The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell’s The Devils is almost more notorious for its release history than it is for the film itself. It was rated X due to its violence and sexual content, banned in several countries, and never has seen a totally uncut release in any format. The rumors of its violence and sexuality seem to be more intense than the actual violence and sexuality contained in the film, especially exacerbated by the fact that it mostly involves priests and nuns and is photographed in the grotesque style that Russell became so well-known for. But beneath the controversy is a sharp, vicious commentary on religious and political fervor, a challenge to censorship and to the controls placed on sexuality by the powers that be, and an impassioned, introspective, and occasionally satirical investigation of the religious philosophy of the time period.
The film opens in Loudon, France, during the reign of Louis XIII, where Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) has more or less taken over political control of the town following the death of its governor. Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) have agreed to begin destroying the fortifications of cities across France, ostensibly in an effort to prevent Protestant uprisings. Loudon is one of the last cities still standing with its fortifications, upheld by the power and popularity of Grandier. But Grandier has already fallen afoul of the local magistrate after impregnating Phillippe (Georgina Hale), the magistrate’s daughter, then abandoning her for the love of Madeleine (Gemma Jones). Meanwhile, in a nearby convent of Ursuline nuns, the abbess Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave) develops such lust for Grandier that she falls into jealousy when she learns he’s having a relationship with Madeleine. After Grandier declines to become the convent’s confessor, Sister Jeanne accuses the priest of demoniacally possessing her. When the rest of the nuns begin to fall prey to possession, the political and religious authorities unite to destroy Grandier.
As with pretty much any Ken Russell movie, the synopsis does not do justice to the combination of batshit insanity and vicious satire at the heart of this film. Russell’s imagery is mash of surrealism and anachronism, uniting a 1970s aesthetic of extremity with the undoubtedly bizarre nature of 17th Century France. But underneath it is a fascination with the forces, external and internal, centered on sexual expression and the repression of religion. The nuns are gripped by religious fervor and frustrated sexuality that erupts in mass hysteria after Sister Jeanne accuses Grandier of possessing them. The eruption feels less like women being crazy and more like a society that strictly controls sexual desire and expression finally breaking down under the weight of undirected sexual energy. The accusations of possession free the nuns from their repression and they are suddenly able to express all suppressed yearnings with the justification of demoniac possession. Orgies, nudity, perversion, fetishization, and the breakdown of the social order are the result of repressed needs, now deformed by strict religious and social requirements.
In the midst of the madness is an intelligent discussion about the nature of sex, desire, and religiosity. Grandier is far from innocent—he has impregnated one young woman and goes through a marriage ceremony with another—but he is no hypocrite. He claims that he is searching for God and meaning within his relationships to women, and there is a refreshing honesty in his behavior that bespeaks his kindness and his willingness to acknowledge himself as an imperfect sinner. But he also has that ability because he is a man and a priest allowed to exist in the outside world, not a cloistered nun or an aristocratic woman who must ultimately either deny sexuality, or pay the price for lust. Grandier’s tragedy is a fait accompli—he has come into conflict with Richelieu for standing up against the destruction of the walls of Loudon; he has defied both political and religious authority and shown himself to be too powerful for the powers that be. His destruction is necessary, and the Church uses the rapture of the nuns to justify it.
The Devils is often billed as a horror film, and there are certainly horrific elements to it, with a vague hint of the supernatural and more than a vague use of religious violence to achieve political ends. Russell’s style in itself gives the film a nightmarish quality, a sense that we are watching things that are larger, wilder than real life. All the actors are used brilliantly, but Reed and Redgrave display their considerable talents to the extreme. Redgrave finds sympathy and pathos in a nun warped by her society and her religion; Reed runs the gamut of emotions, but it is in Grandier’s quietest and most introspective moments that he finds the greatest depth and meaning. For all its notoriety, The Devils is an oddly serious and introspective film, grappling with deeper theological concepts than it is perhaps given credit for, in the midst of its apparent madness.
The Devils is available to stream on FilmStruck.