A Musicological Study of Ken Russell’s Composer Films – Part 3 (The Debussy Film).

Part 1. Part 2.

The Dramatisation of History in The Debussy Film (1965).

For a film relatively early on in Russell’s portrayals of classical composers, The Debussy Film is surprisingly knowing about the director’s position as story-teller in the relaying of history to the viewer.  The history of the French “impressionist” composer, Claude Debussy, is one of the more dramatic that Russell chooses to recreate but, in doing so, he also manages to address the process of questioning musical history through film meaning The Debussy Film actually acts as a guide as to how the director and his other creative partners went about making the composer films before and after this.

Out of all of the BBC films (even those for the later and more obviously idiosyncratic Omnibus series), this is the most formally challenging that requires several reading decisions from the viewer in order to understand the lines between the reality it presents; the first being from Debussy’s history and the second being the act of actually making a film about Debussy.  The Debussy Film can therefore be seen as a drama about the making of a film about Debussy as well as a drama about the composer’s life.

By showing this process and the drama which surrounds it, Russell is providing a commentary to the filmmaking process and simultaneously engaging his critical faculties on his own personal reception of Debussy’s life and music.  The film (both Russell’s and the fictional film) centre around Debussy’s love interests and the almost morbid tragedy that surrounded the man and his actions.  Instead of simply showing this drama, Russell frames the same relationships happening to the actors who are portraying the real-life personas, as if recontextualising the emotional relationships of the original people into the 1960s in order to simplify the understanding of the feelings and heartbreak of those from Debussy’s period (it being far easier to empathise with modern-day people dancing to The Kink’s You Really Got Me rather than with turn-of-the-century impressionists).

This also means that, musically, The Debussy Film presents the viewer with a far more engaging method of reception that allows questions to quite literally be asked about it, both by voice-over and by the characters within the film.  Scenes which appear to be in period with the actors in character, all of sudden can cut with the director coming in (perhaps a loosely veiled substitute for Russell himself) to explain why Debussy felt such things or what aspects he was drawing inspiration from.  This idea is extended to when the cast and the director are watching a montage segment back in a hotel room on a projector (running through the “dailies” of the film).

The visual aspect is due to be put to Debussy’ L’apres midi de la faune and shows the actors in character and playing with balloons in a forest (which the director claims he has researched and is accurate almost as if Russell is defending his accuracy-based criticism).  This eventually segways into the life of Debussy who is shown to grow bored with his women; at this point in the fictional film, it is Gaby though The Debussy Film follows the timeline of the fictional film which is linear barring the opening which looks at the planning for Debussy’s funeral shot.  The relationship that Debussy has with all of the women in his history are shown to be parallel to the actor that plays him (aptly the hedonistic favourite of Russell’s, Oliver Reed).

By stepping back from a purely representational stance on the historic and the creative processes, The Debussy Film shows the earnest effects and the inner workings of the Russell prism while arguing for its effectiveness in critical appreciation.  To try and help the actor with the mindset of Debussy’s creativity, the director takes him to an art gallery to show him some of the work that inspired the composer.  Instead of languishing the oft generic readings of impressionism (an aspect the film itself ironically mimics) he delves deeper into the influences around the composer and puts more emphasis on pre-Raphaelite work.

Here, Russell’s influence is rather serendipic as there’s no doubt that his own interests in this movement (which would later culminate in a film for Omnibus called Dante’s Inferno (1967)) is the real reason for its inclusion.  The influence is also apt and accurate though and here the Russell prism is providing a valuable critique of both his own filmmaking process and the creative influences on Debussy.  This influence can be seen further in the dialogue of the director (though this is partly written by Melvyn Bragg once again) who states various critiques of Debussy’s work, the most obvious being that La Mer was his greatest achievement and made so because it was the first time he had had no financial worries.

A further metaphysical element is added to the mix during the film’s “research” moments later on when the director takes the cast to see a private performance of The Naked Lady; a dramatised stage play scandalously based on the life of Debussy by Henry Bataille.  The lapses in between what reality the viewer is seeing becomes gradually more blurred, culminating in the dramatic staging of his music to a set of potentially four different viewing angles:

  • The historical recreation of Debussy’s life.
  • The fictional film that is researching Debussy’s life.
  • The play of The Naked Lady that the actors and the director are watching.
  • The cross pollination of Debussy’s real life effecting the psychological states of the performers.

This sense of angle is apt for a composer whose music could change when viewed from different perspectives in the same way that an Impressionist painting.  This is Russell using visual form and his own auteristic influence to create an Impressionistic palette of a composer’s life.  There may be somewhat of a contradiction in portraying Debussy in such a way, simply because of his own rejection of the label, but it represents an essential element in understanding the process behind Russell’s future composer biopics while also being a perfect example of the Russell prism exerting its weight in order to musicologically critique a composer’s life and work.

Part 4.

Adam Scovell

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