(Ken Russell, 1971)
(essay by Troy)
Known primarily for it’s history of censorship*, I was actually first made aware of Ken Russell’s The Devils via Roger Ebert’s zero star review of it(the best line: “We are filled with righteous indignation as we bear witness to the violation of the helpless nuns, which is all the more horrendous because, as Russell fearlessly reveals, all the nuns, without exception were young and stacked.”).
I’m not quite sure what Ebert was thinking there, because Russell, though a bit of a bad-taste provocateur known for flamboyant style, uses his elaborate style to great affect here, crafting a harrowing and tragic look at how the persecutions of religious and political institutions are capable of destroying individuals. Or, as the lead character says near the end, it’s about those who would attempt to create “a new doctrine…especially invented for this occasion, the work of men who are not concerned with fact, or with law or with theology. But a political experiment to show how the will of one man can be pushed into destroying not only one man or one city, but one nation.”
I don’t often like to delve into wholesale plot recaps, but here will, as the underlying story is so critical to the greatness of the film.
France in the 17th Century. In the town of Loudon, the governor is dead, thrusting the vain and prideful, but beloved priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) into a position of power. The women of the town lust after him, stating “there’s a man well worth going to Hell for.” This status even extends to the nuns of the local convent, especially the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), who is sexually obsessed to the point that she fantasizes about him as Christ walking on water and as Christ crucified on the cross, herself licking his wounds while twitching with ecstasy.
Grandier, who has a known penchant for bedding the local females, is introduced to Madeleine (Gemma Jones). Madeleine functions as the sane version of Sister Jeanne — she also has affections for Grandier, but instead of fearing and repressing them and driving herself to insanity, she opens up to Grandier, which soon puts him on the path to redemption and spurring him to become closer to God. The two marry, in a secret ceremony. Once the news of this circulates around the town, Sister Jeanne, rebuffed by Grandier once again (he doesn’t even know of her existence) finally loses it and tells his colleague, Father Mignon, that Grandier bewitches her at night.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Richelieu begins machinations to tear down the fortifications of Loudon in order to control the city. However, with Loudon under the protection of King Louis XIII and Grandier too powerful a leader, he is unable to do so. Thus, he employs the devious Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) to attempt to humble the progressive Grandier and remove him from power. Once the Baron finds out about Grandier’s marriage and Sister Jeanne’s revelation he posits that a magnificent spectacle is in order to truly take him down, calling in the services of “professional witchhunter” Father Barre (Michael Gothard), beginning the madness that drives the second half of the film.
At this point, the horror of the film truly begins with several visually extreme scenes, beginning with the inquisition and “forced exorcism” of Sister Jeanne, whereby Father Barre implements a rape-like “medical examination” and forced enema. The madness flows to the nuns, as they are incited into a theatrical, sexualized frenzy, as they are implored by Barre, “you will scream, you will blaspheme, you will no longer be responsible for your actions” (it’s made clear earlier that the nuns of the time were those that could not be married off and who had no vocation, thus their only choice was the convent, making them ripe for this kind of manipulation).
The opportunity for them to break free of their repressions is taken to an ultimate degree as they tear off their clothes in the church, beginning an orgiastic display of desecration, including that infamous moment of blasphemy, “the rape of Christ.” This spectacle goes on for days, with people coming from around the countryside to watch, including the King (at which point we get a great acknowledgement that many of the people involved know this is nothing more than a performance, yet they continue to go along as if it was “real”). The madness is enhanced with a final series of quick shots alternating between Father Mignon and an array of naked nuns on the ground, Russell’s camera zooming in and out on both with such fury and speed that it creates an almost vertiginous effect.
It’s the preceding segment that many point to when they speak of Ken Russell’s over-the-top excessiveness, and yes, it is surely there. However, just as the film seems to be running off the tracks, turning into farce, Russell manages to find a way to ground the proceedings juxtaposing the sheer insanity taking place in Loudon, by interspersing it with humanistic and pastoral scenes of Grandier taking Communion as he proclaims to God that he is now “fortified to change.” Once lost, his life now has meaning in serving and protecting the people of Loudon, his wife, and God. This provides enough humanistic realism that it even reveals the Loudon scenes to be even more crazed and surreal, eliciting a truly horrifying audience response.
Arriving back in town, Grandier stops the debacle at the church, which he is ultimately blamed for inciting. Grandier is arrested and a mockery of a trial is performed. The nuns and others in the city are coerced into signing confessions against him and he is quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. Grandier goes through a series of tortures, all in an attempt to coerce a confession out of him. Again, Russell is sure to keep Grandier human throughout the process, making the grand nature of his punishment even more tragic. You can see the fear in his eyes and hear it in his words. He refuses to confess, nor will he ask forgiveness (an implicit confession), so his legs are broken and he is forced to crawl to the stake, still unwilling to confess, even to end his pain. This proves to Mignon that he is innocent and sends Barre into even more demented ravings, as he lights him on fire.
Key to the film’s visual power is the production design by Derek Jarman. He creates a world half way in between reality and dream. The exteriors are all white buildings and spires set against the overcast white sky, while inside the white faux-brick and marble is blended with the white outfits of the nuns and priests. The knowledge that we are looking at a sound stage creates an unreal, otherworldly feel that adds to the discord of what is happening on-screen. Particular intriguing to me is a room that Sister Jeanne enters to see Grandier. The door of it is shaped almost like her contorted back, two askew angles that cause a sense of disorientation. Furthering the discord is avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies score. Russell wanted a “disturbing, echoing resonance” and Davies provides that. In each scene that revolves around the maniacal happenings, the music reaches a fever pitch with a cacophony of instruments and sounds all crashing together at once.
Russell has also crafted deeply resonant main characters, especially in Grandier and Sister Jeanne, along with colorful supporting characters. Reed, as Grandier, stands out amongst the actors, providing 70’s style sexual magnetism and showing Grandier a flawed but faithful man, truly striving to be closer to God, but never shown as a saint (I particularly love the scene where he asks to see his beautiful hair one last time before it is cut off – he doesn’t ever “perfect” himself in his final martyr-like moments.). The moments up to and including his death provide a real horror and disgust that may not have been possible were it not Reed performing the role. Meanwhile, Redgrave provides a frightening portrayal of what happens when a person has no outlets, showcasing the path from repression to guilt to denial to madness that Sister Jeanne undergoes. The supporting cast is just as able, the performances ranging from supremely camp, with Gothard’s lunatic witchfinder going the most appropriately over the top, to those that keep things grounded in some sense of reality, namely Jones as Madeleine.
But it’s the final few minutes that truly haunt. As Grandier burns, he flesh bubbling and charring before our eyes, the crowd laughs and dances and chants at him, the father of a woman he impregnated even holding up Grandier’s son and saying “[L]ucky little bastard, it’s not everyday baby sees daddy burn to death.” Even as this is all going on, Grandier faith does not waver and he tries to be noble to the end, imploring the people of the town that they have been tricked and they must protect their city. He is proven right as immediately after he is dead, the Baron blows up the walls of the city. Russell pulls no punches here, provides no over-the-top excess to leaven the horror, just a terrifyingly surreal vision of the death and destruction that can come from repression, bloodlust, abuse of power, corruption, and persecution.
(See more screencaps at Troy’s blog, here)
*Of course, much of the notoriety surrounding the film is derived from its history of censorship and lack of a proper DVD release. I’m going to ignore that aspect of the conversation here and instead point you to watch Mark Kermode’s documentary Hell on Earth here for the full story.
(this film appeared on Troy’s list at #16, Robert’s at #33, and Jamie’s at #66)