Thursday, February 27, 2014

Salome's Last Dance (1988): Staging a Stageplay

Salome's Last Dance (1988)
dir: Ken Russell

Ken Russell and Oscar Wilde shared a very simple thing: they were both provocateurs. It should be no surprise that Ken Russell chose to adapt Oscar Wilde's one-act play Salome as a piece of provocation. How Ken Russell chose to adapt it makes all the difference.

Salome is Wilde's most provocative play, expanding a short passage from the New Testament of 12 verses into a full one-act play filled with lust, incest, and murder. Salome, the daughter of the Tetrarch Herod and Queen Herodius, develops an infatuation for the new prisoner, John the Baptist, who is making prophecies about Jesus and against Herod and, especially, Herodius. Meanwhile, everybody else is infatuated with Salome, including Herod who demands Salome dance her Dance of the Seven Veils for him. In return, Salome demands and receives the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter before being killed herself.

Of course, it would be uncouth to set such a hypothetical play which greatly enhances and theororizes on the details from the bible passage nearly as long as the preceding paragraph. Plus, Russell was on a tight budget, with this being a movie made for then fledgling Vestron Pictures. Russell, to save on budget and to make this a Russell bit of modernist cinema, set Salome's Last Dance in a brothel, where Oscar Wilde would watch the people under the employ of the master put on the very first staging of Salome, keeping it slightly bawdy but never going far over-the-top...for Salome, that is.

Wilde, at the beginning of the film, Wilde comes in with his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (nee Bosie), discussing how both of them have taken a shining to the bootblack boy, who also played the brother to the head security guard. At one point, after the guard's suicide, the bootblack cuddles with Wilde and later they go to a secret place in order to play around.

Russell, of course, isn't afraid of showing off everything. He doesn't show any explicit sex in his films, but he does have the Dance of the Seven Veils be a mind-bending dance with multiple dancers, at least one male, all set to Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. He has Herodius get to banging the two security guards, one a chubby pale schlub, and the other a muscled bodybuilder who would become famous for being Wolf on the UK Gladiators (with short hair in the film!).  And, of course, everybody is leering at Salome, who is using it all to her advantage, being one of the key femme fatales.

Russell's ingenious non-fourth-wall reimagining of Salome, with the actors coming out into the audience (consisting of Oscar Wilde) breathes life into what could have been a cheap and stagey reconstruction. The blocking and staginess of the film is intentional as it is a staged play in a film. The meta-ness is merely there to comment on the homosexuality of Wilde, and his life story. Wilde, at the end of the film, is arrested for indecencies with a minor, turned in by his lover...a nod to Wilde being in prison while the original play was being produced, due to an ill-conceived lawsuit encouraged by Bosie.

While Salome's Last Dance gets off to a shaky amateurish start, the play soon overtakes the film, and the whole movie breathes with a new life that shows Russell's incredible talent, even if he is given to his own bits of tastelessness (such as an overly flatulent dinner guest). Salome's Last Dance may actually be the most undeservedly underseen and underrated film in Russell's catalog. It's a triumph of Wilde's language, and a mastery of bawdy theatrics. It sets the balance between Russell's aired period films (The Music Lovers, Women in Love) and his over-the-top films of excess (Lisztomania, Crimes of Passion, Lair of the White Worm). It's an accessible, easy-to-get-along-with film of biblical sleaze and gay sex.

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