Bright Lights Film Journal

“Nun-Lust, Torture-Porn, Church-Desecration and Bad Taste”: Reconnecting with Ken Russell’s The Devils

“Sex mingles easily with religion, and their blending has one of those slightly repulsive and yet exquisite and poignant flavors, which startle the palate like a revelation — of what? That, precisely, is the question.” – Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun “The Devils is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with open sores, open bonfires, court intrigue, the King shooting Protestants for sport, the callous and ludicrous behaviour of the Inquisition, the two-facedness of the King’s soldiers and sex-deprived nuns. It’s about the corruption of a whole town and the man at the centre who defies it. — Ken Russell, quoted in the London Times, March 13, 2012

Back in 1971, if you were lucky enough to see Ken Russell's The Devils — and not that many did, or if they did, felt themselves lucky — you might've wondered: am I expected to take this film seriously? While shooting the film and over the years, Russell, who died in November 2011 at 84, insisted that he was very serious in his film adaptation of Aldous Huxley's 1952 book The Devils of Loudun,1 a semi-fictional, intensely researched treatment of the real-life, medieval witch-hunting circus that led to the execution of the secular priest Urbain Grandier in 1634.2 But when the film premiered first in the UK in a censored cut authorized reluctantly by Russell, and then in a more heavily cut version in the US, few people, especially critics, were disinclined to accept the film as anything more than sensationalist or — even worse — dastardly conceived, pornographic garbage.

Were these knee-jerk reactions? Since its theatrical run, it's not been easy to take a fresh look at the film. In the earlier days of home video, Warner Bros., the studio that owns the film, allowed VHS releases of The Devils in the UK and US, but these issues were transfers of the heavily censored American cut, hardly the version with which to revisit Russell's original intentions. With the advent of DVD and Blu-ray, much of Russell's catalog has gone to disc, but, other than on execrable bootlegs, not The Devils — until this year.

Through some sort of finagling, which must've resembled the US negotiating arms reduction with Leonid Brezhnev, the British Film Institute has been able to license from Warner Bros. the original, X-rated British theatrical release cut of The Devils. Not, mind you, the director's cut, recently reassembled by the late Russell himself and shown theatrically, once, in 2010; nor was the BFI allowed to issue the film on Blu-ray. The resultant two-disc, Region 2 DVD appeared in late March 2012, and the film looks many times better than the wretched bootleg from Euro Cult, made available in the US in 2011. The bootleg does, however, contain the rape of Christ sequence, which, along with a segment of another provocative scene, Warner Bros. would not allow for inclusion on BFI's release.

With the passage of over forty years — and the reasonable assumption that these scenes would not, at this late date, scorch a reasonable person's eyeballs — the whys and wherefores of Warners' timidity are difficult to understand. The British X-rated version hasn't been seen since the initial theatrical run in the UK, and thus far, Warner has steadfastly refused to release The Devils on disc, in any version, in the US. Apparently, their somewhat admirable goal — to make their entire catalog of films eventually available via the made-on-demand service, the Archive Collection — will fall short, with one title slated to be cast into a lake of fire.

In '71, I knew nothing of The Devils' entanglement with censorship and controversy, and, enjoying the film tremendously, made sure to see it more than once, if only to be certain that the sets (designed by Derek Jarman) were really as strangely beautiful as I'd first thought (they were). At the time, transgressive filmmaking was in the air, or about to be: its harbinger, I Am Curious (Yellow), had arrived back in 1967, Fellini Satyricon in 1969, Jodorowsky's El Topo in 1970; Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris was to come in 1972, Pasolini's Salo in 1975, Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses in 1976, and Lynch's Blue Velvet a decade later. Yet Russell, with just one film, seemed to want to break more taboos than all of the others combined.

In Russell's case, though, it isn't just a matter of provocative content. Beyond frontal nudity and nuns masturbating against the toes of Christ's nailed foot,3The Devils combines its transgressive content with transgressions in tone, a standard operating procedure for most the director's oeuvre, and one that has consistently gotten him in trouble critically.4 In The Devils, where Russell amps up the sex and nudity, mixing it all in with a mockery of organized religion — plus scenes of physical torture and degradation enacted on nuns and priests — the film's tone refuses to remain constant, often from scene to scene, creating an apparent confusion of intent.

