The Devils September 21, 2020
1 Hr., 57 Mins.
ritish director Ken Russell really liked messing with the historical record throughout his career — embellishing its properties, making opera from the real, in what seemed partially like a ploy to underscore truths that might have appeared subtler as they were lived. (And, if not, a ploy to subvert the tendency of biographical movies to skew hagiographic in their storytelling.) Among his subjects: composers (1971’s The
Music Lovers, 1974’s Mahler, 1975’s Lisztomania), actors (1977’s Valentino), literary titans (1986’s Gothic). In these films, Russell recognized the importance of his subjects. But, irreverently, he also made them mutable figures — art objects you shouldn’t not play with just because they were “important.”
His The Devils, released in 1971, is another foray into ahistorical filmmaking.
But it’s much less ticklish than Russell’s over ventures into this particular moviemaking mode. It dramatizes a notorious 1634 incident in Loudon, a small French town, where a Roman Catholic priest, Father Urbain Grandier, was fraudulently accused of witchcraft — blamed for an apparent influx of demonic possessions of nuns at the local convent. (Ultimately, he was burned at the stake.) In the film, Grandier is played with effectively realized mischievousness, then anguish, by Oliver Reed; Vanessa Redgrave, swivel-eyed and wicked to the bone, is Mother Superior Jeanne Des Anges, who spearheads the accusations. (She and others in the convent are portrayed as sexually obsessed with Grandier — something we find out is inextricable from his doom.)
The accusations are perfectly timed with sinister interests from outside forces in The Devils. The Cardinal Duke of Richelieu (Christopher Logue) is tirelessly trying to convince Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) that various French fortifications need to be destroyed to prevent a prospective Protestant uprising. Louis is persuaded, but makes explicit that Loudon isn’t to be touched — he’s made a promise to its governor that he wouldn’t. When the governor dies, Grandier essentially becomes its new guardian — an unequivocal reason, when looking from the purview of the disingenuous power-hungry, to find a way to get rid of him.
Much of the first part of The Devils is darkly comedic. The sexual obsession with Grandier is, unsurprisingly for the always-brazen Russell, overblown to an almost slapstick degree. Redgrave, costumed with a faux hunched back to mimic Des Anges’ real-life scoliosis, imbues so much animalistic zest into her brand of evil that you practically wait for her to lick her lips whenever blood is shed. Grandier is established as humorously, hypocritically sanctimonious (he's secretly a womanizer): shortly after discovering that he has gotten a young woman pregnant, he turns around and marries another whom he has just met and who defines herself as someone passionately, genuinely, devoted to God (Gemma Jones). He’s acutely aware and critical of the various hypocrisies of others but is naturally willing to turn the other cheek to his own.
There’s a sequence previewing the confirmation of the accusations against Grandier that's like a carnival ride in its frenzy: it’s a semi-orgy (topped off with hysterical, quick-zoom-heavy camerawork) featuring this horde of nuns. It’s a sacrilegious farce. When Grandier first hears word of the allegations, the feigned pious passion of a witch-hunter (Michael Gothard) who takes the case strikes us as blackly funny — he’s a con artist who has more conviction in his sense of showmanship than most. His eyes bug; his teeth are nearly permanently bared like a Rottweiler on the defensive. You know he’s full of shit, but you’ve never seen a full-of-shit someone be full of shit with such animated chutzpah.
But the last section of The Devils, while maintaining Russell’s pitch-perfectly delirious visual style (accented by Derek Jarman’s idiosyncratic, circus-like set design, which emphasizes red, white, and black), is more starkly horrific than what precedes it. The first part of the movie is a rather goofy sendup of religious hypocrisy, sexual repression, and historic trends of exploitation being vindicated because of its proximity to piety. But the final stretch stresses that
even though Russell’s directorial style is more lopsided than sobered, none of this is ultimately much of a laughing matter. This all is pretty scary.
The movie’s release was inevitably thrummed with controversy. Many critics found it an empty, torturesome provocation. Russell’s famed extremity is almost designed to not be easily stomached just generally — it becomes much more of a test when paired with these religious themes and this copious amount of sex and gore. But I found The Devils exhilarating, albeit a couple of markedly unfun hours. It lampoons, I think fairly spectacularly, the weaponization and power-leveraging of religion while chillingly underlining just how frightening the practice is. A