“There was no better director to learn from. He would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence.”–Derek Jarman on Ken Russell
PLOT: Father Urbain Grandier is the charismatic spiritual and political leader of the independent city of Loudun; Cardinal Richelieu wants him replaced because he refuses to allow the city’s walls to be torn down. Sister Jeanne, Mother Superior of the town’s convent, is tormented by sexual dreams about Grandier. When Sister Jeanne confesses her fantasies to a priest, Richelieu’s men hatch a plot to frame Grandier as a warlock, and the entire convent is whipped into mass hysteria, becoming convinced they are possessed by devils.
- Father Grandier and Sister Jeanne, among many other characters in the film, were real people. Grandier was burnt at the stake in 1634 on accusations of practicing witchcraft.
- The Devils was based on John Whiting’s play “The Devils of Loudun,” which itself was based on Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same title.
- Ken Russell’s original theatrical cut ran 117 minutes, after the British censors removed an infamous 4-minute sequence known as “the rape of Christ.” The U.S. distributor cut an additional three to six minutes of sex and blasphemy out so that the film could be released with an “R” rating in the States, and that release became the standard version and the only one released on VHS. The longer director’s cut was not seen until 2004, thanks to a restoration effort led by . Russell’s director’s cut has never been issued on home video; the X-rated theatrical cut is the most complete version currently available. Portions of the “rape of Christ” scene are preserved in a BBC documentary called “Hell on Earth” (included on the BFI DVD).
- designed the sets. This was his first feature credit.
- The Devils is included in Steven Schneider’s “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
- The contemporary arguments over the film became so heated that Russell himself attacked critic Alexander Walker on live television, hitting him on the head with a copy of his negative review.
- Warner Brothers has steadfastly refused to release the movie on DVD, but they did eventually sublicense it to the British Film Institute for overseas release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Even with the “rape of Christ” scene excised, what sticks out in The Devils are the scenes of possessed nuns, some with shaved heads, whipping off their habits and cavorting in the nude, writhing, self-flagellating, jerking off votive candles, and waggling their tongues in an obscene performance. For a single, and singular, image that encapsulates the themes and shock level of The Devils, however, try the vision of Vanessa Redgrave seductively licking at the wound in Oliver Reed’s side when she imagines him as Christ descended from the cross to ravage her.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crocodile parry; Christ licking; John Lennon, exorcist
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nobody, but nobody, shoots a nun orgy like Ken Russell. Aside from a dream sequence or two, The Devils is a historically accurate account of a real-life medieval witch hunt—but Russell emphasizes only the oddest and most perverse details, so that the movie itself becomes as hysterical and overwrought as the frenzy it condemns. Truth, in this case, is at least as strange as fiction.
Original U.S. release trailer for The Devils
COMMENTS: Viewed from a great distance, The Devils is a classical story, one that (without the explicit blasphemy) might have constituted a Shakespearean tragedy. Urbain Grandier begins as a flawed man, vain, and with a powerful weakness for women (he confesses at trial that he’s “the world’s greatest sinner”). These flaws earn him enemies, and give them a way to entrap him. Yet the randy priest also has powerfully sympathetic qualities: he is an uncompromising orator and leader, concerned with the good of his town, a man of conscience willing to stand up to corrupt authorities at the risk of his own life. As the film progresses and the threats increase, he answers the call and grows more and more virtuous, until by the end he is a true Christ figure, persecuted by Pharisees who re-enact a cruel mockery of the Passion on him for purely political ends. He endures the Inquisition’s tortures, refusing to falsely confess to being an incubus and trusting God will reward him for his suffering. It is a universal story of redemption, persecution, sacrifice, and courage, with truly despicable villains aided by sadly tragic dupes.
On his DVD commentary Russell asserts that “you can’t invent the most fantastic things, they actually happened.” So, following Aldous Huxley’s historical novel about the Loudun hysteria, he focuses on the strangest, most distant archaic details of the account to create a heightened nightmare, a medieval landscape inhabited by grotesques. Most notable is the twisted Sister Jeanne, a hunchbacked, repressed spinster trapped in a convent (there are literally bars on the window to keep men out). Georgina Hale, as one of Grandier’s hopelessly adoring conquests, wears white pancake makeup and green lipstick; the effect is theatrically absurd, but Russell assures us this was a fashion at the time and that he picked up the detail from Huxley. In the movie’s background, the plague is ravaging Loudun, and at times we see piles of corpses which the main characters barely acknowledge. Oddly, some of the most outrageous, hardest-to-believe incidents may be the most factual: Russell based his orgies on Huxley’s accounts. Exorcists of the day really did use forced enemas as a means of cleansing evil spirits. (Huxley referred to Jeanne’s exorcism as the equivalent of a “rape in a public lavatory.”)
