By the mid-’70s, British director Ken Russell’s penchant for shock value took him deep into the realm of self-parody, despite his myriad gifts as a filmmaker and storyteller—it seemed as if he couldn’t stop himself from creating cartoonish excess. Many would say that Russell lost the thread while making two 1975 movies starring rock singer Roger Daltrey, Lisztomania and Tommy, both of which explode with juvenile imagery. Yet an earlier Russell film, The Devils, is likely the most extreme thing he ever made.
Cruel, perverse, repulsive, sacrilegious, and vulgar, The Devils dramatizes a gruesome historical incident that occurred in the 17th century. On one level, the movie is purposeful and serious, exploring such heavy themes as groupthink, paranoia, political conspiracies, and unrequited love that sours into deadly animus. Washing over this highbrow material is a geyser of effluvium—Russell depicts enemas, orgies, the sexualized defiling of religious artifacts, torture, and even the vile act of sorting through a person’s vomit for clues. In some scenes, The Devils presents intimate drama with far-reaching moralistic implications, and in other scenes, The Devils presents cheap jokes straight out of burlesque. In sum, those seeking a microcosm of the identity crisis at the core of Russell’s artistic output need look no further. Everything bad about his style is here in abundance, and so, to, is everything good.
The broad strokes of the narrative are as follows. Charismatic priest Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) gains control over the French city of Loudon during a time of religious conflict. Specifically, the Vatican has persuaded King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to demolish walls around cities, including Loudon, in order to quell an incipient Protestant revolution. Meanwhile, Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave), the deformed and disturbed Reverend Mother of a Loudon convent, is sexually fixated on Father Urbain. When Father Urbain marries his lover, Sister Jeanne goes insane, accusing Father Urbain of witchcraft. Hysteria ensues, leading to the spectacle of the nuns in Sister Jeanne’s convent becoming sex fiends. Sadistic witch-hunter Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) arrives in Loudon to exorcise demons from the “bewitched” nuns, but few of the players realize that all of these events have been manipulated to scapegoat Father Urbain.
Grasping the story’s deeper implications is challenging, and even simply tracking the events depicted onscreen requires close attention. Not only are the politics dense, but Russell drifts in and out of phantasmagorical sequences. Even the “real” stuff is sufficiently bizarre to confound many viewers. In the opening scene, Louis XIII performs a cross-dressing stage show. Later, viewers are shown a skeleton with maggots crawling in its eye sockets; Sister Jeanne giggling like a fool before climaxing from the mere sight of Father Urbain; and a silly bit during which the king shoots a man dressed in a bird costume, then says, “Bye bye, blackbird!” (Russell was fond of comedic anachronisms.)
The movie crosses so many lines with its religiously themed imagery that it’s like a hand grenade thrown into the middle of a crowded church. In a dream sequence, Reed is envisioned as Jesus stepping off the cross, complete with a crown of thorns, and Redgrave licks his bloody wounds as if the act gives both of them sexual pleasure. During the long mass-hysteria sequence passage, Russell bashes the audience with forced enemas that are staged like anal rapes, armies of half-naked nuns, and money shots of said nuns gyrating atop a figure of Christ. The film’s climax contains horrors all its own.
Saying there’s a resonant movie buried inside The Devils isn’t exactly correct, because there’s no way to separate the tale from the telling. Any dramatization of the Grandier story would be extreme. Furthermore, Redgrave and Reed give exceptionally committed performances, so much so that they risk becoming comical at times. The Devils is what it is, an assault on the senses and a scabrous sort of social commentary. Weirdly, the film was made in such a way as to repulse the very people who might otherwise have engaged most deeply with the subject matter, since it’s hard to imagine the faithful enduring more than a few minutes of The Devils. Even for nonbelievers, the film is as much of an endurance test as it is an artistic expression.
The Devils: FREAKY