In this series, I will be going through the filmographies of three directors who I feel define the aesthetic and spirit of the British arthouse film. The directors in focus will be Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, and my particular favorite and the first director up for review, the bad boy of British cinema: Ken Russell. As I go through these mavericks’ works, I will be discussing their creative and cinematic histories whilst reviewing and critiquing each individual film. I will also incrementally unfurl how they helped to define arthouse film from both a British and global perspective. So, let us begin with Ken Russell’s initial foray into feature films with 1964’s French Dressing.
French Dressing is certainly not an exceptional film, but it is held with a sense of honor in the niche-genre of British seaside psychotronic drama. Producer Kenneth Harper was a fan of Russell’s television work, in particular the made for TV drama-documentary about the life of the English composer, Sir Edward Elgar, simply titled Elgar (which was made for the BBC Television series, Monitor, in 1962). With Elgar, Russell was not only able to establish himself as a directorial talent, but also as a formative influence on documentary filmmaking with techniques that remain commonplace to this day. Elgar also motivated Harper to approach Russell to direct a feature film titled French Dressing. Harper wanted it to be in the style of a Jacques Tati comedy set at a “seedy English seaside resort.” Russell accepted the offer, as he was keen to move away from the BBC and trappings of TV production; due to a variety of circumstances, he was unhappy with the working script but decided to shoot the film anyway.
The next obstacle, after the uninspiring script, was Russell’s inexperience in working with feature film actors. The schism between TV and film production in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was monumental and Russell experienced this divide keenly. When producing TV, there was a set, regimented, non-improvisational way of working and most notably, a non-personal relationship shared between the cast and the director and their crew. When Russell was informed that the cast was upset with him for not interacting with them during filming, he was stumped and found himself well outside of his wheelhouse. This was a different way of working for Russell, as he had not only come from the world of ‘50s British television, but also from the world of still photography. As a still photographer, humans for him were props, objects to be arranged according to the whims of his own artistic fancy and social commentary, and he had no acumen for the psychiatry that was necessary to comfort and direct actors.
Unfortunately, this division is felt in the viewing of French Dressing. It is a quirky, energetic piece of cinema, absolutely, but it lacks the heart and personal passion of Russell’s later works, where you can almost physically feel Russell’s energy and enthusiasm resound from the screen. The groundwork is laid for his distinctive, kinetic, visual style, but the soil is as solid as the sand of the rain-sodden, dreary resort of Gormleigh (the fictional setting of the film, which in reality is a combination of Elstree Studios near London and on location at Herne Bay).
The plot is amusing enough in concept. It involves a charming (for 1962) and whimsical deckchair attendant, Jim Stephens (James Booth), who daydreams of leaving the scenic mire of Gormleigh-on-Sea. With no opportunity to realize this dream, Jim manipulates his journalist girlfriend, Judy (Alita Naughton), into writing a news article calling for a film festival to be held in their sleepy town to wake it up and bring in tourists, and to be star-driven by none other than Brigitte Bardot. This, of course, does not eventuate and when the fastidious, as well as perverted Mayor of Gormleigh (Brian Pringle) hears of this misinformation, he demands answers and orders the culprits of such fallacy to his office. Jim assuages any guilt of fanciful claims of familiarity to Bardot by suggesting to the lascivious Mayor that he enlists the “natural” talents of French starlet, Francoise Fayol (Marissa Mell), to give the film festival its required star power. What follows is a display of the grotesquerie of humanity’s obsession with celebrity and a critique of the so-called importance and integrity of film festivals. Russell does an admirable job of visually presenting this societal chaos with compositional traits such as flat-on symmetrical shots that pre-date Kubrick, but due to a lack of human direction and a barely fleshed out script, the film diverges into a bevy of Benny Hill-level visual gags.
French Dressing ends as one would expect with a reversal from celebrity obsession to an appreciation of what one already has, but the misogyny of Jim’s character is hard to stomach with 2021 eyes and Alita Naughton, though charming, couldn’t deliver dialogue to save her life. It’s a good film to watch if you are a film historian or a Russell completionist, but not a relic to recommend to someone who you want to introduce to the genius that is Ken Russell.