Before World War 1, an eccentric young French artist named Henri Gaudier-Brzeska left France, moved to London, and became a sensation for his expressive sculptures. Director Ken Russell filmed Gaudier-Brzeska’s story in a 1972 movie called “Savage Messiah,” which focusses on his relationship with a woman named Sophie Brzeska — a novelist played by Dorothy Tutin that Henri meets in Paris and begins a torrid (though not sexual) relationship. The couple lives and acts as a madcap brother and a stern but caring sister as they take turns aggravating an appreciative agent named Angus Corky (Lindsay Kemp), and a smug art patron named Lionel Shaw (John Justin).
Gaudier-Brzeska obviously wants patronage, and actively campaigns for it from Lionel, but not before he makes it clear that Sophie is part of the package. She’s a loose cannon, with strong opinions about her hatred of sex. She sings impromptu songs, and despite her devotion to Henri, leaves everyone wondering why Henri loves her so much. She’s also highly sensitive to noise, which puts her at odds with the prolific sculptor who spends much of the movie banging on large stones with his hammer and chisel.
A key scene in the movie shows Henri chiseling a square block of stone as he mouths his views about art. At his side, a tired Sophie covers her ears and seems at the brink of madness. The chisel strikes go “chik, chik, chik” while the stone slowly reveals the figure of a nude. It’s a perfect blend of sound and image. Henri says about his work: “Sure, it’s a mystery, but it’s as much a mystery to the one who’s doing it as the one who’s looking at it.”
The movie explores the crazy and avant-garde art world of pre-World War 1 London, with rich patrons vying for the latest and greatest artistic discoveries. However, with war on the horizon, the film also explores how the patriotic fervor of the time begins to consume and overwhelm everything — even the highest ideals of art. Apparently, this pre-war London crowd also delved into sexual exploration, but the movie contains little sex despite its tag line (“All art is sex!”).
Helen Mirren plays Gosh Boyle, the suffragette daughter of the rich and hawkish Major Boyle. She’s a combination of an activist and a performance artist, resorting to such antics as torching a post box. The openly sexual Gosh becomes Henri’s nude model, and from what the movie implies, seems to contribute more to Henri’s flowering as an artist than Sophie can ever contribute.