The Devils (1971)

Dir. Ken Russell. Starring Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton, Michael Gothard

It’s hard to find a full cut of The Devils. The one I watched on Filmstruck lacks a couple of the more controversial sequences, and I had to go fishing for others. If the movie were made today, I’m sure people would be upset about a bunch of naked crazed nuns releasing years of pent-up sexual frustration on Jesus crucified, but I’m sure it would pass as lewd and crude moments of this sort tend to do; the given name of this scene (“the Rape of Christ”) is far more offensive than what actually occurs during it, which is mostly rolling around and jerky camera movements falling on nudes squirming like worms on a hot sidewalk. (While watching the scene, I was surprised to see that a sequence where Grandier gives himself Communion was intercut with it, whereas in the edition available on Filmstruck the wilderness Communion stands on its own. The film is better with the contrast, even if canoodling atop the Crucifixion is basically unnecessary.) The Devils is prurient, but my guess is that now, almost five decades later, it’s only really shocking for prudes and people who are impressed with the halfway gross stuff that happens on Game of Thrones.

What’s really gone out of style is not the nudity or the forced enemas or the torture—though I’ll grant that the enemas are more than I was ready for—but the plot itself. The based-on-true-events story of Father Grandier (Reed) is rather like the based-on-true-events story of John Proctor, who is a more interesting hero in The Crucible than Grandier is here. The story of a churchman who refuses to bow to a greater power for the sake of political expediency is one that had been told in British cinema just three years earlier in A Man for All Seasons, which is fresh outta boobs but also anchored by a superior cast with a more accessible story. The story of A Man for All Seasons is about the conflict between two good friends, and how one wants to bend the other; much of the tragedy is the breaking of this friendship. The story of The Devils foregrounds the geopolitics at the expense of relationships, and so Grandier of the walled city of Loudun is made the last bastion of local resistance to the centralized power of the French throne, screaming about opponents who never appear in the same places he does. It ends badly for Grandier and Loudun, but also…France survived bigger problems, right? This is a travesty, but it is not a turning point. If the movie were to get a rerelease in its original version, I don’t doubt that the fuss over Vanessa Redgrave humping Grandier’s charred femur would get the lion’s share of the attention, while the interesting but imperfect plot would be basically ignored.

Oliver Reed has a meaty role here, and he does well with it. Grandier sleeps around, which isn’t great for a priest, but it hardly makes him unique. His problem is that he has a mind of his own that he feels safe enough to express without muzzling his opinions or wrapping them up neatly. The death of Loudun’s governor has made Grandier, the town’s most visible and admired citizen, into its de facto leader; indeed, there are some papers that suggest that Grandier is meant to be the governor’s successor, although it’s hard to imagine the citizens of the town following someone else. His funeral oration for the governor stirs the people; his demands that the walls remain intact when a Richelieu subordinate named Baron de Laubardemont (Sutton) comes to destroy them are basically followed. Meanwhile, Grandier has not covered his tracks. A former lover of his, the whitefaced and green-lipped Philippe (Georgina Hale) is impregnated by him. Another woman named Madeleine (Gemma Jones) falls for him and Grandier cements their love with a marriage ceremony that he conducts himself. Philippe seeks revenge, plague doctors spy on his nuptials, Richelieu (Christopher Logue) is the most powerful man in Europe and can squash Grandier without ever laying eyes on him, et cetera, and the case that Grandier has committed enough sins to be executed basically makes itself.

Throughout it all, Reed uses his gruff energy to serious effect, projecting confidence. A mustache curved at the ends does plenty of work for him, and so does his round but formidable physique. (One nun early in the movie cries out that he must be the handsomest man in the world, which isn’t true, of course, but he’s certainly better looking than the other men in the world of the movie.) His voice is rough and piercing, a testament to the way that orators of old must have had to speak to be heard, and when he does speak it’s impossible not to pay attention. The film does not spend much time with Grandier’s personal guilt, as The Crucible does with John Proctor, nor does it spend much time on his adherence to principle, as A Man for All Seasons does with Thomas More. Grandier is magnetism in human flesh, and Russell intensifies that aspect of Grandier’s personality at the expense of other sorts of dramas. For example, Grandier ends the Rape of Christ through his mere presence in the church; the madness of the nuns and the chortling of the attendant citizens and the agitation of the priests stops cold when he walks in. Reed has enough sheer charisma to pull this off, and without him The Devils would fall apart for want of a nucleus.

Although Redgrave does what she can as a woman obsessed by the sex she’ll never have, her Jeanne of the Angels is a little campy, more David Tennant licking his lips in Goblet of Fire than truly frightening. Like every other woman in Loudun, Jeanne is obsessed with Grandier’s carnality, and unlike them, Jeanne is uniquely unsuited for him. She is the abbess of an Ursuline convent, for one, and for another she is humpbacked. Her complete infatuation with Grandier leads her to write him a letter asking him to become the convent’s confessor, a desperate way for her to meet the object of her crush. She is disappointed to meet Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) instead, a shrimpy cleric with no mustache and fewer pecs. The wrong words come out of her mouth, the term “incubus” is dropped, and Mignon scurries back with the news that Grandier might be an agent of Satan. Further campiness proceeds apace, led by Laubardemont, who has a face like a malformed biscuit, and the visiting exorcist Father Barre (Gothard), whose initial appearance made me think “bespectacled Bowie.” They turn out to be a surprisingly effective pair, and both parts are acted well enough. Sutton plays Laubardemont as a man with a job to do, a boss to report back to, and the oily demeanor to see himself clear; no one in the film is less likely to be accused of witchcraft or friendliness with Satan than him, which is the sort of skill a man in his position desperately needs. If Grandier argues against, essentially, a more federal France, then Laubardemont is the seediest bureaucrat come to bring Loudun into the fold whether it wants to come along or not. As for Gothard, Barre wears a sleeveless tunic under his robes, and that does the work for him. Barre screeches and beseeches his way through the exorcisms, realizes that they’ve failed, and never doubts that the nuns of Loudun are possessed despite all the effort he gives. Even though Grandier will not give way even under threat of torture and promises of clemency and, of course, a death sentence, Barre’s vocabulary is whittled down to a single yowl: “Confess!” The movie needs him more than it knows.

(The story is from a true story written about further by Aldous Huxley, and in one scene that must have been borrowed from the great skeptic, Barre makes a right fool of himself. The king himself shows up to see about the possessed of Loudun, and unfortunately for Barre he does not know what we know. In the first scene of the film, Louis is the star of an all-male presentation of the Birth of Venus, in which he plays the title role. In a later scene, he shoots down Protestants dressed as blackbirds. Both signify Louis’ unreal worldview, one which privileges theater over all else. The king offers a little gilded box to Barre, telling him that inside lies a vial of Christ’s blood. Barre is triumphant. He wields the box and the nuns fall silent; he returns to the box at the king’s prompting, and Louis shows the entire room that it is empty. Gothard, whose face wrinkles amusingly at the best of times, is unhinged during the exorcism and after the hoax is revealed.)

Russell’s visual eye in The Devils isn’t his best, but there are some scenes which really do work marvelously on that end. Madeleine traipses miserably across the exploded stone walls of Loudun, leaving it forever, before the credits roll. While Grandier gives confession to multiple people, the rainbow light refracted through stained glass falls on their white clothing. His own home contains spiral stairs in seemingly all directions. The walls of Loudun are strangely futuristic, and the cavernous halls of the Ursuline convent are much the same with their white tiles and low ceilings. The sets of the film have an expressionist wonder that are not met equally by its dialogue or its plot, even if the actors throw themselves quite readily at all three.

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