmaker is so well known. Based on the life of silent film star, dancer, and lothario Rudolph Valentino, Valentino handsomely provides Russell the excuse to indulge in excesses of decor; it’s a profligacy that offered his prior drama Mahler (based on the composer’s life) an equally ravishing achievement in style.

The rags to riches story of Valentino is certainly turgid with melodrama. Scraping along meagrely with an assortment of low-paying jobs as a dancer, Italian immigrant Valentino manages to swoon half of New York’s population of demimondaine women. Broke and down on his luck, the young Italian’s fortune soon turns when he wins over a ragingly boisterous crowd in a sleazy dive one night, dancing onstage. When his drunken partner is laughed off stage, Valentino desperately pulls a young woman from the crowd (a winningly kooky Carole Kane) for an impromptu waltz, which sends the crowd into a tizzy of admiration.

Later on, Valentino’s star will rise when he piques the interest of an agent who is determined to sign him. Almost overnight the dancer’s life is transformed and his interactions with industry heavyweights lead to heights he could never have imagined. Upon meeting his wife Natasha (Michelle Philips), a fellow actor and pushy, fame-hungry glory-hog, Valentino’s ego inflates to proportions that soon have disastrous consequences for his career, friends, and ultimately his own life.

There has been much contention over Russell’s choice of leading man; most critics at the time of the film’s release were in agreement that famed Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev was a highly questionable option, considering that he was not Italian and looked nothing at all like Valentino to begin with. Yet, Nureyev exhibits a considerable amount of charm that could only come from a performer utterly forced into a highly improvised display of gestures and theatrics.

It appears that Nureyev didn’t do too much in the way of studying Valentino’s life to bring a far more accurate portrayal of the Italian star to the screen. But Nureyev manages to sidestep that very big quibble by exercising the magnetic charisma clearly inherent in his own work as a dancer. Russell may not have gotten a very good Valentino in his leading man, but he did get a great Nureyev. The Russian dancer lights up the screen, particularly (and quite obviously) in the scenes of dance, where he is clearly in his element.

The supporting actors bring with them every tool in their arsenal, of which are desperately used; we have Carole Kane’s usual comic histrionics (giving Russell exactly what he wants). We also have the cold, bitchy, and deliciously smug Michelle Philips vamping about as a wannabe businesswoman. And finally, there is Leslie Caron’s brilliant and Brechtian turn as a crowing, breathless shark-matron. With a salty combination in casting such as this, one can clearly guess the kind of noise this troupe collectively makes.

While Russell will never be accused of subtlety, his wide-eyed, over-the-top stylizing is undeniably engaging; no one should ever take this stuff seriously and Valentino’s sudsy soap – high on sugared cream and glamour – has enough pop-cultured drama to satiate even the most jaded pulp enthusiast. In true Euro-trash fashion, Russell underlines his flair for kitsch in a series of flashy camera zooms during the most sensationalist moments in the narrative. These stylistics touches settle down to the glossy, crystalline and handsomely framed shots which characterize much of the film.

Much of the onscreen bluster wouldn’t work nearly as well without the aid of the fantastic art direction. Valentino’s sumptuous set-designs (courtesy of art director Philip Harrison) are resplendent with the colours of Art Nouveau and they are proudly and regally splayed before the viewer like museum relics. If one’s eyes tire from the central spectacles of human drama, the ornate settings are a pleasing distraction.

Kino Lorber offers an impressive transfer that captures Russell’s juicy narrative with crisp, clean visuals. There are, indeed, some minor instances of dirt, but those moments are few and far between. The colours are radiant, bold and lush, most notably during the ridiculous love scene in a desert tent. Russell’s attention to detail and imaginative use of colour is often featured throughout; the deliberation and effort here cannot be overlooked. Sound and dialogue come through very nicely, if a little tinny at times. The film’s pompously dramatic score features throughout, often accenting the abundant comical hysterics. In any other film, such a score would be overkill; here it is a fitting soundtrack to the wide, sweeping onscreen antics.

Kino Lorber’s release is packed with extras; anyone who has had even a passing interest in the life story of Rudolph Valentino will be more than pleased here. Included are a number of features: an audio commentary with a film historian, Orson Welles’ discussion on Valentino, original footage from the real-life Valentino’s funeral, a behind-the-scenes montage and a few trailers.

Some years after its release, Russell reportedly dismissed the film. The excessive liberties taken upon the real life sources of Rudolph Valentino’s story have been a critical point, one that eventually the filmmaker had to begrudgingly admit. Yet, there is a certain glow to the film that draws the viewer in. In the hammy, overwrought fuss of the performances all round, there is the irresistible pull of the story’s gargantuan cinematic designs – which could never happen in anyone’s real life, Valentino’s included.

It’s this preposterous and fantastical tweaking of the original source story which serves as the narrative’s gravity. As a result, this epitaph on Valentino is immensely fun to watch. The way Russell dances about truth and fiction is at once a personal manifesto on filmmaking and (perhaps implicitly) an homage to a kind of storytelling performed by the body (referencing both dancers Valentino and Nureyev). A statement made by the titular character seems to echo throughout the film with a sort of lovable assertion of Russell’s well-known ego: “I’m an artist – a professional dancer!” But of course!

RATING 8 / 10