Review: Savages

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

Savages is consistently appealing, intermittently brilliant, and—in the end—very nearly inconsequential. Though given elaborate and oblique treatment, its basic idea is a simple one: the “savage” mud-people whom we see in mock-silent-movie fashion at the start are more or less interchangeable with the elegant, conspicuously “civilized” moderns who inhabit the huge mansion which is the film’s single most dominating presence. This notion is almost not an idea at all—though not completely irrelevant, even as rhetoric—but fortunately James Ivory and company use it less as the film’s “point” than as its underlying assumption. And in that light, we are given an extended charade which makes playful and amiably inspired use of a filmic idiom that is part Buñuel (esp. The Exterminating Angel), part Resnais (esp. Last Year at Marienbad), part Theatre of the Absurd (in its use of language for disturbing comic effects), part “experimental” film (in its resurrection of some ancient avant-garde devices). The question of influences is important because Savages often leaves the impression of being unique but not very original—just derivative enough for its multitude of small delights to become faintly dubious. It is “surrealistic” but lacks a genuinely surrealist intensity. On the other hand, even though it has a campy-chic Art Deco look to it, Walter Lassally’s color cinematography achieves a nostalgic sensuality which becomes the film’s most compelling emotion (here the spirit of von Sternberg might be invoked, but only on the margins).

Still, for all these more or less inevitable comparisons, Savages has charm and magic, and it honors its audience with the assumption that sometimes there’s more fun when you leave the explanations out. This independent production is in many ways an accumulation of bizarre moments: a woman reading a peach, a backseat lesbian seduction punctuated by advice on the removal of bodily hair, delightfully absurd dinner party conversations, Marienbadesque antics around a swimming pool at night, vaudeville routines, peculiar forms of croquet, a cellist in the attic and “savage” games in the basement. The moments do not (and perhaps need not) “add up,” but the film’s series of peculiarities gather only a little force or added richness as they go. And so Savages seems to empty itself instead of building to an ending, a climax, or a point of departure. The resulting letdown is not entirely compensated for by the delicate, nameless poetry which Ivory, Lassally, and a large, largely likeable cast have kept their film alive with.

SAVAGES
Direction: James Ivory. Screenplay: Ivory, Michael O’Donoghue, and George Trow Swift. Cinemaotography: Walter Lassally. Production: Ismail Merchant.
The Players: Susie Blakely, Margaret Brewster, Neil Fitzgerald, Anne Francine, Salome Jens, Christopher Pennock, Asha Puthli, Paulita Sedgwick, Lewis J. Stadlen, Russ Thacker, Ultra Violet, Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes.

Copyright © 1973 Peter Hogue


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