With certain mindsets in place in 1971, though, was anybody really surprised when the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) adjudged the original cut a nasty free-for-all and thus — with its provocative elements presented in an in-your-face, sometimes confusing style — a film made in shockingly bad taste? It's the "shockingly bad taste" that I believe resulted in the extremity of the censorship, and not, per se, the pubic hair, violence, and rough treatment of organized religion.

Partly, I think, the bad boy in Russell always enjoyed deliberately taunting the unimaginative or conservative viewer. By no means should we consider this his only motivation behind the extreme content and apparently confused intent — I'll get to other, more laudable motivations later — but I'm sure he could anticipate how these factors might cause the BBFC to question the seriousness of his film. Any claims by Russell to the contrary I might consider disingenuous.

Besides shattering the narrative frame with numerous anachronisms in The Devils, Russell more than once inserts a sequence of deliberate, low-down burlesque that appears to undercut the seriousness of the drama. The film's biggest set-piece, the orgiastic possession scene in the cathedral, plays more like gleeful soft porn than the disturbing brainwashed display of blasphemy that Russell has said he intended. When the BBFC screened The Devils, they likely foresaw a potential obscenity case, with accompanying legal ramifications and liability.

I'm assuming that in the UK, as it has been with obscenity cases in the US, the label of obscene has been avoided if the creative work in question was found to have the intent (tone) and effect of a work of art, and not one that excited mere prurience or other base responses. Russell's tonal shifting in The Devils coupled with the kooky eroticism of the possession scenes meant that the film could be taken as aesthetically unpalatable. In the original cut, many single images and actions were apparently more macabre, sacrilegious, or physically debasing than what we see now in the authorized X-rated version: e.g., excrement on an altar, a medical syringe resembling a bug sprayer shown to enter Sister Jeanne's anus, and lingering, more graphic shots of Grandier's torture, most vividly, his legs being broken.

Somewhere in the middle of the X-rated version, we witness a royal garden party, in which Louis XIII, while in conference with Richelieu and armed with pistols, seems to be engaged in some sort of target practice. But his targets turn out to be a number of hapless Huguenots dressed in Muppet-like blackbird costumes, complete with oversized yellow Big Bird beaks. Released from cages, they flap their feathered arms until Louis aims his pistol and nails each Protestant in the back. As one falls lifeless into a pond, the King, in close-up, faces the movie audience and chortles, "Bye-bye blackbird!" The sequence has all the carefree esprit of a Benny Hill skit. No censorship dilemma here, of course, but Russell's rather poor anachronistic joke most likely added fuel to the BBFC's contention that this was simply an irresponsibly bad film that would cause a legal ruckus if released as is.

Cinematic transgressors like Bertolucci and Oshima presented their shock values, sexual and/or political, within the sustained high tone of the art house film, whereas Russell seemed, increasingly, to thumb his nose at some invisible but agreed-upon standard of aesthetic good taste. As the European art film descended upon the US (and the UK) from the late fifties onward, even the most respected filmmakers among them could face challenges from the censors in the US and UK. Ingmar Bergman had a sizable chunk of the rape scene in The Virgin Spring (1960) excised before it could be shown in this country. And there's nothing further from the Swedish director's sober meditation on medieval religiosity than Russell's raucous take on the doings at Loudun.

But Russell knew full well how to make a well-behaved art film.5 Released in 1969, the director's breakthrough film, Women in Love, is studiously consistent in tone throughout as a respectful adaptation of the Lawrence novel. Yet, even so, it contained one scene that worried the censors: the nude fireside wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates, in which male genitalia were clearly visible. Plus, here after all were two naked guys pressing hard against each other, which raised the specter of homoeroticism.

But at least here in the US, the scene, along with its glimpse or two of dangling apparatus, stayed in the film. The wrestling match was certainly a provocative sight in a 1967 mainstream film — how did it avoid the censor's ax? It did because, in a word, it was artful. Handsomely photographed, the action seemed organic with the story, true to its pre-WWI era and to the relationship of the two men. Rather somber in tone, the imagery in Women in Love always remained safely ensconced within its burnished literary frame.

