The name Ken Russell often sends lovers of film into fits of terror – and their fingers to the eject button – and with good reason: Russell’s films invariably lapse into reckless self-indulgence and hysteria that give self-indulgence and hysteria a bad name. Russell is a visual stylist whose always pictorially breathtaking work nudges greatness, only to collapse into sheer idiocy. Granted, some of Russell’s films seem less awful in contrast to his worst ones. In films like Women in Love and Savage Messiah (a beautiful little film about Vorticist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezska), Russell even comes off surprisingly like a classicist instead of the hopped-up Kubrick-ian of works like Tommy and Mahler. But when he’s bad, he’s dreadful. (If you doubt me, try sitting through Gothic without feeling like you’re watching a terrible in-joke.) Nonetheless, sometimes hysteria is needed to tell a story properly, and sometimes an atmosphere of chaos is the most effective way to portray the absolute madness of the world. In this regard, Russell’s 1971 The Devils is his masterpiece, a brilliant, disturbing work that strikes one as the story Russell was born to tell.
Russell based his film on the hard-to-believe but absolutely true story told by Aldous Huxley in his chronicle The Devils of Loudun (and by John Whiting in a play of the same name). The Devils, set in France in 1634, tells the story of Urbain Grandier (played by Oliver Reed), a secular priest educated at a Jesuit school and the parish parson of the city of Loudun. Grandier is a vain, handsome and intelligent man, the object of desire for the town’s women and of jealousy and hatred for the men. Grandier is admired from afar by the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), the prioress of Loudun’s Ursuline convent. When Grandier refuses Sister Jeanne’s offer to act as the Ursuline’s father confessor, she begins to go ever so slightly mad. The convent’s priest, Father Mignon (the alarming Murray Melvin who played the equally odd Reverend Runt in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), who hates Grandier, tells a functionary of the then all-mighty Cardinal Richelieu named Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton, who is brilliant), and the possession of devils is blamed.
A wild, flamboyant exorcist, Father Barre (Michael Gothard, way over the top) is called to perform public exorcisms, and between the enemas and other tortures given Sister Jeanne to purge her demons, he extracts from her the name of who has possessed her: Grandier. Soon Laubardemont is planting the seeds of evil in the convent, and with the help of Richelieu – who needed the town of Loudun to secure his anti-Protestant political ambitions – he gets carte blanche to prosecute Grandier for heresy. When the Sisters of the Ursuline convent seem reluctant to act possessed, Barre and Laubardemont threaten execution. Soon, Loudon is the site of a Satanic circus of demonic possession, with nuns running naked through the city’s church during manic exorcisms and their vomit inspected for clues of heresy and Satanic congress.
Sister Jeanne recants and tries to kill herself for wronging Grandier, but Barre simply sees it as more lies from the devils. Grandier is taken from his “wife,” a woman from the town (Gemma Jones) whom he loves dearly, tortured, accused of commerce with the devil, and finally burned publicly at the stake. If this all sounds bizarre and unpleasant, be assured, it is. It is a claustrophobic assault on the senses, a truly disturbing piece of cinema designed from the first scenes of Loudun – which look like Bruegel’s painting The Triumph of Death – to make the viewer feel the breath of insanity on his or her nape. It may be the most uncomfortable film I have ever seen, and the camera is right in the center of the manic, swirling hysteria – Russell spares the viewer nothing here.
It is also an amazing film visually. The cinematography by British veteran David Watkin is never less than thrilling, and the scenes inside Loudun’s church, with the outside light filtered through the church’s stained glass windows, giving everything an unreal ribbon of colors, are stunning. The sets by the late Derek Jarman are spectacular – the city of Loudun looks like it’s made of white brick. (It should be noted that this film was shot in wide screen Panavision so the cassette lacks much of its visual sweep.) The acting is exaggerated and stylized in a way that some may find off-putting. Graham Armitage, as King Louis XIII, is a riot, an outrageous Python-esque pederast given to shooting Protestants dressed up as birds in his garden while an approving Richelieu applauds him. Furthermore, the subplot of the encroaching plague adds an additional level of visual uneasiness that might unsettle viewers with weaker constitutions. (Russell added the plague as a metaphor for the spreading madness – there is no mention of a plague in Huxley’s exhausting but well-worth reading book.) But for those up to the challenge, this is amazingly potent stuff. When the film is over, one is thankful not to live in 17th century France, or for that matter, in any society where one of its leaders could be unfairly persecuted by politics.