The Debussy Film is one of the Ken Russell BBC-TV films made for the Monitor arts documentary series. Made the same year as the Rousseau film, this one is much more ambitious, much more interesting and much more successful.
It’s actually a film about someone making a film about Debussy, and added to the very strong Nouvelle Vague flavour of the piece it invites the obvious comparison - Godard’s Le Mepris (Contempt). But it’s actually closer in feel to the more exuberant Godard of Band of Outsiders, with a strong admixture of absurdism and even a hint of Richard Lester’s A Hard Days’ Night. It’s an odd mix but it works. Compared to the Rousseau movie this is also much more obviously a Ken Russell film.
It focuses quite a bit on Debussy’s troubled relations with women (two of his girlfriends attempted suicide) and on his influences. Not his musical influences - what made Debussy so interesting was that he was so heavily influenced by painting and by literature. The film gives the impression that he never really sat down and wrote a piece of pure music - all his music was about something, and mostly it was about a painting or a story or a poem that appealed to the composer. This blending and cross-influencing of different arts is both fascinating in its own right and makes for an interesting film.
The early influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, and especially Rossetti, is stressed. The Symbolist writers were of course immensely important to Debussy’s music, as was one of my favourite decadent writers, Pierre Louÿs (who was effectively Debussy’s patron for a number of years). There’s a considerable dose of fin de siècle decadence, juxtaposed with some Swinging 60s decadence!
I hadn’t realised that Debussy spent years on a musical adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and that he was quite obsessed by Poe.
Oliver Reed might might not have been most people’s first choice for the role of Debussy, but Ken Russell had great faith in the actor and Ollie never let him down. Reed is in fact extremely good - his natural sensuality makes him perfect casting.
Unlike Always on Sunday, this one has a proper feature-length running time of 82 minutes and it has much more of a real feature film feel to it, albeit on a limited BBC budget! Given the subject matter it’s perhaps just a little unfortunate this one was made before the BBC switched to colour, and the black-and-white cinematography (although very well done) doesn’t quite have the necessary lushness and excessiveness, or the necessary sensuousness.
This is still an intriguing and generally rather satisfying little film. It has the classic Ken Russell stye, not quite as over-the-top as it would later become and on a smaller scale, but it’s still a movie that could only have been made by Ken Russell.