I must admit to not always understanding Ken Russell. His films seem to suffer from an exuberance of ideas with excessive imagery often counter-pointed with the grotesque and just plain silly. Why, for example, spend a fortune on period mise-en-scène only to undermine it all by having the hero eat chips with Heinz tomato ketchup?
Ken doesn’t go for historical accuracy and is aiming for the “feeling” of his great subjects in a modern context but… why would Valentino be eating ketchup?! Ken said he was writing a “novel” with his film and mixing fact and fiction was part of that process… he later said that this film was his biggest mistake.
|Carol Kane, Rudolf and Heinz...|
Similarly, Michelle Philips of The Mamas and the Papas, is asked to dance with Nureyev and act with Leslie Caron (who can do both really well) and Felicity Kendall (the best actor in the film). Philips is a stunner whose limitations are well placed for Natasha Rambova’s emotional and sexual distance… Valentino just happened to marry two women whose interests were elsewhere and who both had relationships with Nazimova.
|Good attention to detail as Rambova's designs for Camille are replicated|
But it’s all about Rudolph and the extraordinary outbreak of grief on his untimely death starts the film: riots in the streets outside the funeral parlour, smashed glass as women and men tried to get a glimpse of the body. Russell doesn’t show the four “black shirts” Valentino’s studio arranged and pretended were sent as a show of respect from Mussolini for his fellow countryman but subsequent events showed exactly how wrong a move that was…
|June Mathis remembers with that guy from Cheers...|
First is Bianca de Saulles (Emily Bolton) who knew the former agricultural student – here he dreams of farming oranges yet in reality he hated them – when he had to hustle for a living. We see him dancing with some fella named Nijinsky and they make a handsome couple with an aggressive, balletic Tango (incidentally, the Tango was originally invented as a dance for sailors).
Then there is June Mathis (Kendall) a writer who first spotted his potential as a dramatic lead rather than the heavies he had originally played and who got him his break in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Before that he’s shown upsetting a Mr Fatty (William Hootkins) – a reference to Roscoe Harbuckle who deserves better – before stealing off with his lady friend, Jean Acker (Carol Kane).
Back at the funeral, Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron) arrives to stunning effect perhaps also standing in for the absence of Pola Negri who genuinely did make a scene. Leslie Caron is having a ball here though and is well cast as the mature ex-ballerina turned actress.
Nazimova and Rudy’s ex Natacha Rambova (Michelle Phillips) arrives and we enter the heart of the story. Rambova fixes quickly on the Italian stallion and we’re never quite convinced that the two connect even though Rudy is clearly infatuated with her. Even in the film’s most iconic (or at least publicised) moment – the couple nude in a desert tent – Rambova teases without actually completing the moment… Is she only interested in advancing her own cause through him or is there a genuine reciprocation?
Rather than following her dance of the seven veils to its natural conclusion she seems to rush her demi-lover away so he can save himself for The Sheik’s big rape scene the following day. The moment duly arrives with Agnes Ayres (Jennie Linden) hamming it up outrageously – honestly Ken did you not like silent films at all?!
|What she says...|
Back outside it’s now a battle between the studios and Rambova for control over the priceless “asset”… something that vaguely resembles the power struggle of real life and that’s the film’s major problem: if you know anything about the actuality of Valentino’s life you’ll be frustrated by the film’s presentation of his final months. Yes there was that boxing match – yet Rudy didn’t die directly afterwards… but a month or so later and from an unrelated illness it only matters because it matters!
|An' th' winner isss...|
The film does look good though and is now available on Blu-ray as well as DVD from Amazon and the usual suspects…