According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, this bizarre Merchant-Ivory production was born when director James Ivory had the idea to flip the story of Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel’s 1962 movie The Exterminating Angel. In Buñuel’s picture, a posh dinner party devolves into primeval savagery, so in Ivory’s cinematic retort, a group of primitive people become gown- and tuxedo-wearing sophisticates. Presumably, the satirical intention was to suggest that the cutting remarks and sarcastic gestures of an upper-crust dinner party are as brutal as the violent rituals of wild tribes, but that message gets buried in a barrage of unrelenting weirdness.
The movie opens with a ’30s-style title sequence, complete with cabaret singer Bobby Short crooning on the soundtrack. Then the movie shifts from color to black-and-white as the presentaton becomes that of a nature documentary observing a tribe called “The Mud People.” Silent-movie-style title cards offer explanatory and/or sardonic commentary, and there’s also a random trope featuring voiceover spoken in German. At one point, a croquet ball flies into the tribe’s encampment, so the Mud People follow the trail of the ball and find an abandoned country manor. Picking through jewelry and silverware, the Mud People mimic behaviors associated with the objects, at which point the film suddenly cuts to full color, and the actors playing the Mud People suddenly become bluebloods chit-chatting their way through a dinner party. (Familiar faces among the cast include ’70s starlet Susan Blakely, future B-movie regular Martin Kove, and a very young Sam Waterston.)
Once the movie settles into its dinner-party groove, Savages becomes something like a dry run for Merchant-Ivory’s many later pictures about the troubles of the wealthy, with cascades of numbingly polite conversation about political differences and romantic intrigue. However, within the crisply articulated dialogue is a strong thread of lighthearted surrealism: Two of the partygoers are cross-dressers (see the above photo); characters periodically devolve into savagery by mounting each other in small rooms off the main hall; and the gang worships a shrine built around the croquet ball. Toward the end of the picture, the characters suddenly lose their sophistication (and their clothes), running back into the woods to become Mud People again.
Obviously, none of this makes any sense, although particularly cerebral viewers could probably have a field day analyzing the anthropological and sociopolitical signifiers with which the movie is laden. Plus, the picture might appeal to cult-movie fans because the script was co-written by Michael O’Donoghue, the notorious National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live writer/performer known as Mr. Mike and loved/hated for his dark sketches; fans of his bone-dry humor might find traces of Mr. Mike insouciance somewhere in Savages. For most viewers, however, Savages will simply seem boring and weird, although the picture affirms Merchant-Ivory’s brave willingness to try new things.