Saturday 11 March 2017

We Don't Go Back #38: The Devils (1971)

(This post should also be considered Cult Cinema #4)
When you're writing about a film based upon historical events, especially one that sticks as (relatively) closely to the bare facts of a narrative as Ken Russell's masterpiece The Devils, the idea that there might be plot elements to give away becomes a nonsense. The important thing with a film like this is not the content of the plot, but the way in which the story is used, the statement it makes.
The convent.
In 1633, a convent of Ursuline nuns in the French town of Loudun began to behave strangely and to claim that they had been possessed of demons. Witchfinders were called in. Cardinal Richelieu (the baddie from The Three Musketeers, yes, but an actual historical figure) was particularly keen that the outbreak be pinned on the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier was a complex figure. He was a charismatic and popular governor, but he was also a womaniser and between that and his outspoken political stance, he made enemies, and so getting him out of the way became a matter of urgency to the authorities. He was tried, tortured and burned at the stake. The nuns became a tourist attraction, performing possession at regular times for visitors.1

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.
As for me, I exist in a persistent state of low level rage about the stuff the film is about most of the time, so I fell in love with it instead. I watched it twice in a couple of days, and on my second viewing found myself stunned and delighted at the sheer batshit conviction of it, the jaw-dropping cyclopean sets (designed by Derek Jarman, no less), the delirious abandon of the nuns' demoniac orgies, the bonkers set pieces. Urbain Grandier brings a dead crocodile to a sword fight (really). King Louis (Graham Armitage) guns down protestant prisoners dressed as blackbirds while his courtiers whoop and cheer. Dozens of chained Huguenots work treadmills with bloodied feet, dragging down the walls of Loudun.
The womaniser.
At the centre of The Devils is Urbain Grandier himself, as played by Oliver Reed, probably the only actor who could make a role like that work. Russell is smart enough not to make Grandier a saint, right up to the end. It's his political stand, his unwillingness to allow the Protestants of Loudun to be scapegoated and his powerful defence of his town that causes them to be out to get him. It's his love of sex that gives them the ammunition. It's his vanity that gets him in this mess in the first place and his integrity and courage, still all mixed up with his vanity, that has him see it through to his final, terrible end.

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.
It would have been a career making performance for Reed if the censors (mainly the American ones: the BBFC were apparently relatively sympathetic) and, worse, Warner Brothers itself, hadn't done their damnedest to kill The Devils stone dead. Even now, the Director's Cut of the film has not received a release, and can be screened only in the UK, and only for educational purposes; the longest conventionally available version is the BFI release from 2011, which reproduces the 1971 British X certificate release. Decency campaigners, never the most literate of people at the best of times, tried to get it banned for its blasphemy. Inevitably Mary Whitehouse, a vile, bullying woman who compensated for her entire lack of critical faculties with a bottomless fund of outrage, stuck her oar in.

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. 
Expert trolling.
It is convenient for the establishment to have itself portrayed in film and TV as the goodies; when they're not just the baddies, but responsible for the desecration of the very faith they're supposed to be upholding, establishment fury is the inevitable result.

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.
Richelieu's man, Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) tangles with Grandier early in the film, his attempt to tear down the walls of Loudun thwarted by Grandier's successful appeals to a higher authority. Ibert and Adam (Max Adrian and Brian Murphy, the latter best known as George of George and Mildred), quack doctors, receive a beating from Grandier for exploiting the suffering of plague victims. Father Mignon (Murray Melvin), Grandier's colleague, is shocked at Grandier's open, unrepentant sexual misconduct. Trincant (John Woodvine) is the public prosecutor, and he has a grudge against Grandier for getting his daughter Phillipe (Geraldine James) pregnant when he should have been giving her Latin lessons. 
The wedding.
Grandier throws Phillipe over as soon as he finds out she's pregnant, and doesn't care for the consequences; soon he becomes attracted to Madeleine (Gemma Jones), a penitent whose path he repeatedly crosses, and who, orphaned, feels a vocation for the contemplative life.

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.
Jeanne's fantasies.
Madeleine goes to Grandier to ask what she could do about becoming a contemplative; Grandier talks her out of it, seduces her but then, genuinely smitten, asks her to marry him (and I feel stupid even saying this, but remember that Catholic priests have an oath of celibacy), and despite her fears and misgivings, never spoken but graven on her face, shares the rite with him. She is the one unambiguously good character in the film; her goodness is not enough. 

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.
A lot gets written about how great Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave are in this film, but no one ever seems to talk about how amazing Michael Gothard is. Father Barré, easily as beautiful to look at as Oliver Reed, easily as charismatic, is a ball of (self-) righteous fury. Reed growls and denounces, Gothard utters and screams. You see his hair fly out of control; his glasses fly off. You see the balls of spit flying out of his mouth, the reddening of his skin, the tightening of his throat. It's a tremendous performance.

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.
Whited sepulchre.
I think that what people who defend the freedom of cinema often miss is that the sort of people who object to things like this, like Mary Whitehouse – a woman who objected to footage of the liberation of Belsen as "offensive", "filth" and, tellingly "off-putting" – really are right to be offended. Films like The Devils are always going to offend the censorious guardians of social purity, since it paints them as creatures of monstrous evil.

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.
The Devils is a film where people like Mary Whitehouse are on the side of evil; where prurience is set against (and deliberately juxtaposed with) the purity of sexual love; where cries for tolerance are shown against the sort of bigotry that leads to torture (and the persecution and enslavement of a religious minority, and if that isn't relevant right now, I don't know what is). Where neither side is good by nature, all sides are fallible, but the side without the power at least tries to be good.

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.
Montague Summers, The History of Witchcraft, ch. 2
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.

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)