Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Ken Russell, 1970
Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, Christopher Cable, Kenneth Colley, Izabella Telezynska

While I am a huge fan of Ken Russell, it's been difficult in the past to get access to a lot of his films. I finally got a chance to see his Tchaikovsky biographical epic, The Music Lovers, and I was absolutely blown away. While this is not a film for everyone, it comes highly recommend for lovers of the weird and the unusual.

Tchaikovsky is a teacher at a music conservatory and is about to unleash his newest composition. He gets a lot of criticism from friends and family for his open homosexuality and public romps with his paramour, Count Anton. The only woman he really loves is his married sister, who he frequently daydreams about. His new symphony is met with mixed reviews and the president of the conservatory dismisses it as ridiculous. A wealthy, eccentric widow, Madame von Meck, hears it and decides to become his patron. In an effort to become more respectable and impress his patron, he decides to get married.

A local nymphomaniac, Nina (Jackson), sees Tchaikovsky in passing and becomes obsessed with him. She begins sending him love letters that he responds favorably to, though everyone else disapproves. He marries her, but is unable to consummate their relationship. This, combined with the unexpected arrival of her mother, drives Nina slowly insane. Tchaikovsky has a breakdown and is invited to recuperate on Madame von Meck's estate. Their relationship has been solely conducted through letters, but she decides to see him in person. Count Anton also returns, but is rebuked by Tchaikovsky. Jealously, he reveals the true nature of their relationship to Madame von Meck, who locks Tchaikovsky out of her home and ends her patronage. With a failed relationship, a failed marriage, and alienated from his family and patron, Tchaikovsky deliberately drinks a glass of contaminated water and agonizingly dies of cholera.

Critically skewered, Russell's film is delirious, self-indulgent, psychedelic, and ultimately a wonderful portrait of artistic genius and its inevitable connection to insanity. Written by the great Melvin Bragg, the script is largely taken from a series of letters between Catharine Drinker Brown and Barbara von Meck. Though there are many truthful elements, a lot of Tchaikovsky's life was improvised by Russell. This might be hard to digest for more conventional cinema fans. There are many scenes of nightmares, flashbacks, and extended fantastical music sequences that will likely drive the unprepared viewer into a state of psychosis.

Some of the scenes are genuinely chilling with their wild, over the top presentation of madness. Nina's relationship with her mother is nauseating and her subsequent induction into a mental asylum is terrifying and saddening. For genuine Tchaikovsky fans, there are some beautifully arranged segments put together by Andre Previn and played by Rafael Orozco.

This is an incredibly personal film and I think a lot of the criticisms are unfounded. It's been called sensational, irresponsible, a garish fantasy, unstable, etc. To a certain extent, it is all these things, but what's wrong with excess? The film's reputation has improved in subsequent years. Thanks to Netflix, you can watch the film streaming, but there is sadly still no region 1 DVD available. If you need to own a legitimate copy, check out the VHS, though it is still outrageously expensive. If you enjoy The Music Lovers, check out Russell's series of films about composers, which include Elgar, Mahler, and Lisztomania.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Francois Ozon, 2003
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sangier, Charles Dance

Though usually advertised as a sexy murder mystery or psychological thriller, Ozon's breakthrough film is more about the difficult process of writing and, as a writer, I absolutely loved it. Sarah (the great Charlotte Rampling) is sent on holiday by her publisher and part-time lover John (Charles Dance). She is a well-known mystery and crime fiction novelist, but is suffering from the strain of her lonely, London existence. John is eager to help her move past writer's block, but also seems interested in getting rid of her for awhile.

She heads to his home in the French countryside and settles down to a relaxing, if isolated schedule of writing. Late one night she is startled by the arrival of Julie, John's young, pretty French daughter who has shown up unannounced. Though Sarah is initially irritated by the younger woman's presence, she soon becomes fascinated by her voracious, indiscriminate sexual appetite and the secret diary hidden in Julie's bag. The two strike up a competitive friendship and Julie invites over a waiter Sarah is interested in, partly to drag her out of her repressed, English shell and partly to make her jealous. Sarah retires to bed and Julie makes a pass at him, which he rebuffs, only to turn up missing the next morning.

It turns out that Julie's mother died in some sort of accident and Julie has a breakdown, confusing Sarah for her mother. Sarah begins to care for Julie, discovering that the poor waiter has been stashed in the pool shed. Julie admits it was an accident and the two women go about disposing the body. Julie gives Sarah a manuscript she claims her mother had written years ago, one that John refused to publish. Sarah returns home and finishes two books, the murder mystery she was initially working on, as well a newer, more personal book based on Julie's mother's manuscript, called Swimming Pool. She meets with John, who doesn't like the book, and confides that she has already had it published and is moving to a new firm. As she exits his office she passes his daughter Julie, who is pretty and blonde, but is not the same girl from the villa.

Though Swimming Pool went in a totally different direction than I expected, I loved it. There's a great script and wonderful performances from the two women. I'm a huge Rampling fan, so I went in expecting her to make the film a success. French actress and model Ludivine Sangier is also perfectly cast as Julie.

Swimming Pool received favorable reviews, but a number of critics and film-goers had a problem with the ending, when Ozon abruptly reveals that Julie, at least as we have come to know her, does not exist. I honestly don't see what the problem is. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the film so much because of its comments on what it's like to be a writer. In addition to the isolated, daily hours of self-discipline required, you also have to have enough experiences, imagination, and spontaneity to be inspired. As Alan Moore will tell you, artists and writers, like magicians, create and shape their own realities. Is this what Sarah has done for the purpose of her fiction?

For a sexy murder mystery, this isn't overtly sexy or too violent. Ludivine Sangier is frequently nude and exudes youthful sex appeal, but the sex scenes are carefully edited and barely rate as softcore. Rampling is one of those women, like Helen Mirren, who will be incredibly sexy regardless of age and her repressed British sexuality spills out over the edges in her fascination with Julie, obsessive voyeurism and masturbatory dreams.

This film comes highly recommended. Check out the unrated single-disc DVD from Universal. For the subtitle wary keep in mind that the dialogue regularly switches back and forth between French and English.