Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ken Russell: The Devils



All pictures are courtesy of my brother. He reviewed the film a couple of months ago at his blog. Check it out to see even more great screen captures.

Ken Russell's The Devils is one of the most memorable films to come out of that oh-so-exciting era of filmmaking: the early 70's. With the likes of Rosemary's Baby and Dirty Harry (not to mention William Friedkin's The Exorcist – one of the more audacious American films released during that era), American films were as adventurous as they were ever going to be. Filmmakers had carte blanche to make the kinds of films they wanted to see; audiences be damned. Russell was just one of those filmmakers, and perhaps no other film the British auteur made was as controversial, antagonistic (in its satirizing of the Catholic Church), and so beautifully shot and constructed as The Devils.




The great irony of The Devils is what makes any horror film great: no matter how violent and depraved the film is, you can always make the film look good. And boy, is The Devils an ugly, nasty film. It's more akin to Salo than the aforementioned American films in that it uses excessive depravity to prove its ultimate point and drive home its moral. I'm no prude, but even I flinched a bit at some of the content found in Russell's film. And yet, there's something refreshing about an experience like this because it shows a filmmaker in complete control of their project. Audiences would never get a film like this in 2010 without some caveat involved (focus on gratuitous gore; a focus on the sexual aspects of the story; cynicism instead of satire; etc.) because a filmmaker would never be allowed to film a story like this the way that Russell does. And like Pasolini's much maligned film, The Devils –although hard to watch at times – does indeed have a socio-political message, a point to tell its audience, amidst the depravity.

Based on Aldous Huxley's (loosely based, mind you) novel The Devils of Loudun which recounts the supposed true events (something tells me that Russell was smirking a bit when the title card plastered at the beginning of the film lets us know that the events are factual) of a 17th century French city, The Devils concerns itself with Father Grandier (Oliver Reed in his best performance) a shaggy-haired, mustached priest who looks like he just came from a Doobie Brothers concert (singing "Jesus is Just Alright," no doubt). With his thick hair and sideburns, Grandier acquires quite a following from the local nuns that is more than just spiritual (although they do view him as a Christ-like figure). One nun in particular Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave in a role supposedly offered to Glenda Jackson; however, she turned it down because she was tired of playing sex-crazed neurotics in Russell's films) has an affinity for Grandier, and when her sexual desires go unnoticed, she spreads lies about Grandier partaking in witchcraft. This sets off the plot of The Devils which includes torture, vomiting, rape, torn-out tongues, using a statue of Christ as a sex toy, naked nun orgies, and a boiling hot douche. Yes, it has all of those things, but if you only look on the surface at what the film does to try and offend then you've missed Russell's point. The film is about a town possessed, and about how God and country can't save it; they only abet in the destruction.


Like any great horror film, The Devils pushes the envelope of taste and just how far a satire can go. I can't imagine Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Man Bites Dog being what they are if the filmmakers had pulled the reins back even once. So too could I not imagine the satire of a film like Man Bites Dog working had the filmmakers even once hinted that we were watching was supposed to be tame, commercialized, or watered down. Filmmakers like Russell seek to push the envelope and take us to depths we haven't been before, and with The Devils I actually think Russell articulates this theory best with his visuals rather than the themes of his story. Make no mistake, despite how obvious it may seem, Russell is criticizing and satirizing not just government and church (and the sometimes-relationship between the two), but he is also taking shots at power and how it corrupts to a point where it can even infect nuns – causing them to turn their backs on everything they know and compromise their morality and covenant to God all in the name of what they think the state wants them to do (which leads them to partaking in one of the weirdest orgies ever filmed).


