The Devils (film)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Devils is a 1971 film directed by Ken Russell and starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, based on the 1952 book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley and the 1960 play The Devils by John Whiting, also based on Huxley's book. Derek Jarman was responsible for the film's production design. It tells the story of Urbain Grandier, a 17th century French priest executed for witchcraft.
Note: This plot is for the non-censored version of the film. Some scenes described below are omitted from other versions.
In 17th Century France, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) is influencing Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) in an attempt to gain further power. He convinces Louis that the fortifications of cities throughout France should be demolished to prevent Protestants from uprising. Louis agrees, but forbids Richelieu from carrying out demolitions in the town of Loudun, having made a promise to its governor not to damage the town.
Meanwhile, in Loudun, the Governor has died, leaving control of the city to Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), a dissolute and proud but popular and well-regarded priest. He is having an affair with a relative of Father Canon Mignon (Murray Melvin), another priest in the town, unaware that the deformed, neurotic Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), Mother Superior of the local convent, is sexually obsessed with him. She asks for Grandier to become the convent's new confessor. Grandier secretly marries another woman, Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones), but news of this reaches Sister Jeanne, driving her to insanity (this includes an attack where Sister Jeanne viciously attacks Madeleine when the latter brings back a book that the former had lent her, and Sister Jeanne accuses Madeleine of being a "sacrilegious bitch", among other things).
Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) arrives with orders to demolish the city, overriding Grandier's orders to stop. Grandier summons the town's soldiers and forces Laubardemont to back down pending the arrival of an order for the demolition from King Louis. Grandier departs Loudun to visit the King. In the meantime, Sister Jeanne is informed by Father Mignon that he is to be her new confessor. She informs him of Grandier's marriage and affairs, and also inadvertently accuses Grandier of witchcraft and of possessing her. Mignon relays this information to Laubardemont. In the process, the information is boiled down to just the claim that Grandier has bewitched the convent and is using witchcraft. With Grandier away from Loudon, Laubardemont and Mignon decide to find evidence against him.
Laubardemont summons the lunatic inquisitor Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard), a "professional witch-hunter", whose interrogations actually involve depraved acts of "exorcism", including the forced administration of enemas to his victims. Sister Jeanne claims that Grandier has bewitched her, and the other nuns do the same. A public exorcism erupts in the town, in which nuns remove their clothes and enter a state of religious frenzy. Duke Henri de Conté (actually king Louis in disguise) arrives, claming to be carrying a holy relic which can remove the "devils" possessing the nuns. Father Barre "exorcises" the nuns with it. They appear as though they have been cured - until Condé/Louis reveals the case allegedly containing the relic to be empty. Despite this proof that the exorcisms are a sham, they continue unabated, eventually descending into a massed orgy in which the nuns sexually assault a statue of Christ.
In the midst of the chaos, Grandier and his wife return and are immediately arrested. After being given a ridiculous trial, Grandier is tortured and shaven, although he manages to convince Mignon that he is innocent. The judges, clearly under orders from Laubardemont, sentence Grandier to death by burning at the stake. Laubardemont has also obtained permission to destroy the city's fortifications. Despite pressure on Grandier to confess to his non-existent crimes, he refuses. He is then taken to be burnt at the stake. His executioner promises to strangle him before he is burnt rather than suffer the agonising death he would otherwise experience. Before this can happen, however, Barre starts the fire himself, and Mignon, now convinced of Grandier's innocence (and even worse, gone demented after finding out via public chant), destroys the rope. As Grandier burns, the city walls are blown up, causing the people to flee.
After the execution, Barre leaves to continue his activities elsewhere (the place mentioned by Laubardemont to Sister Jeanne is nearby Poitier). Laubardemont informs Sister Jeanne that Mignon has been put away in a sanatorium for claiming that Grandier was innocent (the explanation given is that he is demented), and that "with no signed confession to prove otherwise, everyone has the same opinion". He gives her one of Grandier's charred bones and leaves. Sister Jeanne, now completely broken, masturbates pathetically with the charred femur. Grandier's wife, having been released is seen walking away from the ruined city as the film ends.
