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Debussy Film, The (1965)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Debussy Film, The (1965)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 18/5/1965
82 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC Television
ProducerKen Russell
ScenarioKen Russell, Melvyn Bragg
PhotographyKen Westbury, John McGlashan
MusicClaude Debussy, Richard Wagner

Cast: Oliver Reed (Claude Debussy); Vladek Sheybal (Director/Pierre Louys); Annette Robertson (Gaby); Iza Teller (Madame Bardas); Penny Service (Lily)

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A film company shoots a dramatised account of the life of the French composer Claude Debussy

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Ken Russell's penultimate film for Monitor (subtitled 'Impressions of the French Composer') was originally planned as a feature film about Claude Debussy (1862-1918), though after the failure of his theatrical debut French Dressing (1963) he ended up making it for television. Little else was sacrificed, as the 82-minute result (co-written by the young Melvyn Bragg) was easily his most ambitious film up to then, and still represents a career high point. This opinion was not shared by Debussy's estate, which initially prevented repeat screenings, though the composer's copyright has since expired.

The film operates on, and constantly switches between, three levels. First, there's the dramatised life story of Debussy and his stormy relationships with lovers, friends, colleagues and patrons. Then, there are visualisations of his music, along similar lines to those in Elgar (BBC, tx. 11/11/1962) and Béla Bartók (BBC, tx. 24/5/1964), beginning with a startling sequence in which a young woman, representing Saint Sebastian, is shot at point-blank range with arrows. And finally, there's the film within The Debussy Film, as an ambitious director attempts to capture the complexities of his subject while negotiating his actors' own turbulent relationships.

Although this treatment might seem gimmicky, it represents the logical culmination of Russell's Monitor output. In constantly pushing at the boundaries of what was considered acceptable for a BBC documentary, he had to spend much time thinking about what he was attempting, not least in order to justify it to his boss Huw Wheldon, a stickler for factual accuracy. His director frequently voices these dilemmas, musing about how to convey particular ideas on film, incorporate additional material without unbalancing the narrative, or simply to vouch for the accuracy of individual scenes. Russell confirmed that the line "They did play with balloons - I checked" was a cheeky dig at Wheldon.

Cast primarily because of his physical resemblance to Debussy, Oliver Reed has surprisingly little to do except intersperse smouldering broodiness and violent rage. The dominant performance is by the saturnine Vladek Sheybal as both the film's director and Debussy's own Svengali, the pornographer-poet Pierre Louÿs. Decades before the introduction of the DVD, Sheybal supplies a near-constant 'director's commentary' on the soundtrack, though he also knows when to let 'his' film speak for itself, notably the climax of the extraordinary sequence that fuses Debussy's own decline with the subject of his unfinished opera, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Creative differences (3:03)
2. Domestic problems (3:50)
3. The House of Usher (5:34)
Reed, Oliver (1938-1999)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell on Television
Ken Russell's Composers
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years