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A Ken Russell Retrospective: Always on Sunday

So far in my Ken Russell column, I’ve covered a number of his early films for the BBC program Monitor — particularly his artist biographies like Elgar and The Debussy Film — and this later documentary, Always on Sunday (1965), is an evolution of that model. The film, which is also known as Henri Rousseau: Sunday Painter, is a look at the life of nineteenth century French painter and post-impressionist Henri Rousseau (1844-1910). Set from the time of Rousseau’s retirement from the civil service in his early 50s, which coincided with the earnest beginning of his career as a painter, Always on Sunday was written by Russell and his regular Monitor collaborator Melvyn Bragg

The film also features another of Russell’s regular collaborators, actor Oliver Reed, who provides some wonderful narration — at times truthful and heartfelt, then sarcastic or facetious at others — and it is with this film that Russell finally got his way, at least where Monitor was concerned. He was able to make Always on Sunday feel more like a standalone film and less like a made-for-television project, with actors dramatizing Rousseau’s life, something Bragg had long resisted, apparently. In his book Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist, Kevin M. Flanagan wrote, “It was the first Monitor film in which the actors were allowed to speak their lines as the characters, rather than as actors playing characters, as had been the case in The Debussy Film” (46). If there is any theme to my essays on Russell’s Monitor work, it’s that these shorts and films chart the fantastic growth he made during this period and Always on Sunday is certainly a key example, even if it’s been a bit ignored by film critics and historians.

Flanagan wrote that it is “a somewhat overlooked Russell film; several studies of his work have barely mentioned it at all, while others have seen it as a successful but somewhat minor addition to the canon of Russell’s television work” (46). And in some ways, it does follow a conventional narrative structure like Elgar, Bela Bartok, and The Debussy Film, focusing on the chronological outline of an artist’s life and then highlighting key moments that helped their career unfold, or moments that were particularly difficult. As I mentioned, Rousseau spent the majority of his adult life working in the French civil service and he painted as a hobby, which is the where the film’s title came from; he was known as a “Sunday painter.” But he always felt — or at least hoped — his talent exceeded the title of mere hobbyist and the film wonderfully brings to life this particular side of his personality: genuine, kind, generous, romantic, and extremely naive, he often became the butt of jokes and was sometimes hoodwinked by the less charitable.

Many of Russell’s biographies are characterized by this fascination with exploring the ostracized artist who finds success despite a lifetime of frustration and a barrage of detractors. Like Elgar, this film combines information from real letters and critical reviews, often read aloud, with re-imagined moments of Rousseau’s life, providing a vivid, fast moving (despite the 45-minute running time, this feels much shorter) look at how Rousseau developed as a painter and how he tried again and again over the years, without dampened enthusiasm, to find an audience for his work. It was actually through other, even more eccentric artists that he finally found some support and, finally, just before his death, a proper audience. It’s certainly a sweet and happy ending for any narrative, though particularly one about a downtrodden man who finally received his just desserts.

Like a lot of Russell’s other early biographical subjects — and, one suspects, like Russell himself — Rousseau may have been eccentric on a certain superficial level, but was actually quite conventional and bureaucratic. There was very little bohemian or avant-garde about Rousseau himself and he certainly didn’t wish to be seen as an enfant terrible; though he genuinely believed he deserved to be recognized as a talented painter. Rousseau, who Reed explains in his narration was also known as Le Douanier (“customs officer”), is a contradiction in terms and Russell emphasizes this fact. At times a straight-laced civil servant, others a self-taught hobbyist, hopeless romantic, cash-strapped retiree, and unexpected genius genius, Rousseau’s paintings went on to influence several generations of painters, beginning with the Dada and Surrealism movements.

In his more popular works — like Tiger in a Tropical Storm, The Hungry Lion Throws Itself on the Antelope, or The Sleeping Gypsy — there is a strange, dreamy quality even though these were clearly made in the wake of the impressionist movement. Other than his odd, but compelling portraits, he was best known for his jungle scenes, which were inspired wholly by the gardens in Paris rather than any exotic locales. They perhaps best represent the captivating, original blend of the familiar and the fantastic in his work. On one hand comforting and childlike with a sense of fairy tale or adventure, but on the other hand his paintings have a whiff of the feral, the uncanny, and the darkly sexual. Rousseau himself said of his inspiration — the Parisian greenhouses and gardens — “When I go into the glass houses and I see the strange plants of exotic lands, it seems to me that I enter into a dream.” By 1911, less than a year after his passing, his work was given a celebrated Parisian retrospective and it is obvious that that particular generation of early Surrealists were moved by his ability to evoke a dream state.

