When an Artist Belongs to His Art That Belongs to Life

Ken Russell on the set of “Women in Love” with Glenda Jackson who plays the leading role

The question put by Russell’s work is not only the priority of life or art for his personality (aestheticism or existentialism of his creative dedications). It’s a question of who he is – a narcissist armed with a cinematic medium or a human being singing a hymn to creation by analyzing the mysteries of life. In times when a film-director is forced by economic pressures beyond his control to become a “filmmaker”, Russell balances his extravagant cinematic style (creating and simultaneously subverting his success) with his dedication to thinking about human existential problems (that usually is not noticed by the viewers of his films and is covered with the elegant silence by the critics).

At least three topics are characteristic of Ken Russell’s creative curiosity – human sexuality with its mysterious twists and tricky enigmas, human aggression as the dark flower of human nature nurtured by human history, and religious fundamentalism with its paradoxical psychological primitivism when belief in good creates evil.

Russell deals with these themes in many of his films, but the main “textbook” on the intriguing nature of human sexuality is his “Women in Love” (1969), like “Lair of the White Worm” (1988) is the main visual “text” of his psychology of human aggressiveness, and like “The Devils” (1971) is his main elaboration of the psychology of religious fanaticism.

Russell’s directorial style is based on the disruption of plot as a timid, step-by-step narrative. Radicalism of his worldview demands an extremely symbolic cinematic language. Formal excesses of his many films hide but also promote the existential radicalism of his political positions.

Ken Russell understood that sexuality is not only sexual phenomenon but represents the yearnings of the human soul. “Women in Love” makes a paradigmatic case for a democratic position on sexual liberation. Russell depicts love between men not as an alternative or an addition but as a completion of love between the sexes. This love, according to Russell, contradicts the fiesta of megalomania and scapegoating characteristic of machoistic posture of competition, rivalry, rigid identity, hate and wars.

In “Lair of the White Worm” Russell emphasizes the morbid psychological transformation of our soul when we give ourselves to hate and to desire to manipulate or exterminate other people. In “The Devils” Russell analyzes the psychology of religious fanaticism when belief in god provides a megalomaniacal support for intolerance of and hate for human flesh and nature and creates a spiritual alibi for crimes against life.

In “Salome’s Last Dance” (1988) Russell traces the psychological configurations of the position of control and manipulation inside personal love (quite widespread anthropological phenomenon). The desire for power over another human being can insidiously impregnate the very desire for love and waits for the right moment to sting through the decorative laces of eroticism. The director uses historical analogies to create a portrait of possessive and sadistic love between two persons.

“Women in Love” by Ken Russell
Is Gerald a domineering lover or is he, psychologically a child with desperate need to dominate?

Gerald is sexually “nursed” by Gudrun (“Women in Love”)

Rupert and Gerald – wrestling with amorous connotation (“Women in Love”)

Doesn’t Russell’s “white worm” remind us of, not really a snake but a helminthes (not so much of a parasitic warm inside human intestines but of the basement of human soul where energies of greed and predatoriness are crystallized)?

Ken Russell’s “The Devils”

”Salome’s Last Dance” by Ken Russell
Princess Salome dominates the setting according to universal logic of social hierarchy.