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A Ken Russell Retrospective: The Debussy Film

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“Pleasure is the law.” -Claude Debussy

Though it was technically an episode made for the BBC’s Monitor program, a series primarily comprised of art documentaries, Ken Russell’s The Debussy Film (1965) is a feature length film, and though Russell had worked on Monitor since 1959, this was to be his penultimate film for the series (only Always on Sunday would follow). From what I understand, this was supposed to be a standalone feature, but the failure of his early comedy, French Dressing (1964), sent the director back to the BBC for funding and support and I think the creative freedom to make the film of his choosing with little to no restraints is largely responsible for the success of The Debussy Film. As much as Elgar (1962) marked a turning point in Russell’s career — and introduced a number of documentary innovations — The Debussy Film was more important still.

It marks a number of firsts for Russell; to begin with, it was his first collaboration with screenwriter (among many other things) Melvyn Bragg, who would return for one of the director’s greatest achievements, the Tchaikovsky biography, The Music Lovers (1970). Much about The Debussy Film prefigures the stylistic sequences in The Music Lovers (and, though it is not explored here, Debussy spent some crucial months traveling with Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron, though it doesn’t seem that the two composers ever directly crossed paths and the young Debussy was largely employed as a music teacher to the von Meck children). The experimental script and style of filmmaking is even more advanced than something like Russell’s earlier Monitor episode, Béla Bartók (1964), which is primarily made up of expressionist-influenced sequences that creatively reimagined elements of the composer’s life as set to pieces of his own music.

In The Debussy Film, Russell and Bragg effectively wove together three separate narratives that wind up bleeding into one. First is a film-within-a-film, where an actor (Oliver Reed) is preparing to play Debussy in a movie about the composer’s life; he finds this experience particularly affecting and begins to identify with Debussy. A director (Vladek Sheybal) explains Debussy’s history, his influences, and the importance of his romantic relationships on his music to the actor, which also figures into the second plot thread: an actual biography of Debussy using archival images, quotes from the composer’s letters, and even film clips. Loosely third — following the trend Russell introduced in Elgar — are experimental interpretations of Debussy’s music, accompanied by footage of Reed, primarily in nature, or in love. The focus of both of the film-within-a-film and Russell’s film is actually Debussy’s romantic life and its relationship to his music, a theme that moved away from the more grounded biography of Elgar and towards later films like The Music Lovers and Mahler.

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This was also Russell’s first time working with actor Oliver Reed, who would become one of the director’s most important collaborators and they developed quite a close working relationship throughout the decade. Though Reed’s first major role occurred just a few years before in Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), and he regularly appeared in the studio’s horror and adventure films like Night Creatures (1962), These Are the Damned (1962), and Paranoiac (1963), among others, his most important early roles were with Russell: in The Debussy Film and Dante’s Inferno (1967), but especially Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971). In his book Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils, journalist and film critic Richard Crouse related one of my favorite stories from Reed, in which he explained that he worked with Russell so often and so intuitively that he only received three directional cues: “Moody One” (subdued), “Moody Two” (less subtle), and “Moody Three,” the latter of which was not safe for women or children.

Russell allegedly hired Reed because of his physical resemblance to Debussy, which is admittedly striking. Coincidentally, the were both known for their penchants for womanizing and rabble-rousing; if Reed’s life is often remembered for his boisterous drunken antics, Debussy’s was marked by a number of romantic scandals, some of which forced him to flee the continent for a time and even estranged him from friends. Debussy’s affairs began when he was just a teenager — Russell’s film declares, “He wanted to be free, free to roam Paris at night” — though Russell focuses on the three that would come to define Debussy’s life: with Gabrielle Dupont (Annette Robertson), the model Rosalie Texier (Penny Service), and Mme Bardac (Iza Teller). Gaby and Lily, as Texier was known, had tumultuous relationships with the composer and were generally the breadwinners of the household, supporting him financially and keeping house while he composed. Both of their lives were marked by suicide attempts, and in The Debussy Film both are shown to kill themselves; their lifeless, or at least immobile, bodies haunt several scenes later in the film (in reality, one or even both women survived these attempts).

