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Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti  Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

"Dante's Inferno... shows Russell trying to reconcile the contradiction between historical reality and artistic reality which is at the heart of his experiments with documentary form" (John Baxter, An Appalling Talent, ch2)

Dante's Inferno, not the Italian poem but about the poet/painter Dante Rossetti, from 1967.  Oliver Reed again as Rossetti who out of love buried his poetry with his dead lover, only later to have the body exhumed as his creative talents faded and he needed the poems to sustain his reputation.

"His search for beauty did not end with his marriage to Elizabeth Siddal, the shop-girl who had been his chaste fiancée for ten years and his model for hundreds of idealised portraits. His wife's suicide filled him with remorse and he buried his poems with her body. Seven years later he had the body exhumed and recovered his poems, but not his peace of mind..." (Radio Times, 22 Dec 1967, click here) .

A typical Ken Russell start to a film with the unexpected, the light shining on the coffin being raised, the poems pulled from the skeleton's hand, followed by the carnival with Reed jumping through a bonfire of books.

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Oliver Reed in Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The film then tells the story leading up to these events.

Oliver Reed is convincing as Dante Rossetti the poet and painter who formed the Pre-Raphael Brotherhood of painters and poets but whose life of excess affected his creativity.

Judith Paris in Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Judith Paris as Elizabeth Siddal, who would pose for paintings, here as Ophelia drowning herself.  She longs for marriage with Rossetti  however he strings her along and despite his attempts "after five years of almost daily visits, Miss Siddal remains a virgin".

 "‘Lizzie’ Siddal began as a model, then learnt to paint, and also wrote poetry…. Although today Lizzie Siddal’s willowy build, gaunt features and lustrous copper-coloured hair are considered signs of beauty, in the 1850s being very thin was not considered sexually attractive, and red hair was described by one female journalist as “social suicide”. Through her modeling work and the success of the paintings she appeared in, Lizzie helped change the public opinion of beauty.  The love story between Siddal and Rossetti is like that of a tortured adolescent film script: for 10 years they were ‘engaged’, but Rossetti refused to set a wedding date. Neither was easy to live with: Siddal was addicted to the drug laudanum, and Rossetti was serially unfaithful" (from The tragedy of art’s greatest supermodel by Lucinda Hawksley, 31 Jul 2020 on BBC Culture click here)."

Oliver Reed and Judith Paris in Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Millais

The preparations lead to fellow Pre-Raphaelite brother John Everett Millais's Ophelia "Ophelia represented an important period in the artist's career where he was at a stage where he could devote the time required to each of his works and was under no pressure to rush. Ophelia required great planning and the artist took his time to capture everything correctly and as he had intended. He would use his preferred model and carefully lie her in water to capture the correct effects to her face and body as would have occurred if she was at the bottom of the stream, as he was creating from the original extract from a literature piece. Millais paintings have a calmness in them, in most cases" (from John Everett Millais website click here).

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

Judith Paris in Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Another pose leading to Rossetti's Il Santo Graal.

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Just as Ken's films on composers are full of music, here the film is  packed with poetry and art, the words linked to the images.

She fluted with her mouth as when one sips,
And gently waved her golden head, inclin'd
Outside his cage close to the window-blind;
Till her fond bird, with little turns and dips,
Piped low to her of sweet companionships.
And when he made an end, some seed took she
And fed him from her tongue, which rosily
Peeped as a piercing bud between her lips.
And like the child in Chaucer, on whose tongue
The Blessed Mary laid, when he was dead,
A grain,—who straightway praised her name in song:
Even so, when she, a little lightly red,
Now turned on me and laughed, I heard the throng
Of inner voices praise her golden head.

Beauty And The Bird, Dante Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Christina Rossetti the sister played by Iza Teller.  She shows disdain for Elizabeth.

She was a poet “… her pious scrupulousness seems at odds with the heartfelt emotion expressed in her poetry…Later twentieth-century biographers, however, have tended to make more intimate moves and have sought to decode the writings in terms of a personal romantic disappointment” (Lindsay Duguid in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 8 Jan 2009 click here).

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel - every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him,
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.”

