The Devils (1971)
Directed by: Ken Russell.
Written by: Ken Russell based on the play by John Whiting and novel by Aldous Huxley.
Starring: Vanessa Redgrave (Sister Jeanne), Oliver Reed (Urbain Grandier), Dudley Sutton (Baron De Laubardemont), Max Adrian (Ibert), Gemma Jones (Madeleine), Murray Melvin (Mignon), Michael Gothard (Father Barre), Georgina Hale (Philippe), Brian Murphy (Adam), Christopher Logue (Cardinal Richelieu), Graham Armitage (Louis XIII).
After watching Ken Russell’s The Devils – basically twice in a row actually – I’m still not sure how seriously we’re supposed to take the film. It is an historical drama, and in the opening scrawl, it lets us know that what we’re going to see actually happened in Louden, France in 1634. That these were real people, who really suffered. What Russell’s point in showing us everything he does in The Devils is never quite clear – at least not to me. I’ve heard people describe the film as a depiction of human cruelty and religious hypocrisy, which I guess is true, but is there no more to it than that? And shouldn’t it take things slightly more seriously than he does? The film works as an over-the-top horror film – mostly in terms of camp value – but I had a tough time taking any of it as a serious examination of, well, anything. Yet in its strange way, the film still works.
Its 1634, in France. The town of Louden has high walls, and self-governance – and is basically run by the lusty priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) – who sleeps with a lot of women for someone has apparently taken an oath of chastity. And yet, oddly, Grandier is not the religious hypocrite bad guy in the story – but the moral good guy. The bad guy is the Baron De Laubeardemont (Dudley Sutton) – who has been order by Cardinal Richeleau to tear down Louden’s defenses, and get them back in line. Vanessa Redgrave is the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne – the Mother Superior of a convent of nuns living in Louden, all of which apparently lust after Grandier – no one more so than Sister Jeanne herself, but she is a hunchback, and the rest of the nuns are apparently hot 22 year old with large breasts, so of course she doesn’t get any action. She accuses Grandier of witchcraft and demonic possession – which gives Laubardemont all the excuse he needs to try and take down Grandier. He will call in Father Barre (Michael Gothard) – a crazy witch hunter, to try and extract a confession out of the newly married Grandier, who after a lifetime of affairs, has apparently decided to settle down.
What follows has now become infamous. The movie has been banned or unavailable for most of its existence – censored and cut when it is (for the sake of clarity, I viewed the movie on Shudder – which I believe has the slightly altered version, which eliminates a few things). The hot nuns are riled into an orgy of sex and violence. Sister Jeanne is alternately ashamed and turned on by what she has done. Grandier is forced to try and defend himself – but no one much cares what he has to say, so he will be shaved, tortured and eventually burned alive. Russell’s camera doesn’t miss a beat.
Honestly, I’m not really sure how seriously I’m supposed to take this film. It doesn’t really work as an attack on religion – nor, do I think is it trying to be. Grandier is a true believer, and his faith provides him comfort in the end. Yes, Barre maybe insane, but he is also a true believer – and the one person who actually believes Grandier in the end. Everyone else is a hypocrite to be sure – but they‘re using religion as an excuse to do what they want – so, is that the message I’m supposed to take away from the film – that politicians will rely on people’s faith in order to exploit them? Again, I think the answer is unclear.
In all honesty, I cannot help but think that Russell just wanted to make this film, because making it would be deliriously fun. This is a movie that starts as an 11 on a 1-10 scale of craziness, and just keeps on going. It’s impossible to take it all that seriously, since Russell goes so far over the top so often. In all honestly, the film it reminded me most of is Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) – an over-the-top mess of a film, that works best as a snapshot of its creator’s mind, not as a coherent story of its own. That description works for The Devils as well. I didn’t much care for Satyricon – I found its excess boring. The excess of The Devils thought is far from it. I watched it twice in a row, trying to figure out if I was supposed to take the damn thing seriously. I still don’t know – but I do know if I was supposed to take it seriously, than the film is a dismal failure – but if I’m supposed to take it as campy excess, than I enjoyed it immensely. I know which camp I’d rather be in.