Savage Messiah: fictional biopic critical of British class system and hypocrisies

Ken Russell, “Savage Messiah” (1972)

Idiosyncratic British director Ken Russell’s “Savage Messiah” is a fictional biographic drama of the short life of French artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891 – 1915: he died while fighting in World War I) who rejected conventional styles and techniques of sculpture then popular in the early 20th century and developed a more down-to-earth, rough-hewn style in which the tool marks and other impressions made by the artist are obvious and become part of the finished sculpture and its aesthetic quality. Through its portrayal of the sculptor’s life and his tempestuous relationship with Polish ex-governess and aspiring writer Sophie Brzeska, the film criticises the usual depiction of artists as beings somehow separate from the rest of society, showing the French sculptor (played by Scott Anthony) as much a workman and craftsman living and working in hard, usually impoverished conditions as he was an artist, and moving through the more genteel if rather fey bohemian artistic scene in the early 1910s with Sophie (Dorothy Tutin). The Gaudier-Brzeska couple love each other dearly, even pledging to marry, yet their relationship more or less remains sexless as Sophie is averse to having sex.

Through the depiction of the couple’s adventures in England after they arrive there from France in 1910, having been rejected by the Gaudier family because Sophie is at least 20 years older than their son, the film subverts the usual movie stereotypes about how romance should be portrayed and castigates the arts scene by showing art dealers, promoters and various art-scene groupies as monstrous individuals. Minor cast members like Helen Mirren (playing an aristocratic suffragette muse) and Lindsay Kemp (as art dealer / promoter Angus Corky) make the most of their time on screen. While their talents are clearly under-used, at least Mirren gets Botticelli Venus-style over-exposure walking down a carpeted staircase.

Compared to other films in his oeuvre, Ken Russell’s direction is fairly restrained, allowing Anthony and Tutin to run away with the film in their boisterous portrayals of the Gaudier-Brzeska couple. In some ways this is a pity because the excesses of Russell’s style serve to highlight the hypocrisies of upper-class and middle-class British society in its attitude towards art and artists, and the huge social gulf between those classes and the working class people with whom Henri Gaudier-Brzeska identified.