Think of ‘60s British Cinema and you probably think of Alfie, Blow Up, Bond. You probably don’t think of Don Levy’s only feature Herostratus, and neither did I, until now. The film was awarded money from the BFI Experimental Film Fund, and is a hidden gem amongst the stylish exciting cinema that was beginning to emerge in the ‘60s.
Set in swinging London and loosely based on the Greek tale, Herostratus tells the story of Max, a young, disillusioned poet who decides to hire a marketing company to publicise his own suicide. Played by the relative unknown Michael Gothard, the film is a dark commentary on the greedy, selfish, image obsessed culture of the time (and indeed of any time), where literally anything can be bought for a price. Max’s narcissism and naïve ideas leave him vulnerable to Farson (Peter Stevens), the sharp, soulless marketing exec who knows exactly how to stroke Max’s ego in order to get exactly what he wants. The narrative is interjected with abstract scenes (a beautiful Helen Mirren makes an appearance as a sensual Goddess, to be druelled over and marvelled at) and often frightening and obscure snippets that reference sometimes a later part of the film, and other times something totally random and confusing.
The photography is as outstanding as any film in British cinema history, a perfect blend of an eerie London through a fog-filled lens, criss-crossing with bold, luminous and often repulsive images, it is at once totally sentimental and also dazzlingly different. As with many films of the era, it is obsessed with looking at London, and does so exquisitely.
The performances are sensational. The dialogue remains sparse and often stilted; the performers are exactly that- people, saying words that are totally shallow and empty, with the only sincerity coming from Farson’s secretary Clio, played by Gabriella Licudi. Clio is perhaps the only human in the whole tale; although she has a price, just like everybody else.
It’s a crying shame that this was the only feature from director Don Levy, his obvious talent is reminiscent of Nic Roeg, Joseph Losey and even Antonioni in style. Tragically, both Levy and Gothard committed suicide, with their careers never quite reaching the peaks of their peers. But the film deserves as much praise for its daring, original filmmaking as it does for its technically brilliant delivery. It is everything that a perfect film should be. It’s exciting, engaging, shocking and breathtakingly beautiful; a true masterpiece.