The Devils (1971): The Most important Film You'll Never See
"Oscillating between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for self-transcendence, human beings are faced, at every time and place, with the same problems, are confronted by the same temptations and are permitted by the Order of Things to make the same choice between unregeneracy and enlightenment." -Aldous Huxley "The Devils of Loudon"
Controversy creates cash is one of the greatest falsehoods ever uttered by man, while it is true to some degree that bad press is better than no press, most controversies are career ruining, financially costly and left to languish for eternity. Widely regarded today as the greatest achievement in cinema at the time of its release "Citizen Kane" was a major loss for RKO pictures, resulted in the blacklisting of Orson Welles and had the subject of its controversy, one William Randolph Hearst had his way the film would largely still be in obscurity today. Similarly "A Clockwork Orange" whilst a financial success for Warner Bros was marred in controversy and was subsequently banned in several countries casting a shadow over the careers of its director and star for a number of years, but is now so celebrated it was even featured as an Easter Egg in the most recent Space Jam film. Ken Russell's "The Devil's" however has not enjoyed such reappraisal, you can't legally buy it on dvd or blu-ray, it's not shown on TV, nor is it currently streaming anywhere. The few times it has been released to the public have been heavily censored with extremely limited releases, if you to watch this film you either have to find a bootleg or be fortunate to have a friend who is willing to share their copy with you. Since its release some 50 years ago Warner Bros. have done everything within their power to make it seem as if this film does not exist. It is of my opinion, as insignificant as that may be, that the censorship of The Devils is one of the greatest travesties in the history of film, one that unfortunately is likely to remain unrectified. But this review is not meant to harp on the hypocrisy of faceless suits who have likely never seen the film in question, but rather a celebration of one of the greatest and most influential films of the 20th century, one you've likely never even heard of. Ken Russell's The Devil's is a masterpiece and deserves appraisal for the merits of its artistry and not the reputation that has plagued it since its release. So let's take a journey back to seventeenth century Loudun and enjoy the horror and splendor that is Ken Russel's The Devils.
You may go into The Devils thinking it's just a cheesy horror film from the early 70's or perhaps a stuffy historical drama that over dramatizes the real life downfall and execution of Father Urbain Grandier and you'd be absolutely right on both accounts. The Devils from it's very inception is one part hammy acting, two parts early 70's experimental film making and a whole mess of sexual debauchery, visual splendor and indulgence as we see King Louis XIV performing the 'Birth of Venus' whilst dressed half naked in a shell bikini as the scheming Cardinal Richelieu looks on. The two men embrace as the birth of a new France is declared, one where church and state one, and we get one of our first great examples of the films unabashed displays of dark humor as Richelieu blesses himself by saying "And may the Protestant be driving from the land" as the title imposes over both he and Louis. It's such a great sequence that I've included it for your viewing pleasure below.
In contrast to splendor of riches of the King's court there is city of Loudon surrounded by its barren white walls, where as the King and Richelieu are celebrating the birth of a new France Loudun is morning the death of their governor as a procession is being lead by the charismatic Father Grandier who has captured the lustful desires of the town's Ursuline Nuns who are quickly admonished by their sister superior Jeanne des Anges, who also harbors her own neurotic desires for the priest in question. Grandier gives a speech declaring the religious wars over and Loudon safe however there's a procession of another kind is being lead just outside of the town's walls as a force comprised of soldiers and Protestant slaves are being lead by Barron Laubardemont to demolish the town's fortifications and incorporate it into the new France under Louis and Richelieu against the landscape of dead protestants rotting in wheels of torture. The genius of these opening scenes is how it introduces the principles of our film and presents the danger Loudun faces with great dramatic irony. You also get a glimpse of the films many themes such as abuse of power, sexual repression and vanity. Without getting too involved in the minutia of the plot seeing the otherwise plain country town of Loudon unravel as a result of all three themes is one of sheer ecstasy and at times will make question where your morals lie as there is a case to be made that every character in this film is guilty of some form of evil, from the philandering and sinful life of Grandier to the lustful desires and neuroticism of Soeur Jeanne which cause his downfall, the brilliance of The Devils is it is one of few films that is as character driven as it is visually and in a way the town of Loudon is perhaps the most important character of the film. Seeing the dissolution and systematic destruction of both Loudun and Grandier contrast with one another is simply fantastic and contrasts greatly with seeing the Ursuline Sisters be transformed from ordinary nuns who are quite literally imprisoned in the underbelly of the town's walls to raving and gyrating sex freaks at the hands of another charismatic priest named Barre. There is so much detail involving this film that I struggled when drafting this review where and how to decipher all of it, while much of the controversy is centered around its negative reviews and controversy is its depiction of religion, I would argue that the film is not about religion but consequence. As result of his lifestyle Grandier impregnates one of his students and abandons her, to which her father and cousin seek revenge and serve as a key figures in his downfall. When he mocks the towns doctors for torturing a plague victim throwing them out of her home, they spread rumors of his illicit marriage to her daughter and join in the conspiracy to destroy him. After he defends the town from Laubardemont forces he seeks to find away to remove Grandier from power. "Give me three lines of a man's handwriting and I will hang him"
The hand of consequence isn't just waved over Grandier, for her transgressions (accusing Grandier of demonic possession) Soeur Jeanne is tortured, publically humiliated and examined by Grandier's enemies and by the end of the film is left physically and emotionally drained. I would also argue that while much of the film's focus is on Grandier and his downfall, the film is really about Jeanne and her repression. In fact her character in Aldous Huxley's book was so influential to Russel that a single line comparing her examination to that of a public lavatory influenced the entire set design for Loudun and its white walls.
An element of the film I would briefly like to touch on is that of the choreography, there is rarely a dull scene in the Devils, even simple conversations have several elements going on in the background. I can only imagine the hours spent when putting together scenes such as the infamous "Rape of Christ" or even something as simple as the mock wedding the nuns put on after learning of his wedding. Some of the films most controversial scenes come as a result of how creatively put together they were and lend into their effectiveness. I would kill to see an audience witness some of them for the first time and can only imagine how audiences fifty years ago reacted. It's crazy to think with how much detail and work went into this film that this was Russel's second film of three to be released in a year, it's an insane accomplishment to say the least. It's also not the least bit surprising that Ken Russel went on to direct Tommy several years later given how well the choreography played into the score by experimental musician Peter Maxwell Davies.
There's so much more I'd like to cover in this review but I think it's best to leave it here for now. I may in the future revisit The Devils in greater detail, but as always if you can find a way to experience this film for yourself please do, it's one of the greatest films to ever be made and doesn't deserve to be rotting in a vault somewhere at Warner Bros, it is one of the most important looks at the abuse of power and one only has to look at the current political landscape and see that the narrative of the The Devils is not only still relevant but unfortunately timeless. This review was greatly delayed by my laptop screen deciding to do its best imitation of a strobe light but thank you for being patient in the interim. I plan on doing a small post for the holiday but just in case that doesn't come to fruition have a Happy Halloween everyone!