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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Devils (1971) review


Oliver Reed (Priest Urbain Grandier), Vanessa Redgrave (Mother Superior, sister Jeanne), Graham Armitage (Louie the XIII), Christopher Logue (Cardinal Richelieu), Dudley Sutton (Baron de Laubardemont), Gemma Jones (Madeline de Brou), Michael Gothard (Father Barre), Georgina Hale (Phillipe)

Directed by Ken Russell

"I pray that I may assist you in the birth of a new France where church and state...are one."

The Short Version: Controversial filmmaker, Ken Russell, amassed critical hellfire and brimstone with this incendiary, yet true account of a 17th century historical case of alleged satanic possession. Incredibly offensive, THE DEVILS is a film of vast social, political and religious importance. Oliver Reed acts his heart out as the doomed martyr, Father Grandier, a surprisingly liberal man of faith who finds himself at the center of political corruption, religious defamation and object of revenge from a scorned, sexually frustrated and misshapen mother superior. A visual feast from start to finish, some will be in awe and others will be stunned by the shocking imagery. While it's not for everybody, THE DEVILS is an important cinematic document, a testament of a fiercely creative decade for a film that could not be made today. Considering the treatment it still receives from the very studio that financed it (Warner Brothers), the underlying political and social subtext resonates strongly even today in our current hysteria fueled and violent society.

***WARNING! This review contains nudity and images of a sensitive nature***

In plague-ridden 17th century France, Urbain Grandier, a philandering priest, lords over Loudun, a self contained provincial town within the kingdom of Louie the XIII. The king, aided and abetted by the guileful cardinal Richelieu, wishes to ensnare Loudun to gain total control over the surrounding lands. While the city enjoys its independence, decadence is alive and well within the barred monastic walls of the Ursuline convent. The blasphemy within Loudun reaches its apex when the misshapen Mother Superior, sister Jeanne, learns that Grandier, whom she secretly and sexually covets, has privately married Madeline de Brou, one of the convents nuns. Sister Jeanne then conspires with the Cardinal and Baron Laubardemont to accuse Grandier of his alleged satanic association that has resulted in the purported possession of the convents followers. A mass exorcism erupts in a farcical explosion of sexual depravity ensuring the baron and the vengeful, hunchbacked mother superior successfully discredit Grandier implicating him as the devil's disciple.

"Your humiliation is nothing! If god wants you to suffer...than you...should want to suffer...and accept that suffering gladly!"

Ken Russell's controversial classic has remained largely unseen since its original release some 40 years ago acquiring a far reaching vilification that few films have ever attained. One similar example of a film that shook the foundation of its studio and the patrons and critics who saw it is Tod Browning's FREAKS (1932). However, Russell's picture didn't just strike a nerve with its financial backers, critics and audiences, it summarily raped them into oblivion with one scene of sexual madness after another in its depiction of a depraved, morally corrupt society. It's made all the more incendiary in that it's based on documented accounts that took place in the historical Loudun in 17th century France.

Truth can sometimes be more outrageous than fiction and Russell's most notorious film redefines the word with its unabashed scenes of human cruelty, psycho-sexuality and outright bizarre behavior. Some viewers may find it hard to believe that such events and actions could have taken place as it's understandably difficult to fathom that we as human beings in a civilized society can behave as savages. A similar controversy befell Ralph Nelson's SOLDIER BLUE (1970), which featured an incredibly sadistic finale wherein a US cavalry unit mercilessly tortured and slaughtered innocent Native American men, women and children. Even today, despite the unbelievable brutality being documented, it's hard to swallow that man could act out in such a manner. Such deplorable travesties occurred again in WW2 with the Nazis and Japan's genocidal missions to exterminate the Jews and the Chinese respectively. Even in our modern climate, we as a civilized people "co-mingle" in an uncharacteristically animalistic fashion. Unfortunately, little has changed over the last several hundred years.

"Now there's a man well worth goin' to hell for, eh?!"

For the time period in which THE DEVILS takes place, religion is something to be revered, feared and twisted and maimed for political purposes, often with diabolically tragic results. Russell's movie operates on multiple levels- as an historical work, a political statement and also as a powerful diatribe about religion (including catholicism versus protestants) and the ways in which it was/is used to control and or manipulate the lives of those with faith, whether strong willed, or weak-minded. The centerpiece of all this is Urbain Grandier played to perfection by Oliver Reed in an exemplar performance wherein he explores every emotion imaginable before making the audience wince during the disturbingly heartrending finale. If you're a fan of Oliver Reed, this is easily among his best work, if not the best, surrounded by the most sumptuous scenery with which to chew magnanimously.

