Ken Russell’s quirky and atypical comedy feature film debut is better than its reputation might suggest.
It’s possible that if French Dressing had been made by another, less well-known director than Ken Russell, it would have a better reputation today. As it is, the film seems forever doomed to be dismissed as Russell’s first feature film, a fluffy comedy flop that is best swept under the carpet and ignored as we bask in the legend of Russell the Enfant Terrible of British cinema (even Russell was dismissive of the movie). Of course, we should also be grateful that the film was a box office failure – had it been a hit, Russell might have easily been absorbed into the sort of mainstream British commercial cinema of the time instead of retreating back to television, where he could hone his craft at the BBC without commercial pressures. Had French Dressing been a financial success, we might never have seen The Music Lovers, The Devils, Women in Love and other Russell classics.
Fifty years on, we can perhaps look more objectively on this film, and appreciate it for its light, insubstantial but always entertaining qualities. We can now see that the film was very much in the mid-Sixties British comedy tradition, a world of A Hard Day’s Night, Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment, The Knack, Georgie Girl and other slightly quirky, slightly cynical comedy films that are at once youth movies and pastiches of youth movies – odd, eccentric films that were perhaps too clever for their own good.
In French Dressing, James Booth is deckchair attendant Jim Stephens, working alongside hapless entertainments manager Henry Liggott (Roy Kinnear) in the typically grim British seaside town of Gormleigh On Sea. There isn’t much fun to be had in this place, and the lack of tourists and attractions is putting both men’s jobs at risk. When Jim idly fantasises abut the town hosting a film festival featuring Brigitte Bardot, his sometime girlfriend Judy (Alita Naughton) writes it up as a newspaper story, and before long, he finds himself under orders from the Mayor (Bryn Pringle) to deliver. Well, BB is out of the question, but what about FF – Francoise Fayol (Marisa Mell), anther blonde sex bomb noted for filling out a bikini in spectacular fashion and the star of steamy French New Wave dramas like Pavements of Boulogne. Jim and Henry head to France to find her, and are in luck – she is tired of being a sex symbol and wants to be taken seriously as an actress, and so agrees to accompany them back to Gormleigh, where she is feted as a star, treated to an embarrassingly bad parade of French history and persuaded to open a new nudist beach. But things go from bad to worse – the festival screening ends in a riot, her film is savaged by critics and her closeness with Jim has caused Judy to be bitterly jealous. But when Fayol leaves to return to France before the grand beach opening – which every binocular owner has been greatly looking forward to – someone needs to take her place to prevent Jim and Henry from losing their jobs…
In many ways, French Dressing is a rather shoddy affair – huge chunks of the film have been crudely ADR’d, the plot is thin and the characters are under-developed. But it’s also a film with a surprising amount of charm, and although under written, the main characters are all surprisingly likeable. Of course, Kinnear is always value for money, but Naughton, in her film debut, is genuinely lovely, an elfin tomboy who is utterly charming. Marisa Mell makes for a fine sexpot, very much the Bardot pastiche, and does a fine job of looking baffled and slightly horrified by the small town mentality that she finds herself in the middle of.
And it’s here where the film really works. Russell does a fine job of satirising the little Englander, keen to impress visitors with their meagre attractions and low rent ideas of a spectacle – if you live in England, this will be painfully familiar to you (I used to live in a city where they build a laughably bad ‘beach’ in the main square each summer and genuinely seem to think that it is an impressive tourist magnet). Russell’s portrayal of stiff upper lipped British establishment types and their petty hypocrisies and lecherous natures is spot on, and you can see touches of the director to come in these comic, satirical moments.
And as a light comedy, inspired as much by Jacques Tati as Richard Lester, this works very well. Russell has fun mocking the New Wave films of Godard and the like, and shows touches of his later directorial extravagance – I shouldn’t exaggerate this, as the film is certainly not recognisable as a Ken Russell work, but there are certainly moments that suggest a talent at work who is not afraid to take chances.
But French Dressing is ideally approached as a mid Sixties British comedy than a Ken Russell film. As such, it’s probably one of the more enjoyable of its type, and certainly deserves a better reputation than it currently has. Well worth checking out.