Jim Stephens (James Booth) is a deckchair attendant at the English beach resort of Gormleigh-on-Sea, he's taken the post as a summer job, but the place is so quiet, even in season like it is at the moment, that he might as well not show up. But he does, and is ordered around by the bumbling entertainments manager Henry Liggott (Roy Kinnear) who is also wanting for something to do, though in turn he is ordered around by the Mayor (Bryan Pringle) who is seeking a better method of drumming up support for their dwindling town and Henry's sole idea of a fancy dress competition, held every week, is beginning to wear thin. Jim isn't hugely bothered, as he has gotten to know local journalist Judy (Alita Naughton), but does have ideas...
French Dressing was the first film directed by Ken Russell, who would go on to become one of the major directors out of Britain in the nineteen-seventies, though not everyone appreciated what he was trying to do. His idea was to shake up what he saw as a staid local film industry, but he was so individual that he would tend to be in a class of his own, both because there was no one like him and also because nobody else wanted to be like him. From such talents are cult movies born, but this particular effort was far from one of his highest profile, having dropped out of sight since its initial release back in 1964. Much of that was down to the reception it received, which was lukewarm at best.
On the other hand, take a look at it now and it slotted into the kind of breezy British cinema of the sixties that, say, Richard Lester was making and influencing, though Russell said he was most affected by the idea that he could make a variation on Mr Hulot's Holiday, not that aside from the seaside setting they had a lot in common. He was also very disparaging about his efforts on this for decades, as if embarrassed by it in comparison with his weightier works, and if French Dressing was a piece of fluff when you got down to it, he needn't have been so ashamed for there was much here very diverting, in a good way. Certainly there was plenty fixing the production in one specific time and place, but that was part of a charm that was plainly and disarmingly aware of its limitations.
Booth worked well with Kinnear, both stalwarts of the British scene (the latter was best known in film for his Lester movies, another connection), and the American Naughton was a bright presence in the only film she ever made before retiring to start a family; many's the viewer of this who wondered what might have been should she have continued her acting career instead. But the real star was arguably the one who played the glamourpuss Jim persuades to visit Gormleigh, Marisa Mell, an Austrian who found herself rather stranded in Continental exploitation fare until her premature death. She had quite a sad life in spite of appearing in movies for decades, and for that reason has gathered a small cult around her legacy, though here she was patently hired for her resemblance to Brigitte Bardot.
At this point everyone wanted Bardot in their movie, and Russell kidded this attitude by having Jim tell the others they really need her for Gormleigh, but when she is not forthcoming they settle for another starlet called Françoise Fayol, played by Mell in what she sweetly described as one of her favourite roles. After a trip across the Channel to pick her up, including a sequence with lots of inflatable dolls that indicated the path Russell was going to take in the realm of striking visuals, they convince the lecherous Mayor to stage a film festival with her as the star attraction, and they will be opening a nudist beach into the bargain. All very well, but the star is temperamental, the location unmistakably low rent (even the weather is unpredictable, decidedly non-Riviera), and Jim is ignoring Judy to his detriment. This all ends with the premiere of Fayol's new film which is so outrageous (naturally, now it looks tame) that a riot occurs and TV presenter Robert Robinson (as himself) gets punched in the face (!). Maybe this wasn't the director's finest, but its wacky yet melancholy humour engaged. Music by Georges Delerue.
[Network's DVD in its British Film range boasts a flawless print and the original trailer as an extra.]
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.