In an Artist's studios, Christina Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Yesterday was St. Valentine.
Thought you at all, dear dove divine,
Upon the beard in sorry trim
And rueful countenance of him,
That Orson who’s your valentine?
He daubed, you know, as usual.
The stick would slip, then brush would fall:
Yet daubed he till the lamplighter
Set those two seedy flames astir;
But growled all day at slow St. Paul.
The bore was heard ere noon; the dun
Was at the door by half-past one:
At least ’tis thought so, but the clock-
No Lizzy there to help its stroke-
Struck work before the day begun.
At length he saw St. Paul’s bright orb
Flash back the serried tide absorb
That burning West which it sucked up
Like wine poured in a water-cup;
And one more twilight toned his daub.
Some time over the fire he sat,
So lonely that he missed his cat;
Then wildly rushed to dine on tick-
Nine minutes swearing for his stick,
And thirteen minutes for his hat.
And now another day is gone:
Once more that intellectual one
Desists from high minded pursuits,
And hungry, staring at his boots,
Has not the strength to pull them on.
Come back, dear Liz, and, looking wise
In that arm-chair which suits your size,
Through some fresh drawing scrape a hole.
Your Valentine and Orson’s soul
Is sad for those two friendly eyes.

A Valentine, Dante Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Russell regular Andrew Faulds as William Morris beside religious imagery "At the age of 18, Morris enrolled as a student at the University of Oxford in preparation to join the clergy... Having become disillusioned with the church during his studies, Morris... instead decided to pursue a creative life and left for London where they met the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris was most recognised in his lifetime for his contribution to Victorian poetry and is the author of many poetical works… Morris died on 3rd October 1896 at the age of 62, leaving behind some of the most iconic pieces of decorative art of the nineteenth century" (Who was William Morris? by Emily Carrington Freeman on the National Trust website click here).

My lady seems of ivory
Forehead, straight nose, and cheeks that be
Hollowed a little mournfully.
Beata mea Domina!

Her forehead, overshadowed much
By bows of hair, has a wave such
As God was good to make for me.
Beata mea Domina!

Not greatly long my lady's hair,
Nor yet with yellow color fair,
But thick and crispèd wonderfully:
Beata mea Domina!

Heavy to make the pale face sad,
And dark, but dead as though it had
Been forged by God most wonderfully
Beata mea Domina!

Of some strange metal, thread by thread,
To stand out from my lady's head,
Not moving much to tangle me.
Beata mea Domina!

Beneath her brows the lids fall slow,
The lashes a clear shadow throw
Where I would wish my lips to be.
Beata mea Domina!

Her great eyes, standing far apart,
Draw up some memory from her heart,
And gaze out very mournfully;
Beata mea Domina!

So beautiful and kind they are,
But most times looking out afar,
Waiting for something, not for me.
Beata mea Domina!

Praise of My Lady, William Morris

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

So it is, my dear.
All such things touch secret strings
For heavy hearts to hear.
So it is, my dear.
Very like indeed:
Sea and sky, afar, on high,
Sand and strewn seaweed,?
Very like indeed.
But the sea stands spread
s one wall with the flat skies,
Where the lean black craft like flies
Seem well-nigh stagnated,
Soon to drop off dead.
Seemed it so to us
When I was thine and thou wast mine,
And all these things were thus,
But all our world in us?
Could we be so now?
Not if all beneath heaven's pall
Lay dead but I and thou,
Could we be so now!

Even So, Dante Rossetti

 

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Now married to Rossetti Elizabeth loses her baby and becomes addicted to laudanum.

As when desire, long darkling, dawns, and first
The mother looks upon the new-born child,
Even so my Lady stood at gaze and smiled
When her soul knew at length the Love it nursed.
Born with her life, creature of poignant thirst
And exquisite hunger, at her heart Love lay
Quickening in darkness, till a voice that day
Cried on him, and the bonds of birth were burst.

Bridal Birth, Dante Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

When life becomes too much she commits suicide.


I am gazing upwards to the sun,
Lord, Lord, remembering my lost one.
O Lord, remember me!
How is it in the unknown land?
Do the dead wander hand in hand?
God, give me trust in thee.
Do we clasp dead hands and quiver
With an endless joy for ever?

from Lord May I Come? Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal


Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.
I gaze until she seems to stir,—
Until mine eyes almost aver
That now, even now, the sweet lips part
To breathe the words of the sweet heart:—
And yet the earth is over her.

Alas! even such the thin-drawn ray
That makes the prison-depths more rude,—
The drip of water night and day
Giving a tongue to solitude.
Yet only this, of love's whole prize,
Remains; save what in mournful guise
Takes counsel with my soul alone,—
Save what is secret and unknown,
Below the earth, above the skies.


