This is the only of Ken Russell’s 1970s films — his richest period — that the Asheville Film Society has never run. It was hoped that Warner Bros. would relent and make the uncensored version of the film available in this country, but it seems that isn’t going to happen. What we do have is a very nice copy of the original British version of The Devils, which is a couple minutes longer than the US release and about 12 minutes longer than the watered-down R rated copies that were once available for 16mm rental and later in terrible-looking VHS copies. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best we have.
However, I want to make it very clear that this is a powerful, shattering, and shocking work. Here is what Warner Bros. put on the US posters in 1971 (they were afraid of the film even then) — “It is a true story, carefully documented, historically accurate — a serious work by a distinguished film maker. As such it is likely to be hailed as a masterpiece by many. But because it is explicit and highly graphic in depicting the bizarre events that occurred in France in 1634, others will find it visually shocking and deeply disturbing. We feel a responsibility to alert you to this. It is our hope that only the audience that will appreciate THE DEVILS will come to see it.” A come-on? Partly, yes — can you take it? — but it’s also not just hype. Well, the part about it being “historically accurate” is a little off. Yes, it really did happen, but Russell has couched the film in deliberate anachronisms to make it more relevant to modern audiences — and to convey a sense of modernity in the characters. These are not people who thought of themselves as historical, but as modern people (by their 1634 standards). However, there’s no denying that the film is shocking — and this is deliberate. Why? Because the film was made during Vietnam — an era when TV news brought graphic war footage — real, not make-believe — right into people’s living room. In so doing, it had desensitized to the horrors — made it part of our daily lives. Russell’s intent was to shock this complacent audience right out of its moral torpor.
He succeeded — which was quite a shock in the no-holds-barred film world of the early ’70s. He may have succeeded too well. The controversy that surrounded the film — it was banned outright in some places — has never gone away. It even rated a mention in Graham Greene’s 1973 novel, The Honorary Consul, in which the Consul has to deal with a film festival because “The British entry by some fellow called Russell had been called pornographic.” Back in 2005 when Ken Russell was the guest of the Asheville Film Festival, I mentioned a “surprise” film to festival organizer Melissa Porter, who quickly asked, “It’s not the one with the nuns, is it?” (She’d obviously been reading up on Russell’s work.) Time has vindicated the film and Russell. It is now considered a major work of film art. An entire book has been written about it and it was for years a standard part of the curriculum of film studies under Fr. Gene Phillips at Loyola University. It is still, however, shocking — and that does need to be remembered.
What it is not is an irreligious film. It does not attack the faith, but the corruption of that faith for political purposes. It was made by a man who, at the time, was a committed Catholic with strong convictions. It was made by a man who was outraged at something that made a mockery of his own faith, which is how he viewed the events. It is not accidental that the film includes the lines, “You have turned the house of God into a circus and its servants into clowns. You have perverted the innocent.” There is little in the film that can’t be found in Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun. (In fact, there are things in the book that Russell didn’t use.) The difference, of course, is that what we see on the printed page has a distancing effect. What we see on the screen is immediate, up close, and extremely visceral.
So what is The Devils exactly? Well, the first thing we see is a title reading: “This film is based upon historical fact. The principal characters lived and the major events depicted in the film actually took place.” The film then moves to the court of Louis XIII (Graham Armitage), who is delighting the degenerate nobles and boring Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) with a drag show where the King gives his impression of the Birth of Venus — as Venus, of course. Whether or not this is specifically one the “major events” is not addressed, but it does set the nature of the court and leads to the true nature of the film and Richelieu’s plans to create a new country “where Church and State are one.” (Somehow this seems even more timely now.) He also expresses a desire to drive the protestant from the land.
The major thrust of all this is a power grab — disguised as religion — by Richelieu — one that will lead to destruction of the priest, Urban Grandier (Oliver Reed), who stands in his way in taking over the town of Loudun. This will be achieved with the unwitting aid of a deformed, sexually frustrated nun, Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave), who accuses Grandier of seducing and possessing her through sorcery. It’s essentially the story of the machinery of religious corruption being used for political gain — and that’s every bit as chilling as it sounds. I don’t hesitate calling the film a masterpiece. Redgrave and Reed are both brilliant (in fact, they may never have been better). It’s visually stunning. But do remember that this is strong stuff. Let’s call it a must-see…with reservations.
Is The Devils Ken Russell’s best film? I’ve never felt so, but it is probably his most powerful (The Music Lovers runs it a close second there). I do not, however doubt its greatness or its importance to Russell’s career — and to cinema in general. It is undeniably the one Ken Russell that can be reasonably called an epic. It is a big movie with magnificent — and gigantic — stylized sets designed by filmmaker Derek Jarman that set The Devils in a world of its own. (Russell was very deliberate on the point of not shooting the film in Loudun, which after 400-plus years would have conveyed any sense — stylized or realistic — of the city in 1634. Plus, as noted elsewhere, he wanted the people to feel modern.) The film’s attention to some aspects of period detail — like the “sin-eaters” glimpsed early in the film and the outrageous medical treatments and instruments — is remarkable and cannot be taken in in a single viewing. The icing on the cake perhaps is the often terrifying, nerve-jangling musical score by modernist British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
At the same time, there are moments of quiet beauty in the film — always involving Grandier and his illicit wife Madeline (Gemma Jones) — that serve as counterpoint to the film’s images of horror. The interesting thing about all of this is that they appear fairly late in the film, bringing to light the fact that it is less Grandier’s sins that come to destroy him, so much as it is his attempts at redemption. So much of this is prefigured in the imagery of his first encounters with Madeline. Their very first meeting climaxes with them against a fiery background — a foreshadowing that Grandier’s salvation is also his destruction. Their second encounter is seeing each other across a mass grave of plague victims. It is this kind of careful detail that make The Devils a truly great film. So join the audience if you feel up to it. There will be a special guest for the screening — Lisi Russell (Ken’s wife) will help introduce the film.
For more about the history of The Devils go here: http://mountainx.com/movies/movie-news-previews/cranky_hankes_screening_room_lets_all_go_to_the_devils/
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Devils Tuesday, April 22, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther with special guest Lisi Russell.