A cabin bursts into flames, the female form bursts out of a cocoon. "Why is everyone so literal these days," snaps chalky Gustav Mahler (Robert Powell) at a reporter, and at critics unenchanted by Ken Russell's turgid aural-visual karaokes. Life is a train ride back to Austria with overshadowed wife Alma (Georgina Hale), whose talent is smothered by her famous husband, her original composition buried in the woods, like a dead child; Mahler, meanwhile, gazes outside his window to spot Death in Venice shyly played out in the platform, not the inspiration for the opus but the filmmaker's nudging lampoon of Visconti's own version. Plagued by fears of betrayal and mortality, the composer shoots from would-be child-prodigy to music-world toast, only at the cost of Jewish roots, visualized via the obligatory Russell psychedelia headache -- the conversion to Catholicism as a silent Stan Laurel one-reeler, jumping through flaming hoops and biting into a pig's snout ("Still kosher?") under the scrutiny of goose-stepping Cosima Wagner (Antonia Ellis), morphed into a mini-skirted Ilsa, She-Devil of the S.S. Earlier, another fantasy sends Mahler screaming into the crematory, though not before his wife spreads her thighs over the coffin, counterpoint to the mock-innocence of Alma scrambling to secure quiet for the genius-at-work by silencing country sounds -- cowbells and gurgling babies, church chimes, a shepherd's tooting and a Teutonic band. Moments out of The Great Waltz, all, though Russell is no Duvivier, much less Minnelli: Monsieur Vincente focuses on the artist's vulnerability underneath the myth, Russell on how man's artworks give him free asshole-rein. A symphony comes to shape in the young Mahler's mind as he walks the forest; still, one of Russell's less intolerable forays into gassy mania, with less ass-bleeding than in the Tchaikovsky or Liszt violations and even enough of a break in the facetiousness to link music with emotion before the final stop. With Lee Montague, Miriam Karlin, Rosalie Crutchley, and George Coulouris.
--- Fernando F. Croce