The Devils is one of the best looking horror films of the 70's. The themes of church and state corruption are brilliantly conveyed through the film's askew aesthetic. Sister Jeanne has a face that is as beautiful and angelic as all movie nuns should be; however, she's hiding her deformity under her scapula – a humped-back. Just like her lustful desires for Grandier are hidden and eventually lead to destruction (the destruction of Grandier and of the city walls which he tries to preserve) so too does her deformity eventually destroy her. She hunches down and tilts her head always looking crooked and atilt, as if she's trying to walk through a funhouse. The production design for Loudun is constructed so that it accentuates the carnivalesque atmosphere of the city (especially the nunnery which, again, looks like some kind of expressionist funhouse) where decaying corpses twirl on wheels atop polls (this image along with the giant apparatus' that bring down the city walls look like a kind of Ferris wheel or carnival ride) and revelries take place during the burning of Father Grandier at the stake – a consolation prize (or freak show) for the city that the government and the church offer in return for tearing down the cities walls. The film has a manic pace to it; it rarely slows down as Russell seems more intent on rubbing our faces in the depravity, saying, essentially, "Deal with this!" Obviously, Russell is not interested in the quiet, contemplative moments that a movie about religion should allow itself (although to be fair, Grandier's rumination of his own demise is dealt with a poignancy rarely seen in a horror film) as the film builds itself up into a manic pace and never really slows down. Even though certain parts of the film are heavy on dialogue, we're always waiting for the worst to happen to Grandier, and in those final moments, when he stays true to his morals and stands up to the council, it's as if his refusal to compromise his principles doesn't matter because the city is getting ready for his burning at the stake; they're ready for their party.


I suppose Russell is letting us know that the church, as well as the state, is just as concerned about image and pomp and circumstance as the rest of us. Shocking, I know, but the church is just as narcissistic as us common folk. But here's where I think a lot of people miss the ultimate point of The Devils: the aforementioned themes are easy enough to spot, but what I love that Russell does here is the same thing that McNaughton does in Henry which is he unflinchingly shows us horror in its most depraved, natural state. The real monster here is what these people who we trust are capable of. Grandier is more concerned with how he looks than how he practices what he preaches, and Sister Jeanne prays for God to take her hump away, not for how she can better serve the people of the city or her fellow sisters in Christ. It's an interesting parable, and Russell takes pleasure in using his twisted and flamboyant (and really damn beautiful) aesthetic to hammer these themes home.

There's a lot of stairs in Loudun and a lot of descending; an apt metaphor for the cities descent and devolution (Russell's camera swirls a lot, too). As mentioned before, there's also a lot of tilting of heads and bodies askew adding to the theme of things not appearing as they seem (we tend to think of Godly figures as being upright beacons of hope). I love the interior of the nunnery and the church – a sterile environment with white tile and brick giving one the sense that they're in a cold, lonely operating room (mention must go to Derek Jarman's production design). This is especially apt for the rape scene: an act that is appropriately surrounded by such a cold d├ęcor. Russell, much like he did with Women in Love borrows from some of the best filmmakers. In The Devils he seems indebted to the German Expressionists – especially Fritz Lang's Metropolis.Priests and nuns are filmed in shadow, obstructed by bars, or seen at an angle; Russell is showing us here the obvious metaphors for his film (people in position of Absolute knowledge aren't being seen "clearly"), but damn if I didn't love every blatant shot of this film.


I would be doing the film a disservice if I forgot to mentions some of the quieter moments (there are some). In these moments Reed's performance especially stands out. When Grandier realizes that he's gone too far in his abuse of power, he quietly takes communion and prays for forgiveness. This is perhaps the first time Grandier has been genuine in his faith, and it adds a much needed sense of realism to the expressionist nightmare (the city of Loudun seems to come from another world entirely, and Russell films it that way) we see playout through the entirety of the film. I also found the final moments of Grandier's life quite heartbreaking as he pleads with his city to let the church and the government bring their walls down. Through the cracking of his skin from the fire, his words (and intentions/hopes) fall on deaf years as he sees his town for what it really is (a massive, drunken orgy)...something that he had a hand in creating. The scene prior to this (again a credit to how good Reed is at the end of this film as he does a lot of acting with just his face) where Grandier crawls to his execution is wonderfully juxtaposed with the drunken reverie of the aforementioned carnivalesque atmosphere; it's a moment where we can't help but sympathize with the only character who seems to be seeking forgiveness.

