According to Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline (read here), The Debussy Film was originally intended to be director Ken Russell’s second feature film. Unfortunately, after the critical and commercial failure of his cinematic directorial debut French Dressing from a year earlier, Russell had to abandon this option. Left with no other alternative, he ended up selling it as a film for the BBC arts programme Monitor and the rest was history. Restricted to this period alone (1959-1965), The Debussy Film finishes up as the greatest of all his television films.
As with Elgar, The Debussy Film has director Ken Russell pushing the envelope on what could be allowed within the format of a documentary. Unlike that earlier entry though, The Debussy Film is by no means a mere dramatization/re-enactment. If Elgar played as something akin to a conventional television biography on a beloved artist, then The Debussy Film plays out more like a film-within-a-film about one.
The Debussy Film opens with a filmmaker (Vladek Sheybal) giving directions to a child actor about his subject – He’s known hundreds of people in his life but because of quarrels and because a war was going on, there’s hardly anyone at the funeral. Furthermore, he states that France is about to collapse, and hardly anybody notices the death of a man who has now taken to signing himself “Musician of France”. His wife is there, of course, and Chouchou, his daughter, but hardly anyone else. Now, when the carriage gets there, to the end, I want you to run out into the road, look at the wreaths for the name, run back, and say to your mother, “it seems he was a musician”. Not too long afterwards, we cut to a background artwork painting of the Monitor episode’s subject with the title – The Debussy Film – and it’s subtitle – Impressions of the French Composer. Next, we get photographic stills in the background with voiceover/narration provided by it’s unseen British presenter. Here is what he says in his own words – Claude Debussy, born in poverty in 1862, died friendless in 1918. A film based on incidents in his life, his own words and his relationships – with Gabrielle Dupont, attempted suicide, Lilly Rosalie Texier, attempted suicide, Chouchou, died at the age of 13, Madame Bardac, wife of a wealthy banker, and the man who took most of these pictures, Pierre Louys, pornographer, novelist, photographer.
Beside casting himself in the role of Pierre Louys, the plot’s unnamed film director of this project casts four actors, who either go by the exact names of the characters that they are portraying – Claude Debussy (Oliver Reed) and Madame Bardac (Izabella Telezynska/Isa Taylor) – or at the very least, their nicknames – Gaby (Annette Robertson) and Lily/Lilly (Penny Service). Inevitably, throughout the production, reality (subtly or not so subtly) intertwines with fantasy, as Debussy – the actor – suddenly finds himself immersed in his subject of Debussy – the composer. This becomes clear in his relationships with Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac – the actresses – versus that of Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac – the lovers.
As to be expected from all (or at least some) of director Ken Russell’s shoestring works, The Debussy Film effortlessly overcomes every single limitation of it’s low-budget. A good portion of this arises from both Russell and his screenwriting partner Melvin Bragg’s decision to execute the scenario as a film-within-a-film. In addition, the two cleverly (If discreetly) reference Monitor’s use of voiceovers (think of Huw Wheldon’s narration in Russell’s Elgar) by using Vladek Sheybal’s filmmaker character as the occasional narrator of his very own subject.
To some extent, The Debussy Film comes off as an autobiographical/semi-autobiographical account of it’s filmmaker Ken Russell. If my argument is credible, then the plot’s nameless director could possibly serve as Russell’s fictionalized alter ego. Similar to him, Russell has always been fascinated by the lives of famous composers. Although the fictionalized character’s religious affiliation is never made clear, Russell (a converted Roman Catholic himself) is throughly fascinated with Catholicism like he is. Two notable sequences here include the filming of a woman being shot with arrows (a la Saint Sebastian) and another filmed one involving a mob of priests and nuns holding a life-size statue of both Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. Aside from statues, other examples come in the form of artwork throughout.
When it comes to individual set pieces, The Debussy Film features some of the most imaginative sequences that director Ken Russell ever conceived for television. Some of them are elegantly staged like the previously mentioned ones between Claude Debussy and his women (Gaby, Lily/Lilly and Madame Bardac); both within-and-out of the film-within-the-film. On the contrary, the climactic scene plays out like something from a German Expressionist horror film. Last, but not least, we get an inspired montage sequence set to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. In it, two people swing dance to Valkyries amid a mock duel between two actors. A push broom, a cane, toy dart guns and even hand-to-hand combat via (rather humorously) slapping are the weapons of choice. The action frequently cuts back-and-forth; from the aforementioned staged fight to two women playing with bumper cars at a carnival and then back again. The image of a cat quickly, albeit cartoonishly, jumping up and down – complete with sound effects – gives it an absurdist touch. With the exception of that last one, all of these scenes (as in Elgar) are accompanied by Debussy’s (the composer that is) musical compositions.
Elgar might have established Ken Russell as a fully fledged director, but The Debussy Film elevated him to that of a master filmmaker. The Debussy Film may not be my personal favorite of his television work (that honor goes to Song of Summer), but as a penultimate Monitor entry, Russell could not have delivered a better climax.
* * * * (Out of * * * *)
P.S. since I could not find part 1 of this film on youtube, I had to go to dailymotion.com to find it. Here is a link below to part 1
Here is a youtube link to part 2
Here is a youtube link to part 3
Here is a youtube link to part 4
Here is a youtube link to part 5
Here is a youtube link to part 6