Title: The Devils
Language: English, Latin
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director/Writer: Ken Russell
based on the play by John Whiting
and the novel THE DEVILS OF LOUDUN by Aldous Huxley
Music: Peter Maxwell Davies
Cinematography: David Watkin
THE DEVILS, Ken Russell’s grandiose and provocatively scandalous adaptation of the notorious witchcraft trial in 17th Century France, has its own indisputable artistic flourish albeit its thinly veiled obloquy and ridicule of the insidious backscratching between religion and politics, actualized in the most wanton style which can be both riveting and endurance-testing.
Father Urban Grandier (Reed), a Catholic priest in the city of Loudun, is as liberal in his attitude towards Protestants as in his views on sex, woman and marriage, which makes him a fair game in the eyes of Cardinal Richelieu (Logue), who is spoiling for a theocratic regime by ingratiating himself with a flamboyantly attired Louis XIII (Armitage), who opens the film with a ludicrous playacting. So the actual persecution is carried off by Richelieu’s minions, the Baron de Laubardemont (Sutton, an exemplar of dastardly evil-doer) and an adept inquisitor Father Pierre Barre (Gothard, hard to take him seriously with his jarringly out-of-context hippie hairdo and histrionic enthusiasm). Distinctly and blatantly, Russell plays the anachronistic card to accentuate the whole scenario’s fulsome scale of delusion and sleaze: the town’s cubistic buildings, the prison-like, cemented interior of the church and low-ceiling convent. It marks a big leap from other more detail-revered period films, that is where Russell pushes the envelope of his unorthodox vision and constructs something so bombastically lavish, idiosyncratic, sacrilegious and explicit to make great play of the harrowing witch-hunt and jeer at the religious brainwashing.
Oliver Reed’s macho bravado is not everyone’s cuppa, but tellingly he is riveting to behold in the show trial and on the stake, operatic but counterpoising the sadistic atrocity with his own stamina and compassion. Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne des Anges, a twisted character subjugated to her repressed sexuality, is both a victim and an inexplicable indictor, her tour-de-force is staggeringly perverse and utterly stirring, a deformed figure imprisoned by her warped faith, mouthing the ugly truth of nun’s ill-fated destiny, from this regard, the orgiastic sequence (much is cut from the original version but re-added in shoddy quality in this DVD version) in the heat of the exorcism, evokes a ghost of misogyny and misgivings that Russell’s abandon seems to be beyond the pale in his unrestrained demonization, not of the Establishment, but of the powerless and downtrodden. Last but not the least, a dazzling Gemma Jones debuts as Madeleine De Brou, Grandier’s wife, who could have been put to good use (or at least a chance to give her own voice, however it would be inconsequential for the preordained judgement) in the fray if Russell’s modernist take doesn’t opt to kept her entirely off-screen during the show trial of her husband.
All things considered, THE DEVILS substantiates itself as a cultish eye-opener for the liberal-minded audience, but definitely a bugbear among devout God-botherers, a monumental artifact only can be conceived and manufactured in the age of liberation.
referential point: Russell’s TOMMY (1975, 7.4/10)