Here with her face doth memory sit
Meanwhile, and wait the day's decline,
Till other eyes shall look from it,
Eyes of the spirit's Palestine,
Even than the old gaze tenderer:
While hopes and aims long lost with her
Stand round her image side by side,
Like tombs of pilgrims that have died
About the Holy Sepulchre.

from The Portrait  Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Rossetti's nightmare.

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
...
from Prologue of the Earthly Paradise, William Morris


Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This hour be her sweet body all my song.
Now the same heart-beat blends her gaze with mine, -
One parted fire, Love’s silent countersign:
Her arms lie open, throbbing with their throng
Of confluent pulses, bare and fair and strong:
And her deep-freighted lips expect me now,
Amid the clustering hair that shrines her brow
Five kisses broad, her neck ten kisses long.

Lo, Love! thy heaven of Beauty; where a sun
Thou shin’st; and art a white-winged moon to press
By hidden paths to every hushed recess;
Yea, and with sinuous light endings here anon
Of passionate change, an instant seen and gone,
Shalt light the tumult of this loveliness.

First Fire, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The lost days of my life until to-day,
What were they, could I see them on the street
Lie as they fell? Would they be ears of wheat
Sown once for food but trodden into clay?
Or golden coins squandered and still to pay?
Or drops of blood dabbling the guilty feet?
Or such spilt water as in dreams must cheat
The throats of men in Hell, who thirst always?

I do not see them here; but after death
God knows I know the faces I shall see,
Each one a murdered self, with low last breath.
‘I am thyself, - what hast thou done to me?’
‘And I- and I- thyself,’ (lo! each one saith,)
‘And thou thyself to all eternity!’

Lost Days, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ken Russell Dante Inferno

Ah! dear one, we were young so long,
It seemed that youth would never go,
For skies and trees were ever in song
And water in singing flow
In the days we never again shall know.
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, I've been old so long,
It seems that age is loth to part,
Though days and years have never a song,
And oh! have they still the art
That warmed the pulses of heart to heart?
Alas, so long!
Ah! then was it all Spring weather?
Nay, but we were young and together.
Ah! dear one, you've been dead so long,—
How long until we meet again,
Where hours may never lose their song
Nor flowers forget the rain
In glad moonlight that never shall wane?
Alas, so long!
Ah! shall it be then Spring weather,
And ah! shall we be young together?

Alas so long, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 

One of Russell's best works, full of atmosphere, imagery, lighting.  Compare the image (left) with Metropolis/ Bride of Frankenstein. This image comes back for example in Aria.  And the image (right) with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Peepshow. 

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti  Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

 Ken regularly photographs people with their mirror images, here both confess to their reflections.

"His most persuasive examination  of the contrast between artistic creation and the needs of the flesh, with scenes of disturbing grotesquerie balanced by erotic interludes.  Dante's Inferno also shows Russell trying to reconcile the contradiction between historical reality and artistic reality which is at the heart of his experiments with documentary form" (John Baxter, An Appalling Talent, ch2)

Alongside Reed are Judith Paris, Andrew Faulds, Iza Teller as Christina Rossetti and Gala Mitchell. Derek Boshier, one of the artists from Pop Goes the Easel, plays Millais. The script was co-written by Russell and Austin Frazer with Frazer giving the commentary.

Cinematography was by Nat Crosby.  Costumes were by Shirley Kingdon, who would marry Ken and continue her career as Shirley Russell. Editing is by Russell regulars Michael Bradsell and Roger Crittenden.

Music includes

  • Henze Invocation of Apollo, Symphony 3

  • Prokofiev Symphony 3

  • Ireland The Forgotten Role

  • Suppé La belle Galatée overture

  • Ketelbey In a Persian Market

  • Walton Richard III prelude

  • Messiaen L'Heure Vient Ou Les Mort

  • Lidholm Rites II Procession

  • Holst, Planets Suite

Brian Hoyle in the DVD notes states that the 90 minute film cost £19,000.

Ken's credit includes a photo of William Herschel, not someone in the film but according to the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum he established the term photography "Although the word 'photography' was used as early as 1932 by Professor Stenger, it was Herschel’s paper that finally gave photography a common nomenclature" (click here).

 

Ken Russell Dante's Inferno - Dante Gabriel Rossetti

All images from the DVD of the film.



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