Monday, 1 August 2011

BFI Screen: The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave star in the controversial drama The Devils (1971)

"What on Earth will they make out of it? I feel a great deal of curiosity - and apprehension."
- Aldous Huxley, 1963, upon pondering The Devils adapted as a film.

Although it has a reputation for provocation and titillation - packed to the hilt with blasphemous bouts of explicit sex and violence - Ken Russell actually sees The Devils as his most serious work, and I'm inclined to agree. There are so many famous stories about the film, such as the one about its banning in Italy, and the jail sentence Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed would have faced should they ever have set foot in the country, but the film is so much more than its surrounding myth. Most people tell these stories because they haven't actually seen the film, and indeed, it's very hard to, as Warner Bros. are still too scared to release it. They really should, because the world deserves to see this frenzied, carnivalesque horror; one of the best and most powerful films of all time. Honestly, it's quite extraordinary...

The Devils is partially based on two sources; Aldous Huxley's 1952 novel The Devils Of Loudun, and John Whiting's 1960 stage play The Devils, which takes Huxley's original text as part of its influence. The story spurs from the life of Urbain Grandier (Reed), a French Priest who was tried for witchcraft for politically-motivated reasons. The story has been historically compromised here, for the sake of dramatic extravagance, but the Church vs. State debate is still given plenty of air, and the characters are more developed for Russell's ability to heighten reality. There are two central plots which run alongside and into each other; Grandier's struggles against Baron de Laubardemon (Dudley Sutton), who wishes to demolish the town of Loudon, and Sister Jeanne's (Redgrave) sexual obsession with Grandier, and the extremes to which her passions take her when Grandier marries Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones, in her debut role). It's an incredibly complex film, and I haven't done the story justice here, but suffice to say it only gets deeper and darker, especially with the introduction of an insane inquisitor by the name of Father Barre (Michael Gothard).

The sets, designed by Derek Jarman, are anachronistically constructed, and apparently the young hedonist took influence from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) for this envisioning of 17th Century France, which has never looked so dirty, or ripe for apocalypse. The plague-ridden town of Loudon is a festering place, and its people - even those who are respected, such as Grandier - have secrets best kept hidden. He is a licentious, hypocritical man, and guilty of sins, but witchcraft is not one of them. Loudon reflects his psyche perfectly, as does each setting for its character, sometimes ironically so - the pristine white of Sister Jeanne's convent for example, which reminded me of the opening of Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain (1973), even though that film was made two years later. The sets (and wonderful location work) also do a good job of highlighting the absurdity of some of Russell's scenarios. Only in a disease-ridden house, subject to magic posing as medicine, could Grandier declare with outraged glee, "A CROCODILE!", and then proceed to throw the reptile into a fire, before attempting battle with its rubbery corpse. And no. I'm not kidding.

The acting is absolutely phenomenal. Reed has never been better (his other largely underseen performance is in Paranoiac!, Francis, 1963), and although his work here is magnetic, it's really the rest of the cast that bears mention. Redgrave has long been a favorite actress of mine, but it's shocking to see her in material like this - desperately grasping at sanity, struggling against her faith and instinctual desires, repelled by her own image and fraught with nightmares of her hump being exposed to laughing crowds. She's uninhibited, truly, and Redgrave's physical and mental dedication to the role is astounding - her darting eyes speak of torment and primitive sexuality, and her screams reverberate throughout the entire film. Gothard has always been an underrated actor, and to those unfamiliar with his work I recommend Herostratus (Levy, 1967) and La vallée (Schroeder, 1972), but his performance here - oddly channeling John Lennon - is absolutely incredible. Turned up to 11 from the get-go, his well-spoken demon hunter is the films largest force, but also its most controlled - it would be easy to say he was going over the top, but the character demands theatrics, and Gothard takes Barre to logical - if freakishly eccentric - heights. But perhaps best of all is Gemma Jones, who unquestionably has the hardest job in the film; she has to express entirely with her eyes. In a film of fire and brimstone she must act as a sensitive soul, and exude warmth. Her performance is quiet and timid, and it's a testament to her unique talent that she holds her own against the other performances, and demands attention.

One could write thousands of words about The Devils and still not get close to the essence of why it is so great. Maybe it's the dynamic, feverish camerawork, the vivid palette, the complexity of the language, the obsidian black humour, the horrific circus of Loudon, the erotic euphoria, the... well, as you can see, the list goes on, and all I'm doing is describing elements I can't hope to conjure representative images of. 900 words and I still haven't scratched the surface... just attempted, in vain, to promote the film as best I can. To say it was ahead of its time would be an understatement, as I don't think time has caught up to The Devils. If ever proof were needed of that statement there's the fact that Warner Bros. still won't let you see it, out of fear of controversy. The fools. Russell's masterpiece is a film impossible to describe in hyperbole - it is pure exaggeration in itself, taken from the pages of history, which often produces the strangest tales of all. You need to see it, and one day I'm sure you will. Oh, and it'll make a fascinating double bill with The Crucible (Hytner, 1996). Seek them out, and you'll be duly rewarded...


  1. I loved the movie and now I need to buy the book. I have a trip coming next week and will be reading "Becoming Ken Russell" which I purchased for that purpose, but I am also a Huxley fan and even bought a new copy of BNW and revisited a few years ago and read it on another trip (enjoyed as much as in my teens).

  2. Has anyone heard more about the release of an "uncut" DVD? I SO want to buy that as it has been many years since I saw it (before cable) on TV.