Before 'Women In Love', Ken Russell was mostly associated with the small screen, specifically for his work on the BBC 'Monitor' programme. 'The Debussy Film' was made for 'Monitor' in 1965, and is another of Ken's idiosyncratic portraits of classical composers. It's about Claude Debussy, by the way.
Scripted by Melvyn Bragg (as was 'The Music Lovers' and many other early Russell films) and heavily influenced by Fellini, it alternates between the activities of a group of actors engaged in making a film about Debussy and sequences from the film they are making. It's all very reflexive and post modern, especially when, at one point, we start watching a play within a film within a film.
|This is er...Ollie Reed.|
The actor playing the actor playing Debussy is the glowering Oliver Reed, who brings intensity to the role, as well as a great deal of the wounded sensitivity he was always seemed to carry around. In real life, Debussy was a touchy, selfish bastard and a shag around who left a trail of destruction behind him, so the characterisation is spot on. The conceit of the postmodern structure allows Russell to place a great deal of the action in contemporary British settings, with a little bit of groovy swinging London action including a Kinks record, a pop art fight and a mod recreation of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian with some nice looking dollies.
Just in case you thought Russell and Bragg weren't taking it that seriously, there are a number of scenes from Debussy's life, all accompanied by Claude's fascinating music and Ken's interesting visuals. It does very well at relaying the basic facts of its subjects life without being too literal, and is greatly enhanced by the presence and narration of Vladek Sheybal, the great Polish actor with a wonderful, exacting voice and obvious intellect.