For Russell, creatively on fire after reading Huxley's book, The Devils clearly came to be a more personal project than Women in Love; he wanted it to be something other than a tasteful literary adaptation. The director has called The Devils his only political film, an intent made clear in its opening scene. After yawning through a ballet performance, in which a nearly nude King of France (Graham Armitage) is the prima ballerina, Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) confides to His Majesty a vision of a France where "church and state are one." Getting our liberal hackles up in record time, Russell simultaneously disallows any subtlety by coding degenerate royalty as homosexuality (Louis is a flamboyant drag queen) and high-church corruption as physical disability (the cardinal is paraplegic or too ill to walk).

Our main players in the walled city of Loudun pivot around the tormented Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave), who is the physically deformed (hunchbacked) and sexually crazed prioress of Loudun's Ursaline convent. Supercharged with repression, she's developed a full-blown romantic infatuation with the local secular priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed). Midst erotic visions combining religious imagery with the insipid yearnings of a schoolgirl, Sister Jeanne pictures Grandier as a Christ crucified, who nonetheless steps down from his cross so that she may suck at his sacred wounds. On his end, Grandier is a physically robust, heterosexual alpha male who likes girls, plain and simple, except that he's a Catholic priest pledged to chastity. Furthermore, he's never met the prioress.

Thus, Russell begins his tale with a stupendously stacked deck, with certain uncomfortable signifiers in place (e.g., degenerate=gay). Much is at stake in Loudun, which, at the time of the waning religious wars, is a self-governing city-state that tolerates a large population of heretical Huguenots in its midst. Fundamentally running the country, Cardinal Richelieu wants the walls of these fortress towns pulled down in order to nullify their independence from the centralized theocratic state and, in the case of Loudun, to end the city's protection of Huguenots. His Eminence's Commissioner, Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), along with an immense wheeled demolition device, arrives at Loudun to do the deed.

But once inside the walls, Laubardemont meets resistance in the form of Father Grandier, who, granted the power of the city's governor in the wake of the latter's death, unites the citizenry against Richelieu's henchman, and for a time Richelieu's plans are foiled.

Russell has introduced Urbain Grandier as a self-absorbed libertine priest who satisfies his prodigious sexual appetite with no regard for either vows of chastity or the feelings of his mistresses. If, for example, one becomes pregnant, she must be discarded. By dismissing his current lover, Philippe Trincant (Georgiana Hale), who carries his child, he makes a staunch enemy of her father, the local public prosecutor. Another seed of destruction is sown when Grandier declines Sister Jeanne's invitation to be the new confessor of Loudun's Usurline convent.

Adding to Sister Jeanne's rising bile are rumors that Grandier has married, in secret ceremony, a local spinster, Madeleine de Brou (Gemma Jones). The priest, in fact, has married Madeleine out of the realization that, unexpectedly, he's fallen in love with her. To Grandier, his union with Madeleine is a spiritual one that invalidates his order's oath of celibacy. Bound in holy matrimony, Grandier seizes upon a purpose — to save his city from destruction — and thereby finds a path to self-transcendence.

As Grandier travels to conference with the King over Loudun's fate, Laubardemont conspires — with the aid of all the enemies the priest has made over the years — to elect Grandier as invading incubus of the entire convent. As Satan's agent, he's accused of allowing a sizable population of devils to take up residence in the nuns' bodies. Most importantly, Grandier's alleged victims include a vengeful Sister Jeanne, who becomes the star of the exorcism proceedings, which commence briskly, as if activated by a starter's pistol.

Intercut with the now in flagrante psychosexual possessions in the cathedral are shots of Grandier and Madeleine calmly receiving the sacrament of communion in the countryside; through love of a woman, the sensualist has found his life's purpose and his God. Sanctified and repurposed, Grandier returns to Loudun to find the exorcisms under full steam in the cathedral.

