“The Devils is not a film for everyone.”
Ken Russell’s 1971 masterpiece The Devils mixes the avante garde with the blasphemous, creating an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Censored and widely banned since it’s release, the full, uncut version of the film, which includes an infamous scene involving a crucifix (known as the “rape of Christ” scene) and several other salacious scenes, has never been made available to the public. This DVD version contains as much of the film as Warner Bros. will currently allow to be released and is as good a version as I have ever seen.
Centred around the small French town of Loudon, the film tells the true story of a young priest named Urbain Grandier (played by Oliver Reed). It is based on the book The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley (1952).
Grandier was popular with the ladies, despite his status as a priest. He was happily going about his business, hopping from one young lady’s bed to the next, until he started a relationship with a girl named Phillipe Trincant, which ended in her pregnancy. Her influential father then worked with his contacts within both the church and the legal system to bring Grandier down. Via contacts within the Jesuit order, he manipulated a sexually frustrated Ursuline nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), who had herself become obsessed with the idea of having sex with Grandier.
To cut a long story short, the aforementioned nun becomes increasingly demented over her unrequited lust for Grandier and works herself into a frenzy, dragging her fellow nuns into her madness as she goes. The priesthood gets involved and concludes that the nuns are possessed by a devil. And what could the origin of this demon possibly be? None other than Father Grandier, a demon in the shape of a man.
Trincant’s father manages to recruit an exorcist and several high ranking officials to extract a confession out of Sister Jeanne following more and more elaborate tortures (including an anal douche filled with boiling hot water!). Once it has been ‘proven’ beyond doubt that Grandier is the one behind the demoniac madness at the convent, he is promptly arrested and tried for heresy and witchcraft before being sentenced to death.
Russel’s film brings the shocking, absurd and often obscene true story of the Devils of Loudon to life in a surreal and vivid spectacle that really has to be viewed to be appreciated. The nuns were put on show for the public twice a day at one point, displaying more and more outrageous blasphemies with each performance. The town made a good profit from out of town tourists eager to view the sexy spectacle of the demoniac nuns for themselves.
This really is not a film for everyone. I first saw it on BBC Two over twenty years ago, and it initially appealed to me because of its Satanic overtones in much the same way as other witchcraft-themed films like Witchfinder General and Mark of The Devil. Viewing it now, I am more chilled by the cruelty and sheer sadism that can be inflicted on entire populations in the name of religion than by the visuals themselves. This is made worse by the fact the the subject (Grandier) is innocent of all charges except having unprotected sex with a young, unmarried woman. In the early seventeenth century, this was as bad as being a devil, and it was more than enough to condemn a man to death.
Some viewers will find The Devils difficult viewing. I am quite open-minded and I’m more than happy to challenge religious beliefs head on in a bid to uncover the truth. Deeply religious people will probably find the film shocking, offensive or even downright unwatchable. I have always got the ironic humour behind the film (something Russell was known for throughout his career), but some may not.
The Devils is a beautifully crafted, disturbing and thought-provoking film that everyone should watch at least once.