Monday, February 6, 2012

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

Director Ken Russell is not known for doing everyday movies. He has done such oddball "classics" as Tommy, Salome's Last Dance, Lair of the White Worm, Altered States, and Whore. The Devils is no different, being what many may see as a rather blasphemous tale which the UK censors had a fit over in its day. The cast is somewhat led by Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier, a priest in Medieval France in the time of Cardinal Richelieu. Second billing goes to Vanessa Redgrave who plays the Mother Superior of a cloistered nunnery, Sister Jeanne. However, for the most part a cast of others take center stage, particularly Dudley Sutton as the devious Baron de Laubardemont and secondary Bond Villain Michael Gothard (For Your Eyes Only) as the Witchfinder, Father Barre. A host of others appear, but these two take center stage as our antagonists.

Father Grandier is a rather libertine priest who takes some sexual liberties with his parishioners and is rumored to be quite decadent. When informed he has impregnated a rich girl he counsels her to have her father find her a good man to marry. This begins the chain of events that leads to his downfall. Sister Jeanne is a hunchback nun who is enamored with Grandier (as were most of the nuns). She requests that Grandier become director of the nunnery. When another priest is assigned after Grandier's refusal (whether his refusal was in fact his or a ruse is unclear) Sister Jeanne wages a war of defamation against him.

The main driving point is that Cardinal Richelieu is waging war on protestants, and to do so he wants to remove fortifications from French cities. Loudon, of which Grandier is the de facto governor, is one such town. However, it has special dispensation from the king so as things stand Richelieu's hands are tied. He sends Baron de Laubardemont to ruin Grandier's reputation. The king's promise will not go beyond Grandier's death, particularly if the death is unsavory.

So, all this leads to a massive conspiracy to defame Grandier who is, despite his libertinage, a fairly devout man who takes his duties quite seriously. He is flawed to be sure but we are talking about a time when clerical service was typically thrust upon a person rather than a chosen vocation. There is a lot of Inquisitorial wackiness used to get Richelieu's wishes granted. Grandier admits to many wrongdoings, but is completely innocent of the charges brought by the inquisition.

Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) about to go into a religio-sexual fit.

The story is based (loosely as I understand it) on Adlous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon, and many of the more glaring plot holes might be explained there. For instance, we do not get a very good picture of Sister Jeanne and why she is so determined to destroy Grandier. Certainly we can take her sequestered life and physical deformities as read, but why she is so insanely driven is a bit unknown. This had the potential to be a quite good movie and I have high hopes for the book, should I come across it. The wife mentioned that if you took some of the extreme wackiness and naked nuns out of the film they might have created a more cohesive film. Of course, Russell is not known for cohesiveness and is not a man who would shy away from naked nuns pretending to be possessed, Mothra bless him.

If you can find this one and enjoy a good trippy film you should check it out. It is definitely flawed, but this might stem from Russell's need for oversight. I get the feeling if he had people watching over the production it would make for a better film, of course I don't personally think Russell needs to be stifled. All of his films have a certain charm for me, and even when they go off the rails they never leave me wishing I could get those two hours back. Oliver Reed fans might be a bit disappointed as after the first thirty minutes of establishing scenes he sort of disappears. It is also an interesting film visually. The dream sequences are very nice, but the overall look is well done. Sets are rather sparse, giving the film the feel of a play. Despite the problems, this may actually be one of Russell's best films.

In her dreams, Sister Jeanne is not a hunchback...
...and Grandier is Christ
The sisters being convinced to join the conspiracy.
"Imagine confessing to heresy. It's easy if you try."

2 comments:

T. Roger Thomas said...

That version of Christ looks like he is auditioning for a spot in professional wrestling.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Andre the Giant Jesus! :-D

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