After making The Devils, Russell felt exhausted, burned out. He turned to an adaptation of Sandy Shaw’s musical The Boy Friend, intending a light-hearted tribute to a childhood spent watching MGM musicals. The film proved nightmarish to make: ‘we had nervous breakdowns and near suicides among the company,’ Shirley Russell reported. Russell was once again near breaking point. Believing he had delivered a surefire hit, but finding that the sort of creative doors he wanted to open remained closed, Russell re-mortgaged his house to finance his next project, a personal film that took him away from art deco glamour and complex dance routines, and back to his days as a struggling still photographer living in West London.
Savage Messiah is the story of the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (referred to as Henri Gaudier in the film) and his relationship with the unpublished author Sophie Brzeska, a Polish woman some 20 years his senior, whom he met in 1910 (and whose name he appended to his own). Russell had picked up a copy of H.S. Ede’s biography Savage Messiah (actually mostly just the couple’s correspondence, with explanatory gloss by Ede) while a young man, and something about Gaudier-Brzeska’s story profoundly affected him: the determination, the arrogance, the contrariness, the seemingly contradictory desire to transcend one’s drab, quotidian surroundings while at the same time resisting the pull of airy transcendentalism.
For the script, Russell turned to the poet Christopher Logue, who had previously acted for Russell, providing a superbly acid characterisation of Cardinal Richelieu in The Devils. And for the all-important set design (Gaudier-Brzeska: ‘I shall derive my emotions solely from the arrangement of surfaces, I shall present my emotions by the arrangement of my surfaces.’) he turned to another collaborator from The Devils, Derek Jarman.
But for such a grand, threatening title (actually a sobriquet given to Gaudier-Brzeska by Ezra Pound) and from a director with Russell’s reputation for controversy, Savage Messiah is actually a visually subtle, character-driven work, featuring little of what was to come; the gaudy comic-book primary colours of Tommy, or the giant phalluses of Lisztomania. The film sets the tone from the outset: a pencil scratching an image onto paper (with accompanying closely recorded sound effects) recalls past enthusiasms for a caméra-stylo approach to making films. At the time Russell felt paradoxically liberated by the external constraints on the film, but he later came to view the work as too talky, too static.
Although Logue’s script is indeed dialogue-heavy, Russell’s own analysis does not do justice to the film. It features a great variety of techniques; sometimes the pace is gradual and stately, sometimes the camera and editing are as restless as Gaudier himself. Scenes such as Gaudier’s impromptu rant outside the library seem to suddenly explode into life, banishing the passive, austere mood created by the previous sequence. These abrupt shifts in tone and mood seem calculated to infuriate Russell’s detractors, but they also reflect the fractious, volatile relationship between Henri and Sophie, the way in which tender moments between the two can suddenly flare up into arguments. Dorothy Tutin’s performance as Sophie is delivered sensitively. Though her character is tightly wound and prone to outbursts, she is somehow the perfect counterweight to Scott Antony’s testosterone-fuelled, posturing Gaudier, who wilfully changes his opinions and his plans by the day.
That Logue was the originator of Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds Corner column is visible in the characterisation of the art world’s glitterati, whom Henri and Sophie first meet at a dinner party at the house of Gaudier patron’s Corky (played with camp relish by Lindsay Kemp, perhaps best known to cinephiles for his role as the scrofulous landlord in The Wicker Man). What distinguishes Henri and Sophie from these shallow dabblers is that they are willing to take an idea to the end; Sophie’s novel is titled Truth: A Novel of the Spirit and Gaudier, when he tosses his famous female torso through an art dealer’s window in an act of rage, demands to be thrown in jail and insists that nobody pay his bail. It is principle, then, that underpins the value structure of this film, although Gaudier’s principles are sometimes clouded in contradiction (the idea that it’s only through paradox, oxymoron, that we can express what we really feel) such as when he tells the assembled dandies, ‘I like what everyone likes - and EVERYBODY likes war’. The real Gaudier-Brzeska heckled the poet and war enthusiast Filippo Marinetti during a lecture in London, but Logue’s script is not interested with presenting Gaudier as an earnest ideologue.
The character of Gosh Boyle is introduced as a counterpoint to Sophie. Gosh is a suffragette who impresses Gaudier with her disruptive demonstrations and her almost cartoonishly voluptuous figure. But when world war breaks out her imperialist background is too strong to resist and she joins the army (her father is a Major who commissions a bust from Gaudier). When Gaudier last sees her she is a crass, jingoistic parody, shorn of her previous feminist and bohemian tendencies. Some quarters may feel that as a character she is used to critique feminism (and with Russell’s prurient interest in her physical charms, such an interpretation is hardly surprising). In fact, she figures in the film’s commentary on commitment. Gosh is just another dilettante, like the luminaries of the art crowd that Gaudier is introduced to. Such characters soon reveal that their pretentions to artistic and political activity are motivated by social climbing rather than Gaudier’s relentless termite burrowing.
Gaudier-Brzeska enthusiasts are often critical of the film, not only for its compression of the artist’s biography, but because it reveals little of the complexity of Gaudier-Brzeska’s thought and of his participation in the thriving pre-war avant-garde (no mention of Gaudier-Brzeska’s friendship with figures such as T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound.) The Vorticist movement as a whole is portrayed rather dismissively, as a group of style-over-substance dilettantes rather than the strident firebrands many of them were.
But here as in his biographies of famous composers, Russell is less interested in historical accuracy than in communicating the energy of the creative process. When Andrei Tarkovsky coined the phrase ‘sculpting in time’ he was in part trying to elevate cinema to a fine art, inspired by a divine muse and revered in a gallery. Russell uses the same medium as a figure for his aspirations: ‘The central image of our movie is the titanic struggle of the sculptor to release his genius from the intractable marble,’ Russell told Jarman, perhaps somewhat haughtily.
Unlike Tarkovsky, Russell was thinking less of the hallowed portals of high art and more of the sweat, exertion and chipping away that characterise the sculptor at work. It is instructive (and gratifyingly blasphemous) to compare the end of Savage Messiah with that of Tarkovsky’s own artist biopic, Andrei Rublev (1966). Both films end with a close look at their subjects’ artworks, but while Tarkovsky’s is hand-wringingly reverent, Russell’s approach is more ludic - he shows the sculptures in close-up, but he also shows them in a gallery, as passers-by consult their exhibition catalogues and seem mildly bemused. Two young women point and giggle at Gaudier’s now-celebrated head of an idiot - ‘art is alive; love it, laugh at it, but don’t worship it,’ as Gaudier bellows from atop a huge (and obviously not stone) Moai [near the film’s outset. The prim period dress of the gallery visitors seems utterly at odds with Gaudier’s vindication of primitive beauty.
The BBC’s recent documentary on Russell, attempting to cram a vast and prolific career into the sort of narrative that suits a 60-minute programme, ironed out many of Russell’s more quixotic moments. But to omit Savage Messiah, as the BBC did, seems surprising as it is one of Russell’s key films. Reducing the complexity of a film to the intentions/private obsessions of a single author can be reductive. But Gaudier-Brzeska can really be seen as an analogue for Russell; he loves life, hates the quotidian, often expresses his high ideals childishly or through paradox or provocation. Throughout, the film presents an individualistic philosophy, portraying the artistic community as a safety net of self-regard. Russell told his first biographer John Baxter: ‘Gaudier’s life was a good example to show that art, which is simply exploiting to the full one’s own natural gifts, is really bloody hard work, misery, momentary defeat and taking a lot of bloody stick - and giving it.’ A fitting epitaph for Russell himself.
John A. Riley