Producer/Director/Coscreenwriter: Ken Russell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
We’ve been having an impromptu BBC-TV week here at Ferdy on Films, beginning with my assessment of Dennis Potter’s Cream in My Coffee and continuing with Rod’s dual review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Rod and I have both noted how these works were influences—in the former case, on Potter’s later works, in the latter, on later feature films dealing with the Cold War. With The Debussy Film, one of several commissioned works Russell did during the 1960s on famous artists, composers, and dancers for the BBC series Monitor and Omnibus, Russell experimented with images that would show up in his films Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). The films also laid the groundwork for a extended examination of famous creators in feature-length biopics, such as The Music Lovers (1970), Savage Messiah (1972), Mahler (1974), Lizstomania (1975), and Valentino (1977).
Rod commented to me that watching Russell’s BBC work made glaringly obvious how unambitious those now working in television and film are when it comes to biography. Indeed, most such films are either documentaries, hagiographies, or focused only on the most sensational parts—or indeed, only one particular slice—of a famous person’s life. Additionally, experimentation of the type Russell indulged in his biographies is so audacious—and largely successful—it puts other such works to shame. For example, the Oscar-nominated Exit through the Gift Shop (2010) mixes reality with fantasy in offering a biography of its central protagonist, but its experiments are so hamfisted and immature—not to mention that the film’s story may be largely a made-up joke—that it seems like the 43rd clone of a Russell original: pallid, weak, and played out.
The Debussy Film is no such beast. Russell sets out to tell the life story of composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), borrowing in structure from Citizen Kane by offering the end of Debussy’s life first and recounting the whys and wherefores of how such a great composer could have been buried with so little fanfare and such a small mourning party attending his funeral. He also adopts a narrator similar to Jedediah Leland in Kane. This narrator is the “director” of the film (Vladek Sheybal), who also plays the role of Pierre Louis, a rich photographer and one of Debussy’s benefactors. With this casting, and with an opening showing the cast and crew assembling at a location in Eastbourne, Russell signals that he intends to move freely between the period film and the present, letting the bones of shooting the film show through the skin.
Russell uses a newspaper reporter on the set to interview the director about the film as the device that first allows his narrator to state the facts of Debussy’s life. The director introduces the dramatis personae, for example, an offhand “There’s Debussy, over there” as the camera pans to Oliver Reed talking to an actress playing Madame Vasnier, a singer for whom he wrote the first songs of his to be performed in public and someone who was “looking after him at the time. He always needed someone to look after him.” We are informed they were also lovers, as the camera pans to Monsieur Vasnier, sitting apart from the pair, the shadows of the camera crew clearly visible in the foreground. Then the camera switches back to Debussy and Madame Vasnier, and the figure of a young woman moves between them and embraces Debussy. “And then I met Gaby,” intrudes Reed’s voice as he looks into his script. It is in this daisy-chain manner that Russell moves characters in and out of Debussy’s life.
Gaby Dupont, played by the Piaf-like Annette Robertson, lived with and supported Debussy for nine years as they both explored the bohemian artists’ world of Paris. They are shown in the throes of a young, carefree love—walking in the rain, chasing through a garden, with “Gardens in the Rain” playing under the scene. We learn during this scene that Debussy took up music because of French poet Paul Verlaine’s mother-in-law, who claimed to have studied with Chopin and who taught Debussy how to play piano. Again, we learn these facts from Reed in voiceover, speaking as Debussy. And then Russell moves us into the present, as we watch Robertson and Reed act out the love of Debussy and Gaby while swimming.
I particularly loved the stroll Reed and Sheybal take through the Tate Museum gallery containing the paintings of Rossetti and other visual artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (sadly, not seen to their best advantage in the black-and-white photography of the film), who inspired Debussy’s impressionistic and dreamy music. “He wanted his music to be paintings in sound,” says Sheybal, and noting Debussy’s love of Whistler’s nocturne paintings, introduces one of the composer’s three nocturnes, “Les Fêtes.” The arresting images of a Catholic procession, full of stern nuns and masked priests carrying an idol of the Madonna and child, presage the themes and images Russell would use in The Devils.
Another image, one that would show up in a slightly different form of drown lovers in Women in Love, occurs after Debussy’s story moves past his rejections of Gaby and Lily Texier (Penny Service), his first wife. Both women shot themselves in despair, and both survived, but Russell gives us an image of their prone, still forms in bikinis lying across rocks on shore as he walks with his new patron and future wife, the rich and artistic Madame Bardac (Isa Teller). The pair moved into the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, where he composed “La Mer,” my personal favorite among Debussy’s works. Another arresting image shows Debussy standing on a balcony, and the crane shot goes from a relatively close shot of Debussy and pulls back gradually to reveal him near the top of the enormous hotel edifice, literally on top of the world with his money problems behind him, a bonafide masterpiece under his belt, and his star on the international scene about to rise precipitously. Still, below him in the ornate hotel pool, swims Gaby, suggesting that she was his one true love and muse.
In 1914, when World War I began, Debussy received a commission to write a piece of war music. “It was to be for Albert, King of the Belgians. It had to include the Belgian national anthem,” Reed says in voiceover. Says the director, “‘Berceuse héroïque’ is possibly the most unheroic, unbloodthirsty war music ever written.” Russell juxtaposes the solemn, beautiful music Debussy wrote with what to the composer would have been completely alien images of war. That he accepted the commission at all is part of a section recounting his feverish activities writing film scores, operas, anything at all to support his daughter Chouchou after his wife’s income was cut off.
The film then trails into Debussy’s final years, when illness and ennui sent him into seclusion, and he continued his work on a piece based on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Twelve years of tortuous work imagining a man, Roderick Usher, with whom he completely identified, yielded only “two or three sheets of music.” Russell creates a wonderfully evocative, short horror film in which Reed moves through an enormous, empty castle. He is met in a geometric hall not by the risen ghost of Usher’s sister, but rather by images of Gaby and Lily, the women he wronged, as the final strains of “La Mer” yield to the funeral procession set up in the first scene of the film.
Russell indulges his sexual provocations in what I thought were mainly juvenile ways—taking an out-of-context scene of a woman in modern dress being shot through with arrows in reference to Debussy’s composition “The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” and having the director tell the reporter they had intended to do it with the actress nude. The reporter, looking at the actress seated next to the director primping for an extraordinarily long time in a hand mirror, leers and gets flustered. Additionally, he has Service meet Reed and other cast members by emerging topless from the pool of the Grand Hotel, which made me feel nothing but embarrassment. Yet one scene, in which the rejected Lily, remembering her love with Debussy in his passionate embrace, runs off in despair, was heartfelt and affecting.
It was a privilege to see Russell developing his ideas in this and the other programs contained in the invaluable Ken Russell at the BBC box set. I hope would-be film biographers can one day work with the courage, spirit of experimentation, and fun Russell displays here.