“Hell will hold no surprises for you.”
It’s 1634 and the town of Loudun, France, is in a precarious situation. Protected by the city walls and by the strong-willed governor, it’s maintained a measure of independence from both the decadent monarchy and the power-hungry Catholic church. It’s also been a haven for the persecuted Protestant minority.
But when the plague claims the governor’s life, the power of Loudun falls into the hands of the town’s head Catholic priest, Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). Grandier is in many ways a just man: he refuses to persecute Protestants and he does his best to maintain the town’s freedom.
But Grandier has made many enemies over the years. Never one to chafe under the vow of celibacy, he is in fact quite the ladies’ man and his string of mistresses includes the daughter of the town magistrate. When the girl becomes pregnant and Grandier callously dumps her, the magistrate seeks revenge against Grandier. And Grandier has other enemies: his colleague Father Mignon is jealous of Grandier’s wanton ways; Baron de Laubardemont, Cardinal Richelieu’s right-hand man, has been thwarted by Grandier in his attempt to demolish the city walls and Loudun’s independence; the local doctor and chemist resent Grandier’s interference in their medical quackery (their “treatment” of plague victims is horrifying).
But the key to Grandier’s undoing is a woman he has never even met - the Mother Superior of the town’s convent, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). Crazed by sexual repression, Sister Jeanne has been coveting Grandier for years. When she hears that Grandier has fallen in love and “married” one of his parishioners, the devout Madeline de Brou, Sister Jeanne snaps and accuses Grandier of being a sorcerer who has seduced Jeanne and her entire convent into cavorting with devils. This outlandish accusation is just what Grandier’s enemies need to bring him down.
The Devils is a fascinating if sometimes frustrating film. It’s based on an historical event (documented thoroughly in Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun). Though screenwriter and director Ken Russell has taken some liberties with the facts, what makes the film so unsettling is that the events set in motion by Grandier’s indiscretions and Jeanne’s accusations – blasphemy, torture, and state-sanctioned murder – actually happened.
Of course, because the director is Ken Russell, the events aren’t depicted with the sort of reverence or verisimilitude found in typically Hollywood productions. Rather, Russell has melded his own idiosyncrasies with the historical events and for once, makes it work. The sets, designed by Derek Jarman, are anachronistically modern – full of minimalist white-tiled structures that have none of the comfort of typical homes or churches. The countryside and town are ravaged by plague (a departure from historical fact), making Loudun not the most hospitable place even before the witchcraft accusations begin. It’s when Sister Jeanne comes on the scene that the film begins its descent into insanity, with crazed camera angles, vivid hallucination sequences, and Peter Maxwell Davies’ jarring score that sounds like Hell’s Muzak.
The Devils garnered a fair amount of critical vilification as well as extensive trouble with censors, and it’s not hard to see why. To its credit, the film takes a surprising amount of time setting up the situation and making it clear just how precarious Grandier’s position is, and also that his downfall comes at a time when he’s finding some redemption through Madeline’s love and becoming a better man of God. It’s the second half of the film, when Jeanne makes her accusations, that brought the film so much trouble on its release and still has power to shock and appall. Jeanne is subjected to a sadistic exorcism procedure; her fellow nuns are threatened with execution unless they corroborate Jeanne’s story. The nuns then, under the guise of being exorcised, indulge in a frenzy of nude cavorting and blasphemy (the sequence is classic Freudian “return of the repressed”, considering that many of these women had no calling to be nuns and were dumped into convents because they were unmarriageable for various reasons). When Grandier comes on the scene, sanity is far from restored. He’s put through a mock trial, tortured, and finally burned alive while the city’s walls are razed by Laubardemont.
The frenetic imagery won The Devils its share of condemnation. But a second reason for the critical praise and antipathy the film still receives is its ambiguity. Russell never tells the viewer how to feel and as a result the viewer is left to sort out if the film is reveling in its depiction of blasphemy or condemning it? Is it anti-Catholic or pro-faith? How complicit are Grandier and Jeanne in their fates? It’s not an easy film to watch, and provides no easy answers.
Praise must go to the actors involved, who manage to keep the movie from turning into a freak show. As Grandier, Oliver Reed turns in his best performance ever. Grandier is a complex, often contradictory man who does his best to protect the town and shelter Protestants from persecution, but who can callously dump his young lover when she becomes pregnant. He’s intelligent and driven, yet prone to curious self-destructive tendencies, and has a knack for making enemies. Most fascinating is his relationship with Madeline – at the beginning, it’s clear that he’s planning just another seduction, but he falls in love, and his newfound devotion to Madeline brings him closer to God as well (so of course, that’s when the trap created by his enemies springs closed on him). Reed’s most shattering moment is when, after undergoing hideous torture, he’s asked if he loves the Church. His reply is: “Not today.”
As Sister Jeanne, Vanessa Redgrave uses a twisted body (Sister Jeanne was a hunchback), her angelic face, and mad eyes and laughter to convey the hysteria of a woman who’s spent years in the claustrophobic confines of the cloister when she has no religious calling. Her fantasy sequences early in the film, when she imagines herself cured of her affliction and as a seductive Mary Magdalene to Grandier’s Christ, make it clear that Jeanne has a Madame Bovary-esque need for attention and self-dramatization. Most appallingly, she actually comes to relish the abuse heaped on her by her exorcisers – for once in her life she’s the center of attention.
Other performances are strong as well. With his curly hair and cherubic face, Dudley Sutton makes his cold, ruthless Laubardemont all the more frightening. Murray Melvin is odious as Father Mignon, whose envy of Grandier helps set things in motion (it’s he who first gives Jeanne’s accusations credibility). Michael Gothard (sporting John Lennon sunglasses and vaguely hippie-ish garb) is way over-the-top as Father Barre, the chief exorcist – he and the other exorcists take a sadistic pleasure in their work, and their facial expressions are the scariest sights in the film. Bringing sadness to the film is Gemma Jones as Madeline, the one wholly sympathetic character in the story.
The Devils is a hard movie to watch, and even harder to recommend with its brutal imagery and hysterical tone. Yet it works – it’s more frightening than many horror films, it’s fascinating both as a character study and as an exploration of the abuses of political and religious power.
Angel Digital has put together a release that, while flawed, has enough merits for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. The film is presented in a slightly compromised aspect ratio and is a bit blurred and grainy, but also includes some scenes that have been cut since 1971. An excellent set of extras compensates for any problems with the film itself. They include a documentary by film historian Mark Kermode, interviews with Russell and some surviving cast members, and more. The DVD is well worth tracking down.