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The Forgotten: Ken Russell's "French Dressing" (1964)

In Ken Russell's debut, a seedy seaside resort tries to become the English Cannes, complete with its own sex kitten.
Ken Russell spent most of his days regarding his first theatrical feature, French Dressing, as a disaster. Certainly it did his career prospects no good at the time. Then he caught it on late night TV in the nineties, and said to himself, "This is a masterpiece!"He might have been right, though the film's effect is so indefinable that its success or failure on its own terms, whatever they might be, is hard to be certain of. But it's sufficiently unlike anything else to qualify for some kind of place of honor in the sub-sub-genre of British seaside psychotronic cinema.
The starting point was kind of charming and straightforward: a run-down coastal resort tries to vie with Cannes by launching a film fest and inviting the latest Gallic sex kitten sensation. The producer probably imagined something a bit like a Carry On film, whereas Russell hoped to take things into Jacques Tati territory. He was probably precisely the wrong director to do so, given that his sense of humor tends to the broad and leering. I love his work, you understand, and none of this is intended in a pejorative sense. He's just more Benny Hill than Pierre Etaix.
It's academic anyway, since any purely visual gag sequences were nixed by the producer, who didn't understand them. Russell did not yet have the clout, or perhaps the forecefulness of personality born of withstanding incessant critical brickbats, to overcome this resistance, so the film ended up with a balance of talk and visuals close to average. But somehow it also ended up with a unique tone, comparable only in its strained, would-be jauntiness to John Boorman's first feature, around the same time, the oddly bleak pop musical Catch Us If You Can (a.k.a. Having a Wild Weekend). "It smells of dead holidays," complains the leading lady of that film, and the same odor permeates Russell's debut.
Part of this surely comes from the peculiar melancholy of seaside resorts in the off-season. Robert Benchley wrote that Britain was a country not given to fun, where "the damp climate reduces confetti to so many little daubs of cosmetic," and most filmmakers know that the atmosphere of a place can seep into your celluloid by occult osmosis. Chirpy leads can't exclude the chill draught whistling through this quashed romp.
Russell's own sensibility throws out frequently startling images, such as a mass grave of inflatable dolls (same as with the plague pit in The Devils, he reflected that some whiff of the Holocaust, not intended by him, crept into the movie: hardly ideal for a playful send-up of holiday destinations). There's also a giant female mouth, projected on a screen, which swallows a character whole, in a bizarre foreshadowing of Cronenberg's Videodrome.
Much of this is delivered with the flat-on, symmetrical shots Russell liked to feature throughout his career, and which he was into long before Kubrick (picture Buster Keaton with a really wide angle lens).
But I don't want to overstress the grotesque (always a welcome distinguishing trait of this filmmaker). There are some funny bits, particularly the energetic physical playing of Roy Kinnear as the mayor. ("English comic actor whose perspiring bluster is a quickly overplayed hand," wrote Leslie Halliwell. Precisely so, and that is why he is so very great.)
The leads in this morose whimsy are sitcom star Tony Booth, later to find a bizarre form of fame as prime minister Tony Blair's father-in-law, who has a sort of goofy Ray Davies charm, I guess, and American model Alita Naughton, who had already graced a Russell TV production or two. She's an odd natural, with a hyper-mobile face, impossibly cute in her sailor suit, and at this point Russell seems to have communicated better with her than he could with the old pros in the cast. Later, he would build up an oddball repertory company of actors he shared a rapport with, such as Oliver Reed ("Only Ken could get him to change his performance, because he and Ollie were the same, in a way," Richard Lester told me). There's also Euro-babe Marisa Mell as the imported starlet.
Shirley Russell does the twenties-influenced costumes, and Georges Delerue paints on a fresh glaze of sadness with his music. It's all rather lovely.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
Excellent, as usual. One thing, though: the male lead is James Booth (aka Henry Hook from Zulu), not Tony Booth (aka Scouse git from Till Death Us Do Part).
D’oh! Of course. James is best known for his role in Zulu (the one cast member who never got to go to Africa, since all his scenes were interior).

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