The Devils (1971)

Director: Ken Russell

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Necessarily graphic or exploitative trash? Blasphemous or truthful? All the fuss that has accompanied Antichrist, the pas du tout-est of the pas du touts at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, put me in mind of another film that raised hackles so high that it was released only after heavy censoring and nonetheless still was banned in many places. I’m talking, of course, about The Devils, Ken Russell’s account of events that took place in Loudon, France, in the 17th century that marked the end of independent city-states and the beginning of a united France under royal rule.

Ken Russell is the most operatic of film directors, and with the The Devils, he made his most impassioned statement about power, corruption, human degradation, and the possibility of redemption to date—indeed, it’s hard to think of another film that matches the sheer ferocity of its vision. I’ve seen the film maybe four times, and it never gets easier. This latest viewing was the hardest by far because it included a number of banned scenes I’d never seen before, including the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence. Russell and all supporters of the film who saw it—including a Catholic priest who sat on the Legion of Decency board in the United States and saw it prerelease—consider this scene to be the very heart of the film, and so it is a welcome inclusion indeed.

After many fruitless searches, a canister of film showed up in England that contained this and several other deleted scenes. Eurocult issued a cheaply produced, muddy DVD of the film in 2007 that includes this footage but does nothing to restore the sharpness and vibrant colors created by DP David Watkin and the textures of the famous Derek Jarman set. Until this deficit can be corrected, this DVD stands as must-see viewing for cinephiles, in general, and Russell fans, in particular.

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Russell introduces us to the world in which the story takes place, fittingly, on a stage. A roiling sea, created by moving pieces of scenery shaped like waves back and forth, brings forth a majestic figure in a geometric fan of a cloak. When the cloak is removed, we see a heavily made-up man wearing a gold seashell bra and codpiece—Botticelli’s Venus in drag. Cruel, dissipated King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and his politically astute adviser Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) applaud the performance tableau and retire to consider the destruction of the walls and independence of the fortified city-states of France. Richelieu has his eye on the most powerful of them all, Loudon, whose popular governor has just died, making it vulnerable. He will learn when he moves against the city that he will have a formidable enemy in Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who forcefully protects the city’s right to self-rule.

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Unfortunately, Grandier has opened himself to attack by his sexually promiscuous lifestyle. He has impregnated and abandoned the daughter (Georgina Hale) of a powerful city elder, and virtually every woman in Loudon has the hots for him (“Now there’s a man worth going to hell for!”), including the head of the Ursulline convent, Mother Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). A hunchback with no prospects for marriage, Mother Jeanne had no alternative but a nunnery. She and many of the other throwaway women in the convent are starved for human contact and very sexually frustrated.

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She has fixated on Grandier, and has had vivid sexual fantasies about him; Russell films one amazing fantasy in which Grandier, as Christ, steps off the cross on which he has been crucified so that Mother Jeanne can lick his wounds—a portent of things to come. When she overhears news that Grandier has married himself to a beautiful orphan named Madeleine (Gemma Jones), whose dying mother he attended to, she goes quite mad. She tells Father Mignon (Murray Melvin), the convent’s new confessor, that Grandier has bewitched her and violated her sexually. This is all that Richelieu’s agent, Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton, in a swelteringly brilliant performance), needs to bring Grandier to trial for witchcraft and have him condemned to the stake.

It’s hard to know where to begin in describing this stunning and disturbing film, but several scenes stand out not only for their visual audacity, but also for the way they communicate character. Madeleine’s mother is attended to by two sadistic “doctors” who put wasps under glass directly onto the plague boils that afflict her, causing her enormous suffering. Grandier tosses the pair down a long staircase and removes the cupping jars from the poor woman so that she can die in peace. The opposition of these men and Grandier is made clear in this scene; on another level, the bloodthirsty “doctors” show the worm in the apple of Grandier’s eye—Loudon—and the “doctors” will get a turn at Grandier when he is tortured to determine if he is a minion of the devil. However, they do their worst against Mother Jeanne.

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Russell told Jarman that he wanted Mother Jeanne’s physical examination for proof of sexual violation to be like a rape in a public toilet. This Jarman realized beautifully by creating a Loudon made of white tile. The nave of the convent’s church even has a white-tile altar; the doctors sweep the religious artifacts used for mass off it with a rough arm and lay Mother Jeanne upon it, where they penetrate her with their instruments. Her screams and blood-soaked habit, followed by the verdict, “Yes, definite signs of violation,” come as no surprise to Mignon, De Laubardemont, or us.

