Friday, July 17, 2015

Ken Russell's The Devils- An Overlooked Masterpeice

            One of the more controversial films ever made, it is based on The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley, published in 1952. The book itself is based upon actual events in the French city of Loudon in the early 17th century. In it, accusations are made against Urbain Grandier, an outspoken Catholic Monseigneur, who is accused by the local order of cloistered nuns of witchcraft and trafficking with the devil. This is parlayed by Cardinal Richelieu (the go-to villain of French period pieces) into a political struggle to demolish the city’s walls, the last metropolis in France to retain such fortifications. This is a move which Grandier vigorously opposes and which results in him being burnt at the stake.
            Oliver Reed plays the lead, Urbain Grandier, in a more restrained manner than his usual scenery chewing style, but is still able to express incredible intensity even when absolutely still. He and Ken Russell worked well together on several projects. So well in fact that Russell cast Reed in a leading role on his next film Tommy, a musical, despite the fact that Reed couldn’t sing. While Reed eventually gained a reputation (deserved or not) of being an abusive alcoholic jerk- or just being a standard Englishman- and was reduced to making terrible TV movies, before dying on the set of Gladiator, The Devils was shot when Reed was at the high point in his acting prowess, and it shows. The final scene, when we learn Grandier's fate, is perhaps one of his finest performances.
            Playing opposite him is Vanessa Redgrave as a hunchbacked abbess of a convent of cloistered nuns, Sister Jeanne. She develops a lust for Reed’s character and when it is not returned, she leads the charge against Grandier, accusing him of canoodling with the devil and causing her and her fellow nuns to be possessed. Her character mainly conveys hysterical tendencies and sexual frustration with which she gives a no-hold-barred performance, managing to standout in a film that is already over the top. Her character’s fantasy scenes (most of which were originally cut) contain much religious iconography with some not-at-all subtle sexual innuendo and what really gave the film its reputation.
            Russell, as always, manages to do more with less. This was a fairly low budget film, but you would never know it from the richness of the atmosphere, the costumes, and the pseudo-decadence of pre-revolutionary France. The sets were modeled after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and were crafted to give the possessed nun scenes an alien quality, which distorts the reality of the situation. Russell often juxtaposes the nun’s writhing and other bizarre antics with scenes and peace and beauty. This comes is especially effective in one scene where Reed is performing the sacrament of communion by a peaceful river, interspersed with scenes of the nuns running riot in a cathedral.
            The Devils initially received very mixed reviews and some very strong emotions due to its sexual and religious content. Some called it “a grand fiesta for sadists and perverts” while others claimed it was Russell’s “most brilliant cinematic achievement.” But no one ever states that it is a boring film. The possessed nun scenes are its most notable part, and the cause for its acclaim and X rating in both America and Britain- dooming it at the box office.  The controversy has stuck with the film over the decades. So much so that the parent company (Warner Brothers) refused to release it on DVD, even after film critic Mark Kermode discovered 20 minutes of missing footage (including the infamous “rape of Christ scene”) which would guarantee sales amongst fans. Eventually Warner Brothers relented, but only after a lengthy online petition and with a very limited run.
            The new edition of The Devils is still edited and censored from the original cut. To get past the X rating (NC-17 for you millennials) all of the male nudity had to be cut (a flapping penis is only acceptable if the character is blue apparently) and much of the full frontal variety from the cathedral scenes, a more grotesque version of the enema from the first exorcism attempt, a few frames of Grandier’s legs being crushed, and some overdubbing of the nuns yelling “cunt” and “fuck me.” But a lot has been added to make The Devils a much more striking film than it was before.

I call it a must see!