“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”
Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), a lustful yet devoted priest, presides over the fortified town of Loudun, France in the early 1600s. When a deranged, sexually repressed nun (Vanessa Redgrave) becomes infatuated with Grandier and accuses him of diabolically seducing her, power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) sees this as his chance to take over the city, and a hysterical witchhunt (led by exorcist Michael Gothard) ensues.
Response to Peary’s Review:
Ken Russell’s baroque adaptation of John Whiting’s play — about religious hysteria and political chicanery during the European plague — is most definitely not for the faint of heart. A passionate paean for rationality and balance in the face of escalating lunacy, Russell spares nothing in his attempt to show how easily fear and ignorance can be manipulated by those in power.
Russell infuses his historical drama (based on real events and people) with a uniquely postmodern twist: King Louis XIII is a cross-dresser; church officials don Lone Ranger masks during processions; and garish white make-up is randomly worn by both the living and the dying. Absolutely nothing is left sacred here, as naked nuns cavort and masturbate, priests impregnate parishioners, and plague victims are tortured by gleefully experimental “doctors”. As Peary notes, however, the film’s “repulsive imagery [may be] overwhelming at times, but for once Russell’s seemingly out-of-control, hallucinogenic style is appropriate for his subject matter.”
“Repulsive imagery” aside, there is much to admire in the film. Oliver Reed (more handsome and virile than ever) and Vanessa Redgrave (beautifully insane) are both excellent in the film’s lead roles, while Derek Jarman’s elegant sets transport us to a uniquely futuristic past. When watching The Devils, one appreciates its stylistic beauty while remaining appalled by the relentless trajectory of its tale. In the end, there is no mistaking Russell’s vision here, as unyielding and personal as ever. Selected by Movies.com as one of the 25 most controversial films of all time.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Oliver Reed’s electrifying performance as Grandier, a man who refuses to back down from his convictions at any cost
- Vanessa Redgrave’s surprisingly sympathetic performance as the hunchbacked Mother Superior
- Michael Gothard (young, virile, and rock-starrish) as the truly “possessed” exorcist
- Gemma Jones (who reminds me of Anne Heche) as Grandier’s new wife, providing a hint of sweetness and hope in this otherwise relentlessly bleak existence
- Stunning set designs by Derek Jarman
- Countless unforgettable (though undeniably horrific) images
- A powerful portrayal of religious hysteria and its dire consequences
Yes. Though it’s hard to sit through and will doubtless offend many, this remains one of Ken Russell’s best films.