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Grandier’s execution is another vividly disturbing scene. Dragged through the streets on a sledge because his legs have been shattered by torture, he is made to crawl to the stake. The executioner promises to strangle him before the fires can reach him, but the impetuous exorcist Father Barre (Michael Gothard) lights the flames before the executioner can position the noose. As the crowd (according to reports of the time, the largest ever assembled at a public execution) celebrates, Grandier’s flesh blisters and chars in graphic horror. Father Mignon, heretofore a crazed zealot against Grandier, becomes convinced of the priest’s innocence and twists his amazing face into an image of despair. Peter Maxwell Davies, the great English modernist composer, said that members of his orchestra were in tears as they played his discordant, plaintive score in synching the film.

devils_nun.jpgThe most disturbing and meaningful scene of all is the rape of Christ. While Grandier is pleading Loudon’s case with the king, Barre has been whipping the nuns and town into a frenzy. He holds an exorcism in Loudon’s cathedral attended by masked townspeople. The Ursulline nuns strip off their habits and cavort naked and wonton among the horde. One nun is shown licking and rubbing herself against an altar candle. Others allow themselves to be groped, and tear at and rape a priest. The scene climaxes when several nuns lift an enormous crucifix off the church altar and begin licking it; one woman fucks its wooden genitalia. Father Mignon climbs a staircase on the wall, watches the women groping the figure of Christ below, and masturbates desperately. Intercut with this scene of blasphemy is Father Grandier holding a simple mass for himself on a river bank, with a voiceover narration of a letter to Madeleine in which he asks for her prayers that he may fulfill his wish to serve the people of Loudon. Besides being, as Russell calls it, a “mindblowing” scene to watch, it embodies the outrage at the perversion of Christian teachings of forgiveness and love. A cynical government used and abused some already used and abused women to distract and put the town in the mood for a lynching; these “exorcisms” would continue throughout France to allow the Crown to destroy the independent city-states and those who would oppose them.

After Grandier’s execution, Baron De Laubardemont visits Mother Jeanne preparing for her exorcism act in a neighboring town; this road show reverberates with the birth of Venus at the film’s opening—both theatrical perversions of the birth of love. He throws her a bone, “a souvenir” he calls it; it is, literally, a charred bone from Grandier’s body that looks very much like a cock and balls. In another censored scene restored, Mother Jeanne uses it as a dildo to commune with the man she loved and destroyed.

Among the DVD extras is a fine documentary hosted by BBC film critic Mark Kermode, who led one search for the deleted scenes, that details the film’s battle with the censors and critics and shows Russell and two of the film’s stars, Georgina Hale and Murray Melvin, viewing the rape of Christ scene for the first time in more than 30 years. The film critic of The Evening Standard at the time, Alexander Walker, reads from his review and recounts how Russell bashed him over the head with a rolled-up copy of that week’s paper when they met on a talk show. Russell relates that after that incident, Walker was good-naturedly trounced with rolled-up newspapers by his colleagues: “Too bad there were no lead pipes in them,” Russell says bitterly.

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While Russell’s film clearly shows his obsessions with sex and excess, and his occasional silly hamminess (for example, the king shoots men dressed as crows for amusement and says into the camera, “bye bye blackbird”), the events portrayed in the film are not exaggerated. Censors always worry about excessive nudity, but their concerns merely reinforce the sexual repression that set the stage for the sexually explicit exorcisms of 17th century France. The blasphemy of the nuns is juxtaposed with the piety of Grandier, but in exercising their prudish prerogatives, the censors also succeeded in preventing the public from seeing the disturbing complexities of faith this scene evokes. In the end, nakedness is much less arousing than the idea that Church and State can conspire to rob the people of their freedom.l

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    7th/06/2009 to 7:23 pm

    What with the impending release of the Von Trier film, you have indeed, Marilyn, broached a subject that has some precedence, and Ken Russell’s film is a vivid example.
    Geez, I can only imagine what would have happened to me if I attended this film in the early 70’s, although I was way too young to gain admittance. I only mention this because I was assailed when I waited on line to see Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST in 1987 by nuns who told me I would “rot in hell” if I entered the theatre. THE DEVILS of course is infamous, much as blasphemous as Pasolini’s SALO, but at least the Italian director’s work as depraved as it was was a metaphorical treatise on bourgeiosie decadence, while Russell seems to have embellished the shocking events, even as if you say here:
    “…..the events portrayed in the film are not exaggerated….”
    In any case, I agree with your work here (I have never forgotten this film, although the new unabridged version certainly must be negotiated, and appreciate your customary superlative descriptive writing…and vivid expression.”operatic,” “ferocity of vision…visual audacity….

  • Pat spoke:
    7th/06/2009 to 7:45 pm

    Isn’t this based on a book or a play by Aldous Huxley? (Loosely, I’m sure.)
    Russell was nothing if not over the top. Still, that video clip does not seem sensationlistic to me, it seems very psychologically plausible. After seeing “The Magdalene Sisters” again last week – also a true story – I’m prepared to believe that nuns have all kinds of weird pathologies. (Some nuns, anway.) That sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy might amount to the same thing for them doesn’t shock or surprise me at all.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/06/2009 to 8:01 pm

    Pat – They mention Huxley in connection with this film, but I’ve read various places that this isn’t really a faithful adaptation. I don’t equate sexual and religious ecstasy. I really think they are different experiences, and certainly in this film, these people aren’t experiencing religious ecstasy, but sexual torment.
    Sam – I thought it was telling that the Catholic priest did not see the film as blasphemous. He said, for example, that the rape of Christ scene portrayed blasphemy, but was not itself blasphemous, showing as it did Grandier’s genuine religious sincerity in the face of the mockery of religion Barre was making in Loudon. Since I haven’t read accounts of the time, I can’t verify the veracity of all the acts the film depicted, but several people in the documentary said each act was documented in the historic record. The unthinkability of authorities behaving this way, plus Russell’s in-your-face theatricality, may have more to do with audience incredulity than with what really happened.

