At the end of The Debussy Film we saw Oliver Reed’s Debussy decline into a somewhat gothic figure, unable to ever write his “House of Usher” opera and turning into something of a Roderick Usher figure himself. In Dante’s Inferno, Reed ploughs that gothic furrow again in the form of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As with the Debussy film also, before Russell embarked on this, he’d had another go at a cinema feature before returning to the BBC for what feels like it was meant to be his next big screen venture (though I have no actual evidence that it was; it’s just how it strikes me, especially given that it weighs in at nearly 90 minutes, even longer than Debussy). In this case, we go back to the days of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood (who’d been the subject years earlier of one of Russell’s Monitor shorts), touching on the respective worlds of painting and literature, and focusing mainly on Rossetti and his relationship with Lizzie Siddal, model, muse, student and eventually wife, though hardly the only woman in young Gabriel’s life… Of course, arguably the most infamous detail of that relationship comes right at the end of it, namely when Gabriel buries the only copy of his poems with Lizzie in her coffin and then, a number of years later, has her disinterred to get them back. It’s faintly horrifying to think this actually happened and Russell didn’t just invent it himself; certainly, though, it inspired him to create a startling opening to the film and some similarly fantastic imagery depicting Rossetti’s chloral hydrate-driven decline. Unfortunately I don’t think the film handled the Jane Morris business terribly well, not least because the actress playing her didn’t strike me as bearing a great resemblance and it actually took me a while to realise who she was supposed to be. Otherwise, great stuff.
Dante’s Inferno (1967)