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  Savages Evolution Revolution
Year: 1972
Director: James Ivory
Stars: Lewis J. Stadlen, Anne Francine, Thayer David, Susan Blakely, Russ Thacker, Salome Jens, Margaret Brewster, Neil Fitzgerald, Ultra Violet, Asha Puthli, Martin Kove, Kathleen Widdoes, Christopher Pennock, Sam Waterson, Paulita Sedgwick, Eva Saleh
Genre: WeirdoBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: In a remote part of the forest, the tribe of Mud People go about their daily business, unaware of any life outside of their own. This day they partake of the local narcotic leaves and plan to kill the female leader's partner in a human sacrifice as is their yearly custom. However, just as they are about to smash the man's head in, a croquet ball sails over the trees and lands at their feet; intrigued, they follow the path in the direction the ball has come from. Along the way they encounter a member of the neighbouring tribe and capture her, but carry on to the outskirts of the forest where they make a surprising discovery: an abandoned mansion. Tentatively, the tribe begins to investigate it...

Say the names of Ishmael Merchant and James Ivory and you conjure up images of polite dinner parties in wood panelled rooms during Edwardian times, with a few repressed emotions thrown in to keep the story bubbling away. Savages is a Merchant Ivory film, however, and at the start is nothing familiar at all, with its cast of primitives, practically naked but for headresses and masks, acting as far removed from those polite societies as you could imagine. But the question the film poses is this: if we strip away the veneer of civilisation are these people really any more advanced when they're in the forest than when they're in the mansion?

Scripted by George Swift Trow and Michael O'Donoghue (a future writer for Saturday Night Live) from an idea by Ivory, Savages is nothing if not pretentious. For what happens to the tribe when they enter the house is a transformation as they explore their new surroundings and grow to adopt personalities more fitting to upper class society of the nineteen thirties. Previously, the film has been in black and white, with title cards commenting on the action as if it were a silent movie, but then the film turns sepia and anthropological narration intrudes, all spoken in German for some obscure reason. Presently, colour arrives.

Then, as the tribe dress in contemporary (for the thirties) clothes they speak in English and settle into their roles. There's Julian (Lewis J. Stadlen), a singer and musician who is being groomed by the head of the household, the captured tribeswoman (Asha Puthli) is now the maid, and another becomes Emily, a woman with a past (Salome Jens). Despite this, the tribe don't seem entirely comfortable in their roles, sounding as if they're not completely sure of what they are saying in their conversations, as if rehearsing lines. Occasionally, something will happen to make them unsteady, such as the discovery of a dead dog at the edge of the lawn, but they only let it interrupt their games of croquet temporarily.

Eventually, they hold their own dinner party (perhaps it's inevitable in a Merchant Ivory film) where their outward respectability cracks, to no one's shock. You can take the Mud People out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the Mud People is the message, which is further developed by implying that, hey, we're no better then the primitives when you scratch the surface. What humour there is is arch and aloof as we're encouraged to look down on the characters more than compare them to ourselves, and the result resembles an evening of experimental theatre. As the dinner guests devolve into their former state, the film paints a bleak picture of humanity that is a croquet ball's throw away from returning to the trees, but at least seems to be having fun with the notion. It's just that the viewer is never involved and the idea pretty much pleases the film makers alone. Music by Joe Raposo.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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