DVD Review: The Devils
Now available on DVD as a BFI release.
A film about religious persecution in 17th Century France might sound like the most boring thing imaginable, but thankfully The Devils, comes from the seemingly demented mind of British cinema’s favourite enfant terrible Ken Russell. Never one to shy away from controversy, Russell goes into manic over-drive with this, the most ferocious of all his movies.
1971 will be forever remembered as a year of notoriously taboo-busting cinema, with Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange as examples… but it is The Devils which stands out as the daddy of them all in terms of sheer outrageous excess. Certainly, there was no movie prior to this which caused such a headache for the censors. Having said that, viewers shouldn’t come to the film solely to sample some shocking and offensive cinema… there’s a whole lot more going on here than mere exploitation. This is a stunningly designed and incredibly powerful film, scorned upon release by appalled critics and audiences but now lauded as Russell’s masterpiece.
Taking its cue from a play by John Whiting and the book The Devils Of Loudon by Aldous Huxley, the film depicts events in the plague-ridden French city of Loudon during the reign of Louis XIII. Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) is busy trying to persuade the King to demolish fortifications all over the country in a bid to stamp out Protestant uprisings but the King refuses to sanction the demolition of Loudon’s defences. It seems he made a vow to the late governor that he would not harm the city in any way.
Now under the control of popular priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), Loudon seems to be safe from attack. Grandier is noted for his highly unorthodox sermons, during which he liberally reinterprets biblical teachings… also, he enjoys secret sexual dalliances with a number of women from the city. His controversial lifestyle offers his opponents just the opportunity they need to discredit him and seize control of Loudon.
When a local nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), makes up scandalous lies about her non-existent sexual adventures with Grandier, it triggers a circus of mass hysteria which the priest’s enemies exploit to the hilt. Dangerous fanatic, Father Barre (Michael Gothard), is brought in to conduct a fraudulent witch hunt, with the aim of implicating the nuns of being diabolically possessed and forcing Grandier to confess to crimes of heresy.
Grandier simply refuses to confess to a lie… but the more he resists, the more cruelly he is tortured. Ultimately he is burnt at the stake in front of his citizens, still screaming his innocence as the flames engulf his body.
The director was criticised throughout his career for using an inappropriately frenzied style of film-making. Such criticism holds true in instances like The Music Lovers, Lisztomania and Crimes Of Passion, three Russell movies which cry out for greater subtlety and restraint. However, in the case of The Devils he finds a perfect subject matter for his delirious cinematic technique. It’s hard to imagine anyone else creating such extraordinary scenes of plague-ravaged misery, mass hysteria, indulgent sin and harrowing torture.
In the midst of the mayhem, Oliver Reed gives what is widely regarded as his career-best performance as Grandier. He is matched all the way by Vanessa Redgrave as the sexually frustrated hunchbacked nun and Michael Gothard’s dangerously corrupt witch hunter (who comes complete with a hippy hair-do and anachronistic John Lennon-style tinted glasses).
The film is a triumph of design, with amazing sets courtesy of future director Derek Jarman. Nothing is more weirdly unsettling than the convent itself, which resembles a sanatorium crossed with a public lavatory.
After years of censorship wrangling and butchered releases which dilute much of the film’s power, it’s exciting at last to be able to get hold of such a complete copy of the film on DVD. Warner US, who owns the rights to the film, have still refused permission to keep in certain scenes (such as the notorious ‘Rape Of Christ’ sequence) but nevertheless this marks a very welcome and overdue DVD debut for Ken Russell’s venomous classic.
FMV Rating ****½