Sunday, September 20, 2009

Day 251: The Savage Messiah (1972) - Rank 4.5/5


Finally, a contrived film concept is executed in a manner that works. The overused plot? Two individuals, too eccentric for their own good, find love and friendship in one another through the very fact that they're enamored by one another's foibles. It's a staple synopsis of romantic comedies, dating back to the squirrely comedies of the thirties and forties, such as "Bringing Up Baby" to modern permutations like "Annie Hall" or my recently reviewed "Benny and Joon."

It's tough to say what makes this film work so well. One element is certainly the direction of Ken Russell, though his trademark excess is rather subdued here, replaced by the rakish nature of his main characters. Perhaps his focus on character development over surreal, visual digressions is a plus. The script is excellent and the performances by the leads are top notch. Scott Antony conveys a dizzying energy as Henri Gaudier, an obscure French sculptor who serves as Russell's focus in the biopic. Dorothy Tutin is equally incendiary as Henri's love and partner, Sophie.

The basic plot is quite similar to Russell's other biopics ("Mahler," "The Music Lovers," etc.), placing the focus on the subject dance along the fine line between genius and insanity. But while he portrays Gaudier as a wild, callous and egotistic artist, you're still fascinated by the talent he effortlessly exudes. For example, early in the film, Gaudier suggests an art dealer drop by his studio, bragging about a new, nonexistent piece of sculpture he has lying about. The dealer calls his bluff and promises to visit early in the morning. Gaudier leaves the party, absconds with a marble tombstone from a local cemetery and carves it into a beautiful work overnight, amidst his self-proclaiming ramblings. When the dealer cancels his meeting the next morning, Gaudier casts his new sculpture through the gallery's plate glass window. Antony almost seems to be channeling Michael Palin at times in his performance, but never to an obnoxious degree. I was surprised to learn, after a bit of research, that he was featured in a couple of minor roles after this film ("Savage Messiah" being his first performance), did a bit of stage work and disappeared. It's a shame, considering the potential demonstrated on screen. But speaking of stunning performances, Helen Mirren costars and is naked for approximately half of her screen time. Perhaps that's why I found the film so enjoyable...

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