I only wish that Russell, who portrays a number of Rousseau’s films on screen, had been able to show them in all their glorious color. But he almost does one better — or at least levels the playing field to make up for the limitations of black and white in this case — with the casting of painter James Lloyd, himself not an actor, as Rousseau. For the BFI, Michael Brooke wrote, “Rousseau is played by the painter James Lloyd, the subject of an earlier Ken Russell Monitor documentary (The Dotty World of James Lloyd, BBC, 5/7/1964), whose own career as a misunderstood naïve painter had many similarities. As Russell later told his biographer John Baxter, ‘He helped a lot with the atmosphere and the actors, because professionals have to adopt a different attitude when they’re with someone like that. They can’t do their ‘acting’ bit.’”

This is one of the least conventional — though far from new, thanks to neorealism — elements of Always on Sunday and is part of what makes it such an exciting film to revisit. Like several other important arthouse directors (and many of my favorites, including Pasolini, Fassbinder, and Zuławski), Russell had a knack for making unconventional but strangely perfect casting choices. Flanagan explained, “Throughout his career, Russell has continued to cast roles based on a person’s look for demeanor rather than on his or her experience as an actor. …Russell argues that this method of casting aided the documentary aspects of his BBC films” (45-46). Russell himself admitted, “So if I am making a film on a poet, I try to find a poet — who can act. If I am making a film on a primitive painter, I try to find a primitive painter who can act” (Flanagan 46).

There are some other interesting choices, such as actress Annette Robertson cast as the unforgettable Alfred Jarry —  who the film describes as a “great playwright, madmen, genius” — really the first person to discover and celebrate Rousseau’s work. Delightfully, some of the film does focus Jarry, himself a worthy documentary subject, and the Jarry-Rousseau sequences have a slapstick comedy element to them, a perfect way to express the two wildly different personalities coming together. An irreverent, iconoclastic writer known for the play Ubu roi (1896), part of which Russell brings to life on screen, Jarry helped to kick off the Surrealist movement. Some of his friends and admirers, like Apollinaire and Picasso, would also go on to admire Rousseau and were instrumental in the painter’s later fame.

But the absurdist and even farcical elements are what make Always on Sunday so different from a film like Elgar and remain an important example of Russell’s seemingly innate understanding of his biographical subject. Flanagan wrote, “the amateurish turns by these professional actors,” which includes women acting as men and people wearing absurdly false facial hair, “does not serve to patronize Lloyd and his somewhat stolid performance. Rather, they have the opposite effect and make it seem natural and of a piece” (47). The more gutting moments, when Rousseau is betrayed by his own friends, is elevated from mere melodrama and made more complex by elements of the surreal or the comic, such as one particularly memorable scene where he is tricked into thinking he’s being presented with the Legion of Honor and spills a vat of hot stew all over the man he believes to be an important minister of culture.

Flanagan wrote, “The film rejects naturalism and replaces it with an off-kilter aesthetic worthy of one of Rousseau’s paintings. Always on Sunday is also one of the finest examples of a Russell film about a struggling, misunderstood artist” (47). Warm and often comical, Russell expresses an obvious love for his subject and it is impossible not to at least feel sympathetic towards Rousseau, if not to be completely taken in by him. More than just his curious life story and strange, arresting paintings, the film really emphasizes the impact he had on those around him and if he was sometimes a figure of fun or mockery, or even taken in by thieves on occasion, he seemed to primarily elicit kindness and generosity. His story, as told by Russell, evokes a sense of almost divided reality — conventional government employee by day and unexpectedly genius painter by night — and somewhat feels like a parable about the importance of not judging a book by its cover. Alternatively, it is also reminiscent of something Nietzsche wrote in The Birth of Tragedy: “The beautiful appearance of the world of dreams, in whose creation each man is a complete artist, is the precondition of all plastic art, and also, in fact, as we shall see, an important part of poetry… Even the philosophical man has the presentiment that under this reality in which we live and have our being lies hidden a second, totally different reality and that thus the former is an illusion.”

Always on Sunday never veers far from the subtle reminder of this “world of dreams” and it was clearly a labor of love for Russell, as were so many of his artist biographies. You can find the film in the DVD set Ken Russell at the BBC or in the BFI Blu-ray set, Ken Russell: The Great Passions with other biographical films from the period like Dante’s Inferno and Isadora: The Biggest Dancer in the World, which I will explore soon. And if this doesn’t sound as thrilling as a later, more cult-friendly work like The Devils or Lair of the White Worm, I can’t imagine anyone not being surprised and moved by the film. In capturing Rousseau’s essence, Russell turns him into an almost mythical figure who truly believed anything was possible if only he could paint; this is best summarized by part of his epitaph, which was co-written by the amazing Apollinaire, and declared: “Let our luggage pass duty free through the gates of heaven. We will bring you brushes, paints, and canvas.”

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She’s the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang’s M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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