The Devils (1971)

One of the most controversial films ever made. It’s a classic.

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Plot synopsis: Loudon, France. The 17th-century. Urbain Grandier, a promiscuous but passionately political priest is instrumental in ensuring his town is independent from the rest of the country, much to the anger of Cardinal Richelieu, who wishes to gain complete control. At the same time, an outbreak of apparent ‘possessions’ amongst the local nunnery, specifically that of sexually repressed Mother Superior Jeanne (who obsessively desires Grandier) gives Richelieu the opportunity compromise Grandier’s rule of Loudon by accusing him of witchcraft…. (based on true events)

The Devils is one of the most controversial films ever made, and all because of the touchiest of cinematic subjects – religion. The film is violent (near the end) and sexual (mostly around the halfway point), but in terms of volume, containing nothing near the kind of violent and/or sexual content you get in films these days. Yet, when the most notorious scene involves a group of hysterical nuns sexually ravishing (in effect raping) a life-size model of Christ, you know the film’s in trouble. For viewers of a certain religious inclination, this could be the most shocking scene in cinema history, and you won’t see it in the new DVD release of The Devils. Other versions of the film do feature it, but not in a print as amazing as the one for this scrubbed-up 2012 re-release, and that’s a shame, because Ken Russell’s masterpiece really is one of the most visually striking films ever made, and yet without the ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence, the film is neutered as a result. This edition is the original UK ‘X’ version, which also suffers from other cuts, little snippets here and there, an important scene at the end removed, though for fans of the film, it’s a start that this version is available – hopefully, we’ll get a version closer to Ken Russell’s own director’s cut (given a limited release in 2004) further down the line.

The film got some appalling reviews on release – sick, filthy, degraded, disgusting… the whole grotty spectrum of negativity was unleashed onto it, but these days, it’s difficult to see what the critics got so offended about. It’s an ugly film for sure, yet for all its controversy, this is a film ABOUT sacrilege and blasphemy, and is not necessarily a sacrilegious or blasphemous film. The infamous dream sequence where Jeanne has a vision of Grandier as Christ, with whom she proceeds to lick his wounds and roll around in the mud, is an audacious, stunningly weird, bold moment, and moments like this (sexualising Christ) was going to infuriate some. The scene feels as forbidden to us as it is to Jeanne, and that’s the point. Of course, Ken Russell being the outrageous director he was, the ‘Rape of Christ’ scene certainly intends to shock, thanks to the wild camerawork, uninhibited performances and intense music, but it’s not just shock for shock’s case – then again, this was far beyond what audiences were used to back in 1971, and the likes of A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and so on would only contribute further to the seventies being the most challenging decade in cinema history in terms of what was permissible on screen. There is (even in the ‘X’ rated version) disgusting things to behold, but it doesn’t feel excessive or gratuitous. It does however, repel, and that’s what it’s supposed to do.

When I was growing up, Oliver Reed was little more than a comedy drunk, the one who loved to dance on chat shows, or (less amusingly) make sexist comments to feminist critics. Oh, and he was one of the Musketeers. Before re-watching The Devils, I knew he’d made some respectable films in the sixties, and he was an undeniable screen presence, but his off-screen antics threatened to overwhelm his cinematic achievements. As for Ken Russell, I knew him as an outrageous, over-the-top director whose only films I’d seen were the ones he made in the Eighties and Nineties – stuff like The Rainbow (decent DH Lawrence adaptation – decent as in it’s a decent film, I haven’t read the book), The Lair of the White Worm (ridiculous, almost bad, but fun), Whore (just bad) and his TV adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (very, very appealing, but I was sent upstairs because it was too rude – fair enough, it was too embarrassing to watch with my family). When I first saw The Devils, I thought it was good, great on a purely visceral level (even if I was too young to know what the word ‘visceral’ meant) but was arguably too young to really appreciate it. The thing is, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to revisit the film, as it more or less got withdrawn from Warner Bros.’ release schedule, the big-studio clearly getting cold feet over releasing such a controversial film. So even though it’s a Warner Bros. film, it’s the British Film Institute who have released it on DVD, albeit in the compromised UK ‘X’ cut (be thankful it’s not the butchered US ‘R’ cut).

The film is almost an embarrassment of riches – the confidence and sweep of the film is breathtaking – I haven’t seen many of Russell’s other highly rated films (I’ve only seen the badly rated ones), but I’ve heard that this represents him at his peak, and Derek Jarman’s sets are totally striking, using white to a startling and intense degree, while Peter Maxwell Davies’s atonal, near avant-garde score only helps to hammer the horror further into your mind. As for the performances, Reed is just brilliant in this – the screen just eats him up, his presence commands your attention; and his acting during his unbearable torture scenes is worryingly effective– the film’s almost too painful to watch during these moments, and it’s more to do with his performance than any on-screen violence. Vanessa Redgrave also gives a wildly abandoned, deeply impressive performance – the best I’ve ever seen her give, frankly. Hysterical madness and the like is a tricky thing to pull off on screen – it’s all too easy to go overboard into laughable silliness, but here it works. It’s a fearless performance. It’s also weird to see familiar TV faces in the likes of this, such as Dudley Sutton (from Lovejoy), Georgina Hale (from kids TV show T-Bag, and she gets naked in this, which feels wrong to watch for some reason) and Brian Murphy (George and Mildred), but they acquit themselves very well, especially Sutton, who is particularly loathsome as Richelieu’s deputy. There’s also Michael Gothard, who’s probably best known as the silent killer in For Your Eyes Only; as the witch-hunter assigned to ‘prove’ the demonic influence in the convent is real, he’s brilliantly manipulative and extravagant, stirring things up no end. Finally, Gemma Jones (as Grandier’s clandestine bride) adds some much needed purity and innocence to a film decidedly bereft of such things.

This is a film of its time, but for all time too, sadly enough. The film’s handling of corruption and those it brainwashes and victimises leaves one drained. It ends on a particularly grim note, and seems so dispirited with human nature that it’s a sad experience overall. It’s also one of the most remarkable films ever made, and anyone who can handle it should watch it.

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