It's a lazy comparison. They were both extravagant visual stylists. They both had the arrested sexual sexual development that is the bliss of a Catholic upbringing. But otherwise where's the common ground? Fellini would have been as incapable of making the Devils as Russell was of reproducing La Dolce Vita.
Watching Salome's last Dance, I found myself thinking not so much of Fellini as of Godard. The sensibilities are vastly different, but there's the same "Fuck you, I'm going to do exactly what I please" approach to film making. Like Godard, Russell is determined to smash the fourth wall. Salome is a sophisticated and layered piece of work- with a rum bunch of actors playing Wilde and his chums playing the characters in Wilde's Salome. Nicolas Grace- as Wilde- is author and audience, a man watching himself unfold onstage- both tragic genius and heartless sexual exploiter, a man playing his own legend in a flurry of stale epigrams. Douglas Hodge is Bosie is John the Baptist- debauchee and harbinger of Christ. Imogen Millais-Scott (an extraordinary performance) is a put-upon whorehouse skivvy and an unputdownable nymphet of a Salome- and dies in both roles. Glenda Jackson pours her star-quality (this was one of her last roles before moving to another, lower stage) into Herodias and the preposterously entitled Lady Alice Kensington-Windsor. Russell himself pops up as a bewhiskered photographer- there to record the performance- who somehow inserts himself into the play, discussing theology with the male whores who double as Herod's guards. Stratford Johns (best known as a TV detective) is the reptilian bawdy-house keeper Alfred Taylor and the tremulously pathetic Herod- both of them murderers.
The play is given complete- in a version both careful and irreverent, with interpolations of pantomime and melodrama. The Yellow Book meets Viz, and neither is disrespected. The aestheticism comes on full strength, the bawdy low comedy comes on full strength too. They collide and bounce. Drama flows between stage and auditorium. Wilde cops off with Bosie's catamite while Bosie watches from the stage- immobilised in the role of John's severed head. When a policeman turns up to arrest Wilde and Taylor at the end of the show he is greeted as the preposterous, theatrical intervention he is and Grace/Wilde makes a crack about sharing a double bill with Gilbert and Sullivan. Lady Alice pulls rank to disassociate herself from the felons, Bosie makes himself scarce and Wilde and Taylor exit in the black maria, laughing uproariously on their way to infamy. Life is a cabaret, old chum. They have their exits and their entrances.
Fellini? Godard? Well, neither and both. Russell matches the extravagance of the one and the insouciance of the other, but he's not copying anyone. He's being himself- Our Ken from Southhampton, the dancer turned merchant seaman turned famous monster of film-land. He's a great movie maker- a British auteur fit to stand shoulder to shoulder with the feted European masters- and we side-lined him as we sidelined Michael Powell, because we just weren't used to movies that didn't roll off the production line. Salome's Last Dance is a work from his wilderness years- done on the cheap because people were reluctant to pony up for his projects. It looks cheap- and, by gum, it makes a virtue out of its cheapness. Godard said all you needed to make a film was a girl, a gun and a car. Russell dispenses with the gun and the car. This film is crummy. It's also sublime. It's crummy-sublime. Sorry Ken, we done you wrong.