THE DEVILS (1971)
Vanessa Redgrave cackles and leers as hunchbacked Sister Jeanne of the Angels. Her demonic voice, implements of masturbation and even a spider-walk were all seen two years before THE EXORCIST.
SYNONYMOUS with the word maverick, Ken Russell has been referred to as "The Wild Man of the BBC," "the infant terrible of British cinema," and a "fish and chips Fellini." Drawing from a wealth of historic and literary references, Russell made some of the most bombastic yet beautifully photographed films in motion picture history. His informed sensationalism not only horrifies but inspires, producing a body of work that is as much smothered in an impish yet intellectual sense of humour as it is in the director's passions and neuroses. After early work as a stills photographer, Russell made a number of ground-breaking programmes for the BBC's MONITOR and OMNIBUS strands, broadcasts which set the scene for television to be considered a serious art form; and in the 1970s and 80s, he practically invented the pop video and provided a template for MTV. Critics have consistently labelled Russell's work as pretentious and frequently vulgar, yet there is always a creative energy which jolts the viewer into his peculiar, phallic-worshiping world of gods and demons.
Originally written for United Artists until "somebody actually read the script," THE DEVILS was picked up by Warners, and Russell's screenplay is based on both a play by John Whiting - staged in London by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1961 - and Aldous Huxley's 1952 book The Devils of Loudun. THE DEVILS has increasingly been regarded as a milestone, and is described by Joseph Lanza in Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films as "postwar British cinema's greatest marvel and nightmare." The film tells the shocking true story of political and religious persecution in 17th century plague-infested France. King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richlieu (Christopher Logue) conspire to create a new France where Church and State act as one, and troops are sent to destroy the fortification of Loudun, which is vital to Richlieu's plan to demonise the Protestant faith and ensure that Catholicism is embraced throughout the territories. Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), the charismatic Jesuit priest of St Peter's Church, successfully rallies the citizens and halts the destruction.
Oliver Reed shines as Father Urbain Grandier. An otherwise unrelated Reed UK film - 1973's trippy class war oddity BLUE BLOOD - was bizarrely released in Italy as THE DEVILS, PART II.
What sounds like a dour historical drama unfolds into a frenzied pageant of gender-bending libertines, debauched exorcists, enthusiastically administered enemas and sado-masochist nuns. Grandier settles down with the virginal Madeleine de Brou (Gemma Jones), whom he marries in an unorthodox ceremony conducted by himself. Unknown to the priest, Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) - the hunchbacked Mother Superior of Loudun's Ursuline convent - is sexually obsessed with him and prays to Jesus to "take away my hump." After Grandier rejects an invitation to counsel her order and news reaches Jeanne of his marriage, the sister concocts jealous lies about Grandier visiting her in the form of an incubus. With the aid of sadistic medics Ibert (Max Adrian) and Adam (Brian Murphy), the chief exorcist of the Catholic Church Father Barre (Michael Gothard) tortures Jeanne into confessing herself possessed, and Grandier is arrested for diabolism and burned at the stake. Blistering and boiling, Grandier perishes, as Loudun is felled by explosives.
Though performances are uniformly excellent, this is Reed's finest hour, a stoic portrayal that provides the film with a linear path between the outrages and extremities. An anti-intellectual and dyslexic, Reed relied on Russell's simplistic method of direction, instructing the actor to give a take "Moody 1, Moody 2 or Moody 3." Reed always acknowledged limitations in his inimitable style - telling the director to "piss off" when asked to recite sixteenth-century Latin - and even though he despised the stage, Reed delivers speeches of great gravitas here, but such power is even diluted in one scene by cutting away to the theatrics of the King taking shots at Protestants dressed as blackbirds. Its a contrast you can either hate or love; hate because it deflects from the rhythm of Grandier, love because it shows a contrast of convictions at the centre of the film. Whatever your conclusions, it means you are undoubtedly watching a Ken Russell film.
Sister Jeanne licks the wounds of Grandier envisioned as Christ in one of the her feverish fantasies.
THE DEVILS acts as a perfect storm of Russell at the height of his creativity, the beautifully lit cinematography of David Watkin, sublime set design by Derek Jarman, and a discordantly effective score by Peter Maxwell Davies. Similar to the outrage that encompassed MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN, THE DEVILS was roundly condemned as being anti-Church, but both works show the genuine mistrust in organisations which have the power to corrupt and distort. As with much of Russell, controversy has clouded the true value of his work: the male wrestling sequence between Alan Bates and Reed in WOMEN IN LOVE generated a tabloid campaign of outrage while its literary origins helped it past the censors, yet THE DEVILS was a target for lasting interference from its inception. During the shoot at Pinewood, stories circulated about the film's extras, overstimulated by naked nuns and a general environment of permissiveness, who manhandled the actresses and committed at least one confirmed sexual assault. When THE DEVILS was released as an X certificate - deleting the infamous "Rape of Christ" sequence - it was still banned outright by seventeen local councils, and BBFC chief examiner John Trevelyan resigned from his post the following month.
Unsurprisingly, THE DEVILS caused religious uproar. The Festival of Light picketed cinemas, in Rome polizia confiscated prints, and the Catholic Film Office branded the film "C for Condemned," "for turning serious historical fact into a drug-induced cinematic experience" and its "objectionable use of religious symbols reduced to flippant pop iconography." THE DEVILS also produced a scolding critical barrage: Newsweek's Paul D. Zimmerman concluded that the work demonstrated how Russell "has gone beyond extravagance to insanity"; The Iconoclast said it had "all the taste and restraint of a three-day gang bang"; and The Evening Standard's Alexander Walker provided a more personal attack by claiming its vistas "look like the masturbatory fantasies of a Catholic boyhood." Russell later hit Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the offending review on a late-night BBC news programme, before storming out of the studio.
Genius, madman, or both? Exploring Catholicism, sexual excess and kitsch, Ken Russell described himself as the saviour of the British film industry.
Over the centuries, scholars have been divided in their attempts to explain exactly why a convent came to believe that they had been overwhelmed by sorcery. One theory has the nuns driven to their fervour by accidentally ingesting ergot - a fungus which contains an LSD-like chemical on rye bread which has been allowed to dampen and warm. Ergot has also been liberally mentioned as a driving force for the Salem witch trials, and inspiration behind the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. But the most widely accepted notion is that the nuns were manipulated by politicians and priests within a hysteria which endures under long-term stress in captive environments, where pent-up anxieties can disrupt the function of nerves which send messages to muscles and brain. Over forty years later, THE DEVILS, in itself, exists with an aura of social epidemic; it is the film maker's one and only political statement, and a timeless one. "This is not the age of manners" Russell told Time Magazine in 1971, "this is the age of kicking people in the crotch and telling them something and getting a reaction. I want to shock people into awareness. I don't believe there's any virtue in understatement."