  • Pat spoke:
    7th/06/2009 to 9:14 pm

    Marilyn –
    To be clear, I don’t equate sexual and religious ecstasy either – but based on that clip, it appears there may be some confusion within the character’s mind. She seems to be couching her sexual torment and frustration in terms of her religious devotion. Not having seen the whole film, it’s entirely possible that I’m missing the boat entirely, but that was my iniital impression.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/06/2009 to 9:20 pm

    Mother Jeanne’s religious devotion isn’t entirely clear. She mocks religion to some extent and tells Madeleine, who comes to her with the idea of joining the convent because she has a “vocation”, that most of the nuns never had a vocation, but were merely society’s rejects. I put this fantasy into the context of where she is having it – during prayers. The sadomasochism of the Passion seems to bring out the sexual beast in her. Indeed, when she finally returns from her fantasy, she finds she had dug the metal crucifix on her rosary deeply into her palm.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    8th/06/2009 to 9:21 am

    Haven’t seen the Russell film, but to comment on sexual/religious ecstasy: I don’t think the two are all that separable. Both involve the whole body — sex is a function of the brain, after all — and after all, nuns are “brides of Christ” and bridal mysticism has been a part of both Judaism and Christianity for a long time.
    Nice piece, by the way, Marilyn.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/06/2009 to 9:55 am

    Thanks, Rick. I take your point, but in this case, I don’t think the nuns were going for a religious experience. One example I can think of in which both are experienced together is in Angels in America, and I think they are well done in that piece.

  • Ryan Kelly spoke:
    8th/06/2009 to 1:10 pm

    Boy, Ken Russell… he’s quite unforgettable! I confess to not having seen this one, but Netflix doesn’t have it. But your review makes me want to see it…
    I may have to resort to not-entirely-legal means.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/06/2009 to 1:13 pm

    Tell Netflix to get it. This is a must-have film in their collection.

  • Steve O'Rourke spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 3:57 am

    A few facts and corrections about The Devils.
    The screenplay was based on not only on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, but also a play by John Whiting based on Huxley’s work.
    Another film inspired by the same events is a 1961 Polish production, known in English as (Mother) Joan of the Angels, which takes place after the execution of the priest. Matka Joanna od aniolów
    The corrections:
    It was Madeleine’s mother, not father, who was being ‘treated’ by the “doctors.”
    It was Georgina Hale, and not Catherine Willmer, in Mark Kermode’s documentary.
    NOW CORRECTED IN THE POST.
    *************************************************
    Warner Brothers remains not only intransigent, but cruel, as far as releasing ANY DVD of The Devils. It seems every Spring, for the last three or four years, they announce a release, but cancel when it comes time to put up or shut up. They’ve also said they would not give up their rights to the film so that another company (say, Criterion) could produce a DVD. Recently, though, they’ve said they were considering changing policy on the latter – but I’m not holding my breath. So the chances of it showing up on Netflix are almost certainly nil.
    For anyone wanting to sign the petition to Warner Brothers, go here.
    A very enjoyable blog, Marilyn.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 8:23 am

    Thank you, Steve.
    I think Warners is wary – probably not without reason – of a boycott or other action by conservative christian groups, or they have some people objecting within their own ranks.

  • Ryan Kelly spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 8:40 am

    It’s okay, Marilyn, I’ve found another way to get it that IN NO WAY WHATSOEVER VIOLATES COPYRIGHT LAWS. And if you say otherwise, I’ll deny it.
    I’m planning on watching Women in Love soon because that’s on Netflix instant watch so this will probably be next after that.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 8:53 am

    I want to revisit Women in Love myself. It, like all of Russell’s films, is sensuous and powerful.

  • Rick spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 11:47 am

    One example I can think of in which both are experienced together is in Angels in America, and I think they are well done in that piece.
    I absolutely adore “Angels in America,” or at least Mike Nichols’ HBO adaptation, and quite agree, the sexual/religious ecstasy is very well done there.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/06/2009 to 12:19 pm

    I like the HBO film, but I saw it on stage (both parts), and that will always be my favorite version.

  • Rod spoke:
    10th/06/2009 to 9:15 pm

    Angels in America irritated the bejesus out of me. Didactic rubbish posing as epic magic-realism.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    11th/06/2009 to 8:08 am

    I didn’t find it to be didactic rubbish at all. It was a landmark in gay theatre, which up to that time had been concerned with romance. It has been my experience in the theatre that agitprop comes before genuine engagement with a subject, that this is the natural order of things when new, previously taboo subjects bubble up in the consciousness. I disliked Ceremonies in Dark Old Men because it was so didactic, but then it was a period piece by the time I caught up with it. What makes Angels in America different is that it nearly took the agitprop out of the process–it was a great leap forward from this progression and engaged in more complexity, particularly how the personal intersects with the societal, than the average piece of political theatre often does.

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