Film Review – The Devils (BFI DVD Release)
In 1971, after a long battle with the studio and the BBFC, a truncated version of Ken Russell’s The Devils opened in the UK to acclaim and controversy. The film touches upon the relationship between church and state, and the hypocrisy inherent in both organizations. It does not allude to the use of torture by officials, but unflinchingly shows it, as well as explicit scenes of sexual hysteria and blasphemy. Seldom in print—and never in Russell’s original version—I had heard of the movie, but never had the opportunity to watch it. The British Film Institute has just released a fully loaded DVD of the edited UK release, and I could not pass up the opportunity to order it. (From what I’ve read, Warner Brothers would not allow the BFI to add the missing materiel or release it on Blu-ray. This has a Region 2 Pal format and will not play in a regular US DVD player. I ordered it from Amazon UK for around $22, including shipping.)
Based on a historical incident, The Devils takes place in the seventeenth-century French town of Loudun, where the governor has died, leaving Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) in charge until a new election can be held. Grandier is a complicated man, concerned with matters of both the spirit and the flesh. He loves the ladies, but unfortunately he’s got a few pressing matters to deal with besides whom he might be getting pregnant. The plague is ravaging his city, and a representative from the church, Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), has come to destroy Loudun’s fortifications. (Cardinal Richelieu is trying to consolidate power by controlling all of France’s cities. If Loudun is strong enough to defend itself against outsiders, it can defend itself against him. This is before France became super centralized, and a lot of the larger cities were just barely under the king’s rule.) Unfortunately for Richelieu, the king promised Loudun’s former governor that he would not touch a stone on their walls, and Grandier knows it. So, Baron De Laubardemont needs to come up with a way to get Grandier out of the picture. Enter Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave).
Sister Jeanne is the head of Loudun’s Ursuline convent. A contemplative order, most of the nuns are not there because they have a vocation, but because they are unmarriageable and have become a drain on their families. Sister Jeanne, herself, is a hunchback with the face of an angel, and has longings and desires of the flesh she cannot control. Grandier is the object of her vividly portrayed fantasies—although they have never met—and when he refuses to become the order’s father confessor after the previous priest dies, Sister Jeanne enacts a brutal revenge. Accusing Grandier of witchcraft and sexual debasement of the nuns, she gives De Laubardemont the ammunition he needs to remove the priest from power. He brings in an exorcist, Father Barre (Michael Gothard), who shows no limits in his quest to get Grandier to confess.
This is a complicated film that does not shy away from brutality, and while I can understand why people were (and are) shocked when they see it, I live in a post-Human Centipede universe where the most asinine crap can get released. The Devils takes aim at religion and power, and while it does contain explicit violence and sexuality, none of it is gratuitous. It’s a serious film that does not flinch when showing the depths that people will go to accomplish their political ends.
The film’s greatness for me lies not only in its intriguing plot, but in the richness of the characters. Father Grandier is one of the most complex figures I have ever seen in a movie, and Oliver Reed is sublime. He sleeps with lots of women, rages at idiots, and loves the power he has in controlling the city. But he is also capable of great love—performing his own tender (and illegal) marriage with the virtuous Madeleine (Gemma Jones) and then striving, against his own interests, to protect Loudun from the machinations of Richelieu and his cronies. He is flawed, but the horrors of Father Barre’s torture allow him to transcend his shortcomings instead of wallowing in them.
Sister Jeanne is also viewed with a compassionate eye. She is awful in her destruction, but hers is a wasted life, full of pettiness and nonsense. She and the other nuns are filled with desires for things they can barely name, and when De Laubardemont threatens them with death unless they get on the bandwagon and start acting possessed, they appear to be already halfway there. By the last third of the film, the cloistered women are no longer the brides of Christ, but more like the mad worshippers of Bacchus—ready to uncontrollably tear each other apart with their bare hands.
It’s beyond me why this film cannot get released in the format that Russell wanted. (When it gets released at all.) It is violent. It criticizes governments and churches. It has naked ladies doing some really weird things. But it is not prurient, and it does none of these things casually. I was a little worried before I watched it that it would appear dated or confusing. It does have some experimental features, but it also has a strong narrative and the story is very clear. The only thing I thought was a little off was that Father Barre kind of looked like he was cast in Russell’s Tommy and accidentally wandered into a time machine. The set design by Derek Jarman is amazing, and this is truly one of the most beautifully and timelessly designed films I have ever seen. Let’s hope this release is successful, and will help convince Warner Brothers that this movie ought to be seen by as many people as possible, and in the way the filmmaker wanted it shown.
Final Grade: A+
DVD Extra Features
Booklet: 40 pages of goodness.
Mark Kermode Introduction: Short and sweet.
Audio Commentary with Ken Russell, Mark Kermode, Michael Bradsell and Paul Joyce: I have not been able to watch all of it yet, but what I did see was very interesting and quite humorous. (It’s hard for me to watch the commentary right after watching the film.)
UK and US trailers: Both trailers are equally pointless. The UK trailer tries to explain the entire movie, and the US one tells you nothing at all. (But gets points for brevity.) I’m not particularly surprised that they are so bad; after watching the film I couldn’t begin to imagine what they would even put in the trailer.
Amelia and the Angel: Short film that I have not seen yet.
Hell on Earth: 48 minutes of interviews on the making of this movie. It’s very interesting, although Mark Kermode is a little on the somber side. (I’m just used to him being so damn funny.)
Director of Devils: Ken Russell explains his vision in 22 minutes. Last third showing the scoring of the film is boring.
On-set Footage with Michael Bradsell Commentary: 8 minutes of interesting on-set footage by someone who was there.
On-stage Q&A with Ken Russell: Lovely 13-minute interview.