Women in Love: Bohemian Rhapsody

Outrageous, visually exuberant, frequently vulgar, and often lyrically astonishing in the English romantic tradition of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Ken Russell was one of the most original British filmmakers of all time. His long, vibrant life and career tell a story of cultural change across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. He grew up watching Hollywood imports and homegrown British social dramas in provincial Southampton cinemas, then studied dance, did a stint in the merchant navy, and developed an innovative photographic career before establishing himself as the preeminent director of arts documentary television in the early sixties. He moved from television and short films to big-budget studio features and then to independent digital movies. Along the way, he also produced, acted, and wrote, as well as worked in radio. He directed theater, opera, ballet, and music videos as well as films. He often found that he was out of step with conventions of representation and taste. He continued to work until the end of his life, distributing his late “garagiste” films (as he called them) on the internet. His posthumous ninetieth birthday was marked in 2017 by scholars and fans at festivals, retrospectives of his films, and an international conference; critical appreciation of his work was once again ascendant.

Despite his protean prolificity, however, Russell remains most closely associated with a single era, the 1960s and ’70s, during which he defined elements of British style. His television works from that time were notably edgy, often courting controversy by mixing documentary fact with fictionalization, and weaving sometimes scandalous personal histories into profiles of revered artists and other figures. He commenced his feature filmmaking career with the very British seaside farce French Dressing in 1964, followed by the Michael Caine vehicle Billion Dollar Brain in 1967; by the end of that decade, he was firmly established as a bête noire in the British popular press—“no stranger to the province of outrage,” as Sight & Sound put it at the time. The award-winning Women in Love (1969) further developed Russell’s cinematic technique and eye for resonant, shocking spectacle that suited the cultural moment.

An adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s controversial 1920 novel, Women in Love brought together a very lively director at the height of his reputation and a dead modernist writer enjoying a peak of critical and popular interest among general readers, scholars, and the counterculture alike. The esteem that greeted the film upon its release derived not just from its technical brilliance and the magic of its storytelling but also from the heady clash of its shocking content with conventions of censorship and classification. Lawrence’s novel had itself had a tricky road to publication: it was delayed after its predecessor, The Rainbow (1915), was prosecuted for obscenity; much of the initial print run was seized and burned, and the novel would not be available in Britain for another eleven years. Women in Love, which continues the story of the earlier novel, follows the Brangwen sisters as they discover themselves through troubled sexual relationships and come of age in a rapidly changing world.

Lawrence’s censorship battles bestowed on him a rare form of posthumous literary fame perhaps previously secured only by Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens. But Lawrence, whose works are replete with heady philosophical visions of sexual utopia and intellectual emancipation, was hipper, cut to the measure of the late-sixties libertarian moment. The Lawrence-Russell conjunction was therefore a marriage made in creative heaven. Lawrence’s writing is intensely idea-led but also vividly visual, and thus itself quite cinematic (despite its author’s hatred of cinema). Though Lawrence’s novels and paintings had been banned long before Russell was born, the author’s uncompromising vision of intellectual liberty, sexual deliverance, class challenges, and troubled Englishness dovetailed neatly with the filmmaker’s own rebelliousness. In 1976, Jack Fisher wrote, “The criticism of Ken Russell’s films is very similar to the early criticism of D. H. Lawrence’s novels. The words obscene, vulgar, overwrought, gaudy, filthy, trashy appear with frenetic regularity in considerations of both artists.” The writer became a regular figure of fascination for the director—Russell went on to direct adaptations of two other Lawrence works (The Rainbow as a feature film in 1989 and Lady Chatterley’s Lover for BBC television in 1993). But it is Women in Love that remains the apotheosis of this collaboration, becoming one of Russell’s best-loved works and inaugurating an astonishing run of original films across the seventies.

The film is no straight adaptation. Larry Kramer’s screenplay (Russell contended that he should have gotten at least a cowriting credit) weaves a variety of material by Lawrence—including poetry and prose from elsewhere—into its jaunt through the novel. The film is perhaps talkier than Russell’s later visual excesses, and erudite about its period, the moment immediately after World War I. Lawrence wrote in his foreword that his novel “took its final shape in the midst of the period of war, though it does not concern the war itself. I should wish the time to remain unfixed, so that the bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters.” But Russell’s Women in Love is firmly set in its era, one not so remote from that of the filmmaker’s own childhood, and situates its modern protagonists in a landscape of historical cataclysm populated by returning veterans. Like his later adaptations (1971’s The Boy Friend, 1988’s The Lair of the White Worm) and stage productions (Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida, which he directed for the English National Opera in 1992), Women in Love is unmistakably Russell’s in its visual panache and playfulness. As in the book, the romantic encounters of the Brangwen sisters are at the heart of the film; the relationship of schoolteacher Ursula with the free-spirited Rupert Birkin (generally thought of as Lawrence’s alter ego) intersects with Birkin’s relationship with the troubled mine owner Gerald Crich, who himself initiates an affair with Ursula’s sister, art teacher Gudrun. This close circle is augmented by a cast of brilliant bohemians—including Birkin’s former lover, the artistic patron and heiress Hermione Roddice, and Gudrun’s artistic muse Loerke—as well as by Gerald’s ghoulish mother and feeble father.

Woven through the characters’ existential musings and self-interrogations about love and “authentic” modes of being are a wider set of philosophical discussions about art, sexual politics, and power. This may sound like a dull and preachy prospect—in fact it is anything but. Russell presents his bewitching story as a cavalcade of witty, absurd avant-garde characters wrestling with big questions and even bigger passions, and liable to make exultant statements while voguing in a display of free-spiritedness. The film fully understands that these characters are most interesting as performance pieces, and makes them look appropriately gorgeous. The note-perfect costume styling by Shirley Russell (the director’s wife at the time) and the art direction by Ken Jones articulate an achingly beautiful view of this world of a “thoroughly modern” intellectual elite.

