Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 26 May 2010
Source Warner Bros. VHS
Earlier in 2008, Warner Brothers made a surprising announcement: For the first time since it was initially completed in 1970, Ken Russell’s The Devils would be released, unaltered and uncut, on an official DVD. This announcement was complemented by a photo of what the DVD cover would look like: Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier, naked and receiving a woman in an embrace of either erotic passion or spiritual transcendence; parishioners surround them, and a growing light breaks through the dark sky. Within hours Warner Brothers made another announcement, this one refuting the first: there would be no DVD of The Devils, and there were no plan to issue one. This second pronouncement was met with blatant skepticism: Warner Brothers had let the proverbial cat out of the bag. Had there been nothing more than a press release, perhaps it could have been blamed on a disgruntled employee or dismissed altogether as nothing but a hoax. But there was an official-looking DVD cover, complete with an “UNRATED” stamp in the lower-right corner, and no amount of studio back-stepping could possibly undo that. Which is good, because The Devils, more than perhaps any other film, needs to be released, unaltered and complete.1
Despite its grounding in the past – seventeenth-century France – The Devils rings eerily familiar. It is a look at how power corrupts, at the hypocrisy of religious leaders, at what happens when faith and politics become irreversibly joined – all themes that have not only permeated art and literature for centuries but have also become surprisingly relevant in our contemporary world. Opening with a staged performance by King Louis XIII, who is dressed in a provocative and gender-bending wardrobe meant to evoke The Birth of Venus, we’re quickly offered Cardinal Richelieu in the audience, waiting for the ruler’s aggrandizing show to end. Richelieu, we soon learn – and know from history – is the mind behind the king, manipulating the young and immature Louis into waging war on the country’s Protestant population. Midway through the film, as Louis hunts a blackbird on his estate (the bird actually being a man dressed in a feathered costume), Richelieu is at his side, trying to persuade an attack on the city of Loudon, which is completely surrounded by a large brick fortification—barricades that could easily withstand an advance from the French military. King Louis’ answer is a resounding and unambiguous rejection, as the reigning government of France must honor its promise to a long-dead governor of the city to never assault Loudon’s way of life. Cardinal Richelieu, spurned but undeterred, continues to push for action, gathering more and more strings as the puppeteer to his immature puppet.
Living within the walls of Loudon is Father Grandier, a celebrity among the population and ardent defender of the fortification. In the minutes after he is introduced, the camera shifts to a convent in the heart of the enclosed city, where nuns clamor to see him from an elevated window and hear descriptions of what he looks like. “Yes,” one cries, “I can see him! He’s the most beautiful man in the world!” Leading the convent is Mother Jeanne, a hunchbacked woman whose cold and insistent demand that the women stop fawning over Grandier is contrasted immediately by her retreat to a small, street-level room where she can do the same in private. Collapsing on the tiled floor, she looks up at the suave priest through the crowd of feet and legs and is quickly drawn into her own fantasy – of crawling on the ground around his feet after he walks across gentle waters, her deformity exposed by a violent gust of wind, as she begs him to heal her. Not long after this dream ends, she is spied pleasuring herself in this room to more fantasies of Grandier, followed immediately by acts of self-flagellation—both unseen, both casting a link between pleasure and pain, sex and religion.
Grandier the man is a libidinous priest who defends Loudon and its fortified walls from the advances of Richelieu and his underling, Baron de Laubardemont. Early in the film, we learn that Grandier’s lover is pregnant; this causes him to flee with few words of comfort, leaving her to defend her honor against charges of promiscuity. At the same time, Mother Jeanne lusts madly after Grandier until Madeleine, Grandier’s new lover and future wife, appears at the convent asking for admission. Jeanne, cynical, hands over a work of history for the aspiring nun to study – a detailed account of the convent’s beginnings, written by the founder – and tells her to return at a later date for a test. When Madeleine reappears scenes later, now married and coy about her sudden desire to not join the order, Jeanne lashes out through the bars of her window, an act reminiscent of a prisoner clawing desperately through a cell window, and grabs the young woman, tearing at her clothes and skin. It’s thereafter that Jeanne begins spinning a tale of possession at the hands of Grandier, who she passes off as a disciple of Satan.
At first Mother Jeanne’s claims are met with skepticism—she is viewed as nothing more than a desperate and lonely woman losing her grip on responsibility and, to some extent, sanity. De Laubardemont, who first appears in Loudon to destroy the walls, returns to examine Jeanne, who promptly thrashes about. Only now De Laubardemont, having failed once to overturn the influence of Grandier, has allies in tow: A bespeckled, Warholian exorcist named Father Barre, and one of Grandier’s fellow priests, a timid man with a bowl haircut named Father Mignon. Jeanne is immediately given a violent enema by two dirty heavies, and as the woman bleeds, the entire affair becomes fodder for the Loudon citizenry, which has assembled in a crowd outside the convent doors. As the so-called investigation into Grandier swells, its notoriety now that of a lurid sideshow, the crowd grows in both size and zeal.
