A surly and confused young man named Max (Michael Gothard) is at odds with the world and on the brink of insanity. We first see him running desperately through misty streets to a bare and dingy room where he flops exhausted on a spring bed, turns on some recorded orchestral music and watches a doll spinning at the end of a string suspended from the ceiling.
His landlady yells for him to turn the music off. Max yells back. Then he takes an axe from a cupboard and chops the room to pieces in one of the most manic scenes of the film.
But what Max really wants to destroy is not the room but his own life. He wants to commit suicide, and he wants the act of destruction to bring him fame.
Shouldering his axe, Max forces his way into the office of Farson (Peter Stephens), head of the biggest advertising agency in London, and offers his own death as a gimmick to be exploited in any way the agency likes. The offer is accepted and a campaign launched to gain some unspecified commercial advantage out of Max’s leap from the top of a high building.
It seems at first that Max is offering his life as a protest against everything represented by Farson (or “Farce” as Max calls him) but as the film progresses there are subtle changes in motivation. After two crucial scenes – Max’s beautifully photographed and highly explicit bedding of Farson’s secretary Clio (Gabriella Licudi), and a terrifying few minutes on the rooftop, the audience is left floundering.
Herostratus is essentially a series of wildly photographed, imaginative and occasionally magnificent scenes expressing ideas, illusions, sexual gratifications and nightmare fears.
Outside the plot there are newsreels of Hitler haranguing the Reichstag, concentration camp scenes, Harry Truman addressing the inaugural meeting of the United Nations, Allen Ginsberg reading a poem, Malcolm Muggeridge on television being cut off in mid-sentence by Max’s axe, subliminal flashes of haute couture, models and pools of frothy blood, out-of-focus grimacing faces, and a striptease sequence which is horribly intercut with shots of a slaughterman disembowelling sheep.
The very first feature funded by the British Film Institute turned out to be an audacious experimental London art film which – although little-seen – left its mark on late 1960s British cinema, with echoes of its style evident in the work of such directors as Stanley Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg.
The film also features the first screen role of Helen Mirren (pictured above right).
In a grave echo of the film, both director and star would take their own lives decades after working together here: Levy in 1987, Gothard in 1992.
Brigitte St. John