Russell’s visual style takes his Women in Love beyond Lawrencian didacticism. Gorgeous set pieces are plentiful: the drowned couple, pale and twisted in the mud lake; the bleached undergrowth in which naked, injured Birkin writhes in existential agony, all the more startling for the silence imposed on the scene; Gudrun tossing her head back in exultation against a sunburst; the blue-frozen hell of the Alps, punctuated only by the terminal trail of Gerald’s footsteps; Ursula’s radiant face encountering a luminous paper lantern. Gudrun’s luscious costumes remind us that this is a film for dedicated followers of 1920s fashion as refracted by 1969; as Angela Carter once noted (in her perceptive essay on Lawrence’s clothes fetishism, “Lorenzo the Closet-Queen”), the vivid adornments the author describes would have been way beyond the pay packet of a provincial schoolteacher.

Music is another of the glorious riches of the film, including an intelligent score by the legendary French composer Georges Delerue. Though Russell was a lifelong classical-music enthusiast, he also demonstrated the potency of cheap music throughout his films in the form of early twentieth-century popular songs, whether used period-appropriately—as in Women in Love’s insistent return to “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” as a motif for both its twenties setting and its reflection of sixties idealism, or the use in Savage Messiah (1972) of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” in telling the life story of sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska—or surreally, as when The Devils (1971) chillingly references “Bye Bye Blackbird” in seventeenth-century France.

Russell always had an amazing ability to attract the hippest talent—Vanessa Redgrave circa 1971; Rudolf Nureyev circa 1977; William Hurt circa 1980, Kathleen Turner circa 1984. The cast of Women in Love was no exception: Glenda Jackson, previously known primarily for her work in the theater, found a new level of fame with this film, winning the best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the ambivalently sadistic Gudrun. But all the performances (however central or peripheral) are on point. Alan Bates plays Birkin as an occasionally infuriating hippie-visionary, and utters the film’s (and the novel’s) astonishingly open-ended concluding line: “I don’t believe that.” Oliver Reed as the tortured aristocrat Gerald Crich delivers the first of a set of three charismatic cinematic turns for Russell (he would go on to appear in The Devils and 1975’s Tommy), showing unequivocally that he was one of the most powerful performers of his generation. (Russell had previously used him in three television docudramas about artists: 1965’s The Debussy Film and Always on Sunday and 1967’s Dante’s Inferno.) Eleanor Bron—then muse of the British satirical comedy scene—conveys perverse depths as the bohemian Hermione.

Across the production, Russell’s stock was so high that he was able to gather the brightest talent of the moment; the result is a creation of lasting artistic merit. The famous homoerotic male nude wrestling scene between Birkin and Gerald—once a notorious censorship cause célèbre—is most remarkable now not for its swinging penises but for its naturalism, with firelight as the only apparent light source throughout. (Billy Williams was nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography.) Women in Love is also superbly edited by Michael Bradsell, who would go on to collaborate with Russell on some of his very best work.

Of course, Women in Love’s moral detractors focused most particularly on the nude wrestling scene. If film history is written in part in those landmark moments when the previously unrepresentable becomes visible, Women in Love constitutes just such a moment. In it, we find mainstream cinema’s first overt representation of male genitalia, within a veiled gay love scene that appeared just two years after the passing of the United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act 1967, which legalized sodomy for men over twenty-one. As the country’s chief censor at the time, John Trevelyan, would later recall in his memoir, when the print reached the British Board of Film Censors, it was not cut:

We thought this a fine film, a view that was shared by the critics and the public, and, although there were strong and explicit sex scenes, we passed it without cuts. This film included a remarkably brilliant scene in which two young men wrestled naked. We had to consider this carefully but decided to pass it; in a sense, this was a milestone in censorship, since male frontal nudity was still a rarity. We had little criticism, possibly because of the film’s undoubted brilliance.

In fact, however, Trevelyan had already seen to it that the movie was toned down: the Women in Love files at the BBFC show the film to have been diluted at the stage of its shooting script, which the censor read and advised on, and then again in a rough cut—an unofficial form of precensorship that was common practice then. The film’s shocking elements certainly helped it draw moviegoers. Women in Love has always captured the imagination of youth audiences, with its forensic analysis of sexual convention, its multipartner relationships, and its challenging of taboos.

Women in Love was followed in Russell’s career by a suite of other daring works marked by artistic brilliance and public scandal. From The Music Lovers (1971) and The Devils on through Altered States (1980) and Crimes of Passion (1984), Russell elaborated a colorful cinematic language that cemented his profile as a popular auteur, with noncineastes as well as the critical cognoscenti coming to recognize his signature style. Just a few months after the UK release of Women in Love, Russell’s controversial TV drama about the life of Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils, was banned from British screens following a motion introduced in Parliament condemning the film’s producers, the BBC (it remains a circumscribed work). The Devils continues to be unavailable in the director’s cut. All of Russell’s films up to the early nineties did eventually secure theatrical releases, but this was usually after the excision of potentially problematic material. Years later, the director would wonder, of Women in Love’s wrestling scene, “if people would still be talking about the film today if I hadn’t included that particular sequence.” The shock of that spectacle may have reverberated across the decade or so following the film’s release, but twenty-first-century audiences are far enough away from that moment to see, and appreciate, the film on its own terms. Russell’s film is arguably now a far more significant cultural artifact than Lawrence’s source novel—it is certainly more widely enjoyed and discussed. One of the most pathbreaking British films of the second half of the twentieth century, Women in Love is also a justifiably celebrated peak of Russell’s personal cinematic artistry.

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