Like Reed, Debussy was certainly a romantic figure, drawing numerous women to himself over the years, seemingly all through the power of his music, with which these seductions had a cyclical relationship. In Julie McQueen’s “Exploring the erotic in Debussy’s music,” she wrote, “In the case of Debussy, every possible relationship seems to have carried with it an erotic tinge, and thus a web of relationships filled with erotic possibilities, all orbiting around a music that defied convention, connected composer, poet, lover, performer and listener with the music and with each other, regardless of their sex” (119). Later, in letters and memoirs, women in Debussy’s life described his music as a seductive tool, which Russell’s film not only reflected, but was something he would explore again in films like Women in Love, The Devils, The Music Lovers, and Mahler. In one scene, the actors appearing in the film-within-a-film are treated to a private live performance of The Naked Lady, a play about the scandal caused by Debussy’s departure from Lily and subsequent marriage to Mme Bardac. Russell both records the actors’ reactions to the fairly immature performance of the play and their increasingly souring response to Debussy’s actions in his private life, and presents biographical facts about the composer at the same time.

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It is here that Russell becomes poetic, even whimsical; shots of Debussy and Gaby romping together in fields give way to scenes of infidelity, arguments, and even a difficult relationship between the actress playing Gaby and Reed’s lead actor, who are clearly also in a romantic relationship. Lines blur as the actor finds himself attracted to the blonde, leggy actress playing Lily, and instead of providing romantic levity, as they do earlier in the film, the bodies of his lovers begin to add increasingly heavy dramatic weight, one which hangs around Debussy/the actor’s neck like a stone. But whether it is breezy and romantic, or a darkly destructive force, Russell makes it clear that eroticism is a powerful force — perhaps the sole driving force — in Debussy’s music.

Debussy wrote, “It is necessary to abandon yourself completely, and let the music do as it will with you” (McQueen 120) and this sense in his music, which ranges from bubbling sensuality to near sexual frenzy, is deeply connected to nineteenth century— especially fin de siecle — concepts of sex, love, and romance. McQueen wrote, “Eroticism’s association with sex carries with it Parisian society’s ambivalent attitude towards sex at the end of the nineteenth century, an attitude shaped by a tangle of forces. First, there was the ever-present threat of syphilis and the longstanding ‘Christian reading of syphilis as the scourge of God directed against the sexually sinful’” (117). These things, combined with a rapidly changing social stratosphere and the looming threat of war, defined not only Debussy’s music, but much of the art and poetry that inspired him.

Russell makes much of Debussy’s influences — namely Symbolist poetry and Pre-Raphaelite painting and sculpture — and one of the film’s most enjoyable scenes of preparation for the film-within-a-film include Sheybal’s director walking Reed’s actor character through a museum exhibit and explaining not only the importance of the art, but its value to Debussy. For La Scena Musicale, Emmanuelle Piedboeuf wrote, “Debussy spent a lot of time with symbolist writers, including Mallarmé and Pierre Loüys, with whom he shared many ideals… Debussy wrote Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Pelléas et Mélisande, two works inspired by symbolist texts that helped him make his name throughout Europe.”

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While Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was inspired by the work of Mallarmé, with whom Debussy spent a fair amount of time, and Pelléas et Mélisande was based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck (though Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov was also a major influence) — in the film’s most exuberant sequence, Reed’s actor does battle with the actor playing Maeterlinck and the two fight throughout the house, brandishing a broom and a cane as swords — literature was a mainstay of Debussy’s work. This includes Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire, Poe adaptations La diable dans le beffroi and La chute de la maison Usher, as well as Debussy’s musical mystery play Le martyre de Saint Sébastien, which Russell partly depicts as scene from the film-within-a-film, where a blonde woman tied up on the beach stands in for Sebastian (the part was sung by a woman and later performed live by dancer Ida Rubenstein), while other blonde women shoot arrows into her body.

This perhaps macabre influence can also be felt in La damoiselle élue, based on Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel — both the poem and the paintings — which in turn were inspired by Poe’s “The Raven.” McQueen wrote, “In both paint and word Rossetti conjures a heaven that defies the usual Christian conception. His heaven is an erotic landscape populated by couples languorously entangled in intimate embraces, enjoying eternal, physical, sexual fulfilment. And it does not provide perfect peace for all, for Rosetti’s Damozel is hardly content there. This is a heaven where eternal unhappiness is a possibility, where God is not enough. Here death does not halt desire, neither does it diminish physical beauty… She weaves herself a fantasy which pulls religious ideals and erotic desires into a blasphemous knot. For many artists and writers, especially the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists, beauty and physical love constituted a religion” (123).

