Your correspondent had the pleasure of talking with legendary British director Ken Russell in 2006, shortly before his director’s cut of The Devils (1971) was finally given its first public screening at the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film (BIFFF) (it had been shown by the National Film Theatre in 2004, but only to a restricted audience of critics in the presence of the director). You can read my interview here, and it only seems fair to finally provide my thoughts on the film itself, which I recently acquired in the fullest version available at present on DVD, namely the original ‘X’ cut, as was finally passed for release by the BBFC all those years ago, but which is still not the complete version as was screened at BIFFF. But more of that later.
SPOILERS AHEAD: Adapted from Aldous Huxley’s 1952 account The Devils of Loudun and John Whiting’s 1960 play The Devils by Russell himself, with astonishing cinematography from David Watkin and amazing sets designed by Derek Jarman, The Devils is, quite simply, one of the most controversial, nasty, horrifying, zesty and fun mainstream films you are ever likely to see. It is a dramatised historical account of the true story of the rise and fall of Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), a 17th-century Roman Catholic priest who was burnt at the stake for witchcraft following the alleged possessions in Loudun, France, of in-fact sexually hysterical nuns, led by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), who is sexually obsessed by the charismatic, worldy priest. She finds her accusations being ruthlessly exploited by the evil Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), who knows that Loudun is of immense strategic importance, and is attempting to influence King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) in an attempt to gain further power. He convinces Louis that the fortifications of cities throughout France should be demolished to prevent Protestants from uprising and the king agrees, but forbids Richelieu from carrying out demolitions in the town of Loudun, having made a promise to its governor not to damage the town.
Grandier, who is a proud, womanising but popular and honest priest, now has control of Loudun, following the death of its Governor (and the king had not made any promises of protection to Grandier) – while he is having an affair with a relative of Father Canon Mignon ((Murray Melvin), he secretly marries another woman, Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones) whom he deeply loves, and this news is relayed to Sister Jeanne, which drives her to insanity and to inform Mignon (her new confessor) of Grandier’s marriage and affairs, inadvertently accusing Grandier of witchcraft and of possessing her. Mignon relays this information to Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who is leading Richelieu’s efforts to destroy Loudun. Grandier thus stands accused of bewitching the convent and having commerce with the Devil and, with the priest away from Loudon, Laubardemont and Mignon decide to find evidence against him. Laubardemont summons the lunatic inquisitor Father Pierre Barre (Michael Lothard), a ‘professional witch-hunter’, whose interrogations are depraved mockeries of ‘exorcism’. Grandier’s days, and the days of Loudun, are numbered – as the film’s original tag line put it so well, hell will hold no surprises for them.
As you can probably tell from the above description, The Devils was never a film that was going to be readily accepted by censors, church groups, self-appointed moral guardians, and the like. And so it proved to be – it faced complete villification for many years, was banned in several countries, and eventually heavily edited for release in others. To date, the film has never received a release in its complete director’s cut, which includes the two key scenes with which the censors et al had most difficulty, namely the four-minute ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence, which involves the hysterical nuns ravishing a life-size effigy of Christ, and Sister Jeanne, now pathetically broken, masturbating with Grandier’s charred femur. Both scenes were finally included in the 2004 and 2006 screenings, but have yet to find their way into a fully restored DVD version.
There is no two ways about it – The Devils is a difficult film to stomach, containing some of the most disturbing sequences ever committed to film (such as an early scene involving the attempted ‘cure’ of the plague by two quack doctors, who feel that placing huge hornets on a victim’s breasts might be helpful), but it is a nevertheless accurate rendition of the horrors of the time, and therefore stands up very well as both an historical record and, as Russell himself put it, a purely political film, as well as an out-and-out horror show.
The performances across the board are also simply marvellous – Reed was never better than as Grandier, while Redgrave provides an interpretation that must have been nothng short of hell to convey. Jarman’s sets, while perhaps rendering proceedings overtly clinical, which forms a marked contrast with the filth at the heart of the story, are incredible, and the film as a whole is now finding its way on to most respected critics’ top ten lists. Who’d have thought it, eh?
You will never see its like again. Just make sure you see it.
117 mins (fully restored version, shown at National Film Theatre in 2004, Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film 2006), 111 mins (original ‘X’ cut), 109 mins (US cut).
Henry Kenneth Alfred ‘Ken’ Russell: 3 July 1927–27 November 2011.