The Devils is a film as controversially provocative and powerful today as it was upon its original release.
The Devils is a film as controversially provocative
and powerful today as it was upon its original release.
There are films
throughout the history of cinema that, no matter what, will live on. Try as some may to disregard, undermine
and prevent viewers from basking in their glory they seem to grow all the more
powerful as a result of such attention.
The reality is, though many of these films live on, they fail to live up
to their scandalous billings.
Over-hyped and shrouded in censor cuts they all too often fall flat
under the weight of their own reputation. The
Exorcist (1973), Freaks (1932)
and A Clockwork Orange (1971) may
still be held in high regard as films but you wonder how they caused such
uproar. The Devils is no such film.
It is abundantly clear why it disturbed and unsettled and yet in spite
of this it is still a truly mind-blowing experience for cinematic, thematic and
chronicles director Ken Russell’s interpretation of the true events which took
place in France 1634, when the Church was trying to take control of the country
and ensure no Protestant uprising could take place. One thing standing in their way however was the fortified town
of Loudon which had recently passed into the control of Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). Grandier was adamant the powers that be would not destroy
the town’s fortifications and what it stood for. Unfortunately Grandier has made enemies, resulting from his
endless womanising ways, and soon the town is awash that the order of nuns who
reside in the walls, led by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa
Redgrave), have become possessed by Grandier’s devilish ways. The fate of the city will rest on
whether Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley
Sutton) and his inquisitor, the manic, Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) can prove Grandier’s
pact with Satan.
Russell was never
a filmmaker to shy from the grandiose style and The Devils is probably the
finest example of his work. This
is not a story Russell wanted seen as a historical epic, much to studio Warner
Brothers’ dismay, but rather an extravagant political expression of sexuality
and the sins and cries of the innocent.
There are hints at Russell’s fascination with music, Grandier is as much
a rock star of his time as Tommy would become in Russell’s 1975 The Who
starring film of the same name.
Indeed part of
what makes The Devils so utterly compelling is the transformation Grandier goes
through. To begin with Reed, in a
career defining performance, swaggers through Loudon sleeping with women,
fathering bastard children and never once having any remorse for his hypocritical
ways. However, while he finds true
love and in turn true faith, in the form of demure and innocent Gemma Jones, it proves to be his
ultimate downfall. By taking a
wife and leaving his flock the deformed and hysterical Jeanne, played with
haunting guile and crazed fluency by Redgrave, is left to resent and bemoan her
Part of what
makes The Devils so stunning, even now some 40 years after its original
release, is Russell’s refusal to conform.
Like his protagonist Grandier, Russell shoots everything with a
flamboyance and expressionism rarely, if ever, seen in a film of this ilk. It is as if Terry Gilliam had directed Gandhi
(1982). The performances are theatrical, the sets, designed with a stylish
flair by Derek Jarman, prior to
bringing his unique styling’s to the likes of The Smiths and The Pet Shop Boys,
are visually bold. There are no
historically accurate attempts here but an expression of the time. A film so rife with retina burning
imagery it will haunt and inspire in equal measure.
But how and why
is the film so controversial? Yes
there are sexual encounters, one involving an orgy of nuns, but it is the ideas
on offer that impact the hardest.
There is no video nasty like gore and on the whole there is nothing
verging on graphic that you haven’t seen before and arguably more
gratuitously. The truth is that upon
viewing The Devils its controversy still resonates. Russell at numerous points, in Jeanne’s fantasies especially,
paints Grandier as Christ himself.
In one of the most notorious moments Reed, crucified on the cross,
climbs down in order to allow the worshiping Redgrave to drink from his wounded
body. To call it blasphemous is to
miss the point of The Devils. It
is a perfect example of what happens when faith and state are rolled into one
body. Ultimately it will fail but
while Grandier removes himself from state he is able to identify with God and
in doing so finds his faith grow to such strength as to allow him to make the
ultimate sacrifice. Imagine if you
will a Monty Python’s Life Of Brian
(1979) but told with such ferocity and brutal honesty as to make religious
types spontaneously combust at the audacity of it.
The Devils is a
work of pure art. A cinematic
masterpiece the likes of which are few and far between. It is visually powerful, thematically wicked
and most importantly one of the greatest examples of British cinema. As Reverend Gene Phillips of Loyloa
University states in this DVD releases notes; The Devils ‘depicts blasphemy
without ever being blasphemous’. Amen