Up until his lurid depictions of the exorcisms, Russell has stayed remarkably true to much of Huxley's semi-fictional relating of events (I can't speak to Whiting's theatrical adaptation that Russell may follow closely), with a skilled screenwriter's knack for streamlining, eliminating characters, and clarifying, or even assigning, motives. Some of the exorcism's details — like the practice of giving the nuns enemas and the admittance of the public to the ceremonies — are straight from the book, but there is no nudity, implied or otherwise, in Huxley's narrative. There, in an atmosphere the author describes as a "mixture between a beer-garden and a brothel," Sister Jeanne and the nuns writhe, scream obscenities, and speak in the voices of the devils that possess them, but they keep their habits on and do not go about sexually assaulting priests or each other — nor do they commit a rape of Christ.6

The rape of Christ sequence, in which several naked nuns perform lascivious acts upon a downed statue of Christ, was a bone of contention between Russell and the BBFC. Most reluctantly, Russell finally let it go, so that the film could be released in its X-rated UK version, but even shortly before his death, Russell maintained that the sequence was integral to the meaning of his film. Having seen the sequence in place on the Euro Cut bootleg, I'm not sure I can agree with him. The nuns are essentially masturbating against the sculpture, and this is intercut with shots of Father Mignon's face (Murray Melvin) contorted, first with shock, and then with spasmodic ecstasy as he pleasures himself underneath his robes. Finally, as we see the nuns swarming over Christ from the priest's POV, the lens ejaculates along with Father Mignon as, for several seconds, it rapidly zooms in and out.

I have no objection to Father Mignon masturbating in concert with the nuns, nor do I have any trouble with nuns making merry with Christ in the first place. Russell wanted this gambit to be the climax in a long, horrific display of blasphemy, but — especially with the cheap optical equivalence of Mignon creaming his cassock — it doesn't play that way. In his original cut, Russell had interwoven the shots of Grandier and Madeleine taking the sacrament within the rape of Christ sequence, feeling that this juxtaposition made sensate the utter blasphemy promulgated by the possessed nuns. Seeing the sequence today, Russell's clash of the sacred and the profane merely causes the rape to look sillier than it does already and reduces the couples' communion ceremony to a miscalculated false solemnity.

Father Mignon's arousal is appropriate enough: most of the possession sequences are redolent, as I've said above, of soft porn. The exorcisms, after we get past the enemas, are mostly played for laughs, and the demented nuns, in spite of their shaved heads, are mostly attractive young women. Personally, I love watching naked bald-headed girls cavorting about, and I suspect Russell did, too. There are several frames of contorted faces, with rolling eyeballs and protruding tongues, but mostly the women, and some of the priests, seem to be having a hell of a good time. There are glimpses of women making out with each other; there's the aforementioned attack on a priest — getting just what he deserved and/or what he wanted?

When the mysterious Duke de Condé — his mincing mannerisms so similar to the King's that we wonder if he's played by the same actor — shows up at the exorcisms, he produces a little gilt box that he declares contains the blood of Christ. Thereupon, the nuns are suddenly, miraculously cured — until, that is, the box is shown to be empty. In the ensuing silence, the Duke advises Sister Jeanne to "have fun," and makes a fast exit. It's one of those Ken Russell moments, and you have to wonder: is this demoniac exorcism or sexual liberation?

But when our absent hero, Grandier, makes his entrance into the cathedral, Russell, whether he knew it or not, accomplishes a rather sly switcheroo. Significantly, and with historical accuracy, the film has shown that the possessions are open to the public, creating a peanut gallery that responds with hilarity to the proceedings, as the exorcists expose their own chicanery with all the grace of second-string vaudevillians. But Grandier, unlike the spectators and the other voyeurs (that is, us), is thoroughly disgusted with what he sees.

His first action is to throw his cloak protectively around a very pretty naked nun — the same naked nun I've been ogling for the last fifteen minutes — and strides into the nave extremely angry. Reed inhabits Grandier's rage so powerfully that everyone, quite properly, seems to cower like children caught playing doctor in an unusually spectacular manner. In his righteous condemnation of what he sees, he implicates not only the spectators in the cathedral but the movie audience as well (and possibly Russell also).

Whether we actually feel shamed at this junction — and I have to admit that I didn't — is beside the point, but Russell has made one nonetheless, and it colors our view of Grandier as he's put through trial, torture, and execution. It's a much different view of Grandier than Huxley takes, and I mention this divergence from Huxley, not because I think Russell should have stayed true to the book, but because the differences — both in how the director stages the exorcisms and in his character arc for Grandier — begin to clarify where the filmmaker meant to take the material and how, thereby, he made it his own.7

Huxley has great sympathy for Grandier and his plight, but doesn't elevate the priest to the status of the story's main protagonist. If the book has a protagonist, it's Sister Jeanne, whom the author follows past Grandier's death to her own demise much later in the century.8 Huxley's chief concern is with the peculiar psycho/religious events that took place during the nuns' possessions, and what implications they have for the state of mankind then and now. Jeanne becomes an embodiment of what totalitarian mind control can accomplish in whatever era, supposedly enlightened or not.

