The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)
N.B.: This is more of an essay than a review, and as such, some of what is contained herein could be considered spoilers. If that sort of thing offends you, enter at your own risk.
The Devils is one of those films that is much talked about in critical circles, but very rarely seen. So, when I got a chance to see it–even the US theatrical cut, without any of the censored footage added–I jumped. I mean, if for no other reason, who’s going to pass up a chance to see Oliver Reed on the big screen? Truth be told, with the exception of Altered States and his piece of Aria, I’ve never been a huge fan of Russell’s work, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I mean, Oliver Reed.
And The Devils is not without its flaws. To be fair to it, though, I prepped with a quick viewing of the BBC special Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils, which features a great deal of talk about all that censored material (as well as documenting the discovery of it all in the early 2000s), and so not seeing all that stuff, which is a lot of what gets talked about in said critical circles, was kind of a bummer. Especially when so much of it was either described, or shown piecemeal, during the documentary. (You can’t hear about a ten-minute sequence referred to repeatedly as “the rape of Christ” without wanting to see it. At least, not if you’re me. And there’s one scene that was cut out–bluntly, as if the editors wanted you to know there was more to it–during the film’s penultimate sequence that I’m not actually sure I could have kept my eyes open for, but knowing it should have been there and wasn’t, well….) And it is a far, far better thing than, say, The Lair of the White Worm. But then, what isn’t?
Picture it: 1600s France, the town of Loudun. King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage, returning from Russell’s previous film The Music Lovers), to whom we’re introduced in the film’s quite ridiculous opening scene, is an impotent fop, possibly mentally challenged, who has rapidly become the pawn of scheming Cardinal Richelieu (The Affair of the Necklace‘s Christopher Logue). France has long been at war with itself, the Catholics against the Protestants. Loudun, thanks to its governor (who, just before the movie starts, has succumbed to the Black Plague) and its charismatic priest Father Grandier (Reed), has been an exception to this rule; Catholics and Protestants live in harmony behind Loudun’s strong walls. But the walled cities of France have been falling one by one to proclamations, written by Richelieu and blessed by the King. All, that is, save Loudun; the governor was a close friend of the King’s, and extracted a promise before his death that the King would never touch Loudun’s walls. Meanwhile, Grandier may be a bit too charismatic for his own good, and a little too weak of will when it comes to sins of the flesh. He’s recently gotten the daughter of a local magistrate pregnant, and is lusted after not only by the townswomen, but by all the nuns at a local Ursuline convent, including Sister Jeanne, the Mother Superior (Vanessa Redgrave). All of these strands are brought together by the arrival of Baron de Laubardemont (Orlando‘s Dudley Sutton), a toady of Richelieu’s whose orders are to bring Grandier–and Loudun’s walls–down by any means necessary. With the help of exorcist Father Barre (For Your Eyes Only‘s Michael Gothard), he convinces Sister Jeanne that Grandier is actually in concert with the Devil, and has possessed her. Hilarity, of course, ensues.
As you might have figured by a plot synopsis about three times as long as I normally write, The Devils has a lot going on–and this alone makes it a far cry from many of Russell’s later films. It’s a movie that spits on politics and spits on religion, and as time has gone on, it’s gotten ever more topical. They thought it was seditious in 1971? As well, there are some fine performances on display. Reed shines, needless to say, as does Gemma Jones in her first screen role. Gothard plays his role as over the top as he can, and it works tremendously. In fact, there’s hardly a role here that isn’t performed in perfect service to the film’s excess. Speaking of excess, those sets by Derek Jarman? Beautifully profane.
The film’s major drawbacks are all down to its script. The central romance of it is treated with such shortness that, aside from advancing the plot, it might as well have not existed.
The Black Plague features prominently in the first half of the film, and then disappears without a trace. I know some of the continuity problems have to do with the censors, but major pieces of the plot disappearing? That’s just down to a lack of editing. And the movie suffers for it, though everyone involved does the best they can with what they were given.
Overall, it’s a movie that should certainly be seen, and widely, given its cult status and its strong points. It is a good film, indeed, but not a great one. *** 1/2