The Devils, 1971.
Written and Directed by Ken Russell.
Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Max Adrian, Dudley Sutton, Murray Melvin and Gemma Jones.
A promiscuous 17th century priest is accused of the demonic possession of a sexually-repressed nun.
“This film is based upon historical fact. The principal characters lived and the major events depicted actually took place.”
Opening with these words superimposed in blood red on black, Ken Russell’s The Devils strikes an assertive tone before we’ve even stepped into his world of nightmarish pain and zealotry. He’s not trying to validate a flimsy ‘true story’ like Marley & Me; this is an uncomfortable reminder that human cruelty is very real, and not so far in the past as we like to imagine.
17th Century France. In the provincial town of Loudun, bodies litter the streets in all directions, whether they’re victims of the plague outbreak or Protestants strung up for not being Catholic. This is a country with a severe affliction of religion, and it is driving near enough everyone stark raving mad. Mad enough to try lying on a stuffed crocodile as a plague remedy, at least.
Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), presiding as priest and stand-in governor, seems the only person at peace with his faith. He’s admired, respected, and generally lusted after by the entire female population of Loudun. His surprisingly liberal interpretation of Catholicism sees him conduct several affairs with an effortless, moustache-twirling sang-froid. This, one admirer observes, is one man worth going to Hell for.
Not everyone shares Grandier’s easy-going outlook. Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), the hunchback Mother Superior of the local convent, regularly whips herself for sinful thoughts she has about Grandier. How sinful? Her version of the crucifixion has Grandier step down from the cross as Christ, lying down in the mud so she can lick the blood and the sweat and whatever else you care to imagine off his body. This isn’t something she’s going to solve with ten Hail Marys and a sabbatical.
Meanwhile, Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), easily the smuggest man in France, has been sent to tear down the fortifications of Loudun by Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), eager to stop all this pesky self-governance rubbish some independent-thinking people are attempting. Oliver Cromwell did much the same thing with English castles after the Civil War; it’s a fairly standard practice amongst dictators. Naturally, Grandier objects, and does everything in his considerable power to oppose Richelieu’s plans.
Naturally, Richelieu’s problems with Grandier dovetail beautifully with Sister Jeanne’s mad obsession with the moustachioed priest. Devil possession it is. Call in the Witch Hunter, if you’d be so kind. And what a Witch Hunter. Michael Gothard clocks in a grandstand of a performance, channeling the black comedy of exorcism with an inspired combination of wild-eyed lunacy and sober malice. We know him better as Locque, the silent villain with octagonal glasses from For Your Eyes Only (1981), but he really deserves to be remembered more for his Father Barre, balancing out Oliver Reed’s solemn, individualistic man of God marvellously.
Michael Gothard isn’t the only one deserving of heaps of praise in The Devils. True, Oliver Reed mesmerises the viewer in one of the true highlights of his acting career, but one of the true stars isn’t even on camera. Derek Jarman’s set design roots the action in a frighteningly post-modern setting, taking Russell’s ‘rape in a public lavatory’ brief and running with it, drenching the palette in stark, unflinching black and white. Imagine waking up from a nightmare where you’re trapped in an M.C. Escher painting, and then doubting that you’ve woken up. Add some plague corpse pits and you’ve either got yourself The Devils, or mild form of psychosis.
Whatever the popular opinion of Ken Russell was in his later years, no amount of bad reviews or Big Brother appearances could ever hope to eclipse the kind of talent that conceived a work of art like this. It’s tough, but oddly rewarding viewing. That the censors butchered it on release is hardly surprising, when you’ve been through scenes like Sister Jeanne’s very physical exorcism, or Grandier’s torture at the hands of a grinning Brian Murphy (doubly disturbing when you’re used to him bumbling around in a cardigan in George and Mildred).
It’s not what you’d call an anti-religious film. The strength Grandier takes from his faith is too genuinely touching for that theory. Besides, this film is shot through with that famous Catholic guilt. As a Catholic himself, Russell was eager to put every unspeakable cruelty mankind is capable of up on screen. As far as he was concerned, it doesn’t do any good to deny the pain and suffering religion causes. Good doesn’t mean anything if you don’t accept that there is evil.
Let’s not kid ourselves; The Devils is not for everyone. It is incredibly hard to watch at times. It’s visceral and unflinching and it’s truthful. It is, however, the same premise of so many stories we’ve seen in cinemas; by opposing evil, our hero attracts its wrath. What makes The Devils so powerful is the thought that this is a very real kind of evil; that humanity hasn’t changed so much as we’d like to think; that four hundred years ago isn’t such a long time at all.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ***** / Movie ***
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.