For Huxley, Grandier is merely a victim of a snowballing persecution, possibly first instigated by the priest having offended Cardinal Richelieu years before. Grandier's overweening egotism, which makes him incautious, leads to a series of career blunders that would irrevocably lead to his persecution and death. Unlike Russell, Huxley doesn't give Grandier the political power that motivates the cardinal and his henchman to have him removed.

Russell's Grandier, however, abandons his egoism to become something other than the victim envisioned by Huxley: he becomes a hero for his time. As self-appointed, would-be savior of Loudun's independence — and thereby champion of religious diversity and personal freedom — Russell's Grandier is a lone voice of rationality in a whirlwind of superstitious hatred, fomented by a fundamentalist religion, enacted by a power-crazed Cardinal, and enabled by an easily brainwashed populace.

Russell doesn't back off from making his hero a blatant Christ figure, either. Arrested and about to be tortured, Grandier's voice-over ruefully addresses God, "I thought I had found You, but now You have forsaken me." Later, lashed to the stake, his face already charred from the heat of the fire, Grandier shouts to the crowd that he's sorry that he hadn't defended their city better. Quite a bit different, this martyred Christ figure, from the obliging, sensual Christ in Sister's Jeanne's wet dreams. But none of Loudun's citizens are paying attention to Grandier's apology, and only we can enjoy the ironies. For the city's leaderless, debased populace, Grandier's execution has all the celebratory trappings of a carnival, including a mummers' reenactment of the prolonged exorcisms. As Grandier's body slumps into a cinder, Laubardemont gives the order to dynamite the city's walls. The explosions — very well staged by the filmmakers — end the party.

There's a final bit of comic, albeit gruesome, outrageousness to come, a brief scene in which Laubardemont visits Sister Jeanne in her cell after the execution. "Here's a souvenir," he says, tossing Grandier's charred thighbone to the prioress. In Russell's original cut — not seen on BFI's disc — it's strongly suggested that Jeanne masturbates with the bone after Laubardemont departs.

But in the end Russell settles the disparate tones of his film with a masterly finish. Throughout Grandier's passion and death, we haven't seen poor Madeleine, but the morning after the execution, the priest's wife emerges from the cathedral, disheveled and nearly bereft of sanity, to go climb over the pile of bricks that used to be part of Loudun's fortifications. Isolated and apparently unseen, she's leaving town, and it's a devastating vision of existential aloneness that Russell shoots in black and white. Through a gaping hole in the wall, we can see clear through to the road that leads far into a bleak flat landscape, in which, rising here and there like gigantic dandelions, are a multitude of poles fitted on top with Catherine wheels. Each of their spokes carries a rotting corpse.9 At its distance, the camera remains stationary as we watch Madeleine stumble awkwardly off the bricks and walk down the road, between the Catherine wheels, until she's nearly swallowed up by the landscape's empty space.

It's as dark, majestic, and powerful an image as I can remember from those days when films were allowed to end less than happily. With it, Russell nearly manages to snap his entire film into focus. Grandier's tragedy becomes, with the film's final image, larger than his own; it goes to encompass the destruction of an entire society's hope of at least a bastion — Grandier's Loudun — to hold against the prevailing winds of superstition and mind control. The fact that the society doesn't recognize this hope (as it's arrived in the form of Urbain Grandier) is its tragedy, and of course, it's fully Madeleine's tragedy because she does.

But what of all the funny business, both in tone and in content, that got the film cut to ribbons in the first place? The BFI's new transfer reveals not only that Russell made a visually resplendent film, but that, in his tonal shifting, he appears to have had method in his madness. If time has reduced the effect of aberrant recklessness in his burlesque episodes — Benny Hill is dead, too — it has also decriminalized the nudity, the violence, and the sacrilege, leaving us able to evaluate Russell's intentions with a reasonably open mind.

