Polish Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin) takes the same seat in this Parisien library every day so she can compose what she hopes will be the masterpiece of a novel to finally offer her the success she so richly deserves - in her opinion. But today she shows up at the library and someone is sitting in her preferred seat; she makes a fuss and orders the offending student to the seat next to it, which he reluctantly takes. However, sitting next to her now is Henri Gaudier (Scott Antony), and he has been very impressed with her outburst...
Henri Gaudier was a sculptor in early twentieth century France who didn't enjoy a long career thanks to the First World War looming on the horizon, but his distinctive style in what he did complete proved fairly influential. Not that he would be a household name even today, but he was renowned enough to attract the attention of director Ken Russell who had spent the previous decade often making films for television on the subject of composers and artists who he felt were in possession of life stories worth relating, and this drive to bring art to the screen through the experience of its creators would inform much of his following work.
To conjure up some lasting form of self-expression was the ideal way to leave a legacy, or it was according to Russell's biopics, and in Gaudier he found someone perfect for that theme, a force of nature who flies in the face of polite society to follow his muse. That muse in the shape of a woman was Brzeska, about twenty years his senior, and connecting to him in an almost spiritual way, though aside from the obvious jolt she gives him to create more and more, Russell didn't quite capture what the attraction was, nor why it was so important for Gaudier to impress her. The scene which summed up their relationship was probably the one where they both visit an art gallery.
In the Louvre, Henri generates scandal by wandering around the exhibits with his shirt hanging out and finds Peter Vaughan as the equivalent of a security guard chasing him around the rooms until Gaudier ends up perched atop an Easter Island statue (huh?) flinging his sketches about to the crowds below. And Sophie? She rushes around after him, by turns aggravated and amused, so that we are in little doubt of who was the most important figure in the story, yet oddly this was not a one-sided tale as you could understand she was enabling her partner to rise to the heights of his talent because if she wasn't going to coax him, then who would? We see the art world as an insular one which Gaudier knows he must break into, but also makes us ponder whether these people are entirely beneficial for him.
Therefore Russell portrays Gaudier's works as a pure expression of his soul, and those other snobs he must convince to give him the opportunities as almost utterly self-absorbed. As with The Devils, the director hired Derek Jarman to design the sets, not as flashy as in the previous film, tending more to depict the squalor the couple were living in, with occasional diversions to a nightclub where all the cool people hung out (with Cabinet of Dr Caligari decor), and actual locations as they travelled about a bit. What Savage Messiah is best known for now was one member of the cast who went on to be a legitimate global star - not Scott Antony, he apparently disappeared from the face of the Earth with a mere three films and a few stage productions to his credit, but Helen Mirren who shows up about an hour in as a suffragette and lover to Gaudier, offering the celebrated sight of her as a nude descending a staircase (and doing other things too). If the tone is shrill to the point of exhaustion, the ending is appropriately moving. Music by Michael Garrett.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.