Why Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ Deserves Divine Resurrection

The Devils Nun
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on August 11th, 2015

At the end of 1971, Warner Bros. had a massive controversy on their hands surrounding the release of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s controversial novel that spared none of its source material’s detailed depictions of ultraviolence. Condemned by the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and given a X rating, A Clockwork Orange faced a backlash in the US and a boycott in the UK, where the film (distributed there by Columbia-Warner) was pulled from cinemas by its director’s request following a copycat crime.

A Clockwork Orange’s troubled distribution history is an oft-recounted window into the difficulties of distribution in a cinematic era defined by the power of beloved filmmakers newly freed from the constraints of the Hays Code. What is less well known, however, is that Warner experienced a similar struggle only months earlier with another X-rated, Church-condemned British-American co-production made by a respected filmmaker.

When Ken Russell began production on The Devils during the summer of 1970, he was fresh off the critical and commercial success of Women in Love, his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s sexually-charged novel about a battle of the sexes among 1920s British aristocrats, a production that secured him an Oscar nomination. But where Women in Love was distributed by United Artists, no stranger to the lucrative potential of controversy, The Devils would find the director working, for the first time, with one of Hollywood’s Big Five.

A veteran of television film production in the UK, Russell’s big screen career was already making him known as a purveyor of a new kind of period piece, one that rejected British filmmaking’s tradition of mannered representations of history in favor of an aesthetic approach that was far more modern and immediate, bringing history to the present at the risk of seeming anachronism. Such an approach already bore its gifts and its subjects of critique. Women in Love was as much about the sexual liberation of the sixties as Paul Mazursky’s similarly popular, present-set Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but other Russell films, like his Richard Chamberlain-starring Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers, drew backlash around the director’s supposed excesses.

Russell had no interest in restraining his confrontational approach to history for The Devils, which recounts the trial an execution of Urbain Grandier, a French Catholic priest executed in 1634 under accusation of witchcraft, the result of a political campaign engineered by Cardinal Richelieu towards reorganizing Grandier’s home of Loudun. Grandier would be portrayed by Oliver Reed, Russell’s repeat collaborator, in what the actor would go onto consider his greatest performance, while the primary witness toward his sentencing, the violently repressed Sister Jeanne would be brought to life in a haunting performance by Vanessa Redgrave.

By the time of the film’s production, Grandier’s story had grown into a subject of substantial interest by artists, beginning with Aldous Huxley’s 1952 essay “The Devils of Loudun,” upon which Russell’s film is based. Grandier’s story had, by 1970, also been made into a play by John Whiting, an opera by Krzysztof Penderecki, and a Polish film, Mother Joan of the Angels, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. The story of Grandier also held resonance alongside Arthur Miller’s 1953 “The Crucible,” as the American play similarly utilized a 17th-century history of witch-hunting as a parable for the power of fear as a tool for politics.

In order to bring this history more fully into the present, the production hired Derek Jarman – years before he became the great avant-garde director – to design the sets of Loudun, the setting of Grandier’s home and trial. Instead of playing by strict rules of period detail, Jarman saw to fruition a modern architectural vision that conveyed a sense of Loudun as its inhabitants would arguably have experienced it: as a progressive city of the future modeled through populist self-governance and peace between Protestants and Catholics.

Thus, when the walls of Loudun are destroyed at the film’s finale, the sense of loss is rendered immediate. The attempted utopia of Loudon is impossible in a France where, in Richelieu’s (Christopher Logue) words, “church and state are one.”

Jarman’s illustrious production design provided a rich palette for cinematographer David Watkin to compose stunning images of actors against the dynamic geometry in which The Devils’s drama is staged. The result is a film that, almost forty-five years after its release, has aged remarkably well, a ’70s period piece that feels almost timeless and forever on the cutting-edge in its confrontational tone, meticulous aesthetics and unique depiction of history.

This isn’t to say that the film isn’t a particular product of the 1970s. The philandering of Reed’s Grandier, while historically accurate, emanates with a ’70s sexual energy, and the lusting after him by repressed nuns brought later to perform hysteria towards his sentencing reads like a lesson in the ethics of the sexual revolution, although whether the film is as interested in their exploitation as it is Grandier’s persecution is up for debate. For women driven to the nunnery under dire economic circumstances brought by the plague, cordoned off from the rest of the village in a prison of idle repression, Loudun is hardly the utopia Grandier regards it to be.

