Devils, The (1971)

The Devils (1971), directed by Ken Russell.

In 1634 France, the nuns of a convent are seized with sexual hysteria and perform orgiastic public displays. The town priest is charged with devil worship, tortured and burned alive.

This enormously controversial film has a complicated editing and censorship history. See the wikipedia article for details. For more on the historical events see Urbain Grandier and the Loudun Possessions.

Although not as explicit as later horror films, it is wrenching enough as is. The plague, the cures, the frenzied naked nuns, the examinations, exorcisms and execution: all are claimed to be historically accurate and are nasty stuff. (It's hard to know: fiction either glorifies the past or makes it seem extra grotty to contrast with a present day enlightened and uplifted by our presence). My thumbnails below are carefully selected to show just the nice parts.

In this interpretation the "mad nuns" are a setup, a political ploy to get at a troublesome priest. Most of the women are not devout, they've been parked at the convent by families who have no other place for them. When threatened in a convincing fashion by the evil and the insane, they do what's expected and probably have a bit of fun as well.

The Devils of the title are the politicians: a malicious and foppish King, calculating Richelieu, a dapper and cynical Baron, and the insane Exorcist. Russell said this is his only political film. He can't help inserting sly humor, mainly in the characters of the villains.

Of course, Richelieu is just trying govern the State according to his wisdom. If everyone else would just get out of his way we would not have any of this unpleasantness.

Oliver Reed is Father Grandier, a weak and vain man with not much concern for chastity in the priesthood. He knows he is a bad man, but knows the others are more evil by comparison. He is zealous in the defense of his town and becomes a better man and a better priest as his persecution increases.

Vanessa Redgrave is hunchbacked Sister Jeanne, mother superior of the convent. She is mentally cracked and sexually frustrated, lusting after Grandier. In her visions she is straight and beautiful. Grandier takes the place of Christ: he comes off the cross and she kisses and licks his wounds. In the real world, enraged with jealously she denounces him for witchcraft, starting the whole disaster. Later during her exorcism (motivated by one of the tools, a monster enema plunger used at both ends of the body) she tries to recant, but that is not allowed and she turns deeper into madness.

Is it pornographic? Mostly no but a little yes. Images are not erotic unless they are appealing and there is very little of that here. However, it is the magic of movies that whenever we see unclothed women they must have shapely figures and Russell obeys that rule for the most part. On the other hand some of the nuns have shaved heads, eliminating their maiden splendor and reducing concupiscent appeal.

Is it blasphemous? No, God is not mocked. Sacrilegious? A profanation that misuses things commonly held to be sacred? That is a more difficult question because it involves the eye of the beholder. Sister Jean is really insane and others are shamming; in either case does their abuse of sacred symbols harm the faithful? It might hurt; no one likes to see the objects of their faith in a bad context.

The DVD extras include defenses of the film by several priests, some of whom teach the film in college courses.

Derek Jarman's town square design is notably clean, white and almost modern looking. People living in that era did not see themselves as surrounded by ruins and antiquities, which is how costume films are often done.

My DVD is a 2-disc PAL region 2 set released by BFI in the UK earlier this year. This is the original UK "X"-rated theatrical cut, unavailable for a long time. Russell, his editor and two others provide a commentary track. The set includes a 42-page booklet and several good extras. They show bits of footage that were cut before the theatrical release. Warner will not allow a complete restoration or a Blu-ray edition.