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Losey's British brilliance didn't begin with 'The Servant'.
'The gypsy and the Gentleman' is a ripe Regency melodrama, a lurid update of the Gainsborough costume dramas so popular in Britain during the Second World War. At a time when British cinema saw a tussle between congealed Rattigana, 'modest' comedies and the already dated novelty of Free Cinema, it took an American to inject invigorating doses of colour, sex and violence.
In terms of narrative, nothing much has changed since Gainsborough- the hero is a dissolute aristocrat; femininity is divided into the traditional pucelle/putain dichotomy, with Sarah as the meritocratic maiden who sees the Victorian future as middle class, and wants to marry a decent, dull doctor in spite of her brother's class objections. Belle is a gypsy, the underclass outsider who seeks to infiltrate the gentry; her exotic foreignness is stereotypically portrayed, dusky face, hammy voice, gaudy coloured clothes, linked to nature; but, most importantly, in the freedom of her movements, linked to her open sexuality, an expression of her manoeuvring supposedly ironcast class boundaries, and a contrast to the prim stiffness of Sarah, whose imprisonment in a fairy-tale tower is only a literalisation of the socio-cultural imprisonment faced by women of her class.
Unlike most costume dramas, where narrative pace is sacrificed in favour of fetishistic detail, 'Gypsy' is directed with abrupt urgency, perhaps taking its cue from Belle, more typical of later Hammer films, which would similarly explore themes of sex, violence, class, imprisonment in the sedated English countryside. This plot, however, is even more shocking than any Hammer film, each horrific plot-point accumulating a sadistic frisson that results from the swift violence of the filming.
The drunken opening scene with the pig, the lynch-mob chasing Belle at the fair, the dumping of a bound and gagged aristocratic heroine in the watery reeds by a brutal gypsy, the descent of the hero into drunken impotence and mental torpor; all these and more have a disturbing vividness, free from restraint, a carnivalesque disruption, never seen in the British cinema, before or since.
All this would be enough to make the film a sensationalist romp. The fact that it was directed by Hollywood exile Joseph Losey must make us acknowledge it as a classic. As he would later do with 'King and Country', he takes a genre whose assumptions he ideologically despises, films it faithfully, while subverting from within.
With its obtrusive framing, its heightened, unrealistic colour, its blatantly artificial sets, and its stylised acting, the film seems more like a 50s melodrama by Sirk, or a mid-period thriller by Chabrol, than a British costume drama. Even the beautiful English countryside, so skilfully evoked as to be almost tactile, seems fake, a gorgeous series of painted props.
This clash between narrative immediacy and formal alienation allows Losey to create a startlingly modernist work. As Fassbinder remarked of Sirk, it is the villains who are the sympathetic characters here, not the pallid heroes. For instance, the heroine is imprisoned so Belle and her gypsy lover can make a fortune, but it is Belle who is given the film's most miraculous shot, a composition of the vast rural landscape that pulls back to be revealed framed through a barred window, with Belle looking out, imprisoned when she seems at her most narratively powerful.
Typically, Losey is not interested in romantic stereotypes, but in the economic circumstances that turn people into what they are - it is money that determines characters' actions, even the 'good' ones, and drives the plot - in one Hitchcockian shot, the camera obliterates the human players and closes in on a purse of coins.
More importantly, the film is a first attempt at 'The Servant', the story of an aristocrat brought low by deceptive interlopers, potentially sterile economic arguments are shown to have their roots in sexual neurosis and attendant issues of power, social and sexual, and the body and gender. The way the despised outcasts bring ruin to the decadent gentry by increasingly barbarous schemes is filmed with barely concealed glee by Losey, even as Belle becomes an oppressor and thence self-destructive (Belle becomes tainted by power, Jed remains true to himself - a gendered 'political' argument?) - you imagine the director's heart is with the vandal who, like Losey the American in Britain, sneaks into the mansion at night, and starts smashing and shredding the decor. Fantastic.
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