But Grandier is hardly framed as an unquestionable hero in the film, introduced as a selfish, short-sighted philanderer before falling in love with and clandestinely wedding Madeline de Brou (Gemma Jones), their wedding rather progressively depicted as a union made entirely without the oversight of either state or church. Grandier arrives at the opportunity to protect Loudon not with a sense of extraordinary destiny, but in the face of necessity, as his admitted shortcomings pale in comparison to the hypocrisies of a paranoid state that sees threat in the potential for semi-populist self-governing – or rather, any deviation or dissent from an imposed nationalist ideal.

And Father Barre (Michael Gothard, who would go onto be a Bond villain in For Your Eyes Only) is a stunning product of ’70s cinema. An opportunistic priest donning John Lennon glasses and a Peter Frampton haircut, Barre embodies a nightmarish alchemy of bad-trip countercultural experimentation and pious fascism, exacting elaborate social and medical experiments that oscillate between self-righteous hedonism and violent abuse like a sanctified medieval French version of the Source Family, fueling the film’s most controversial (and widely cut) sequences.

Ken Russell has never been a subtle filmmaker, but a lack of subtlety shouldn’t be confused as a preference for simplicity. The outrageous, empty theater of Father Barre carries with it the full force of The Devils itself as an elaborate, charged, loud, and unrelenting depiction of the price of a moral arrogance that defines itself only by the destruction of others

The Devils ends on an absolutely grim note. The strained bebop horns of Peter Maxwell Davies’s stunning, at-times aggressive score that accompany Grandier’s inevitable torture and execution gives way to a dissonant vacuum of justice as Grandier’s widow scales the ruins of Loudun, her husband’s bones strewn among the ashes.

Bearing witness to this potent chapter in history, Russell reveals no intention to instill false hope that simple knowledge of the past will prevent similar sins of the future.

In the context of France’s recent social upheavals and the global backlash against the politics of fear and empire surrounding the Vietnam war, the lessons of The Devils were both specific to the time of its making and evergreen in its cautionary power. The film is both a lesson of the necessity of dissent in the face of overwhelming, silencing powers, and a general depiction of faith’s perversion (or, really, that of any other belief system) when wielded as an institutional arm for the state.

Although The Devils would be condemned as blasphemous, its troubled reputation obscures its detailed depiction of the ultimate blasphemy. The Devils depicts the ways in which power-grabs are articulated through insidious, performative invocations of a moral right, with the supposedly sacred becoming the first casualty on the path to oligarchy. This is a film about a type of moral arrogance and self-righteousness that preys on progress and peace, a parasitic worldview that defines justice only by ridding the world of those who stand in the way of political expedience.

And yet The Devils received barely an opportunity to gain a reputation as such. Mark Kermode, the critic largely responsible for recovering some of the film’s lost footage in his attempts to restore its reputation as one of the most biting critiques of power of cinema’s tumultuous 1970s, has detailed the film’s troubled history in the face of a nervous studio and denouncements by various religious organizations and figures.

After the film’s limited theatrical run in the US and UK, The Devils was only available for years on an R-rated VHS that cut its more explicit content and its beautifully rendered scope framing. Only since 2007 has The Devils been shown in its most complete form, with repertory screenings (including a X-rated cut recently shown at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse) and a substantial DVD release from BFI (that still does not contain the film’s most notorious sequence). Yet Warner Bros., despite warming the hearts of many cinephiles with its recent investment in its archive, seemingly maintains an active disinterest in making The Devils commercially available in the US, preventing numerous film fans from witnessing this hidden masterpiece despite evident interest.

When I first saw The Devils ten years ago, I found it to be that rare type of revelatory cinematic discovery that opens up the expressive possibilities of filmmaking. Regardless of whether one comes away from the film with as profound of an experience as I enjoyed, the dedication that Ken Russell imbued into what was probably his greatest cinematic achievement should be made accessible to those willing to witness the enormous power this film has to offer.

The Devils is that type of extraordinary film you can’t believe was ever made. But what a reward that it somehow was.

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