Relationship to history
Whilst historically based, as in Huxley's book, in The Devils, director Russell took significant liberties with his depiction of the Loudun possessions, their chronology, and circumstances; the depictions of King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu do not resemble the historical figures. Louis XIII is depicted as an effeminate homosexual who amuses himself by shooting Protestants dressed as birds. Richelieu is borne in a chair by servants. Father Grandier, whilst a real figure who was indeed burnt at the stake, was in fact acquitted on the charges of bewitching nuns he is executed for in the film; he later spoke out against Cardinal Richelieu, who appointed a special commission to renew the charges of witchcraft, resulting in his execution. Certain figures present during the real Loudoun possessions are not present in the film, notably Father Tranquille, Father Lactance and Father Surin, in charge of the exorcisms at Loudun (in the film, Barre performs the exorcisms and torture).
- Vanessa Redgrave - Sister Jeanne
- Oliver Reed - Urbain Grandier
- Dudley Sutton - Baron de Laubardemont
- Max Adrian - Ibert
- Gemma Jones - Madeleine
- Murray Melvin - Mignon
- Judith Paris - Sister Judith
- Catherine Willmer - Sister Catherine
- John Woodvine - Trincant
- Christopher Logue - Cardinal Richelieu
- Kenneth Colley - Legrand
- Graham Armitage - Louis XIII
- Brian Murphy - Adam
- Georgina Hale - Philippe
- Andrew Faulds - Rangier
- Michael Gothard - Father Barre
Since the time of its release, the film has caused enormous controversy. In the United Kingdom it was banned by 17 local authorities, and everywhere attracted many scathing reviews. Judith Crist called it a "grand fiesta for sadists and perverts", while Derek Malcolm called it "a very bad film indeed." However, it won the award for Best Director-Foreign Film in the Venice Film Festival, despite being banned in the country. The United States National Board of Review awarded Ken Russell best director for The Devils and his next film, The Boy Friend. In 2002, when 100 film makers and critics were asked to cite what they considered to be the ten most important films ever made, The Devils featured in the lists submitted by critic Mark Kermode and director Alex Cox.
The film's combination of religious themes and imagery combined with violent and sexual content was a test for the British Board of Film Censors that at the time was being pressured by socially conservative interest groups.
In order to earn an "X" certificate, Russell made minor cuts to the more explicit nudity (mainly in the cathedral sequences) and removed some violent detail (notably the crushing of Grandier's legs). However, the biggest cuts were made by the studio itself, prior to submission to the BBFC, removing two scenes in their entirety, notably a two-and-a-half-minute sequence of crazed naked nuns sexually assaulting a statue of Christ and about of half of a latter scene with Sister Jeanne masturbating with the charred tibia of Grandier after self-administering an enema. However, even in its released form, the film was considerably stronger in detail than most films released prior to that point.
Its fate in the United States was even more stringent, with a further set of cuts made to even more of the nudity with some key scenes (including Sister Jeanne's crazed visions, exorcism and the climactic burning) shorn of the more explicit detail.
All of this material was presumed lost or destroyed until critic Mark Kermode found the complete "Rape of Christ" sequence and several other deleted scenes (including the fuller version of Sister Jeanne's masturbation scene as well as additional sequences of naked nuns lounging around the convent and a bawdy dance performed by travelling players mimicking the bizarre events whilst Grandier is being lead to his death) in 2002. The artist Adam Chodzko made a video work in which traced and interviewed many of the actresses who had played the nuns during the orgy scene. Although some material may have been lost forever, the NFT was able to show The Devils in the fullest possible state in 2004. This uncut version premiered at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film in March 2006.
The British version remains the most complete one in circulation, although there are long promised plans to release the uncut version on mass-market DVD. On April 25, 2007, The Devils was shown for a second time in its fullest possible state to a group of students and staff at the University of Southampton, followed by a question and answer session with the director, moderated by Mark Kermode. It was the first significant event to take place during Russell's tenure as a visiting fellow at the University of Southampton in the English and film departments, April 2007 to March 2008.
An NTSC-format DVD edition on the Angel Digital label appeared in 2005, with the so-called "Rape of Christ" scene and other censored footage restored, and featuring a documentary by Mark Kermode about the film, as well as interviews with Russell, some of the surviving cast members, and a member of the BBFC who participated in the original censorship of the film.
DVDActive.com announced on February 28 2008 that The Devils would finally be released on DVD by Warner Home Video in the U.S. on May 20 2008, in the uncut (111 min) version, but without additional material. However, a day later, a DVDActive forum post asserted that the release had been dropped from Warner's schedule.