Not all of Russell’s ornamentation is so accurate. He begins the film with a shot of high decadence as Louis XIII prances around on a gilded stage in a clamshell bikini, having cast himself as Venus in a performance for Cardinal Richelieu. (Russell takes courtly rumors of Louis XIII’s bisexuality and turns the monarch into a flaming homosexual, a choice which might be more controversial today than the blasphemy). Russell said he wanted a clean-looking, lived-in city as opposed to the typical gray and mossy look of medieval towns on film. But the impressive architecture of Derek Jarman’s Loudun, with all the buildings uniformly cast from white brick and tiles, is far too modern and minimalist to be realistic; it’s a mythic, fairy tale town. A pair of quack doctors wear bizarre goggles with leather snouts and apply cures straight from Russell’s imagination, fighting poison with poison by placing hornets under glass jars to sting plague victims. Russell takes a mention of Louis XIII taking potshots at captured Huguenots and transforms it into a fantastical slapstick burlesque sequence where the King dresses up prisoners as blackbirds and hunts them while sitting on his outdoor throne. Richelieu was probably never wheeled through a massive library containing intelligence on heretics and undesirables on a pushcart operated by nuns. Russell’s most blatant anachronism may be Father Barre, the shaggy exorcist with tinted granny glasses (à la John Lennon) who acts as much like a rock star as a priest. The Loudun exorcisms were indeed conducted publicly—that was part of the strategy to discredit Grandier and whip up public sentiment against him—but they probably didn’t include quite so much nun nudity.1
Of course, it’s the sacrilege, even more than the pubic hair, that really got The Devils into trouble. And yet, its crystal clear throughout the movie that Russell (himself a Catholic) is not on the side of the blasphemers, nor was he shocking viewers without a larger purpose. Sister Jeanne’s visions—her degraded, literal vision of what it means to be a “bride of Christ”—are corrupt from the beginning, a product of the unnatural vocation she’s been forced into. The powers that be, Richelieu and his flunky, the Baron De Laubardemont, show no piety whatsoever; they are only concerned with consolidating power, and are willing to use any means to secure it. The fact that it’s the clergy, the Establishment, who are the blasphemers makes for an obvious political statement. Grandier and his wife are the only true Christians in the film. The action often cuts back and forth between the Father’s speeches or private devotions and the depraved performance art demonstrations by the exorcists to drive that point home. The Church as a political entity perverts morality; only in the lone, conscientious individual can it be found intact. This message jibes perfectly with the last act of the New Testament. The true devils wear starched white collars. If some think he drives this position home with a needlessly explicit lack of subtlety, then Russell might counter that they themselves are worshiping a false idol of propriety. After all, the nuns’ wild naked revelry is pagan and intoxicating, and this is what probably is most unnerving to the bluenoses—abandoning yourself to the devil looks like fun.