Amidst the horror, though, is a sense that there is something comical – almost campy – about Russell is doing. The film is so extreme and so over-the-top that you almost have to wonder if this is some kind of Dadaist experiment in the vein of John Waters; a kind of "Look what we can make nuns do!" mentality perhaps. Yes, Russell intersperses some of the quieter moments mentioned above into his immorality play, but the wonderful thing about Russell is that his intentions are often in jest. We may see Grandier as a sympathetic figure by film's end, but does Russell? It's entirely possible that Russell just sees his actions at the end as the ultimate religious loophole: if you sin and get caught (and are going to be tortured and die because of it) just ask for forgiveness, and you'll be saved. And in the case of Grandier, he may even be martyred. I'm not sure if this is the case, but when I watched The Devils for a second time I focused more on the satirical elements of the film (the flamboyant and grandiloquent portrayal of the church figures, sans Grandier, and how they deal with the so-called possessions). There's also a kind of energy often found in British comedy at the time. I'm thinking of some of the film's initial scenes with Grandier and how he reacts to the "curing" of a possessed female and the subsequent tearing up of the room a la Charles Foster Kane, and a scene where he laughs in the face of others who question his tactics. There's no "Yakity Sax" here, but there is a biting humor underneath the film's cold, haunting aesthetic.


Leave it to Russell to find humor in such material; I sense he's having great fun in likening the vocational calling to be a nun as genuine as someone who joins the military because they don't have enough money for college. For Russell, the church is just another profession; it's another way to make money and profit off of a system that is always looking for willing enlistees. As Sister Jeanne so coldly exclaims to another woman, the only reason most of the women are in the nunnery is because they were without dowries at home. The church offers security, but Russell sees it as a financial security, not a sacred one.When the film was released times were as uncertain then as they are now; society was violent, and the government was involved (and perpetuating) in the most expensive kind of violence. Russell's political message (the irony of the title is appropriately blunt and obvious...which is exactly the type of filmmaker that Russell) is is a radical one: trust only in yourself and not in church or state because no matter how much the two will claim they have nothing in common, they are more similar than they care to admit. It's a message that seems apt almost 40 years later.

Here I've written nearly 2,000 words I don't feel I've adequately expressed my appreciation for Russell's film. The Devils is certainly one of Russell's masterpieces. I say "one of" because I haven't finished all of his films yet, and I may just find myself surprised by what I see later. However, The Devils seems to be the consensus pick for the Russell film to see (too bad it's still not out on DVD). It's not as safe and "prestigious" as his previous film, and it certainly isn't as personal as some of the labors of love he would later finance with his own money (Savage Messiah), but it's the best of his 70's output. It's a powerful film; it's haunting and unforgiving and, yes, even funny. It's also just a damn fine film to look at. If this thing were ever to get a DVD release proper, the film community would benefit greatly for having the brilliant work of Russell, his cinematographer David Watkin, and production designer Jarman on display in a version that would do their hard work justice.


Yes, The Devils should be seen for its satire, horror, its controversy even (I mean if you want to see Oliver Reed descend from a cross as Christ and then make out with a nun…then you should see this movie); however, if you haven't seen the film there's one reason why you should rectify this omission on your checklist: it's an important movie aesthetically. Forget all of the controversy and the film's infamy, The Devils is an important film because it's one of the very best films of the 70's; it's extremely well made and one of the premier avante-garde pieces of 70's cinema, and yet it remains censored and banned from a generation of film-goers that can appreciate it for the masterpiece it is. I read somewhere that Russell will be looked upon 30 years from now as another Orson Welles – a man that was horribly misunderstood when he was making movies, but revered and extolled once we stopped getting those movies.

8 comments

  1. Great stuff, Kevin. My love for this film is obvious from my Horror Countdown review of it, so I'll just point people there for my full comments.

    One thing I think you nail is this:

    "Russell's political message (the irony of the title is appropriately blunt and obvious...which is exactly the type of filmmaker that Russell) is is a radical one: trust only in yourself and not in church or state because no matter how much the two will claim they have nothing in common, they are more similar than they care to admit. It's a message that seems apt almost 40 years later."

    Knowing what I do of Russell in interviews and such, this seems to be a very apt summation of his mindset during the making of this film. You can also take into account that anyone who does have a crisis of conscious (Grandier or Father Mignon at the end of the film) or is obviously pure (Madeleine) are eventually destroyed, removed from the system, or killed. Is it any wonder why the best and brightest often stay far, far away from politics and religion?

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  2. "Make no mistake, despite how obvious it may seem, Russell is criticizing and satirizing not just government and church (and the sometimes-relationship between the two), but he is also taking shots at power and how it corrupts to a point where it can even infect nuns – causing them to turn their backs on everything they know and compromise their morality and covenant to God all in the name of what they think the state wants them to do (which leads them to partaking in one of the weirdest orgies ever filmed)"

    Guiness World Book of Records-September, 14, 2012:

    1. Who are the only brothers worldwide who have written a review of Ken Russell's THE DEVILS?

    2. Film experts have been unable to this day in fact to determine which review is most brilliant, so they have convinced the editots at GWBOR to include both in their movie Hall of Fame archives.

