Why Haven’t You Seen…?: The Devils

This the first of a new series for MMM. Each week I’ll be taking a look at an obscure, unreleased or otherwise underseen film that I think more people should take the time to track down and watch, and we’re starting with a film that has been a controversy magnet for every minute of its 39 year life.

Director: Ken Russell

What’s It All About?
The film begins with a caption informing us that it is based on real events, and that its main characters actually lived in the French town of Loudon in the 17th century. That may be true, but probably only to a very limited degree, and what the film is really based most heavily on are the play by John Whiting and the novel The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley.

It’s set in Loudon in 1634, and chronicles, graphically, what seems to be a madness overtaking the town, prompted by the growing sexual obsession the leader of the local convent (Vanessa Redgrave) has for the local parish priest Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) and by the fact that a local lord, Cardinal Richelieu’s right hand man and a self styled witch hunter are seeking to discredit Grandier, and determine to do so by accusing him of causing the convent to become possessed by the devil.

Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Recently, for no other reason than that the distributors, Warner Bros. (who sadly appear to hold the rights worldwide) don’t want you to. Because they’re scared. In 1971, The Devils was something of a scandal. In the UK it was cut by several minutes (more, apparently, in the US), cuts very obvious in the extant version of the film, but still the Festival of Light, the precursor to today’s Mediawatch made a cause celebre when Mary Whitehouse was its leader, took exception to it (not surprising really, as there are some truly vicious attacks on the Catholic Church… or at least on how they behaved in 1634… and the film’s ostensible hero, Gradnier, is a priest who busies himself with every woman he can, conceives a child out of wedlock and then marries in secret, and that’s not even the really contentious stuff).

The really contentious bit is the near legendary cut sequence referred to as ‘The rape of Christ’ (told you). Even if you have seen the film, you’ve never seen this, unless of course you’ve seen the Director’s Cut. A few years ago, UK film journalist Mark Kermode set out to help Russell restore The Devils, and actually found the missing footage, which was then cut into the film in preparation for a DVD release. This was more than five years ago. Not only has The Devils never been released in its full form, the last release of the longest generally available version was in 1997, on VHS. The only way you’ll see it now is if you’re lucky enough to catch the cut version (still a magnificent film) on TV or you are able to attend one of the festival screenings of the Director’s Cut, with Russell in attendance (I believe the last scheduled screening was canceled because Russell was unable to attend).

Hopefully Warners will see the light, and allow the film a proper DVD and Blu Ray release for its 40th anniversary next year, but since the heads of the Christian right in the US are liable to explode if they do, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Why Should You See It?

If nothing else, it takes a film of enormous power to be seen, still, as such a contentious and dangerous work 40 years after it was made, but there is a great deal more than that to admire in The Devils.

Like all of Russell’s work of the period, The Devils is often astonishing to look at. Loudon is realised on a massive scale, and the Derek Jarman designed sets are, without exception, stunning. The real standout is the Ursuline convent, which is almost completely white, save for the crucifixes, the bars on the windows and the mortar between the white tiles, which accentuates the unusual shape of many of the rooms, giving the convent a real otherworldly feel. Outside Russell conjures great verisimilitude in his depiction of the period (during an outbreak of bubonic plague) like Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood this is a film whose stench you can almost smell as it plays. There are a plethora of memorable shots, few more so than Vanessa Redgrave’s entrance; she seems to float in, head unnaturally bent, just squeezing under a low archway.

Impressive as the visuals are, what really gives The Devils its power are the performances, most notably those of Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. Reed was never better, he’s perfectly cast as the fallen priest; a man who clearly takes much of his vocation very seriously, but can’t resist certain temptations. There are plenty of big speeches for Reed to bellow, and few do it as well, but he’s as effective, if not more so, in the quieter moments. He’s especially good (as is Gemma Jones) in the scene in which one of his parishioners makes a slip of the tongue at confession, and tells Grandier she loves him. The grandstanding in many other scenes would perhaps feel overblown in another film, but this one is on such a grand, even operatic, scale that it not only fits but is absolutely mesmerizing.

Vanessa Redgrave is perhaps even better than Reed. As Sister Jeanne she’s by turns creepy, pathetic and frankly pretty scary (look at the scene where she suspects Jones and Reed’s marriage, and claws at Jones through the barred convent window), but what’s most unsettling is how serene she seems much of the time, there’s a particularly creepy smile she has, and that, coupled with the way her head leans because of her hunched back, is really disconcerting. As the strange sexual madness that seeing Grandier seems to induce overtakes Jeanne, Redgrave goes all out, but she never forgets to seem just enough in control that there’s always a question of whether she’s in fact driving herself mad (certainly the scene in which she sees Reed as a Christ figure, and then begins to kiss him, would argue quite well for that) or whether there is pure, cold, malice behind her behavior. It’s a tightrope, and Redgrave walks it brilliantly. It’s not a surprise that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but it ought to have been a scandal.

As a whole, The Devils casts a peculiar spell. It’s a film about the way religion can induce people to act destructively towards one another, it’s a film about belief to an irrational degree, but for me it is perhaps first and foremost a film about collective hysteria and madness, and that’s a feeling it captures with almost every frame. It is, as you’d expect from Ken Russell, never subtle, but it throws you headlong into this time and this place. It lectures you somewhat on what Russell makes of the morals of what happened in Loudon (it was bad, by the way) but it never hands you easy answers for any of it. It’s a great film, and deserves to be seen, but more than that it actually feels like an incredibly contemporary and relevant film; with the Christian right on the rise in the US and Muslim extremism a clear and present danger, what The Devils has to say about the intoxication of religion has really never seemed more interesting.

How Can You See It?
Well, like everything it is likely to be available online if you look hard enough. There is a Spanish DVD, apparently, but it is a 103 minute version (at PAL standard 25fps), compared to the 107 minute UK video. The 1997 Maverick Directors series VHS, then, would appear to be the print to have. You might wish to petition Warner for a proper DVD, even if it is just the extant cut, slapped on an Archive Collection release.