The Devils is a Ken Russell film from 1971 that I saw a few years after that. Since I wasn’t eighteen, I don’t know how I was admitted to the theater at the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and I certainly don’t know why they were showing it! The film was incredibly controversial, heavily cut by censors, and still is not available in an official DVD version, which accounts for the poor image quality of the commercial release I have. It is a loose adaptation of a book by Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudon, that tells the story of demonic possession of a nunnery in 17th century France.
Louis XIII is king, Cardinal Richelieu is master. Loudon is a ‘free town’, allowed to maintain its independence and the fortifications that guarantee it. Within their circuit, despite the carnage of the religious wars, Catholics and Protestants have managed to live and work together in peace. Richelieu will have none of that: he wishes to concentrate all power in the king; to destroy the independence of towns; and to drive the Protestants from the land so that Church and State may be one in a new France.
Father Urbain Grandier is a charismatic churchman in Loudon who has his own interpretation of Catholic celibacy and the like. Women of all sorts adore him, and vie to have time with him in church to ‘confess’ their sins. Some get to be more intimate, including the daughter of an influential figure who becomes pregnant by him and is then set loose. His arrogance and strong ideas make lots of enemies, and when he defies the Cardinal’s emissary who wishes to demolish Loudon’s walls, he’s made an enemy who will not give up until he’s dead. The fevered and twisted imaginations of some sex-starved nuns provide a good pretext for trumped-up charges of sorcery, a convenient way to remove Grandier from his position of power. Church and State – no separation…
The film is lurid, bizarre, sometimes funny, and horrifying in its focus on the brutality of Church ‘justice’. The orgy scene with nuns gone wild, ‘raping’ Christ, and the visions of Sister Jeanne drove the censors wild. Anyone who has delved into Gothic literature, or the art and mysticism of the Counter-Reformation will recognize it as a dramatic, but not all that distorted presentation of historical truths. (Click to enlarge the images.)
The film opens with a bit of royal theatrical diversion. The Cardinal offers his ring and support for a new France, and “may the Protestants be driven from the land!”
Oliver Reed is great as Grandier. Vanessa Redgrave, as Sister Jeanne, the hunchback prioress of the convent presides over a bevy of girls who are dying to get a glimpse of the man as he leads a procession through the town. Remember, most nuns were forced to be such by families that didn’t have means or marriages for them. (See Jacques Rivette’s wonderful adaption of Diderot’s novel, La religieuse [The Nun], for example). These are all daughters of well-to-do families, essentially imprisoned for life. The expressionistic set design is fabulous.
Jeanne is obsessed by this handsome man of God whom she glimpses through the grate that gives the women their only view of the world outside.
She has ‘visions’ of him, and of a not all that pure nature.
In her dreams, she is Mary Magdalen, come to wash Christ’s feet, and dry them with her hair. She is beautiful, not a cripple.
Mystical states come to an end – reality does not disappear.
Grandier is just a man, one who loves his neighbor, and his neighbor’s daughter…and many’s the neighbor’s wife who would love to love him…
An eerie black and white sequence depicts Sister Jeanne’s erotic dream of embracing Christ as he comes down off his cross. She eagerly licks the blood from his wounds, only to awake to reality and find that she has clutched her rosary so hard that her hands are bloodied. Religious fervor can go too far.
Grandier confronts the Cardinal’s emissary when he starts to demolish the walls. He has a paper proving that the king granted the city the right to maintain them. Richelieu tries to get the king to renege on his word, but no dice. “Leave Loudon alone,” he is told. The king is impatient. He’s having fun taking aim
at Hugenots forced to run the gauntlet dressed as black birds. Ahh…but if Grandier could be disposed of, there would be no opposition and the Cardinal would have a free hand to work on the king. A plot is hatched.
An interview with Jeanne gets the inquisition going. A lunatic devil-chaser with John Lennon glasses stages an exorcism while the town’s élite watches from behind a grill. Yes, such things did go on. And much has been made of the tinted Lennon glasses: was Russell taking a swipe at pop culture icons of the day? I don’t know.
The chasing out of the devils continues in a full-fledged orgy within the local church, the most controversial scene in the film. Devils? Within and without.
Grandier is tortured, but will not confess to witchcraft. He understands the situation perfectly.
Forced to crawl through the streets to his funeral pyre, he is tormented to the end, but refuses to give in. His enemies, and just about everyone else, turn out to see him burn. The father of his former lover holds up his son and shouts, “Lucky bastard! Not every boy gets to watch daddy burn!“
With his death, the Cardinal has his way. The walls come down. The woman he secretly married wends her way out of the place of desolation while Sister Jeanne and her girls are shut away forever in their convent, despite promises to the contrary. Sister Jeanne is given a present of Grandier’s charred thigh bone – you can guess what she does with it.