Sunday, January 22, 2012


After the celebrated ELGAR (1962), this is the earliest eample of Ken Russell's work for the BBC series MONITOR to be released on DVD, but so far only in the United States. It remains commercially unavailable to the very people who financed it, and there is a movement afoot to persuade the BBC to release all 35 of the works Russell produced for the network.

THE DEBUSSY FILM was made the year after his first theatrical feature FRENCH DRESSING (1964) and shows his appetite for drama merging with his more restricting imperatives for MONITOR. Though it is hard to tell how much of an advance it represented in the scheme of his MONITOR work without his half-dozen intermediary works for that series available, there is no question it represents a quantum leap in the complexity available to the cinematic essay form.

His hands tied by the tradition behind the biweekly series, Russell was forbidden to use actors to portray historical figures, so he and screenwriter Melvyn Bragg conceived a clever way of sneaking drama into their proposed essay about the 19th century composer Claude Debussy by framing their "documentary" scenes as part of a story about a British film company producing a film about Debussy. It is one thing that Russell's film ISADORA DUNCAN THE BIGGEST DANCER IN THE WORLD (1966) beat Karel Reisz's film ISADORA (with Vanessa Redgrave) into public view by a short time, but it is quite a different victory that THE DEBUSSY FILM appeared roughly 15 years before Reisz's THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN, for which Harold Pinter advanced the same solution for translating John Fowles' THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN into cinematic terms.

This was Russell's first collaboration with Oliver Reed (who plays Debussy and the actor portraying him), whose promising career was briefly sidelined by a deep facial scar hidden here by a Van Dyke beard. It was also his first collaboration with actor Vladek Sheybal (who plays the director as well as Debussy's pornographing mentor Pierre Louÿs), and there's some particularly wonderful work in it by one Annette Robertson, one of Reed's co-stars in THE PARTY'S OVER (made the same year) who introduces into Russell's oeuvre a particular brand of anima -- ambiguous, contrary, perverse, acidic, taunting yet somehow incessantly erotic -- that would run throughout it in the ever-morphing forms of Glenda Jackson, Georgina Hale, Twiggy, Imogen Millais-Scott and others. The production has some rough edges but vastly transcends its economy; it also contains scenes of such entrancing, visionary beauty they would not be out of place in any montage of Russell's most beautiful work.


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