    The answer to the above questions are Kevin and Troy Olson, two Oregon bloggers, who have tirelessly examined Ken Russell's masterpiece in separate venture; the former as part of a Russell retrospective, and the latter as an entry in a horror poll countdown conducted at an affiliate site.

    Kevin, I was enraptured by your astute insights, descriptive writing and stellar appraisal of a film that for me in unquestionably Russell's masterpiece. Yeah I love WOMEN IN LOVE, SAVAGE MESSIAH and to a slightly lesser degree, THE MUSIC LOVERS and MAHLER, but the audacious, indeed ferocious THE DEVILS pushed the envelope for acceptable film fare back in the early 70's, and Russell has never equaled its narrative brilliance and horrific premise again. I had previously read excellent reviews of the film by Marilyn Ferdinand and my WitD colleague Allan Fish, and they helped to inspire me to attend "Russellmania" during the past summer at the Walter Reade Theatre in Lincoln Center, where THE DEVILS was shown during the late afternoon mid-week in a gorgeous, nearly pristine print. Two major disappointments loomed however when Russell balked at making a personal appearance at the theatre (Marilyn has speculated at age 83 it wasn't easy to get around) depriving me and the nearly sold-out audience of posing some question in the planned Q & A. In any case an even greater letdown was revealed during teh screening, when the famed "Rape of Christ" sequence wasn't included, despite vows to the contrary. That controversial scene is what always caused Russell and Warner Brothers much grief over the years, and to this day (I read your own lament here as well Kevin) the cautious brass have refused to release any print of the film on DVD. Booties abound of course, but without a legitimate print, fans will forever be stung by its dubious misrepresentation. The film is riveting, haunting, disturbing, frightening, revulsive and jolting all at once, and you have tendered an exquisite consideration of it's satirical underpinnings, and of the church's hypocricy in the superb paragraph above and in subsequent discussion. Yeah, it's definitely a film John Waters would appreciate, and I'm certain Luis Bunuel did as well.

    The failure of the film to appear stinks of the worst kind of artistic censorship that places the leadership at Warners as slaves of the right, fearing repercussions and legal blackmail. It's a damn shame.

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  3. I just want to add that Troy's picture lay-out is spectacular and that as an ardent supporter of Russell in the poll that was conducted at HUGO STIGLITZ MAKES MOVIES last month, I am thrilled to be treated to such a fantastic consideration of the director's masterpiece.

    Maybe, just maybe Warner Brothers is reading this.

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  4. LOVE The Devils. Ken Russell is god himself.

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  5. great job here Kevin (sorry I'm a tad late to the Ken Russell party). I love this film in any version (speaking of did you see the full version with the Rape of Christ sequence? it seems you have by several of the mentions you cite here) and I really can't speak enough about what Jarman brings to the table-- glad you mentioned him a few times above.

    Watch the Pet Shop Boy's video 'It's a Sin' on youtube, it was done by Jarman and makes for an interesting side by side with this film (hell it should be a bonus feature whenever this film sees real release).

    Anyway, nice job as usual. Keep it up I adore Russell. Can't wait to read your TOMMY.

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  6. Troy:

    Your piece spurred me on to make mine more refined than it originally was. It's a strange film that, now that I look back on it, is actually really funny (this is more clear with more Russell films under my belt). The horror elements are no doubt at the forefront, but I just know that Russell was having a grand old time behind the camera making this one.

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  7. Sam:

    Wow. Thanks for the comment.

    "I'm certain Luis Bunuel did as well."

    Yep, what you say here is true...I should have added him to that short list. Thanks as always for plugging this thing and for continuing to stop by with gracious comments.

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  8. Everyone:

    Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Sorry I've been lazy and haven't been on here to respond. The new post is up covering some of Russell's less than enjoyable films. I hope there's a little more disagreement in the comments section there. I'd love to get the pulse of how everyone feels about Russell when we're not talking about something as (in)famous as THE DEVILS or TOMMY.

    Speaking of TOMMY, Jamie, my post is almost done. In short: I think it rivals THE DEVILS as Russell's 70's masterpiece.

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