The Details in The Devils | Ken Russell’s Only Political Film At 50

Fifty years after its release, The Devils remains provocative enough to have rarely been screened in its entirety. Warner Brothers has allowed the full cut to be shown at festivals, most recently on 29 July 2011 at the BFI’s National Film Theatre, but has never released it on home video. The scene which so offended the financiers features a group of nude nuns dancing atop an overturned life-size icon of Christ while an otherwise timid priest looks on and masturbates. The scene, which has become known as “The Rape of Christ,” is both a potent distillation of Ken Russell’s cinematic project and a contemporary example of the centralised power his “only political film” sets out to critique.

Oliver Reed plays Urbain Grandier, a man “well worth going to hell for.” He is a Catholic priest who, upon the death of the governor, becomes the temporary head of the fortified town of Loudun. The walls allow the town to govern itself apart from the growing power of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) who, in a memorable scene of Russellian camp, is shown shooting captive Protestants dressed as black birds. Fearing a Huguenot uprising, they send the Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) to Loudun to dismantle the towering walls (expertly crafted for the film by Derek Jarman). Grandier intercedes on behalf of the town, a haven for Catholics and Protestants alike throughout the preceding religious wars.

Richelieu and Laubardemont need to remove Grandier from the picture and, fortunately for them, the good Father is just the type of progressive, individual thinker the forces of centralised power strive to exploit. An unconventional priest, Grandier elevates sensual pleasure to the spiritual plane. In so doing, he seeks to approach his own annihilation by taking possession of his lust even as it destroys him. Grandier pursues a mode of loving heretical to the Church. As the film opens, he is shown disposing of a young, pregnant lover. The lustful man nonetheless executes his office most seriously. He later marries, in what is meant to be a secret ceremony, Madeline de Brou (Gemma Jones), who shares his passion both for Christ and for sensual delights. Reed here plays a character often employed by Russell, for whom any earthly love is paired with a striving towards an eternal, perfect love. Remember Rupert Birkin’s (Alan Bates) response at the end of Women in Love, when told that to have two kinds of love is “an obstinacy, a perversion”: “I don’t believe that.”

Against Grandier’s heretical love we bear witness to the repressive devotion of a convent of Ursuline nuns lead by Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave). The nuns are first shown scrambling for a view of Grandier as he passes by during the late governor’s funeral procession. Jeanne denies them this look but is nonetheless conflicted. She has a fantasy wherein Grandier walks on water before she dries his feet with her hair. As with the seldom seen “Rape of Christ,” Russell brings together the ornately sacred with the sensually profane. This does not sit easily with Sister Jeanne, who constantly fights to keep her sensuality buried. Rather, in a demented fervour, she flagellates herself after masturbating. She first expresses her earthly desire before punishing herself in an orthodox, Catholic fashion. Unable to approach ecstasy, she articulates her lust as something demoniac encroaching from outside. When she gives this sensation the form of Father Grandier, Laubardemont is gifted the opening he needs to generate his prosecution.

Desperate for the evidence he needs to depose Grandier, the Baron brings in the witch hunter Father Barre (Michael Gothard). His task is to identify the devils possessing Sister Jeanne and to drive them out. As a public exorcism goes awry, Barre brings in a surgeon to perform a grisly medical examination. When the clearly invasive procedure proves that Jeanne has evidently had carnal knowledge, Barre accepts this as proof of her claims regarding Grandier’s involvement with devilish forces. Whenever Jeanne attempts to recant her claims, as she does throughout the proceeding events, the witch hunter and the Baron chalk this up as further evidence of possession. In this way, the combined forces of Church and State manufacture the evidence needed against Grandier.

The richest – and most recognisably Russellian – sequence comes after Barre announces that the possession has spread to the nuns under Sister Jeanne’s charge. The best way to rid them of these devils, it is suggested, is for them to act out the manias encouraged by the possessors. These, of course, are of a sexual and profane nature. The nuns strip bare and cavort within the walls of the cathedral. One otherwise sober nun is shown stripping pages from a Bible to set them alight with a candle. As this occurs, a further series of grotesque procedures are carried out on Sister Jeanne. Each of these further prove Grandier’s guilt.

Juxtaposed against this are images of Grandier solemnly taking communion against a backdrop of rolling hills and serene rivers. His is a personal relationship with the divine, directly opposed to the union of Church and State sought by the so-called “New France” of Richelieu. While rallying support for his city, the priest converses with his wife. These romantic images are directly pitched against the frenzy whipped up by the witch hunter. When Grandier returns, he finds the house of God turned into “a circus” and its servants into “clowns.”

This sequence, alongside the coming trial, illustrates the concern State powers have with spectacle. From the staged exorcism to the cavorting nuns, the Baron’s case has been one made entirely in public. The people of the city are drawn to the grotesquery on display as spectators to any scripted production. Throughout the film, we see the victims of a plague raging within the city. This circus must then operate as a diversion from both the devastation wrought by the disease and the oncoming political onslaught.

The spectacle is made all the more conspicuous when taken against the solitary faith of Father Grandier. Given the heretical nature of his thought, he is a fiercely private individual. He knows that his views on love are against the teachings of his Church and so carries out his activities with utmost precaution. His justification is simple: he takes the “words of his creator as gospel, it is not good for man to be alone.” That his reasoning is private sets it against the spectacular logic of the State, for whom the Church (and vice-versa) is merely a way to consolidate power. When his marriage is made public, Laubardemont adds this to the already orchestrated evidence against the priest. For the Baron, the priest’s private deviancy is a tool against his public influence.

