Seeing Ken Russell’s “The Devils” on the big screen feels like a minor miracle.
Originally released in 1971, it was treated like Warner Bros. original sin, receiving an X-rating in Britain and severe cuts for its U.S. release. Even forty years later it has proved extraordinarily difficult to see. It certainly hasn’t received a Blu-Ray release, earning even Guillermo Del Toro’s ire, let alone any sort of remaster. Thankfully, the Alamo Drafthouse, as part of its Reel Film Day (March 5, or “3.5” for 35mm) somehow got one of those elusive U.K. prints that tellingly looks as though nobody has watched it. Save for a couple of red-shifts in the later reels, the print is absolutely pristine. And while the images onscreen remain lovingly intact, as vivid and horrific as ever, what’s most frightening is how decades later The Devils feels more relevant than ever.
Ken Russell once said, “Reality is a dirty word for me. I know it isn’t for most people, but I am not interested. There’s too much of it about.” Given the opening of The Devils, in which Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) emerges, like Uma Thurman in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, from a clam shell, one is inclined to take Russell at his world.
The opening seconds mark a swift departure from reality into a dream. Or maybe more of a nightmare. Like in one of Sister Jeanne’s (Vanessa Redgrave) ecstatic visions, where the town priest, Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), replaces Christ on the cross before descending to amorously embrace her, there’s a fevered logic at work. While Ken Russell’s Devils might resemble our own world, it is ruled by secret passions and unknown forces which conspire to consolidate France’s power under one rule.
Those forces just happen to be the Church and State. As the camera pulls back from Louis XIII, royally in drag, a metaphoric fig leaf the only thing protecting his, uh, dignity, we see that this is all a show for Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue). Botticell’s “The Birth of Venus” has been reduced to a drag show, France itself consumed by decadence. Later we will see the King casually shooting men dressed as blackbirds, as though even human life has become mere sport for the powers that be.
In The Devils, Russell deftly explores the unhinged nexus of religion, sex, and violence. Both Church and State are reduced to two halves of the same coin, each side equally corrupt. Richelieu wants to consolidate the states power, while Louis XIII is content to his parties. Even when he does intervene in the madness that will come to consume Loudun, where the bulk of the narrative will take place, it is only in jest. Offering an exorcist a vial of Christ’s blood to control the nun’s orgiastic convulsions, Louis XIII feints, revealing an empty box in its place. Nothing is sacred here, the State and Church reduced to pure affectation.
That affectation is manifested in Derek Jarman’s surreal production design. Gone are any sort of gothic cathedrals, meant to inspire awe in the divine. No towering spires, no grand arches or stained glass windows– in Russell’s world, everything is reduced to abstract shapes. The inside of Grandier’s church is composed of matte black monoliths. Jeanne’s convent is composed of white tiles like a subway station from hell. Even Richelieu’s home looks like bureaucracy personified, full of doors and ladders that go nowhere.
Caught in the middle as each vies for control of the country is the town of Loudun, physically and metaphorically walled off from the rest of France. Yet its introduction comes at a price. A quick cut from Richelieu talking about driving out the Protestants to a bleached skull spilling maggots out of its mouth makes clear— this land is dying, sick.
Of course what starts as a fever soon becomes much more.“Sin is caught as easy as the plague,” Father Barre (Micahel Gothard), an exorcist sent to rid Loudun of its devils later warns. But in The Devils, there is no escape. As a funeral procession for its departed governor takes too the streets, we see the local nuns scrambling at the walls of their convent, desperate to catch a glimpse of Father Grandier, the local priest who is literally too hot for his own good. In between bedding the governor’s daughter and marrying a local widow, Grandier has developed quite the reputation in Loudun, one which is further problematized when he stands up to a local Baron’s attempts to tear down the cities walls.
Meanwhile the head of the Ursuline Nuns has begun to suffer ecstatic, erotic images of Grandier. Like Christ he stands, crucified.Like Christ, she sees Grandier walk on water. But no matter where he might be, the fair Sister’s thoughts always turn impure. Jeanne’s story easily earns the film its X-rating as early on we see her violently masturbating to these images (which is later compounded when Grandier’s charred femur is thrown into the mix). They come to Sister Jeanne as she prays for relief from the hump that twisters her back, images of Grandier affliction is a hump that has twisted her back, resulting in her head hanging at a perpetual 45 degree angle, as though the weight of her faith (and its resultant sexual repression) is literally crushing her. Vanessa Redgrave’s shrill, manic laugh is haunting as she slowly gives in to her lust for the local Father.
Things quickly spiral out of control. The Baron, the Governor, and Richelieu all want Grandier out so they can seize Loudun and strip it of its fortifications. Jeanne’s fevered fixation becomes just the pretext they need as these powerful men decide Grandier is a sorcerer, possessed by the Devil, who must be stopped. Father Barre is dispatched, enema’s are dispensed, and soon the nuns are put in the all too familiar bind of having have the hysteria produced by their assailants taken as proof of their madness. Before too long the whole town has gone mad, the poor nuns orgiastically confined to the Church, their naked bodies roiling amongst the hallowed images (a famous rape of Christ sequence being one of the more damning images in the film).
“Amongst the heaped clothes, the groping… there is love,” Grandier tries to comfort, but as The Devils continues it is hard to see how he can have such faith. Jeanne, as well as the rest of her Sisters, are enthusiastically tortured until they give the only answer the authorities will accept: Grandier is guilty. He’s a seducer. He’s communed with Satan himself. Everything is his fault. Never mind that despite Grandier’s earthly desires he represents the soul light in this dark world. Even decades later, Russell’s film still represents a triumph of depicting how if anybody as pure and good as Jesus walked the earth today, they would be strung up and burned at the stake, just like Grandier.
None of this is subtle, and none of it needs to be. By now many of the machinations the state employs are all too familiar. Richelieu’s nationalist ideals need a scapegoat. He he finds one in the one man trying to protect the sick and poor. Women’s bodies are used against them, as is their faith. The slick insular logic of nationalism, the either you’re with us or against us mentality, the Catch-22’s, all are present. It just so happens that in The Devils, we also see a nun licking the blood from Christ’s wounds before carnally rolling on the floor.
In the end, Grandier is burned at the stake. Loudun’s walls fall. Sister Jeanne is left still trying desperately to purge a demon that never existed, still tempted by Grandier’s lingering image (in one of the films most haunting moments she self-administers an exorcists’ enema). Like in recent additions to the horror canon, this year’s Get Out and last year’s The Witch, Russell is ultimately less concerned with the Devil without than the Devil within. By the time we see a group of nuns forced into a shallow grave, moments from execution, it should be clear that the scariest thing in The Devils are the horrors of the all too human heart. And what could be more terrifying than that?