Ken Russell’s The Devils is an operatic dance, drawing on writings by Aldous Huxley about events that transpired in 17th century Loudun, France. Like much of Russell’s work during this period, the film is audacious, sexy and boundary pushing. Its commentary on the Catholic Church, in particular, motivated cuts and bans, and up until recently, the film was rarely screened in a complete form.
At the heart of The Devils is a sexual frenzy. Locked away, monstrous and oppressed, the nuns of the Loudun convent slowly go mad. Their leader, the deformed Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), is in love with the charismatic and sexually promiscuous Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed). Her sexual fantasies about him, loaded with conflicting and contentious Catholic imagery, imagine him half-naked in the public square wearing a crown of thorns. As blood drips from his head onto his chest, Sister Jeanne — at her knees — sensually licks the blood off him. This private moment of ecstasy reveals her urge to covet and destroy the object of her desire.
When it becomes painfully apparent that Urbain Grandier will never return the love that Sister Jeanne’s feels, she goes… a little mad. With her own mental unravelling, the whole convent goes with her — gyrating and nude bodies of nuns, engaged in sexual and blasphemous behaviors. In confession, Sister Jeanne not only reveals Urbain’s many affairs and his secret marriage, but she also accuses him of witchcraft and possessing her. Everything unwinds from this point, as Grandier cannot defend himself in the face of a convent full of mad nuns.
The poetry of Russell’s filmmaking is his ability to work in shades of grey. Both reprehensible in their own way, neither Sister Jeanne nor Urbain Grandier come accross as irredeemable. They are flawed humans taken in by a society that survives under unforgivable positions. The film’s take on the relationship between sex and religion, suggesting that Catholicism breeds unhealthy and pathological sexual compulsions, is radical and provoking.
Alienating to a certain degree, Russell’s cinematic style favours extravagant staging and hysteric performances. In some ways a precursor to the vulgar auteurist movement, Russell blends low-art sensibilities and pseudo-realism to communicate ideas and emotions. However, jumbling him in with that group is also insincere and ultimately pulls away the curtain on the movement’s pseudo-ambitions to raise certain films and filmmakers to be worthy of critical appraisal, and the concept of relying on hyperbolic praise that simultaneously ignores box-office results and writers of genre criticism that came before.
The difference with Russell from many of those filmmakers is that his use of style is in service of some weighty and challenging ideas. While it is easy to get swept away by the crass vulgarism of his work, Russell uses his confrontational style in order to get below the surface of normalized and accepted institutions of abuse and oppression. This is perhaps most obvious in The Devils, as there is hardly a more worthy pincushion than the Catholic Church, however the concept is more or less true of most of Russell’s films which tackle sex, love, and authority with passion, playfulness and cutting precision.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.