Ken Russell states, in the documentary “Hell on Earth,” that he generally avoided “transitory” political subjects. What is timely often dates poorly. Rather, he found in the historical case of possession at Loudun a statement befitting a lasting testimony against restrictive political attitudes. The script of the film was inspired by John Whiting’s play The Devils and Aldous Huxley’s meticulously researched “documentary-novel” The Devils of Loudun.

Despite these literary sources, Russell’s film is eminently cinematic. Derek Jarman’s production design contributes greatly to the sense that the experience of the film is contemporary. Both he and Russell sought to portray a town that was modern to its own eyes. Instead of producing a typical historical setting, Jarman built a set whose gleaming white stones and clearly modern design suggest that the fortifications are as fresh to the citizens of the town as they are to us. In this way, Russell sets his film apart from documentary by relying on the imagination. We may instinctively know that Loudun could never have looked like this, but the film generates the appropriate connection to what we are seeing. The result is a palimpsest wherein we read new insights from old events.

And The Devils is undoubtedly the work of Ken Russell’s imagination. The violence is explicit and the nudity celebratory. In leaving little to the imagination, Russell asks us to confront the events of the film without mediation. The overall effect is kitsch and may well be in bad taste. But, as composer Peter Maxwell Davies proclaims in “Hell on Earth,” thank God for that. Russell approaches the material with musical verve. The director, who made his name with a series of films on composers for Monitor, wrote and shot the film while playing Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, also concerned with the demonic possession of nuns. Russell’s feeling for music lifts the film above what might have otherwise been the stuff of high-collared costume fare. His musical sympathies translate well into his direction of actors.

Michael Gothard plays Barre as something like a New Age zealot, his costume as anachronistic as Jarman’s shiny fortifications. His witch hunter is, simply put, supremely irritating. The more attention he draws to the manufactured nature of the evidence against Grandier, the more vital he becomes. He can then piously step aside as Baron de Laubardemont, played with devious relish by Dudley Sutton, sets in motion the political machine designed to topple the priest. Though the finest touch may just be the sight of Cardinal Richelieu being wheeled about by attendants through a giant door bearing a garish red cross. Power, despite appearing and acting outrageously, nonetheless poses a threat to Loudun. They are aided by Father-Canon Jean Mignon (Murray Melvin), the man on the inside whose desire to take Grandier’s place opens an opportunity to strike. Russell gives each actor the necessary space within the otherwise frenetic frame.

Reed and Redgrave equally dominate the frame. They are the bodies around which the film turns and both give stunningly physical performances. Oliver Reed was born for the camera. He is as charismatic and domineering here as he is anywhere else in his career. Grandier embraces his sensuality and is proud of his body. That this tips into vanity is made clear when, before being shaved bald, he requests a mirror. He likes to look at himself and he knows that others are drawn to what he sees.

Vanessa Redgrave gives an equally compelling performance as the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne. She is aware of her body in an oppositional mode. Hers actively works against her as she spends the film contorted into extreme positions. This can only make her more aware of her sexual repression, buried as she is under habit. The love and sex so exercised by Grandier is forbidden Sister Jeanne. Despite the manner in which their lives become intertwined, they are only in the presence of one another briefly at the closing of Barre and the Baron’s orgiastic circus. They are brought together only in death when, in another scene never restored, Jeanne masturbates with a phallic piece of the Priest’s charred skeleton.

The opulent style of Ken Russell finds a natural expression within the film through the presence of theatre, both political and of the stage. The opening image of the film is an androgynous Louis XIII portraying the birth of Venus. In the audience, alongside Richelieu, are a retinue of men heavily made up and tightly corseted. One of these men kisses a nun on the cheek, presaging the events to come. As Grandier burns on the stake, a pantomime of the offending events is staged just off the burning pyre.

Within these bookending scenes, we are given a series of scenes depicting political theatre in the round. The Loudun town square provides ample room for the citizens to spectate events from on high. In this space, we witness the funeral procession of the late governor, Grandier’s oratory in defence of the town’s fortifications, and the burning on the stake of Father Grandier. Each of these scenes features individuals addressing the crowd in an effort to win public opinion. This is likewise seen in the circus in the cathedral and Grandier’s trial itself. Again, the citizens of the town sit on raised benches and look in on the action.

The trial, obviously a sham, consists of Laubardemont exposing love letters and other private correspondence written by Grandier. The priest does not deny that he loves a woman who he has married, but the Baron has no particular concern with this. The point is to whip the city into a distracted frenzy so he can justify killing Grandier, leaving the city’s walls undefended. Grandier’s pyre still burns as the Baron blows up the ornate fortifications. The self-governing Loudun is now split open to central administration.

During an examination to prove his allegiance to the devil, Grandier’s tongue is skewered. If there is no blood, he has sold his soul. To bleed is to be innocent. The pierced tongue bleeds profusely. As we see this, the examiner states there is no blood. The record is written to corroborate the evidence sought by the Baron. In this way, a form of centralised judgement is handed down. The seat of power requires a publicly orchestrated outcome. Even the examination, carried out privately, is altered to appeal to the calls of mass hysteria. That nobody outside saw the bleeding tongue means anything can be written about it.

A heavy degree of control, of editorial incision, is practiced in the trial of Urbain Grandier. This is what The Devils asks us to consider in the political reality of the spectator. That the historical account is presented in an act of imagination means the weight of this problem remains untouched by time. Fifty years on, The Devils is as vital as it was on its initial run. Moreover, that the overwhelming majority of us have not seen the full version echoes the conniving cowardice of Cardinal Richelieu’s marriage of Church and State.

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