The Devils was made in a boundary-pushing year that also saw the release of the somehow-less-controversial A Clockwork Orange. Today, in the age of Antichrist, it seems strange that Russell’s movie outraged the public so easily. It’s easy enough for the timid to ignore a movie with disturbing content when they’re not interested in it. What’s stranger is Warner Brothers’ continuing shyness about releasing this film. It’s sad that the controversy, which should be as dead as the furor surrounding Clockwork and other transgressive works of the era, is still keeping people from seeing The Devils today. Copies of Two Thousand Maniacs and other torture-based exploitation films aren’t hard to come by. The message, one guesses, is to put whatever vile and degrading imagery you want on film, just don’t dare link it to religious hypocrisy. Whether you think that The Devils is great art or not, it is seriously intended. The amazing sets, high production values, epic scope, camerawork, Peter Maxwell Davies’ avant garde score, and Oliver Reed’s Shakespearean performance are all signifiers of High Art, and the message is essentially moral. The only possible objection to the film are its lapses of good taste; and these in themselves are valuable. Ken Russell’s most delirious and excessive movie is not something a true fan of the art form would want to miss out on. I’m not sure The Devils is an unqualified masterpiece, but it’s awfully close. And even if you don’t view it as an artistic triumph, it’s an unforgettable event.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Russell has become increasingly obsessed with madness—which is dangerously like a kind of madness in itself. Now, in The Devils, he has made a delirious fresco about the insanity of the witch hunts in 17th century France. It is a movie so unsparingly vivid in its imagery, so totally successful in conveying an atmosphere of uncontrolled hysteria that Russell himself seems like a man possessed.”–Jay Cocks, Time (contemporaneous)
“…its writer-director’s most outrageously sick film to date, campy, idiosyncratic, and in howlingly bad taste…”–Halliwell’s Film Guide
IMDB LINK: The Devils (1971)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
BFI Screenonline: Devils, The (1971) – The British Film Institute’s page has basic info, a short essay by Micheal Brooke, some production stills, a link to a short account of the censorship scandal, and two film clips (available to subscribers in the UK only)
The Devils (1971) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies has an entry on the film, with a long synopsis and background notes
Ken Russell interview: The last fires of film’s old devil – 2011 interview with Russell in The Guardian on the occasion of The Devils revival
‘The Devils’: Why Ken Russell’s Crazy, Sexy, Heretical Shocker is a ‘Masterpiece’ – “The Wrap” report inspired by Richard Crouse’s book “Raising Hell”
Possession in the Grand Siècle: The Devils – An article about teaching the film in French history courses that outlines Russell’s deviations from historical fact
We Don’t Go Back #38: The Devils (1971) – Article/review by Howard Ingram, with some interesting footnotes on witchcraft and censorship
Derek Jarman’s Renaissance and The Devils (1971) – Abstract for an article from “Shakespeare Bulletin” on the influence of The Devils on Derek Jarman’s future career
Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils – Book length study of the film’s production and aftermath by Richard Crouse
HOME VIDEO INFO: Although Warner Brothers stubbornly refuses to release The Devils to American home video audiences, they did (finally) sublicense the movie to the British Film Institute in 2012. If you are in Europe or have an all-regions DVD player, the BFI’s two-disc release is one of the finest and most complete editions of just about any film on the market. Clocking in at 107 minutes, it’s not the complete director’s cut with the “rape of Christ” (Warner balked at going that far), but it is the original X-rated theatrical release, with a few extended scenes not available on Warners’ VHS release. It begins with an optional 2-minute introduction from film critic and Devils champion Mark Kermode. Kermode hosts a commentary track featuring Russell, editor Michael Bradsell, and Paul Joyce (director of “Hell on Earth”). Disc one also hosts two trailers (British and American versions) and the early Russell short “Amelia and the Angel” (1958). “Amelia” is a 25-minute black and white fable about a little girl who loses the angel wings she needs for a school play, with no dialogue besides a narrator. This short feature shows Russell, then newly converted to Catholicism, in a pious mood, and although it’s fairly conventional it includes a few scenes of magical realism/surrealism that prefigure the direction the director would take in the future.
Disc 2 hosts additional featurettes, starting with the 50-minute BBC documentary “Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of ‘The Devils'”. This doc is itself notorious as being the only place you can see a few minutes of out-of-context footage from the “rape of Christ” sequence. The 20-minute “Director of Devils” is a contemporaneous American mini-doc about the film and attendant controversy, made by Warner Brothers as a marketing tool. It includes some interesting footage of Peter Maxwell Davies conducting the orchestral score, intercut with the final product. Rounding out the supplements are seven-and-a-half minutes of behind the scenes footage narrated by Michael Bradsell and a 12-minute Q&A with Russell from a 2012 screening. And if that’s not enough, the set comes with a 40-page booklet with essays on the film, Russell, Reed, Redgrave, and Jarman, along with a detailed record of the cuts demanded by censors and the studio. If you’re a Devils fan, you could not ask for much more (the uncut rape of Christ, sure, but given that that’s off the table…)
Occasionally, other DVD offerings pop up that claim to contain the complete and uncut version, but they always seem to disappear from the market quickly, and cannot be verified.
The Devils has not been licensed for Blu-ray or VOD presentation. Despite fan petitions and complaints, Warner has shown no interest in exploiting this still-controversial property, although you never know what might happen in the future.
(This movie was nominated for review by “lo-fi jr.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
- Roger Ebert’s scathingly sarcastic contemporaneous review of The Devils included the line, “Russell fearlessly reveals [that] all the nuns, without exception, were young and stacked.”