Sunflower Skins

March 25, 2009

Ken Russell’s “The Devils” (1971)

Dir. Ken Russell; Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton

Using Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun as his point of departure, Ken Russell gives a vivid and unsettling portrait of renaissance history: religious intolerance, repression, and corruption are at the heart of The Devils, an exotic film about the adulterous priest Urbain Grandier and his supposed possession of a local convent. Amidst the political turmoil of 17th century France and Cardinal Richelieu’s desire for absolute power, Sister Jeanne of the Angels has become sexually obsessed with Grandier, and her sisters follow suit with mass hysteria; Grandier is charged with witchcraft and the nuns must be exorcized.

Forget Sean Penn. Forget Mickey Rourke. This is Ollie Reed in his greatest role, sweating and seducing and praying—and evoking the audience’s simultaneous empathy and disgust. His intensity never lets up for a moment, but then again, neither does Russell. Sister Jeanne’s wild dreams about Grandier are loaded with colour, biblical transgressions, and unsettling sexual imagery. Vanessa Redgrave’s Mother Superior will, in short, terrify and haunt you as few nuns can: be wary of her giggling piety.

Some may disagree with me, but I particularly like this depiction of the Loudun Possessions because Russell does not go over the top. Yes, the film is image upon image upon image, but he never decisively tells the audience how to feel about Grandier; Russell offers several options—admiration, sympathy, condemnation—yet leaves it to the viewer to decide. We are swayed from believing the heretical accusations to sensing it was a political ploy set up by Richelieu in order to desecrate Grandier’s reputation. After several screenings I still do not know, which is perhaps critical to the film’s beauty.

I have on good film-snob authority that Mark Kermode’s 2002 documentary Hell on Earth is “bloody brilliant.” Additionally, be sure that you see the uncensored print of The Devils with the infamous “Rape of Christ” scene. Controversy led to the film being re-rated, re-cut, and banned outright in many countries, and it is through Kermode’s perseverance that the deleted scene was recovered, although official copies of the film remain without it. But guess what, kids? Do you think Vagrancy would sell a censored version of one of the greatest films ever made? Certainly not.

Russell’s absurd portrayal of Louis XIII as a flaming homosexual provides some much-needed and well-placed comedy in an otherwise terrifying film about sexual and religious perversion. Although Russell has obviously taken some artistic liberties, the creepiest thing about The Devils is that it actually happened. Don’t heckle this one, you beer-guzzling buffoons; sit back in awe. One of the most disturbing films I have ever seen, my first viewing left me curled in a foetal position, horrified.


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