#455: The Devils
Torture, sacrilege, necrophilia, speaking truth to power: the ultimate nunsploitation film is subversive, transgressive, and, improbably, based
Initial release: 1971
Director: Ken Russell
A few weeks back I reviewed Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, a sharply subversive nunsploitation film that felt a little unstuck in time, as if it were still the 1970s and exploitation films featuring isolated, cloistered women (set, depending on the movie, in a medieval convent, a modern-day prison, or, if we’re getting real fucked up, a Nazi prison camp) were still in full swing.
Benedetta, for all its awkward lesbian shenanigans and religious daring, didn’t really have much to say; the same isn’t true for 1971’s The Devils, Ken Russell’s lunatic-fringe extravaganza about a vain, charismatic priest, his private war with the church and state (in 17th century France, they were the same thing,) and the disturbed mother superior of the local convent’s dangerous obsession with him.
Based on Aldous Huxley’s The Loudon Devils, Russell’s film roughly traces a series of events known to history as the Loudon Possessions, a notorious witch trial in which a local priest, Urbain Grandier, was convicted of bewitching a convent of Ursuline nuns and burned at the stake. Huxley’s book posits that the trial and execution were politically motivated; Huxley wasn’t the first to adopt this idea, either, with John Locke arguing not 50 years after Grandier’s death that the possessions were all a sham to support the trial.
Grandier in the film is, in short, something of a fuckboy. Intensely charismatic, he’s managed to not only get the local Catholics and Huguenot Protestants to stop killing each other, but to work together in defense of their city amidst the plague. He uses that same charisma to bed a series of women, abandoning them when they get pregnant or simply when he grows bored of them. In spite of his licentious behavior, he remains popular with the townspeople, administering to the sick and defending them from the demented “doctors” tormenting them with medical remedies of dubious effectiveness. He also unfortunately attracts the attention of the state when he stops the demolition of the city walls, a tactic used by the church (via Cardinal Richelieu’s influence on the king) to punish Huguenot towns.
Meanwhile, at the local convent, Sister Jeanne of the Angels is a neurotic, giggling mess, sexually obsessed with Grandier (who she has never met) and outraged by his secret marriage to a woman who had initially intended to join the convent. (The other nuns are themselves sexually repressed weirdos who can’t help but lose all modesty where Grandier is concerned, either, a fact that only serves to stir up Jeanne’s jealousy.) She takes out her frustrations by informing the convent’s new confessor of Grandier’s sexual behavior, which, combined with his personal beef against the state, triggers an inquisition in which the nuns essentially fake being possessed to keep from being executed, and Sister Jeanne is essentially tortured by a witchfinder’s obscene “exorcism” methods, all while Grandier is out of town on a trip to speak with the king personally about the demolition of the walls.
Grandier eventually returns to town during a mass exorcism of the nuns (which had more or less devolved into a perverse orgy with a twisted carnival atmosphere that shares tonal similarities with the surreal, soul-destroying town destruction sequence from Come And See.) He’s soon arrested, tortured and put on trial, which he uses as an opportunity to speak truth to power; no matter what they do to him, he refuses to confess to any wrongdoing, in a lengthy sequence that often feels like a deliberate Christ allegory as he’s forced to drag himself and his broken legs along a walkway to his own place of execution.
Right away when you start the film you get the idea that you’re in for something surreal, as King Louis XIII, an extremely queer-coded quasi-villain, stars in an interpretative dance adaptation of The Birth of Venus, for the edification of the frail Cardinal Richelieu. It only gets stranger — and hornier — from there; Loudon is weirdly clinical, with its walls — and the convent — done up in stark, modernist white tile, the outfits often feel like the 1970s filtered through the 17th century, and there’s a general sense of deliberately institutional anachronism.
Grandier, played by the larger-than-life Oliver Reed, acts rings around everyone else; even Vanessa Redgrave can’t elevate Sister Jeanne beyond an archetypal demented villain, a hunchbacked pervert who masturbates with the executed Grandier’s charred femur. (And if you think that’s bad, wait’ll you see the infamous “Rape of Christ” scene, in which the possessed nuns tear down the massive crucifix on the church wall and use it as a sort of multi-user sex toy.)
As you might have guessed by now, the film’s blending of repressed sexuality, religious violence and political messaging got this film pretty much banned in half the world, especially in the Catholic countries; elsewhere, it was cut to ribbons, with the “Rape of Christ” scene actually having been thought lost forever, only being rediscovered in the last 20 years. Unfortunately, there is as of yet no easy way to watch a relatively uncut version of the film; while film critic Mark Kermode has screened such a version in the past, the big issue is getting Warner Brothers to sign off on a Blu-Ray restoration, which they are reluctant to do. (With all the real-world atrocities that have occurred in the fifty years since the film’s release, it’s hard to imagine any arguments regarding the film’s supposed obscenity holding water today.)
While The Devils is preceded in both theme and historical source by Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1961 psychological classic Mother Joan of the Angels, it is Russel’s film that established the nunsploitation genre; its sheer daring and the controversy surrounding it empowered a number of directors to make their own take on the theme of sexually repressed religious women locked up behind thick walls, a lineage that we can trace all the way to Benedetta. But there’s only one Devils, a surreal smorgasbord of go-for-baroque cinematography and set design and a very real message about the subtle and non-subtle ways the state employs violence against its people.