In terms of La damoiselle élue, McQueen continued that, “Debussy emphasises this juxtaposition by intensifying both the religious and the erotic elements, and in fact does make sex sacred” (125). Though there are no overt sex scenes in The Debussy Film — unlike the surprisingly erotic seduction in Béla Bartók, which ends in a violent beating — Russell still makes this concept the unifying thesis of his film and, interestingly, places Debussy’s friendship with one of his patrons, Pierre Louÿs, as central. Described by Russell as a novelist, photographer, and, most of all, pornographer, Louÿs (depicted by Sheybal, the same actor to play the director) was far from Debussy’s only significant friendship — Mallarmé and Erik Satie could have been just as prominent in a biographical film — but here Louÿs and his apparent obsession with the erotic in all its forms is the invisible core of the narrative.

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Summarizing Louÿs’ personal philosophy, McQueen wrote, “In the introduction to his immensely popular novel, Aphrodite, he states that ‘sensuality is a condition, mysterious but necessary and creative of the intellectual process. Those who have not felt the demands of the flesh to their fullest … are incapable of comprehending the extent of the demands of the mind.’ This novel epitomised the decadent mixture of love and death, of sensual eroticism and cruelty” (127). This marks the majority of his work and Debussy adapted his pagan and lesbian-themed Chansons de Bilitis into three musical poems in 1897, just a few years before he would turn to his second most beloved theme beside the erotic: nature.

One of Debussy’s most profound influences, Baudelaire (from whom he likely discovered the work of Poe), wrote in his poem “Man and the Sea,” of the “wild sea’s untamable and plaintive roar,” and it is this sense of a tumultuous, passionate, and even unpredictable nature that takes over for the pastoral wonderland of the English countryside Russell depicted in Elgar. What Baudelaire wrote of the sea’s mysteries, inherently violent and erotic, as key to its fascination, undoubtedly struck a chord with Debussy:

Both of you live in darkness and in mystery:
Man, who has ever plumbed the far depths of your being?
O Sea, who knows your private hidden riches, seeing
How strange the secrets you preserve so jealously?

A love, even a worship, of nature is key to some of Russell’s early biographical films — it is certainly a major feature of both Elgar and Béla Bartók — and Debussy’s love for the sea is tied into Russell’s creative depictions of the composer’s work, as well as his penchant for romantic reverie. Swimming, boats, and bodies of water both large and small are a subtle constant in The Debussy Film. The composition generally considered to be his greatest work, La mer (1903-1905), is an obvious inspiration for this visual theme, and, out of the many innovations to be found in The Debussy Film, it is that Russell proves the value of imagining Debussy’s music on screen as the key to an emotional, rather than analytical understanding; and, in essence, why a creative interpretation of biography can show truths far beyond the repetition of confirmed facts.

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The magical and expressionistic conclusion of The Debussy Film is powerful example of this. Moving to Debussy’s La chute de la maison Usher, Russell also finally reaches one of the most enduring themes of his career: a protagonist as an isolated, misunderstood outsider. And perhaps who better than Poe to symbolize that? In The Fall of the House of Usher, he wrote:

I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

Russell states that the house in which Debussy spent his final years, struggling to provide for his beloved daughter despite financial hardships and a persistent illness, was a veritable House of Usher. The film follows Debussy’s descent into madness in the cavernous, Gothic estate, where he is haunted by the bodies of the dead women he once loved (paralleled by Roderic Usher and his sister rising from her grave). Visually, it also bears something in common to Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau’s surrealist melodrama about uncomfortably close siblings, Les enfants terribles (1950). As in that film, the lines between reality and madness begin to blur and Debussy states, “Roderic Usher is sensitive as I am sensitive.” He repeats the refrain, “I am Roderic Usher,” as the film foreshadows some of the excessive, almost hysterical scenes to come within Russell’s future films, and there is an astounding sequence that does everything it can (and more) to prove Russell’s assertion that “his dreaming became a sort of endless, isolated, self-communion.” As the film, and Debussy’s psyche closes in on itself, these Gothic elements come full circle when the film ends as it began: with Debussy’s funeral.

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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