Monday, July 25, 2011

The Music Lovers (1970): Sexual Violence and Classical Music

an ironic poster promoting the film
What do you get when you combine classical music, British mad man director Ken Russell, and suicide by Cholera. Well none other than The Music Lovers (1970) of course. A film interpreting through a bizarre, surreal, and unforgiving narrative the life of ill-fated brilliant, tortured, and timeless Russian composer Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky. Starring Richard Chamberlain as the paragon, and the incomparable Glenda Jackson as his maniacal hot mess wife Nina. 
As a Russian, there is nothing I like more than Brits taking on Russian stories as if they were their own and fucking it up usually with not enough understanding for the culture and too much focus on a convoluted narrative, this is of course not inclusive of any work done by Ken Russell or Peter Greenaway who are in my book cinematic Christs (well perhaps not the best choice of words) but I see them as been completely infallible. 
But lets back track a bit. The film is a bio-pic of a brilliant but troubled composer (sounds like a really boring puff piece stinking of lots of technical Oscar nominations, i know) But Russell decides to give this formula his unique personal touch. Be afraid. He reaches every point of zenith in the narrative with a classical piece of music that is played so loudly and seemingly violently that it accentuates every scenario  making it more and more bizarre. The film takes on the narrative as a cautionary tale peppered by Tchaikovsky's work in order to illustrate certain points not known to us as the general public. 
1. Tchaikovsky was a homosexual and was closeted his whole life. 
2. He married his eccentric wife Nina to prove his heterosexuality to certain benefactors and hangers on.  
3. The two realized they could not co-habitate the same room much less make a marriage work and thus he moved to the country to compose for his benefactor seeming to get well and resume composing 
4. while on the opposing side of this seemingly happy part of the story, his unstable wife, so reaching the end of social morays that she is committed to an institution where she becomes even more bat-shit and is eventually put in seclusion. you know, as not to be an influence on the just regular crazy.

Tchaikovsky and Nina on their
Honeymoon c. 1878.
The epilogue: 
Peter, realizing he could no longer lie to himself and others about his sexual identity, killed himself by purposefully ingesting cholera traced water. And Nina is committed to a much more stringent ward in the asylum reserved for those of only "completely schizophrenic and those with violent delusions.''
This whole film has a filthy tinge to it, with Ken Russell's imminent and undeniable 'stank' all over it. What was supposed to be a docile and tactful rendition of a love gone ridiculously wrong by means of social morays, manners, and practices at the time, Russell (with good reason) chose to go a completely different route. 
The film is a bizarre presentation of the volatile platonic relationship between those two while Tchaikovsky's own music playing in foreground as it were, explaining the mayhem without words. It is a no-holds-barred attempt to humanize Tchaickovky from the bright star of musical genius that he was to the troubled, confused, alcoholic man he was lifted from the next drunkard on the street only through music. I also allows you to see the perverse side of some of his music and understand it in ways you probably didn't when your mother took you to see The Nutracker or Swan Lake when you were little. The lust and passion of the piece becomes evidence as Russell uses it to frame the most dynamic interactions between Peter and Nina that inevitably reach an insane climax, leaving one dead, and the other on a desolate road to mental deterioration. Now, both of those things actually did happen, but considering the discretion by which everyone lived their lives back then, the storytellers and Russell himself had to invent many if not most of the story to see how in their minds, they could create a story based particularly on sexual frustration and sexual identity. He is a director that likes to avoid subtly as much as possible, and bring absolutely every thematical element to the very forefront sometimes violently shoving it down our throats with a cathartic realism which at times works better than others, but I have to say that this particular time watching it, I was amazed at how the music was able to affect the visuals of the narrative when put through a certain prism. What is a Ken Russell film without a few plates being thrown across the room, smeared lipstick, lots of fake blood, full frontal nudity and strangulation?
The story is a manic and violent conflict between two opposing passions who yearn for the same understanding but destroy each other in order to save themselves. 
Anyway, great great film. and it's on Netflix Instant now. 
Glenda Jackson was in my opinion the greatest actress of the English speaking world, winning 2 oscars, both of whom she has yet to pick up. 
And a big tip of the hat to Ken Russell who is still as insane and still as visionary. The Brits need him now more than ever. He's about 100 but can still hold and point a camera. I can't wait for him to adapt the Royal Wedding into a surreal, brash, and campy musical. Two please and pop corn. 

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