Ken Russell made a career out of directing some of the most bizarre, blasphemous, and kinky movies in cinematic history. Such a provocateur would never survive in our modern political climate, but in the 70’s and 80’s he was the go-to guy for cinephiles who liked their movies weird and wild. One of his most thoroughly strange productions was The Devils, produced in 1971. Adapted from a non-fiction book by Aldous Huxley (The Devils of Loudun), which itself was based on true events, the film is ostensibly about a rogue priest, Urbain Grandier, in seventeenth century France who runs afoul of the machinations of the political elite.
Grandier stands in opposition to the desires of Cardinal Richelieu, who wants Louis VIII to destroy the fortification cities, like Loudun, to prevent the Protestant population from uprising. In his bid for power Richelieu is willing to use any means available to assure his success and if a few heads have to roll, well…so be it. The story itself is an interesting chapter in the Catholic church’s long and troubled history, but in the director’s hands it becomes something else entirely. Like many of Russell’s projects, it’s a difficult film to categorize. Horror and satire rub shoulders with historical accuracy and Grand-Guignol excess. He hits all the main points relayed in Huxley’s book but, Russell being Russell, the visuals get downright crazy as the film progresses.
Urbain Grandier, played by Oliver Reed, is a well-regarded man of the cloth who becomes the leader of the town of Loudun when the governor dies. He also courts controversy in that he refuses to abide by his oath of celibacy and has had several secretive affairs. Early on he is asked by the deformed Mother Superior of the local convent of Ursuline nuns to become their new confessor, but he refuses. Played with abandon by Vanessa Redgrave, the twisted Mother Superior is sexually obsessed with the priest after hearing about his various exploits with other women. She has dreams where she sees him as a Christ-like figure. In these otherworldly sequences she is drawn to him—going as far as licking his wounds in a sexual manner as he stands before her. After learning that he has married in secret she becomes consumed with jealousy. Tortured by her obsession with him, while speaking to their new confessor she accuses Grandier of using witchcraft to possess her and the other nuns with demonic entities, forcing them to act out in bizarre fashion. The outward manifestations of these so-called demonic possessions include: barking, moaning, speaking in tongues, convulsions, vulgar dreams, and frenzied sexual behavior—among other things.
This presents an opportunity for the authorities and a professional witch-hunter, Father Pierre Barre, is dispatched to rout the evil. It is here that the film takes a left turn from brooding historical drama to the type of psychosexual freak out that Russell is so well known for. All kinds of technicolor debauchery appears on screen during some of the film’s more lurid moments. The witch-hunter travels to the convent where he and his cohorts perform their own unique brand of exorcism, including: forced enemas, insane exhortations, and maniacal shouting. The effect on the nuns is profound. In a scene that has to be seen to be believed, the hysterical nuns go bat-shit crazy. Shaving their heads and stripping off their clothes, they run wild throughout the convent, writhing naked on top of a statue of Jesus as well as performing other acts of blasphemous nuttiness (I can only imagine what the Catholic church and its followers must have thought of the film upon its release). As the craziness escalates the utter deviancy of the church leaders performing the exorcisms is graphically exposed. If anyone’s in league with the devil, it’s them, along with the country’s elites who are always jockeying for position behind the scenes.
Eventually Grandier is arrested. After a token show trial he is tortured before being executed by burning at the stake (filmed in loving detail as he’s fried to a crisp, screaming his innocence to the end). When he falls, the city also falls. In the end we realize there were no demonic possessions and that the real evil at the root of the story was the banal political scheming that resulted in the total destruction of an innocent man. Religious hysteria combined with sexual repression led the nuns to act out and the elites wasted no time capitalizing on it in order to remove a stubborn political opponent. There is real horror in that, worse than anything that goes bump in the night.
Upon its release the film naturally became steeped in controversy and received numerous X-ratings from censorship boards all over the world for its explicit scenes of nuns gone loopy with sexual frustration and unflinching depictions of brutal violence. In the end we are left with the feeling that, had they all just gotten laid, things might have worked out different for everyone. So endeth the lesson for today.