I rather dislike Merchant Ivory films for their classist obsessions & overall namby-pamby Public Television aesthetics. But I'd long desired to see Savages, an early effort that turns out not to be very good, but which is a fine oddity nevertheless, oddest for so strongly lampooning the upper classes which in later & more successful films James Ivory seems so thoroughly to laud.
Indeed, Savages comes off more as Luis Bunuel than James Ivory. It begins in black & white in the mode of a silent film, as we follow the rutting, short-tempered escapades of the primitive Mud People. After about twenty minutes there is still no character deliniation, but it is so novel & bizarre in its surrealism that it's hugely the best part of the whole film, & justifies any time spent watching the rest.
The Mud People are a matriarchal tribe whose queen sacrifices her king & replaces him once each year. At the moment the previous year's king is about to have his brains bashed in with a rock, there appears shooting across the sky a croquet ball. Such a perfect sphere has never been seen in the forest, & it seems (a la The Gods Must be Crazy) a sign or gift from the Goddess.
The whole of this lost tribe follows the trajectory of the croquet ball out of the forest & onto the fringe of civilization, where there is an English estate so recently abandoned it hasn't yet gotten dusty. The silent film has in the meantime become a sound film with an untranslated German narration. The tribe bickers around the mansion, crudding up everything, & has placed the vaunted croquet ball on a little pedestal in front of an art nouveau nude statue they have taken as a representation of their Goddess.
Eventually the silent film that became a sound film becomes a color film, as the trappings of upperclass English society transforms the mudpeople into a pompous aristocrats who seduce instead of rut, who bicker with faux witticisms to sustain the same pecking order they had when they were grunting primitives, & have better hair-dos & normal costumes.
There is never a moment when we really wonder wheather or not by the end they will follow their croquet balls back into the forest & revert entirely to their true natures, which they have never fully escaped, so any pretense of irony falls rather flat.
The real problem with the film is that while they are their most "civilized" & boring, their dialogue centers around no particular story-ark, so the viewer cannot be pulled into any plot. The dialogue is fragmentory like a series of outtakes from some other film that did have a plot.
Plus very few members of the cast ever distinguish themselves as distinct characters. The fate of no individual matters. The film is in consequence very trying & dull, & might've felt more rewarding if it had been shortened to eighty or ninety minutes. Well before the second hour has elapsed, it just no longer matters when the obvious ending is gotten over with so the film can be put back in its jewel case never to be viewed again.
In the final analysis only that first half hour when they were just the Mud People held any interest. The director seemed to realize a half hour of that was about the most that could be tolerated with any liking, but he mistook the "civilized" part of the tale as worthy of feature length in itself -- which is a problem with most of his later films too.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl