Yet another film I would call great. Though it is super strange and worth discussing here, it looks at some weighty and disturbing issues that could conceivably offend. Keep in mind this essay is about the film, not necessarily about the themes on display.
From the opening scenes of Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, you get a feel for the overall tone, one of grotesquery, irreverence, and caricature, and by the end, the tone has been maintained. The film’s themes are of blasphemy, sacrilege, heresy, sexual desire, lust, self-loathing, murder, intolerance, demonic possession, religious fanaticism, torture, rape, and the search for God’s love. Even though it’s presented in this heightened, Grand-Guignol fashion, the film nevertheless deals with these topics in a real, if satirical and biting, way. Neither a horror film nor a comedy, it nevertheless channels them at various moments, sometimes simultaneously. It’s a film that still shocks and scandalizes and its imagery is still potent and affecting, even 43 years after it was made. At the time, it drew considerable ire from people who objected to its mixing sexuality and religion and its condemnation of archaic Catholic practices, and was edited heavily to lessen the graphic nature. Lessen, but not remove. Even today, it’s nearly impossible to find the film in its intended, 117 minute format. Such an incendiary film could only be based on a true story.
Based on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 non-fiction novel, The Devils of Loudun, the film takes place primarily in the French town of Loudun, a closed-off, self-governed village that is ravaged by plague immediately following the Crusades. The governor having died, the town is ostensibly under the control of the handsome, popular Catholic priest, Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). Grandier is very outspoken in his criticism of Cardinal Richelieu’s plans for ruling France. Grandier also believes he can only truly find God by having sexual relations with young women, which is convenient for him because all the women in town have the hots for him. He maintains that nowhere in the Bible does it say holy men should be celibate and all of the apostles had wives of their own. In an early scene, his latest conquest, a rich girl whose father has hired Grandier to teach her Latin, admits to him that she is pregnant. He unceremoniously and coldly calls off the relationship and when the girl threatens to tell her father, he tells her to go right ahead. Later, a young virgin named Madeline (Gemma Jones) whose parents both died in the plague, confesses she is in love with Grandier and they begin a relationship, culminating in their marriage presided over by Grandier himself.
Elsewhere in the town is a convent of highly devout nuns who’ve sequestered themselves from everyone else, but who still fixate on the town’s gossip, especially involving Father Grandier. The reverend mother of the convent, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), a hunchback, is obsessed with Grandier, though they have never met. She often has hallucinations of herself no longer afflicted and given the opportunity to worship Grandier, who takes on the iconography of Christ in the dreams, first walking on water, then being crucified. The fetishization of Jesus, and Grandier, leads Sister Jeanne to pleasure herself and then immediately flagellate herself with whips to make penance. She requests that Fr. Grandier become the convent’s confessor, and he declines, instead sending just rat-like junior priest, Father Mignon. This sends Sister Jeanne into even deeper depression and lunacy.
The true problems begin when Baron Laubardemont, under orders from Richelieu, begins to tear down the walls of Loudun. No town is to have walls so that all may be governed by King Louis XIII, with Richelieu pulling the strings. Grandier stops him with the town’s guards saying they have been given a mandate from the King that Loudun is not to be touched. The King later confirms this to Richelieu. However, Richelieu and the Baron concoct a scheme to try to discredit Grandier and remove him from power. Conveniently, upon hearing that Grandier has married the young girl, Sister Jeanne begins wailing that Grandier has raped her nightly and has brought Satan into their convent. The Baron sees an opportunity and, along with Fr Mignon, the pregnant girl’s angry father, and the town’s surgeon and chemist, call in a professional witch hunter, the fanatical Father Barre, to rid Loudun of Satan, specifically from the “anti-Christ” Father Grandier. After Barre nearly puts the entire coven to death, he suddenly relents and tells them to be as debaucherous as they like, as it isn’t their fault Satan has entered their souls. The nuns then strip off their clothing and begin running around causing mayhem, totally unhindered, until the devils can be removed.
There is a lot going on in The Devils and none of it is superfluous. Every scene contributes to one of the characters as well as the perverted absurdity of what’s happening. The film completely subverts the idea of religion by taking a man like Grandier, who we immediately see as an arrogant and carnal man, and making him the most pious and noble figure by the end. Through stark imagery, Russell takes this true, very tragic story and uses it to skewer and castigate the absurdities of religion and holiness. There is an air of death and disease from very early on in the film. Relics of the Crusades, such as skeletal bodies on spikes, adorn the land surrounding Loudun and fresh bodies of new plague victims line the streets and fill giant holes while characters speak of other things and generally don’t pay attention. Also everywhere in the town are wooden crosses, a not-uncommon thing for a Catholic town, however there are hundreds of them in a somewhat haphazard arrangement which gives the impression that the entire town is a graveyard, which of course, it ultimately is. The way the film is shot, and the eerie production design by Derek Jarman, make it seem that you’re watching a vampire film, or some other supernatural, gothic horror film, and this is surely intentional. Gothic horror is deeply rooted in religious, specifically Catholic, iconography and with all the talk of demons, witches, and Satan, you wouldn’t be surprised at all to see some kind of monster rise up from the ground at any moment. But this isn’t that kind of movie. Russell is using the images of the horror film to show us what is truly to be feared: greed, pride, power, repressing sexual desire, and religious-fueled insanity. All very real, very human faults.
Authority figures are all reprehensible or buffoonish. Cardinal Richelieu is a very pompous, greedy character as evidenced by one scene where, while discussing matters with the Baron, is being pushed around on a dolly by two nuns. Father Barre, the witch hunter, is longhaired and wears small round sunglasses and a sleeveless robe and while this is a visual key to his new-age, hippy nature, he is by the end the most fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone person in the piece. Louis XIII, who is only in a few scenes, is a cartoonish, blatantly homosexual fop who generally isn’t to be taken seriously, yet he is seen taking target practice on Protestants in bird costumes and ultimately calling attention to the utter ridiculousness of the witchfinder and his exorcisms.
The characters of the surgeon and the chemist, while not authority figures as such, represent the corrupt civil servant. They are always standing beside each other and giggling about something with evil grins on their face. It is their task to “treat” the plague victims and later help Barre perform his “tests” and the pair find these vile, violent jobs delightful and enjoyable. In an early scene, Madeline’s mother suffering from the plague and is being essentially tortured by the surgeon and the chemist with leeches, hornets, vipers, fire, and any other newfangled “remedy” they can think of. The woman looks to be in utter, grueling torment, while the two, their faces covered in sinister black leather straps, joke and whistle. Father Grandier bursts in, hearing the woman’s agony, and forcibly removes the men and their equipment and helps the woman pass on, more or less peacefully. It is also they who perform the disgusting, invasive procedures on Sister Jeanne to “prove” that she’s in fact been sexually active (they find that she has, due to all of her masturbation) and continue to administer treatments at Father Barre’s request to try and rid her of the devil. And finally, when Grandier is on trial for cavorting with Satan, it is these two men who carry out the brutal torture to try and get him to confess.
It is the idea of confession that is most prominent in The Devils. There is a great deal of confessing happening throughout and it is met with equal parts dismissal and anger, as well as the question of whether or not the confession is to be believed. Philippe, the rich girl with whom Grandier first has a relationship, confesses her pregnancy first to Grandier himself, who brushes her off, then to her father who becomes enraged. There is a scene in the church where Grandier is taking confession and Philippe again comes to him. When he asks how long it’s been since she last confessed, she tearfully responds, “You know quite well how long it’s been.” Immediately after she leaves, Madeline confesses to being in love with Grandier, the one time the act is not met with scorn, and this begins their relationship. Then, as soon as she leaves, a random woman arrives to confess, something she does every day, just to see Grandier. As soon as the witch hunter arrives, however, confessions become altogether more dangerous. As is common with stories such as this (like in the Salem Witch Trials and the unexpected Spanish Inquisition), confession will ensure safety and not confessing will ensure death. Once accused, immediately guilty was the motto of the time. When Sister Jeanne points the finger of blame at Grandier, she subjects them both to horrible pain and suffering. The torture is meant to cause pain which is stronger than the devil’s influence, and so confessing means he has left their body, but if someone with a stronger will, like Grandier, refuses to confess to a crime he has not committed, they are clearly still under evil power and not cured. When Sister Jeanne eventually feels guilt for what she has done, she wishes to confess that she made the whole thing up, which is met with total dismissal and a confirmation that the devil has returned.
It’s bitterly frustrating to see someone endure such atrocities with no way of making people believe them. Grandier openly confesses to the sin of pride, to loving and marrying a woman, to disagreeing with the official mandates from the Cardinal, however since he cannot be tried for these crimes, and only his confession or demise will give Richelieu control, he is made to suffer and die. Throughout, he contends that God knows the truth and will give him his reward in the afterlife, which angers Father Barre, who is accustomed to people confessing, and leads to even more torture. By the end of the film, Grandier has indeed become a Christ figure, having been put on trial, tortured, and killed publicly for holding true to his beliefs. The public, by the way, find the entire proceedings hilarious and are in the background of nearly every shot laughing derisively, wearing black masquerade costumes.
Some of the imagery in the film is deliberately incendiary, but it must be seen for what it is: a satire. All of these things which I have described sound rough, and they are, but there is a gallows humor that permeates every frame. At the screening, the audience roared with laughter during some of the more absurd moments, even if, and usually because, they were accompanied by disturbing images. Ken Russell knew what he was doing. He tackled taboo subjects using sacrilegious imagery with an irreverent attitude and critics and watchdog groups took him to task for it. But The Devils is an important film that deserves and begs to be seen. It needs to examined and appreciated for the bold, unsettling work that it is and for the opinion is offers. It’s scandalous in that it talks about things people generally aren’t prepared for and it does so with the sharp edge of satire. After seeing the film, you’ll know full well who, in Ken Russell’s supposition, the real Devils are.