It's clearer now that Russell intended the comedic elements of The Devils not as gratuitous "fun stuff," but to promote a garish, irreverent contemporaneity that would vibrate purposefully with the overall straight-faced dramatic arc of its 17th-century tale — that is, Grandier's passage from self-involved libertine to loving husband and self-transcendent, socially conscious human being. However much this strategy would seem to invite disaster, Russell has averred: "I have been accused of Devil-promotion, nun-lust, torture-porn, church-desecration and bad taste. I plead guilty only to the last, which is proportionate to my good taste, in my humble opinion."10

One could divide the scenes of the film, as Russell divides himself, into those with good taste (the drama) and those with bad taste (the comedy, the soft porn), but this gets us no closer to understanding how these clashing elements manage to work.

In The Devils of Loudun, while sorting out his authorial attitude toward Sister Jeanne, Huxley seems to anticipate Russell's approach to the book's material overall. He refers to the writing of great comedy as adapting an "impure form." Tragedy, however, he tags a "pure form," in which the author "feels himself into his personages," which then incites the reader or listener to do the same. Pure comedy, Huxley continues, operates totally on the outside, where the audience or reader "observes" its content. Hence, the purity of either form is considered, distinctly, as either "inward" or "outward." However: "[T]he greatest comedy writers have adopted the impure form, in which there is a constant transition to inwardness, and back again. At one moment we merely see and judge and laugh; the next, we are made to sympathize and even to identify ourselves with one who, a few seconds before, was merely an object."11

Although The Devils is, in toto, no way a comedy, we could judge, using Huxley's criteria, that Russell has adopted an impure form for his film. It contains many moments when we "merely see and judge and laugh," and while Grandier and Madeleine are never comedic "objects," we are constantly made to transition from their empathetically depicted situations to scenes of distancing buffoonery and then back again to their drama, and so on, until Grandier burns and Madeleine walks into the void, giving a final cadence to what had seemed, to many in '71, a cacophony.

By clashing Grandier and Madeleine's tragic, inward drama of love, spirituality, and sacrifice with ebullient, outward eruptions of comedy and sensationalist nudity, Russell makes sure that his film isn't limited by the strictures of a historically accurate period piece. Implicit in such accuracy, with its accompanying consistency of tone, would be a fallacy that neither Huxley nor Russell wishes to buy into: that our age is any more enlightened, or freer from demagoguery, or lacking in political/religious mind fuck than those in the remote past.

The film's numerous anachronisms work toward the same end, and this especially goes to explain why the film looks as it does, especially in its sets. Russell has been captured on film saying that he never wanted The Devils to have the kind of spot-on, meticulous art direction, costumes and sets that would recreate the look of the late medieval world, yet what he got was meticulously designed indeed, and quite beautiful.

Given carte blanche, Derek Jarman designed a huge set representing Loudun's city square; the spectacular results were towers and walls faced in gleaming white tile. Jarman's architecture recalls nothing of 17th-century France. Instead it's a modernist, or even postmodernist, mélange of styles that speaks of newness and of now. The mostly black — and seemingly historically accurate — costumes of the principals and extras are visually exciting against all the whiteness of their surroundings, but the clash of period styles also creates an imaginary world, of neither then or now, that in its ambiguity allows for expressive elbow room, a creative strategy that's now more commonplace (and acceptable) in opera productions and legitimate theater.

Jarman's sets, like the other anachronisms scattered throughout the film, are part of its impure form. Some of the anachronisms feel like deliberate dissonances, like the appearance and performance of Michael Gothard as the exorcist, witch hunter Father Barré, the historical ringleader of the Loudun exorcisms. Around 31 at the time of the filming, Gothard, with near shoulder-length hair and wire-rimmed glasses, has the look I aspired to in 1971 as a feckless art school student. Looking nothing like a medieval priest with the outing of Leviathan on his mind, Gothard creates a truly jarring, contemporaneous persona, but his strident posturing in the role may take the dissonance too far.

