The Devils – Ken Russell – A film more than worthy of being considered a controversial masterpiece. Based on gloriously weird historical fact, in which a French convent in 17th century Loudon (France) is beset by a frenzied spell of supposedly satanic possessions. At the film’s core is a powerfully charismatic performance by Oliver Reed, as the Roman Catholic priest Urbain Grandier – a role counter balanced, in commitment and disturbing conviction, by a hunch back nun, sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave.
Grandier is a somewhat unorthodox priest, and by ‘unorthdox’ I mean energetically womanizing. Adopting a liberal interpretation of biblical sin and the flesh, Grandier not only fucks with wild abandon – but also eventually marries, in a clandestine ceremony that he both conducts and partakes in. Meanwhile, in the subterranean white tunnels of the convent, Sister Jeanne is plagued by a feverish lust for Grandier – visited by him in dreams where he strides, Christ-like, across a lake. All the while there is the external pressures of an imminently approaching centralised government, which would mean the walls of Loudon would be torn down – the town subsequently losing its independence. This is something that Grandier has passionately opposed, with oratory vigour and passionate defiance. As a result, when Sister Jeanne succumbs to her lusting madness, political figures descend upon the town and whip up a witch-hunt frenzy – leading her to inadvertently frame Grandier (as the source of her desire) to be the site of satanic corruption. Thereby giving the political authorities a reason to conveniently remove the main vocal opposition to spreading the influence of centralised government.
It is a film in which, to use a stock phrase, it feels as thought ‘everything comes together’. We have two unbelievably powerful lead performances, a torturously fascinating premise (based in historical fact), lavishly geometric and memorable sets designed by Derek Jarman and the directorial audacity of Ken Russel, all of which conflate in a film of visionary and carnivalesque genius. Scenes of the maenad-like nuns that led the film to become so controversial were censored heavily in America, and are still censored on DVD. Two particularly extreme scenes were cut: the first, affectionately referred to as ‘the rape of Christ’ features naked nuns with shaved heads rutting deliriously up and down a felled crucifix – the other involves Sister Jeanne masturbating with the charred femur bone of Grandier – who is burnt at the stake…not really a spoiler, due to historical fact n all. The bacchanalian revelry of the nuns, recalls Russel’s background in musicals (Tommy and Lisztomania) as running throughout the disturbing circus of The Devils is a sense of choreographed madness. In accordance with Jarman’s modernist geometry, crowds and sequences play out with the momentum and orchestration of a dance. Perhaps revealing the performative discipline of spiralling reactions in this drama between Church and State.
The power inherent in this cinematic beast, although feeling choreographed and although highly aestheticized also manages to feel unflinchingly physical. This can be attributed mainly to the brute force in Reed’s commanding presence, his excruciatingly believable cries of pain and his enduring and visceral sexual magnetism. In pleasing symmetry to his muscular portrayal of masculinity, faith and principle, Vanessa Redgrave offers a frightening portrayal of caged desire – femininity grotesquely repressed, distorted and ruptured anew. This film has, to repeat the ‘everything comes together’ mantra, an elemental array of wrestling demons: sex, desire, faith, religion, state, politics, leadership, madness, masculinity and femininity, all disturbingly baptized in this dark and cinematic dream. Genius. 10/10