This article originally appeared at Cinema Scholars
Deeper than just its infamous provocations, Ken Russell’s The Devils has more to say about sexual repression, groupthink, and political manipulation than the surface would assume. Led by stellar lead performances from Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, the film celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
In the town of Loudun in 17th-century France, the Governor has died, leaving control to priest Urban Grandier (Reed). Despite his popularity, Grandier sleeps with many women in the town, including the daughter of a rival priest. The local convent of Ursuline nuns is led by Sister Jeanne des Anges (Redgrave). Despite never meeting, Sister Jeanne grows sexually obsessed with Grandier.
Madeleine De Brou (Gemma Jones) also falls in love with Grandier, but the feelings are reciprocated. The two marry in secret, leading Sister Jeanne to further mania.
Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) wants city fortifications demolished to prevent the uprising of Protestants. With Loudun’s fortifications remaining, Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) arrives to oversee the demolition but is stopped by Grandier. In order to save the town, Grandier goes to meet with King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage).
Sister Jeanne informs of Grandier’s affairs and marriage to Ursuline’s new confessor Father-Canon Jean Mignon (Murray Melvin). In her hysteria, Sister Jeanne also accuses Grandier of witchcraft and possession. When Mignon passes the information to Laubardemont, the Baron seizes the opportunity to destroy Grandier and demolish the town’s fortifications.
Laubardemont brings in inquisitor Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) to “exercise” the nuns and bring the necessary charges to get Grandier out of the way.
Production and Filming
Director Ken Russell was a hot commodity coming off 1970’s Women in Love. That film earned Glenda Jackson a Best Actress Oscar as well as a Best Director nomination for Russell. With enough cache to choose his next projects, Russell settled on an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. He also used John Whiting’s 1961 play The Devils (also based on Huxley’s book) as inspiration.
The devoutly Catholic director loved the story but saw through the alleged “pornographic” material. The director viewed the story as a matter of brainwashing; about the state taking over.
With filming set for July 1970, United Artists read the screenplay and refused to touch the film. Warner Bros. swooped in to take over and filming began in August at Pinewood Studios in London.
Russell brought in production designer Derek Jarman and requested a look based on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Despite taking place in the 17th century, Jarman devised modern looks to establish the film’s uneasy tone.
An unruly cast of extras added to the atmosphere of the film, which included an alleged sexual assault among the group. Redgrave and Reed dove headfirst into the controversial material. Redgrave was, in the words of Russell, “one of the least bothersome actresses I could ever wish for.” Reed and Russell clashed throughout filming. By the time filming was complete, the two were barely speaking.
The Devils is notorious for its infamous nun orgy inside a church. It’s easy to overlook this as a simple provocation. Prior to the scene, sexual desire has been completely suppressed in the convent. Suddenly, an inquisitor is accusing a man of sexually bewitching their chaste existence. This gives the group free rein to release all inhibitions and show what their tormentor has driven them to.
Mass hysteria is not only hinted at but specifically pushed back and rebuked in a matter of minutes. The politician’s true intent is to bring such a fervor that the accusation could never be dismissed.
The inquisition’s tactics are barbaric to provoke a reaction as equally tortuous. In order to elicit the necessary response, the inquisitor torments the nuns until the desired response is achieved.
The inquisition itself is an excuse to remove a political opponent. During a show trial, Grandier speaks against the political factors working against him. The prosecution chastizes Grandier for bringing politics into a non-political forum. The politicians claim justice, while the accused sees the truth.
Russell’s claim about Redgrave’s unassuming nature doesn’t match the chaos she endures onscreen. With her head cocked to the left and a devious look in her eye, Sister Jeanne’s mind devolves from a devout nun to a broken shell of a human who lost her humanity for no particular reason.
Redgrave endures the “exorcisms” with aplomb and never flinches. Her devotion to her character shines through and delivers one of the more diabolically brilliant performances of the decade.
Reed bellows with superiority and confidence in the early stages of the film. Grandier starts as a villain but becomes a gentler, more forgiving man as the film progresses. When Grandier becomes the subject of interrogation, Reed embodies the priest with steely resolve. Grandier is an unshakeable man of faith and principles who does not waiver, despite being stripped of everything.
Sutton’s stern jaw, self-satisfaction, and prudery fit his character perfectly. Gothard gets the loudest role as the inquisitor. Despite looking like a member of the Manson Family, he rails with twisted biblical logic and righteous purpose.
Jones portrays the only “innocent” character and provides the film a much-needed infusion of warmth. She also plays the audience surrogate, wondering what all this chaos was ever for.
The Devils may have proven too controversial for mainstream audiences 50 years ago, but the political messages are far more evident when viewed through a modern lens. Russell goes to extremes to make his point, but that just hammers the point home even harder.