Seen: In 35mm at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.
In mid-17th century France, Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu together enforce Catholic dominance across the country. In his fanaticism, Richelieu entreats the king to tear down the walls surrounding the small city of Loudun, which–while Catholic–is basically self-governing and (in his mind) a likely haven for Protestants. Charismatic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who is beloved by the townspeople despite his known affairs with local women, has been in charge since the governor died, and he resists any orders to destroy his city’s defensive walls. Meanwhile, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), Mother Superior at Loudun’s Ursuline convent, experiences explicit visions involving Grandier as a sexy Christ figure, and confesses to a suspicious local priest (Murray Melvin). He assumes she is possessed by a demon, while Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who is sent to tear the walls down, sees it as a means to delegitimize Grandier, accusing him of witchcraft. What follows is a sensational series of events involving satanic curses, crazed nuns, illegal marriage, violent exorcism, political trial, and fiery death.
This movie. I find myself suddenly obsessed with this movie. It is bizarre and grandiose and over the top and scathing and sensual and darkly funny, and really quite beautiful. The sets are towering and modern, rendered in sweeping lines and stark tans and greys, matching the overblown grandeur of both the French court and the Catholic Church. Ken Russell takes a true story and blows it up into this truly singular, scandalous piece of cinema. The melodrama is turned all the way up, like past 11, and I love that, especially since the tone is perfect for such a pomp and circumstancey target as Catholicism. Russell eagerly recognizes the strange blend of sexual repression and orgasmic ecstasy, pain and pleasure, guilt and pity, self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy, all so intricately connected within the religion, especially in this time period. Sex and violence–while theoretically discouraged–are unquestionably major elements found within the church’s actions, whether in bloody executions of heretics or the romantic affairs of priests.
One of the many interesting aspects of The Devils is its protagonist, Urbain Grandier, as played by the devilishly sexual Oliver Reed. He is introduced as a well-liked public figure, then immediately shown to be a philanderer who coldly casts aside his aristocratic fling the moment she reveals she is pregnant. He is certainly a flawed character, both as a priest and as a man, yet in the greater scheme of things (namely Richelieu vs Loudun), he is in the right. He nobly fights for his city, defending it against power-hungry fanatics, and I couldn’t help but root for him even if I found some of his behavior repugnant (to be clear, I don’t care that he was a priest who broke his celibacy, or a priest who got married, but that he abandoned a scared woman whom he impregnated). Reed has this constant look of condescension about him coupled with a palpable charisma, weird sexual energy, and a good head of hair; I admit I fell for him just a little bit. And I liked how in this very moralistic atmosphere the “good guy” was himself not exactly meeting high moral standards, continuing with Russell’s exposure of religious hypocrisy.
This film works on a number of levels. It is a fearless criticism of the Catholic Church as an institution, a playful historical satire, a riveting and romantic drama, an investigation of the sadomasochistic elements of religious fanaticism, and certainly an artistic triumph. Its politics are muddy yet biting, its characters confused yet deliberate. The combined star power of Oliver Reed and captivating/unsettling Vanessa Redgrave is enough to sell it, but it was often the little things that really held my attention: the opening shot of an androgynous Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) performing onstage as Venus; the ridiculous fight between Grandier and two sniveling hack doctors (involving a stuffed crocodile); Sister Jeanne’s mad attack on wide-eyed “fornicator” Madeleine (Gemma Jones) through the bars; hints as to the sexual desires of repressed nuns; the dominant effect of Derek Jarman’s modernist sets; the proto-Girls-Gone-Wild possession sequence; the eye-catching style of Father Barre (Michael Gothard), a no-nonsense exorcist with round sunglasses, long hair, bare arms, and bright white gloves. Everything just worked for me. I loved this movie.