But taken as a whole, The Devils' impure form — and most Russell films may be seen as conceived in impure form — has a way of fulfilling the explicitly stated intention of the director: to give the events depicted a current resonance. It's a goal in line with that given by Huxley, who — writing the book in the early '50s — saw similar mind control and persecution in Nazism and Soviet dictatorship. Russell, who was, after all, making an entertainment vehicle, was never too specific about who or what parallels the devils of Loudun in the 20th and 21st centuries, but, watching the film a couple of weeks ago, I had no trouble at all imagining Rick Santorum as one of the exorcists.

If Russell's impure strategy works, it's due in no small part to his cast. Throughout the '70s and into the '80s, the director was fortunate, or discerning enough, to work with an elite group of British acting talent, and for The Devils, he assembled a dream cast. Physically, emotionally, psychically, Oliver Reed's Grandier carries the film; the role demands the projection of a large soul with an intimidating, quicksilver intelligence, and in his important trial speech, for example, the actor's eloquence seems to contain it all.

The role made tonsorial demands on Reed, too. In preparation for his torture and execution, Grandier's head and face are shaved, and Russell obviously was not content with the actor wearing a bald wig; everything, including eyebrows, were lathered and removed, and Reed truly looks ridiculous as he walks to receive his sentence, much like the "pale, hairless clown"12 described by Huxley. It's a brave acquiescence to the director, but it pays off; Grandier's a vain man to the end, and the laughter from the court's spectators hits home with us, too, as we cannot but sympathize deeply with his humiliation.

Russell makes Grandier's physical degradation alarmingly real, but Oliver Reed has managed to telegraph so vividly the priest's complex personality that to watch the fire extinguish Grandier's personhood — his inner life, his finely tuned sensibilities, his worldliness balanced by steadily growing humanism and the will to save his community — is profoundly disquieting. I'm far from having seen every film Reed's appeared in, but it's hard to imagine a better performance than he gives here.

As his soul mate, Gemma Jones matches Reed with a clarity of inner strength all her own, but Vanessa Redgrave's performance as the supremely unbalanced Sister Jeanne is harder to get a handle on, and that may be as it should. Redgrave makes Jeanne's character extremely mercurial, with little bursts of sarcastic laughter punctuating her helpless obsession with Grandier. When she's possessed by as many as eight devils, you see her eyes glitter with, not only madness, but also self-awareness, so you know that she knows the whole possession/exorcism business is a hoax. Having read Huxley, you realize that the actress must've read it, too; so much of her performance seems inspired by it.

Huxley's text also clarifies the uniqueness of Ken Russell's achievement. As you reach the end of Huxley's laconically voiced but often angry dissection of the events at Loudun, you realize that Russell somehow caught much of the book's unquiet spirit, with its diatribe against never-ending cycles of authoritarian deception, control, and persecution. But the director's own language and style as a filmmaker have little in common with the author's Oxford-bred, sometimes polemical analysis.13 In 1962, a year or so before he died in 1963, Huxley heard that a film of The Devils of Loudun was in the works. "What on earth will they make of it?" he wondered, writing to his son. "I feel a great deal of curiosity — and some apprehension."14 I would never stoop to calling Russell's film a head-trip, but one wonders what Huxley, that psychedelic adventurer, would've made of The Devils' conglomeration of tonal mayhem, crazed image, and tragic insight.

To call Russell an intuitive filmmaker is an understatement. He dared to be sloppy, to be lurid, to be prurient — allowed himself, then, to be energized by the baser angels of his nature — and why not? In his best work, as in The Devils, he balanced his so-called bad taste with an exacting skill as a director of actors, with his acute, heightened visual sense, and with one of his most valuable assets, his ability to gather about him an artistic community of the best talent available, which he then endowed with a rare creative freedom. An appreciation of this balance may dawn slowly, but with it comes a delayed acceptance of the risible excesses and the occasional bad boy posturing; we grasp that it's all part and parcel of this artist's vision, so when we speak of Russell, we need to call bad taste something else — but what? To echo Huxley, that, precisely, is the question.

