Sticks and Stones
But "‘nothing,’” shot back this controversial bad boy of cinema, “I have always been a devout Roman Catholic, always will be.” Eighty-three, slowed by a recent fall and his voice otherwise weak, Ken Russell sat among the audience alongside Vanessa Redgrave -- she all in white, even to sneakers -- and both got sold-out standing applause before The Devils (released as Ken Russell’s “The Devils”) and for the Q&A afterwards. Even names printed among short end-credits drew cheers, too, e.g., Derek Jarman’s for sets and David Watkin’s for camerawork.
Whether the director-writer-coproducer’s 1971, fifth commercial film merits such love is debatable, for the embrace may have been as much for the two British artists as for this particular work. However, the adaptation of John Whiting’s stageplay from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (var. Loudun) is of an extravagant, emotional and visual piece with his other period-detailed, violent, sexually provocative BBC-TV and theatrical quasi-biographies that play fast and loose with historical fact (and fancy).
One of nine features shown multiple times in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Russellmania!,” including his six personal appearances, The Devils is not on DVD (the 35 mm print is courtesy of Harvard Film Archives) and in the U.S. has twelve minutes cut, “censorship [because] for some reason they consider it sensual.” His purpose in portraying seventh-century intolerance and cruelty was to indicate that the same evils prevail today and that, despite the activist actress’ long aside on the good works of present-day victims, “you have to look for hope with a magnifying glass.”
Based on the 1952 novel in turn based on historical events, the story is that of nearly always on-screen Father Urbain Grandier, among the difficult Oliver Reed’s best rôles (Russell simply relayed “Mood 1” or “2” or “3” to the uncommunicative Londoner). At St. Peter’s he is aloof, ironic and brusque but also rampantly masculine, sensual and sought, particularly by Loudon’s ladies, whose favors he samples and whom, in one fatal case, he impregnates and abandons. Why this sensualist in cassock falls for and marries wimpy Madeleine (Gemma Jones) is of no interest to the film, aside from consequences and from facile voiced information in their letters and in a cheesy Alpine lake scene.
The good father, it seems, has the interests of the plague-ridden city at heart and would save its immaculate white-tile walls from demolition and its autonomy from fey Louis XIII’s (Graham Armitage) chief minister and cardinal, the Duc de Richelieu (Christopher Logue). Seizing upon Calvinist Huguenot unrest as pretext, this Éminence Rouge dispatches the Baron de Laubardemont (a weak and too broadly humorous Dudley Sutton) to subdue the city.
The chink in the defiant priest’s armor is his heretical physicality, the most readily available manifestation of which resides next door in the nuns of the enclosed Holy Order of St. Ursula. Mother Superior Jeanne of the Angels (Redgrave) is cynical, obscene and, more than the novices she disparages, smitten with Grandier and given to trance-visions of sexual abandon. Her neck permanently twisted in symbol of psychosomatic imbalance à la England’s crook-back “foul defacer of God’s handiwork,” she subconsciously produces stigma with a crucifix and falls victim to exorcist Father Barre (miscast Michael Gothard) and unwisely comic surgeon-torturers.
All boils to a head amidst a barrage of campy outré, from a non-existent blood-of-Christ relic to lip-licking naked nuns, kangaroo-court inquisitors to powdered nobles with boy lovers, mass quicklime burials to masked voyeurs. Aside from vile Mignon (Murray Melvin) no character repents, and Loudon is indistinguishable from the bleached wasteland and wheel-crucifixions revealed as its fortifications are blasted.
Huxley’s Grandier torture is as horrific as anything on a printed page, so Russell cannot even attempt visualizing it directly. Never letting up its energy, The Devils is nevertheless an eye-ride. But it is not for the squeamish or those who prefer quieter ecclesiastical sex and politics in The Crucible. Rumor says that extras resigned in disgust during shooting and Equity was requested to investigate sexual misconduct on set. Perfect publicity!
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)