Reed as Grandier is viewed as something of a saint, but also a sinner, freely cavorting with several women while being uncharacteristically lusted after by seemingly every female within Loudun's walls. One devout, sex hungry admirer of Grandier is the hunchbacked, and quite mad sister Jeanne, the mother superior of the Ursuline nuns. So potent is sister Jeanne's attraction to the priest, she fantasizes about him as Christ. Removing himself from the cross he has been crucified upon, bloody lashes and all, she begins to lovingly lick and kiss his wounds prior to making love to him. Her desire for this man, whose affection has been given to numerous others, consumes her, pushing her to the brink of madness; the outer reaches of which have already seen her frequent visitation in her self-vilification of her own physical abnormality. Of course, the mother superior's sins do not go unpunished as she indulges in self-flagellation for her penance.

"These raving women are possessed of devils, I take it?"

What with this borderline sociopathic nun obsessing dangerously about an already sexually active man of the cloth, a dandy-ish dictator (who enjoys dressing protestants up as black birds and gunning them down as they run across his yard) collaborating with a calculating cardinal to overtake Grandier's self-governing township, the stage is set for tragedy of monumentally manic proportions. It's during the latter part of the film where much of the controversial material is present. A kinkily insane witch hunter is summoned to exorcise the possessed nuns utilizing methods of torture including forced enemas culminating in a spectacularly over the top orgy that has the libidinous ladies literally swinging from the ceiling. While one is seen feverishly stroking overly large candles, the wax oozing down the "shaft", a group of naked nuns take down a statue of Christ and sexually desecrate it; the latter act having never been included in any print of the film.

Not in the film, snippets of the 'rape of Christ' appear in the HELL ON EARTH documentary.

Warner Brothers, the studio that financed the film, has objected to the reinstatement of the sequence into the picture even to this day. The controversial sequence did find its way into a documentary on THE DEVILS that aired on British television in 2002, but has since been returned to the vaults. The documentary is part of this BFI 2 disc DVD, but the 'Rape of Christ' sequence is only seen in snippets. Interviews with catholic clergymen do not see the scene as blasphemy, but apparently the studio feels otherwise. Actually, Russell's film is most assuredly not for everybody and doubtless a good many religious followers will be wholeheartedly offended by what is showcased throughout the 107 minutes of the film in what amounts to the most complete official version to be released thus far.

Not in the film, a portion of this scene is present in the HELL ON EARTH documentary.

Phallic symbolism are among the offensive delights found within THE DEVILS, such as a brainwashed nun furiously stroking a large candle, or another masturbating with a burned leg bone. Sadly, the latter example is one of the scenes unaccounted for on this glorious DVD presentation due yet again to the nervousness of Warner Brothers. It's a scene during the finale wherein Redgrave's sex crazed character diddles herself with a charred bone of Grandier. Kissing the bulbous end of the shaft simulating testicles, she then inserts the broken and burned piece of penile pleasure into her vaginal regions finally enjoying Grandier's "love" in the way she never could when he was alive. A portion of this sequence is present in the Hell On Earth documentary on disc 2.

"These priests are depraved! It is they who are guilty of sacrilege...she has been deliberately provoked by the priests...they have desecrated god's house with this blasphemous spectacle!"

Aside from its numerous scenes of religious corruption and appalling sexual proclivities, THE DEVILS contains a social subtext that is relevant today reminding us all that civilization never seems to learn its own history lessons regardless of how many times they are repeated, nor how much violence and decadence that is born from man's ignorance. Michael Gothard (horror fans may remember him from SCREAM & SCREAM AGAIN [1969]) is incredible as the theatrically bonkers charlatan priest, Father Barre. Much like the sham Snake Oil Salesmen throughout history leading up to the Faux Faith Healers of the 80s who used their "craft" to steal away the life savings from the gullible while leading secret lives of debauchery, Barre uses his gift of gab in the most deranged fashion to profane religious iconography. There's even a scene where the transvestite king Louie, disguised as a Duke, visits the Ursuline convent and craftily exposes Barre for the counterfeit clergyman he really is. It's too late, though, as the brainwashing is complete and Barre's "technique" proves to be a grievous success.

"...and with the security of our independence gone, our freedoms would go, too!"

