(This post should also be considered Cult Cinema #4)
Ken Russell's film takes this story, and sticking faithfully to the details, makes something entirely new, strange, powerful and infuriating from it. The Devils is an angry, insistent film. It screams at you, claws at your face, grabs you by the arm so hard it leaves fingertip shaped bruises. It is a film that leaves you breathless and probably a bit angry, although whether you're angry about the injustice and hypocrisy of organised religion, offended by the blasphemy of it all or just, as many critics were, pissed off that you had to sit through this piece of crap depends utterly on where you came from.
|The scale of the sets is astonishing.|
You couldn't get a better actor than the young Oliver Reed to play him. Not conventionally handsome by current standards, he nonetheless has charisma, that most overassigned of characteristics, in spades. He's a bear of a man, dangerous, piercing of eye, his voice only rising above its low growl when it needs to. And he knows it. And knows how to use it.
|The first meeting.|
Of course, it's not a blasphemous film, it's a film about blasphemy, and if you're going to show what an outrage this is, you need to do the cinematic equivalent of calling a spade a spade. While any depiction of blasphemy is prone to invoke howls from the conservative believer,2 what really raises hackles is when the blasphemy is the doing of the establishment.
And the obscene things the nuns do in the movie are orchestrated at the behest of Cardinal Richelieu. It's no coincidence that the faces who appear behind the opening title The Devils are Richelieu, who's the mover of it all, and King Louis, who spends most of his limited screen time expertly trolling both sides, and hence, as is always the way with people with power who claim they're trolling both sides, actually coming down on the side of the establishment, since he is basically the establishment.
But the Mother Superior of the convent is Sister Jeanne (a young Vanessa Redgrave), hunchbacked and emotionally unstable. Jeanne presides without vocation over a community of women without vocations: they're all, she says to Madeleine when the other woman tries to join the order, women whose parents couldn't afford to marry them off, or who were too ugly to be married, and of course, when she says that she's talking about herself. And the nuns indeed spend the movie swooning over Grandier, pushing the bounds of conduct, masturbating and, finally, cavorting naked as if possessed.
But the Mother Superior is dangerous. Redgrave's performance is all bare repression, anger at the hand society has dealt her. Long before Sister Jeanne meets Grandier face to face, she's obsessed with him. She imagines him as Jesus, and her washing his feet with her hair, or him crucified and her as Mary Magdalene, and him coming down from the cross and making love to her. Jeanne masturbates over the thought of him; she tries to get him installed as the confessor of the convent, and of course he doesn't come; Father Mignon comes instead. Spurned, she claims that her fantasies are incubi sent to her by Grandier and him a witch.
Mignon passes this on to the conspirators. They call in a witchfinder, Father Barré (Michael Gothard).
|The nuns agree to their public display of possession.|
Barré is the whitest of whited sepulchres, the most toxic of hypocrites, a showman who believes his own performance, the zealot who openly, obviously lies, and with the vehemence of his lies convinces himself of their sincerity. He yells like he means it; and so he means it, even when he's torturing nuns, and then when he faces Grandier. Nothing Grandier says, nothing anybody says, can get through to him.
Barré is essentially a much larger than life portrayal of the sort of people who try to get films like The Devils banned, which did not help Ken Russell's case, I think.
When, at the end of the film, Madeleine, that one good person in the film, staggers through the ruined city and down a road avenued with Protestant corpses on wheels, it feels right, it feels true; this is where the witch hunt ends, this is where purity and goodness winds up when the tools of purity are appropriated by power.
Of course Mary Whitehouse and her creatures hated it. It's about them.
Every time there's a manifestation of what could be supernatural, the film undercuts it, makes it absolutely certain there is no supernatural cause permitted. Everything here is the result of a mass brainwashing, the madness of crowds, mind control of a community. And this is religious and political. And in my opinion, with the way that the world is going, The Devils is more relevant than ever. Consider:
Grandier: Every time there's a so-called nationalist revival, it means one thing: someone is trying to seize control of the entire country!And the reason why I'm including it in my survey of folk horror, would fight to include it, is that The Devils says pretty much exactly what Witchfinder General does, only it goes further, says it more emphatically and more humanely and with better performances all round. I would even go so far as to add it to the central folk horror canon, a fourth member of the Unholy Trinity.
The Devils is a film of beauty, horror and rage. It has heart and humanity. Even if you don't count the parts that aren't included in the X certificate version, it is extreme, and the things it shows will offend, should offend. The issue is not that the film is offensive, but what about it offends you.
1Montague Summers, in The History of Witchcraft, only mentions Urbain Grandier once:
On 26 April, 1634, during the famous Loudun Trials, Urbain Grandier, the accused, was examined in order to discover the witch mark. He was stripped naked, blindfolded, and in the presence of the official, René Mannoury, one of the leading physicians of the town, conducted the search. Two marks were discovered, one upon the shoulder-blade and the other upon the thigh, both of which proved insensible, even when pierced with a sharp silver pin.Summers presented in his writing as someone who believed everything he read, and his books on werewolves, demons and witches work from the assumption that the stuff witch hunters said about witches was true, so this isn't a surprise.
Montague Summers, The History of Witchcraft, ch. 2
Nigel Cawthorne's 2003 book Witch Hunt: History of a Persecution has a much longer and more complete account of the Loudun affair, and inevitably takes the same approach as Aldous Huxley, whose 1952 historical novel The Devils of Loudun was Russell's primary source: in Huxley, it was politically motivated; the nuns were exploited; it was wholly a sham. (back)
2You only have to look at the reactions to The Exorcist to see this, which is a film where the heroes are unambiguously noble Catholic priests who stand against Satan and his works with courage, sacrifice and faith, and win. You'd think The Exorcist was subtitled Satan is Brilliant given the reactions to it.
This is not to say that you can't have a portrayal of the Adversary be dangerously seductive: Milton's Paradise Lost proves that having the Devil be much more fun than God is a trope that goes back a long, long way.
And anyway, in defence of blasphemy, there's a lot to be said for the value of a blasphemous film being a useful vehicle for thoughts and feelings. Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ comes to mind here. (back)