Film Review: The Devils (1971)
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
Ken Russell's one-of-a-kind attack on conformity still has the power to shock.
In "De Palma", a documentary on Brian DePalma, the American director of Dressed to Kill and MI:I, the divisive director is discussing his film Body Double's most notorious scene: A woman on her stomach gets killed through her floor from the roof below by a six-inch drill.
"It had to be at that length to get through the roof", he says.
It is a simple explanation that might disappoint someone looking for defense of on-screen violence. But for an artist, it is a matter of logic and simplicity. This is what has to happen, this is what is needed to get it right. It does not matter if it is a Monet painting or a six-inch phallic murder weapon.
Watching Ken Russell's interview in the making of the documentary on The Devils one gets the same explanation: the times and the incidents being dramatized in his controversial film were so extreme, that there was no other way to approach them.
In an ideal world, an artist will not be asked for any other explanation after this.
In 17th Century France, an Ursuline convent was accused of witchcraft and demonic possession. The circumstances led to mass hysteria where several nuns were denounced and many exorcisms took place.
Ken Russell's take of that time and his interpretation of those events are based jointly on Aldous Huxley's nonfiction book The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting's play The Devils. And so mercurial and unrestrained is his vision that the film is still to see the debut of its uncut version on home video. Though, the version that I saw did contain the notorious "Rape of Christ" sequence. But this sequence is not remastered for DVD like the rest of the film and appears to have been sourced from a bad quality print. As of this writing, there is no blu-ray of the film available.
Financed by the American company Warner Brothers, the film was released with significant cuts in the US. This was after the British Censor Board had made cuts of their own.
While the onscreen violence today has left nothing to the imagination, Russell's vision continues to deeply disturb because it is merged with the psycho-sexual hysteria and extreme religious hypocrisy that is well-rooted in reality.
It is 1634 and the town of Loudon is one of the few Protestants strongholds left. Cardinal Richelieu plans to demolish it, get rid of the commanding Grandier, and continue to poison the corrupt King Louise XIII'S opinion. but it is Grandier himself who unwittingly hands Richelieu the ammunition to breach the town he protects so passionately.
Urbain Grandier (Olive Reed) does seem to have the good of the town at heart but has lustful and torrid affairs with the women of his town.
To complicate things further, unbeknownst to him, Grandier is also the object of sexual dreams for the nuns at a convent. One nun, in particular, is obsessed with him: the hunchbacked Ursaline nun Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) is tortured by the visions of making love to the man. They are both on a collision course that will change history.
Huxley believed that the exorcisms and the subsequent conviction of Father Grandier of witchcraft were nothing but a political move to gain control of another Protestant stronghold, and Russell sticks to this opinion too. But this also gives him free rein to implicate religious hypocrisy and bigotry in the wildest most blasphemous means possible,
When Grandier secretly marries the virtuous Madeline Dubroux (Gemma Jones), all hell breaks loose as the sexually repressed nun blames Grandier for consorting with the devil and corrupting the nuns.
The last half an hour or so of the film are fever-pitched madness of writhing bodies, madness, and torture. As Dudley Sutton's character promises Oliver Reed's, "Hell will have no surprises".
Reed is in a commanding position and his character comes across as the most complex of all. Aware of his fallacies and trying to improve, he is able to elicit the audience's empathy for what is initially a rather repulsive character. He uses his sexuality and spikes it with vulnerability.
It must have been a shock for the audience to see a thespian like Redgrave in such a role and it still is. Her body language is enough to launch a thousand gifs. Though her character also has an arc, it is less defined than Reed's and comes across as rather thin. This is an important lapse as somewhere it is hard to believe in her lustful crush for Grandier. But for purely visceral effect, it is hard to knock out her performance.
Michael Gothard as Father Barre, the man who does the actual exorcisms is convincing as a religious nutcase. Dudley Sutton is also suitable menacing as Baron De Lebaurdemont, a man who is hell-bent on sending Grandier to the gallows.
This is, perhaps, a film not for everyone. It might come across as garish but it wins out on its sheer audacity and skill. It is great to look at and the young Derek Jarman's sets are brilliant, caging everyone in their own world. It is a one-of-a-kind freakshow but one that is not scared of expressing its anger. Perhaps, its biggest virtue is its uncompromising nature.
Here is a well-balanced 2004 documentary called Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils, on the film, its making and effect.