The Devils (1971, Ken Russell)

People are talking about Ken Russell these days because of a DVD release of his early biographical documentaries, so when I was frustrated at the video store (no Stuart Gordon! no Wizard of Gore!) I rented this on a whim. Oh boy am I glad I did. Don’t know what the modern critical consensus is (it’s on the They Shoot Pictures list and in D. Ehrenstein’s top ten, so probably pretty good) but to me, this is a masterpiece. Got to see it again, preferably in higher quality than this blurred DVD copy could provide.
UPDATE 2016: Watched this on 35mm, front row at the Alamo – a divine experience.

Vanessa Redgrave has spinal problems:

It’s about the same 1600’s nun-mania incident in France that Mother Joan of the Angels covered very capably and artistically a decade earlier, but this one opens up the story, bringing in King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu (who together strengthened the monarchy and centralized power in France), enlarging the town and creating amused mobs and public executions, and focusing mainly on a priest outside the convent, Urbain Grandier (played by Oliver Reed, his favorite role), who seems corrupt at first but becomes the most noble character in the movie towards the end.

Grandier with one of his pre-marriage young conquests:

The nuns (led by a hysterical Vanessa Redgrave of Blow-Up and Camelot) are shown to be repressed young bundles of hormones, stuck in the convent by circumstance and not by choice, who finally explode at the sight of Grandier glimpsed through their barred windows. The nuns request a father confessor but instead of Grandier they get stern, sexually ambiguous Mignon (Murray Melvin, who had a good year in ’75 with Lisztomania and Barry Lyndon) who calls in professional witch-hunter Father Barre (Michael Gothard of Lifeforce, The Three Musketeers) to perform an embarrassing public exorcism. Meanwhile, Grandier has knocked up one girl and made a big deal of defending the city from the whims of central government, meets Madeleine (Gemma Jones, lately playing everyone’s mum in big-budget films) and dedicates himself to her in a private wedding ceremony. Richelieu and the fey King (hilariously shown in his garden shooting protestants dressed as birds) use the nun-mania to their political advantage, taking down Grandier, having him tortured and killed by the enthusuastic Father Barre. Grandier out of the way, the city’s protective walls are destroyed. Final awesome shot is of U.G.’s devastated wife walking out of town, surrounded by ruins of the wall and the bodies of protestants tied to wagon wheels atop unreasonably high poles.


Derek Jarman, right at the start of his career, did the glorious sets and production design, and David Watkin (lots of Richard Lester movies, Out of Africa) was cinematographer. Two music people, one did period music and one did the discordant jazz that played over darker scenes. Russell wrote the screenplay based on a play and an Aldous Huxley novel. Pretty closely based on fact, if the Wikipedia article on Urbain Grandier is accurate (wow, it even has a graphic of U.G.’s “confession” co-signed by Satan himself).

As far as religious mania goes, I’ve lately seen Spanish Inquisition movies (Pit and the Pendulum, Goya’s Ghosts) a Boston Witch-hunt referencing movie (Ghosthouse) and other movies about religious conflict (Guelwaar, The Milky Way), and this tops ’em all. Of course, as a non-religious person I’m biased towards the extreme corrupt-church-hatin’, and as a guy I’m biased towards all the female nudity, but aside from all that, this is a scorching, beautiful, excellent movie.

a gem from Wikipedia:
“British film critic Alexander Walker described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’ in a television confrontation with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard, the newspaper for which Walker worked.”

King and Cardinal during the bird-shooting scene:

Oliver Reed:

You would think from the critics’ hostility that Ken Russell had tried to pull off some obscene hoax. On the contrary, the film is, I think, an utterly serious attempt to understand the nature of religious and political persecution. It is not in any way exaggerated. If anything, the horrors perpetrated in Loudun in the 17th century were worse than Russell has chosen to show . . . the character of the priest was a marvelous one to act. Ken Russell’s brother-in-law is an historian and he helped me research Grandier’s life, with particular reference to his thesis in celibacy. The people of Loudun loved him. He walked among the plague victims and comforted them. I started to play him as a priest and realized that he was a politician.

[on criticism of The Devils] It was very disturbing to make. I still haven’t got over it… Where do you draw the line? This is the way it happened – those nuns were used for political ends, toted round France as a side show for a year. Do you ignore the actual historical accuracy and the fact that the Church, the politicians and the aristocracy were corrupt? I get so angry with the opinion makers who class it with the sex films. If we ignore history because it was unpleasant we’re going to end up with nothing but nature films.

Mignon, belatedly convinced of Grandier’s innocence, with the zealous Barre:

D. Ehrlich: “Jarman’s neo-futurist design still gives the madness a divine scale. Any movie that ends with someone furiously masturbating as an expression of their own eternal misery is fine by me.”

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