Satan's Boy I Could Never Be
As Oliver Reed tries, frantically, to defend himself against allegations of witchcraft, before a row of hooded judges, The Devils peaks in a moment of perfect drama. Reed’s helplessness is palpable as he cries, “For the love of Jesus Christ! If you wish to destroy me, then destroy me. Accuse me of exposing political chicanery and the evils of the state, and I will plead guilty!” His performance is riveting. The judges look phenomenally sinister. The sets are cold and otherworldly. And the half-hour preceding this enthralling trial scene is an ongoing orgy of frenzied nuns blaspheming naked. Ken Russell’s The Devils weaves historical drama with exploitation, surrealism, black humor, and horror; the result is dazzling. It’s tempting to call it the best-conceived nunsploitation picture ever, or The Crucible on acid, but these descriptors reduce it to certain standards and expectations. It’s a far more complex film. It’s a film, as the cliché goes, unlike any other.
The movie is based on the true events chronicled in Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. It’s 1634 in the small, well-fortified town of Loudun, France. Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), a Jesuit-educated priest, enjoys political clout and is a shameless philanderer. He’s dashing, charismatic, and beloved by Loudun’s women—even the nuns. The local convent’s Mother Superior, the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), is particularly obsessed with him. In an effort to spend time together, she requests that he become the convent’s father-confessor. He declines. He also marries would-be nun Madeleine (Gemma Jones). Sister Jeanne is driven mad by this news, and tells Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) that Grandier is a demon who has possessed her. Father Mignon, who despises Grandier, shares this with Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), a functionary of the corrupt Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue). Laubardemont, naturally, tells Richelieu and they craft a devious political scheme that sends Grandier to burn at the stake.
The Devils is a dark film. It doesn’t shy away from the inhumanity of 17th century Europe. There’s torture, execution, amateur exploratory surgery, and self-mutilation. It also takes place during the onset of a plague. It’s nasty, sure, but highlights a story of religious persecution and a town’s descent into mayhem wonderfully. To ensure utter pandemonium, Russell, as he’s known to do, spares no expense. He employs frenzied camera work, scene after scene of crazed nuns making obscene gestures, vehement clergy members, screaming villagers in black masks, Peter Maxwell Davies’ claustrophobic, avant-garde score. It’s chaos. The beauty, though, is that the bedlam never takes the story over the edge. There’s still room to wallow in Grandier’s dread and revel in his dignity (key features for any affective cinematic bummer). The plot stays on track, largely, thanks to a brilliant script, adapted by Russell from John Whiting’s play of the same name, and stellar acting.
The supporting cast of familiar British faces is superb. Murray Melvin, known for his role as Reverend Runt in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, is spinelessly despicable. Dudley Sutton, pale, intense, and brooding, is fiendishly corrupt, operating under the maxim: “Give me three lines of a man’s handwriting and I shall hang him.” Michael Gothard (Lifeforce, For Your Eyes Only, The Three Musketeers) as Father Barre, the flamboyant exorcist/con-artist, is wonderfully fanatical, and looks like he climbed right off the set of a Hammer Horror Production. Oliver Reed, however, steals the show. He realizes his character perfectly: corrupt and sleazy, somewhat, but a noble martyr who loves life, and, unlike his ascetic contemporaries, champions his will for sex and power. He is played straight, almost theatrically, but many of the film’s characters are exaggerated. Caked in purple makeup, Louis XIII (Graham Armatige), for instance, is practically a cartoon. He dresses Protestants up as blackbirds and uses them for target practice. “Bye-bye, blackbird,” he chirrups. Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne is surreally unsubtle, too. The sexually frustrated, hunchbacked nun spends most of her screen time cackling through the barred windows of the convent, which is ingeniously designed to look like a penitentiary. Her performance inspires pity and disgust simultaneously. She’s constantly bashing herself over the head with her rosary, wincing at her impure thoughts. She is a terrific portrait of asceticism gone awry.
Visually, The Devils is remarkable, too. Russell, instead of pursuing a historically-accurate look, invents a dream-version of 17th century France. The aesthetic works, and never calls too much attention to itself. Most of the extras wear creepy black masks and ominous hoods. Loudun’s fortifying walls are piercingly white. The convent is decidedly fantastical: like Clockwork Orange meets The Wizard of Oz. There is some psychedelic camerawork and manipulation of color, too. Ken Russell devotees fear not: The Devils avoids historical realism almost as much as Lisztomania.
With a horribly blasphemous crucifixion fantasy scene, disturbing violence, shocking language, and a virulent attack on the Church, it’s no wonder that The Devils has faced extensive censorship. In North America, the only version that has been distributed is the Warner Brothers VHS. Unfortunately, the cassette is missing twelve minutes of content. This R-rated version is almost a different film. There is a Region 2 DVD of the X-rated version, but even that isn’t the version Russell submitted in 1971. The R-rated version is better than no version at all, but it’s not the same experience. Even without Vanessa Redgrave masturbating with a charred femur, nuns suggestively stroking candlesticks, and the defiling of various iconography, The Devils is still worth seeing. It’s one of the best “lost” films out there—unbelievably powerful cinema to be avoided only by the devout.