“Hell holds no surprises for them.”
In 17th-century France, Father Urbain Grandier seeks to protect the city of Loudun from the corrupt establishment of Cardinal Richelieu. Hysteria occurs within the city when he is accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun.
The film critic Pauline Kael once described British film-maker Ken Russell as “an appalling talent” – and there can be is no doubt that he has been responsible for some of the most tasteless, excessive and flatly ridiculous works in the history of cinema. Where most directors are ascetic, Russell is the consummate glutton – often gorging himself on every manner of cinematic overindulgence and cliche, occasionally to the point of producing a sense of abject nausea in the viewer. And yet… looking beyond his trademark “baroque vulgarity”, Russell’s work is also notable for its intensity, ferocity, and imaginative boldness. A certain type of creative energy and verve that only comes from a deep and authentic personal expression that, if all the stars were aligned, just might produce something special. That masterpiece could be The Devils.
Based partially on the 1952 novel, in turn based on historical events, The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley, Russell plunges headlong into a twisted world bursting at the seams with pernicious political intrigue, religious psychopathy, unbridled savagery, wanton psycho-sexual abandon, witchcraft and mass hysteria. The results of which is a heady brew of phantasmagoria, the likes of which had never been committed to film before. Immediately upon release it caused a storm of controversy, being banned in many countries and existing in many heavily censored versions, and everywhere attracting many scathing reviews. One critic called it a “grand fiesta for sadists and perverts”.
If only for this infamy, The Devils would probably still be remembered, but what really qualifies this film as a potential work of genius is Russell’s unique interpretation of the material. It starts with his anarchistic blending of elements of modernity into a historical drama – the astonishing set designs were designed by Derek Jarman, before he began directing his own movies. The huge set for the walled city and the stark white-tiled convent, cheekily modeled on public lavatories of the time, rank right up with 2001 A Space Odyssey as some of the most audacious production design ever. Complemented by Shirley Russell’s costumes, avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies‘ powerful score and the brilliant cinematography of David Watkin – it all results in a electrifying fusion of the past, present… and the timeless. The bravura performances the two central characters are also stand outs! In the best role of his career, Oliver Reed as Father Grandier is the spirit made flesh! – aloof, ironic and brusque but also rampantly masculine, sensual and magnetic. And he even manages to under score his rock star charisma with an authentic sense of piety. Vanessa Redgrave too is transfixing as the crazed hunchback nun, Sister Jeanne – pitiful and hateful in equal parts, she gives a totally enthralling portrait of the human spirit torn apart by frustration and loneliness.
The Devils is almost guaranteed to polarise any audience – it can be most confronting, extreme and not a little unhinged. But love it or hate it, for film fans interested in a unique cinema experience, it simply can’t be dismissed.