Devils, The (1971)

“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.”

Devils Poster

Synopsis:
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.

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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
    Oliver Reed
  • Vanessa Redgrave’s surprisingly sympathetic performance as the hunchbacked Mother Superior
    Vanessa Redgrave
  • Michael Gothard (young, virile, and rock-starrish) as the truly “possessed” exorcist
    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
    Gemma Jones
  • Stunning set designs by Derek Jarman
    Set
  • Countless unforgettable (though undeniably horrific) images
    Maggots
  • A powerful portrayal of religious hysteria and its dire consequences
    Hysteria

Must See?
Yes. Though it’s hard to sit through and will doubtless offend many, this remains one of Ken Russell’s best films.

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4 Responses to “Devils, The (1971)”

  1. A must — in fact, though I’ve never picked my ‘all-time top 10 films’, this would be among them. 35 years on, it’s not available in the US on DVD (cut or otherwise) and is out-of-print on VHS. In 2002, UK’s Channel Four ran a remarkable ‘Devils’ doc called ‘Hell on Earth’, containing interviews with certain cast/crew members as well as certain detractors. The heart of the doc (as well as Russell’s film) is the cut 8 min. or so (which Mark Kermode tirelessly hunted down and found) that proved controversial (mainly the ‘rape’ of Christ on the cross by demented nuns). As one person interviewed says (what I had thought myself), ‘The Exorcist’ has a ‘crucifix-as-dildo’ scene that Warner Bros. (distributor of both films) didn’t have a problem with and which is arguably more offensive. I think anyone who would find ‘The Devils’ depraved is less likely to get the the film’s point – its depiction of a very specific event involving madness. I must say I don’t find the film difficult to sit through at all – as it’s not nearly as graphic as its rep suggests. Subject matter aside, it’s a stunning piece of work: Jarman’s striking production design; Watkin’s brilliant cinematography (the marvelous blends of b&w shades with judicious color use); writer/director Russell in firm control of his style, eliciting across-the-board flawless performances (led by the superb Reed and Redgrave). I use the word rarely but this is a masterpiece.

  2. I wrote that “Devils” is difficult to sit through simply because I think it would be for many (non Film Fanatic) folks — indeed, after about half an hour of the movie, my husband finally left the room. But I’m with you — I didn’t find it hard to sit through personally, and agree that those who focus too literally on its depictions of “depravity” (i.e., Ebert, in his notoriously scathing zero-star review) are missing the larger themes, not to mention the brilliance of the sets, acting, cinematography, etc. Perhaps I should have said “may be hard to sit through”…

  3. If you look at the source material you will see that the aspects most objected to at the time the film came out were also the most historical. Witch hunts are not pretty or restrained in any era. That was one of the points of the movie.

  4. Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s ‘Mother Joan of the Angels’ is a very different rendering of the same story – and in my view the greater film.

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