The Debussy Film (1965)

After Elgar, Russell got a shot at making a cinema film; when the latter didn’t work out he went back to the BBC and eventually made what would otherwise have been his second feature film as a Monitor episode. I’ve seen another review of this box set that argues against viewing the unfolding of the set from the first film to the last as some sort of progression, as if Elgar naturally led to Song of Summer or something like that, but it’s hard not to at least see some sort of development between Elgar and this film, at the very least there’s a borderline “New Wave” aspect to the narrative handling. As the title kind of indicates, this isn’t really a film about Debussy so much as a film about a film about Debussy; Vladek Sheybal plays the director of the film who in turn plays the writer Pierre Louys, while Oliver Reed plays an actor who plays Debussy. It’s kind of multilayered stuff, to the point where you can sometimes ask exactly what you’re watching on screen (particularly a scene where Sheybal addresses Reed in character as Louys, as if Reed were Debussy, though Reed himself speaks of Debussy as “he”). There’s somewhat more of a fantastic element to this one than there is to the Elgar film (particularly the amusing shootout between “Debussy” and the actor playing Maurice Maeterlinck), and despite Russell’s love of Debussy’s music he doesn’t seem as fond of the man as he did of Elgar in the earlier film; “Debussy” seems to kind of use up the actresses playing Debussy’s women in the film much as Debussy himself did. It’s not exactly the character assassination his film on Richard Strauss seems to have been, but Debussy’s estate succeeded for a number of years in keeping this locked up even so. Shame, cos it’d probably be deservedly better known otherwise; I can’t imagine Russell would’ve done this much differently had he made it for the big screen.

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