Sunday, May 6, 2012

Loudun Calling (Part II of II)

THE DEVILS (1971) DVD release

The BFI's DVD of Ken Russell's THE DEVILS is a strong contender for home video release of the year. The fact that the film remains controversial today is a remarkable tribute to the conviction of Russell and his creative acolytes.

AS the British Board of Film Classification celebrates its 100th year, it is fitting that the subject of one of its most volatile battles - Ken Russell's fearsome masterpiece THE DEVILS - was released as a 2-disc BFI DVD on the 19th of March. In this set, the BFI give us the original British X cut, and not the restored and extended 2004 version that has been seen at a handful of film festivals. The second disc of extras include Paul Joyce's 2002 documentary HELL ON EARTH, DIRECTOR OF THE DEVILS - featuring candid Russell interviews and unique footage of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies recording his score - and an audio commentary with Russell, critic Mark Kermode, editor Mike Bradsell and Joyce. For those wondering how this DVD includes HELL ON EARTH - which contained the missing "Rape of Christ" footage from the film, yet not include it in the feature itself – the part of the documentary containing the notorious sequence has also been excised by the powers that be at Warner Brothers.

The "Rape of Christ" - running just over two minutes - was long presumed lost until Kermode discovered the fabled footage in a single canister of film in England. This Holy Grail of censored material also contained other cuts, including Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) performing lewd acts with a charred bone from Father Grandier (Oliver Reed)'s remains. The "Rape of Christ" segment itself sees Sister Catherine (Catherine Willmer) tearing and burning pages from the Bible while Sister Agnes (Judith Paris) frantically strokes a giant candle between her thighs. Naked nuns then abuse Christ as Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) scales a ladder and pleasures himself overlooking the orgy (here cinematographer David Watkin essentially creates a jerk-off zoom, as the camera darts in and out of the carnal activity to the rhythm of Mignon's strokes). This is all shown with repeated cuts of Grandier giving a solitary Communion, unaware of the pandemonium taking place within the walls of Loudun.

Mercedes Quadros - nine-year-old daughter of the Uruguayan ambassador to London - plays Amelia in Russell's AMELIA AND THE ANGEL.

The story of THE DEVILS is one that tells of battles not just with the censor, but also with the studio. Any film with a toxic mix of religion and politics would be a target, especially when originating from an increasingly conservative American financier (for the United States, it is rumoured that Warners ordered Bradsell to remove every nipple and pubic hair). After Russell showed his cut to the BBFC, the board couldn't release the film intact on grounds that "it would have been subject to the Obscene Publications Act," even though they aired no reservations with the shooting script. As stated in Joyce's absorbing - though re-edited - companion piece, not including the "Rape of Christ" rips the spine from THE DEVILS, as this scene is integral to the narrative both dramatically and philosophically: the debauchery shows the exploitative level of which the authorities aimed to achieve, reducing the easily manipulative nuns - women with no vocation or personal development - to play their game.

The DVD also includes Russell's redemptive 1958 short AMELIA AND THE ANGEL. This 16mm piece sees Amelia (Mercedes Quadros) scouring the streets of London looking for a replacement pair of angel wings for her school play, after she steals the initial set which are subsequently damaged beyond repair. Quadros, with her long dark hair and probing eyes, gives a performance which carries the simple narrative, and its many artistic flourishes skillfully shadow its minuscule budget and library music. On the outside, hand-held camera mimics a child's eye view of the crowded locality; here, Russell is clearly influenced by Albert Lamorisse's celebrated 1956 short THE RED BALLOON, about a little boy who triumphs over adversity in Paris's mean streets. Internally, the opening choreography of the angel ballet beautifully draws on Russell's own training as a dancer, the butterfly wallpaper in Amelia's room openly mocks her loss, and the ascent of a robed, bearded artist into the heavens on a ladder has a much more wholesome conclusion than Mignon's "Rape of Christ" activity.