When Cardinal Richelieu’s plans to control the country are thwarted by the willful Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), the head priest of the fortified town of Loudun, the esteemed religious leader of France decides that the best course of action is to remove Grandier by any means necessary. Grandier is an unwitting ally in his own downfall--his womanizing ways (doubly inappropriate for a priest) have left him with few allies, and there are many who would wish to see him wrestled from power. Still, it is Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) who holds the key to Grandier’s ultimate destruction; the deformed nun has become sexually obsessed with the priest, and when she discovers that he’s been secretly wed, she accuses Grandier of witchcraft and demonic possession.
Using the charges of witchcraft as a pretense, Baron de Laubardemont, Father Mignon, and Father Pierre Barre (a professional witch hunter) coerce the rest of Jeanne’s convent into playing the part of possessed nuns, and blaming Grandier for the condition. The antics of the “possessed” nuns are so over-the-top and extreme that they attract large audiences (and are so sacrilegious that the film has often been censored, and remains unreleased on DVD, in North America, to this day). When Father Grandier returns to Loudun from having met with the King, he discovers that his town is in an uproar, and that he’s at the centre of it.
Ken Russell’s The Devils, based on a book by Aldous Huxley, is a hell of a show. Those who seek out the film based solely on the controversy surrounding it won’t be disappointed: there is nudity, the sexual assault of a statute of the crucified Christ, simulated masturbation (with a large candl)e, forced enemas, immolation--most of which involves nuns. However, those drawn to the film for its apparent sleaziness may be shocked to discover an incredibly well-made film, with some fine performances by Reed and Redgrave, and brilliant production design by Derek Jarman.
In fact, those who are not so sensitive to religious taboos might find the film to be a bit of a disappointment in the filth department. The actions of the “possessed” nuns might be over-the-top, but they’re never really uncalled for or excessive, considering that you know they are being forced to play the part. You might actually think of their actions in largely symbolic terms--the literal rape of Christ brings attention to the fact that the Church has been metaphorically doing just that, as far as the film is concerned.
Russell’s zany take on the historical event actually brings to mind the work of Terry Gilliam, or the Monty Python period pieces. Some care has been taken to make the clothing, the accouterments, the material things of the film seem authentic to the period, but everything is also slightly off, over-stylized or in some way made strange, so that our perception of the action seems somewhat fevered.
The Devils is a horror film, if only to the extent that the true horror of the film is not the “demonic possession,” which is completely fictitious, but the horror of a lone rational man, Grandier. Confronted with all the irrationality of religion, the passions of the mob, and the hunger for power of the highest levels of society, Grandier knows that he is doomed. He cannot compete against the overwhelming insanity and irrationality of all the forces leveled against him. What makes the film all the more successful is the fact that Grandier is not held up as some sort of ideal man, and thus made into a martyr; rather, Grandier is a mortal man with some serious character flaws. If he was entirely innocent, the film would lack any real punch. That Grandier contributes to his own downfall makes his ending all the more tragic.
Ken Russell’s The Devils really does deserve its own DVD, with a good transfer (unlike the bootleg I had to watch) and some extra features explaining the difficulty the movie experienced after its release. More people need to see this film--not just because of its controversial status, but because it’s a damn good film.