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If the BFI doesn't include Huxley's book as part of their new edition, we can forgive them, because the set's supplements are especially generous, beginning with disc two's inclusion of the 2002 Paul Joyce film Hell on Earth, a fine making-of documentary that also sums up the film's censorship battle with the BBFC; it's interwoven with latter-day interviews with Russell, composer Peter Maxwell Davies, Dudley Sutton, Vanessa Redgrave, and Murray Melvin. Here, Redgrave posits that The Devils, along with Tony Richardson's 1968 The Charge of the Light Brigade, was the greatest of British postwar films. (Of course, she starred in both of them.) Also in the film are extracts of the rape of Christ sequence. A vintage, 1971 documentary, Director of Devils (22 mins.), contains footage of a harried Russell expounding on the seriousness of his film, plus footage of Davies conducting his score. There's then a brief, 8-minute compilation of home movie footage by editor Michael Bradsell taken on Derek Jarman's completed Loudun set. Last on disc two is video of a 2004 Russell interview (with Mark Kermode) followed by a Q&A session. Approaching its context with The Devils, Kermode tackles the troubling fact that Russell converted to Catholicism around the start of his filmmaking career, and in response to the questioning Russell goes slightly goofy, calling God a spaceman, with the rosary a tool with which to talk to the spaceman, and so on. Finally, an exasperated Kermode asks Russell if he still considers himself a Christian. "I try not to think about it," replies the director.15) Disc one has a commentary track with Russell, Kermode, Michael Bradsell and Paul Joyce. A final extra is a very early 26-minute film by Russell, Amelia and the Angel (1958). It's a forgettable piece of whimsy, but it's nicely photographed in black-and-white, and reveals a canny use of film language. Its first scene, a group of children dressed as angels performing a kind of ring dance, forecasts Russell's preoccupation with choreography throughout his career; The Devils, too, begins with a dance. Mention, too, should be made of the BFI's handsome 40-page accompanying booklet, with essays by, among others, Michael Bradsell and an eye-opening detailing, gathered by Craig Lapper, of the censorship negotiations with the BBFC.

  1. Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952). []
  2. For his adaptation, Russell also relied heavily on the play, The Devils, by John Whiting, which was similarly adapted from Huxley's book. []
  3. This latter image from the suppressed rape of Christ sequence. []
  4. By tone, I mean the emotional or intellectual spirit of a film as a whole or in its parts that will then induce a corresponding emotional mood or intellectual response in the viewer. []
  5. Though, even with his 60s artist biopics for the BBC he flirted with outrageousness. []
  6. Huxley does quote from one chronicle of the possessions that mention the nuns exposing their privates. []
  7. Some of the differences, but certainly not all, may be due to what Russell took from the Whiting play; it's likely much of the film's dialog came from the play. []
  8. Sister Jeanne's story, after Grandier's death, is a fascinating one, which allows Huxley the full development of his theme. Historically, according to Huxley, the exorcisms, which in Sister Jeanne's instance went on past Grandier's execution, took six years to complete. A Polish film, Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, explores Sister Jeanne's continuing possession and exorcism after Grandier dies. []
  9. Russell's source for these wheels seems to be Brueghel's painting, The Triumph of Death (detail): []
  10. London Times, 3/13/12. []
  11. Huxley, p. 280. []
  12. Huxley, p. 205. []
  13. Huxley, for all his erudition and elegant prose style, has his mad side, too, such as, preoccupations with mind-out-of-body experiences, psychedelics, and ESP — not to mention his conflicting respect for Sister Jeanne's last exorcist, the hallucinating, nutsoid Jesuit priest Father Surin. As much as Huxley views the nuns' possessions as an immense psychological event, he cautions against our ruling out a priori the existence of actual demons flying about somewhere in a supra-human dimension. []
  14. Joseph A. Gomez, Ken Russell: the Adaptor as Creator (London : Frederick Muller, 1976), p. 115. []
  15. In Joseph Lanza's book on the filmmaker, there's a more revealing anecdote concerning Russell's Catholicism , in which, while having lunch with Rex Reed shortly after the film's release, Russell responded to Reed's comment that the Catholics were sure to be gunning for him now: "The church has always been appalling. I'm an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sinner who only pays lip service to the church, but I was trying to tell the truth about how it uses totally illiterate people to seduce everyone through terror. It has always been like that and it's like that now and the masses have always gone along with it. America is full of narrow-minded bigots who are terrified of any criticism of the church. They forced me to make twenty-three cuts before it could be released in America…Hypocrites!" (Joseph Lanza, Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films [Chicago : Chicago Review Press, 2007], p. 126 []