The political ramifications seen here mirror much of the current turbulent situation in America right now and act as a view into a possible future should certain socialist agendas prevail. The loss of Loudun's freedom and independence, the subjugation and indoctrination of the Ursuline nuns and the silencing and wrongful accusation of Loudun's leader and signifying voice perverted by an oppressive dictatorship reflects the current state of affairs in the United States. It's intriguing to watch this true account brought to bear through the eyes of Ken Russell under the realization that little, if anything has changed in terms of how power is exuded, usurped, or taken away through deceptively evil means. THE DEVILS are not demonic spirits possessing the flesh of innocent souls. THE DEVILS are man and the evil that resides within us all.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the magnificent set design by Derek Jarman, stunning in its construction. Bearing an almost futuristic look, the monolithic, ceramic styled buildings are incredibly impressive and rival any such design as you'd find in the most current production, no doubt "built" inside a computer of all things.

While I am unfamiliar with the bulk of Russell's resume (his LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM finds him revisiting similarly offensive religious imagery), THE DEVILS (1971) is simply a brilliant film not just of the 1970s, but of all time. It's proof yet again of this bygone, turbulent decade excreting a savage creativity and controversial ferocity that, in the case of this production from director Ken Russell, has stood the test of time; slowly amassing a level of respectability that eluded it upon its initial release.

This review is representative of the BFI R2 DVD 2 disc set.


Franco Macabro said...

I've always wanted to see this one, but it has never made it's way to dvd, too bad Warner Bros. hasnt done it. I love Ken Russell's films and have watched the majority of them but I'll be honest, this is THE one I want to check out.

I love films dealing with religion, Russell's films have always explored this theme in one way or another. Hell, even in Altered States we see some religious imagery, one of which is a crucified man with a goat head that has six eyes!

Great review of a film I hope will some time see the light of day. I gotta tell you, I find it fascinating that a studio finds a film that they funded so offensive that they wont release it. I mean, Russell really did something here!

Another plus: Oliver Reed! I love this actor, he is always so intense, a pity I haven't had a chance to check out what could quite possibly be his best work.

venoms5 said...

It's on DVD now, Fran. At the bottom I cited the review was using the region 2 dvd from the UK as the source. It's a 2 disc set and the most complete OFFICIAL release available so far. The ball is in WB's court as to a blu ray and more complete version. Here's a link where I got it from, but you can also order it from amazonUK, whichever is closest to you. This movie is definitely one you should see, my friend!

Samuel Wilson said...

Had a VHS of The Devils about a dozen years ago, lent it to someone who promptly moved away, but did see it and was properly awestruck even by a censored version. It's definitely Reed's greatest performance that I've seen and one of the great portraits of the mass hysteria any ideology might generate.

venoms5 said...

Definitely agree with you, Sam!

I should also mention that this UK release is the original X version that played in theaters there back in the 70s. It's longer than the US version which was edited further for violence and nudity.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for the link dude!

dfordoom said...

A great movie. Not a movie about religion, but a movie about power.

It's worth mentioning that it's based on a book by Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World. Ken Russell's ideas were as complex and misunderstood as Huxley's.

dfordoom said...

"and act as a view into a possible future should certain socialist agendas prevail."

A very good point. Hysteria is always dangerous, whether it's motivated by religion, Marx or political correctness.

venoms5 said...

@ D: Hello, my friend. Yes, I'm aware of the book and the play, but it seems every write up and article talks about it and I figured I'd just leave it out. I agree with you about the notion of power, but I do think religion is a strong force in the film, the power of religion, that is. The new DVD is a worthy purchase if you haven't gotten it yet.

WaverBoy said...

"and act as a view into a possible future should certain socialist agendas prevail."

I'd say it acts as a view into a possible future should certain agendas advocating the fusion of church and state prevail in this country. I'm surprised you didn't mention that in your fine write up.

venoms5 said...

I do think I touched on that near the beginning. But we are currently experiencing something similar (at least from my point of view) with the government meddling in religion (in addition to everywhere else); which is what Separation of Church and State is supposed to keep a wall between.

WaverBoy said...

I don't see government attempting to meddle in religion so much as religion attempting to meddle in government. There is absolutely no place for religion in government whatsoever, and for me, THE DEVILS is a vivid depiction of what can happen (and did) when religion infects government.

venoms5 said...

You'll need to give me some examples so I'll know what you're referring to.

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