Sunday, January 22, 2012


Ken Russell followed his feature-length THE DEBUSSY FILM with this half-length MONITOR profile of the 19th-20th century primitive painter Henri Rousseau. In one of the ingenuities forced upon him by keeping his mandate with the BBC programme to avoid overt drama, Russell had taken to illustrating his research with amateur actors who were sympathetically and vocationally predisposed to the historical figures they were representing (if not "portraying").

For this film, Russell cast contemporary Scottish primitivist painter James Lloyd -- himself the subject of his earlier MONITOR profile THE DOTTY WORLD OF JAMES LLOYD (1964) -- to not only portray Rousseau but to work out a way of repainting Rousseau's work in a manner that his process could be recreated onscreen. Though it loses far more than Russell's composer-based programmes for its lack of color, it's remarkably concentrated for such a short work; it feels longer than it is, not because it's slow but because it encompasses so much detail and covers so much emotional ground in its telling.

The story is handsomely narrated by Oliver Reed, who shows a real knack for this side art that was rarely exploited elsewhere (his recounting of Athos' past history with Milady in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS being a notable exception), with Russell and Melvyn Bragg providing the scoffing blather of the philistine vox populi, not yet ready to recognize Rousseau's uniquely personal brand of genius. In one of its most surprising twists, THE DEBUSSY FILM's gamine Annette Robertson shows up in drag to portray Alfred Jarry, "the first beatnik", and we get to attend the first staging of Jarry's surrealist play UBU ROI. (The film could fairly be accused of overstating the boorishness of Parisian society at the time, but the manner in which it does so is perfectly in keeping with the satiric pitch of Jarry's play.) There is also a blithely ignored appearance by a nude model reclining on a sofa as reference for Rousseau's final masterpiece "The Dream," who appears frontally nude one or two years prior to Antonioni's BLOWUP presenting a frontally nude woman (briefly) for what is commonly cited as the first time onscreen. But it's elsewhere that the film scores its two most striking scenes: when the self-described "Sunday painter" reduces the neighbor woman he loves to fits of cruel laughter by showing off his paintings and offering her the gift of whichever one she might choose, and in a courtroom where a lawyer defends him against culpability in a charge of fraud by pointing out that he describes his own manner of painting as "realist."


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