Barre and De Laubardemant, as well as Richelieu from a distance, see an opportunity for subversion. While Grandier is away, the two men hold an exorcism of Jeanne and her entire convent—women who, at gunpoint, have pledged their support for the holy man’s downfall in exchange for their lives. And together, before that crowd of fervent citizens, they dance madly in their self-protecting charade, spouting obscenities, blaspheming God, rolling and grinding against Barre and a crucifix and one another, all while naked—the infamous “rape of Christ” sequence, deemed essential to the film’s balance of art and message upon completion but otherwise cut from all subsequent prints. Today, much of this scene, as well as portions of other supposedly obscene and outrageous moments, have remained unrestored, leaving the film’s only official video release seven minutes short.
In the December 2002 issue of Sight & Sound, Mark Kermode wrote the following about his attempts at getting a somewhat restored version of The Devils released:
It was in the knowledge of its probable destruction that I started searching for this sequence back in 1999, spurred on by Ken’s vivid description of the piece and encouraged by recent unearthings such as that of the excised footage from The Exorcist… Working with director Paul Joyce (whose documentaries on Oshima, Wenders, Roeg and Kubrick had earned great critical respect), I made a nuisance of myself in America, where we enlisted respected archivist Mike Arrick to make ultimately fruitless enquiries at the studio’s Burbank vaults. Having drawn a blank, Paul and I turned our attention to the UK, where Ken was now convinced any surviving material would finally have come to rest. Initially the studio was tolerant of our badgerings, particularly since finding extra footage could facilitate a commercially viable reissue of the film. But when a final pleading request by us to check one outstanding item which was believed to be utterly innocuous in fact turned up a canister containing negative cuts of whole sequences deleted from The Devils, this enthusiasm began to wane.
This waning interest, while understandable from a business perspective, is wholly flawed. As Kermode notes further along in his article,
Despite offers by Lucida Productions to reinstate this material into The Devils at its own cost with the assistance of editor Mike Bradsell, the studio balked, declaring the ‘distasteful tonality’ of the material to be entirely out of step with current company policy. Once again, the Americans who had initially financed Russell’s outlandish vision decreed that the director had gone too far, and chose to censor their own property.
The fear of being seen as demonizing religious figures, perverting the idols and ideals of Christianity, and casting a negative light on those who choose to believe, is a strong one, one which often catapults large and small businesses alike into public-relations tailspins from which they often do not recover.
However, any inclination to view The Devils as a condemnation of religion is downright erroneous. Ken Russell’s film is, above all else, a critique on religious figures who lead by egotism, self-promotion, politics, and materialism rather than a true and inspired belief in what they preach, a desire to help others through the words and actions of a Higher Being, no matter who or what that might be. The allusions between Grandier and Mother Jeanne, the film’s two main theological figures, are masterfully rendered. They are both flawed souls trapped in prisons of their own making. For Grandier, his prison is Louden itself, the fortifications assembled from large white bricks. Mother Jeanne, on the other hand, lives full-time among the other nuns, the convent walls composed of small white tiles that are patterned almost like large brick—according to Ken Russell, designed by himself and Derek Jarman to resemble a public bathroom. Father Grandier and, to a lesser extent, Mother Jeanne are warped Christ-like figures.
But while Christ died knowing he was sacrificing himself for the future of others, Father Grandier is lead to the stake on which he’ll burn knowing he’s dying for no one. As the film draws to a close, his wife has come under the influence of the French government; his former lover mocks him as he burns, their bastard child in her arms; and the citizens of Loudon have abandoned him, laughing and jeering as he is engulfed in flames. Throughout his prosecution and trial, and even in the moments before he is burned, Grandier knows his life is being ended so the city walls can be torn down – the lone motive hidden beneath these claims of demonism – but when he tries to speak this truth, the crowds who once celebrated his might and influence jeer him, laughing as he is led before them, stripped of his officious wardrobe and head shaved bald. It’s in these moments when Grandier must defend himself – pointlessly, it seems, and yet he does so still with deep and powerful emotions – that he goes from a terrible man, a disgrace to his post, to a man of honesty and devotion.
Mother Jeanne, on the other hand, transforms through the film from a fellow sinner in need of redemption – both she and Grandier are religious figures who suffer from lust – to a crazed and vengeful opportunist. The Devils ends in the moments after Grandier’s burning, after De Laubardemant has begun tearing down the walls of the city. Standing over Mother Jeanne as she lies in her small, white-tile room, he sets down one of Grandier’s charred bones in front of her and leaves. Jeanne, in one last act of heinous desperation, uses the bone to pleasure herself – her dream of joining with Grandier finally, and disturbingly, realized.