Sunday, May 6, 2012

Loudun Calling (Part II of II)

THE DEVILS (1971) DVD release
AMELIA AND THE ANGEL (1958)

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 for unrest, 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 when they were presented 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. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Loudun Calling (Part I of II)

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."