Visions of Ecstasy, an 18-minute experimental film by Nigel Wingrove, once had the distinction of being the only production refused by the British Board of Film Classification for blasphemy. The film depicts St. Theresa engaged sexually with both another woman and Jesus Christ on the cross, and while never threatening to be anything more than a softcore porn, the movie’s religious invocations were enough to have it banned until blasphemy laws were repealed in 2008. Four years later, the film was approved by the BBFC with an 18 certification and no demands for edits.
The experimental nature of Visions of Ecstasy has the advantage of diminishing the contextual implications of building a strong link between sexual and religious ecstasy while also permitting audiences to draw their own interpretations. This avoidance only works because the pacing of the cuts and thunderous music produces an undeniable physiological response. The writhing bodies and gelled lights inspire a plethora of influences, from rave culture to the most aesthetically tuned Giallos. The film, which has been compared to the works of Kenneth Anger, uses music and fetishism to draw the viewer into a state of desire that makes them uncomfortable, assuming they have any hang-ups about blasphemy or the Catholic Church.
Of all the Saints to draw upon, the choice to use St. Theresa has heavy implications. If you are unfamiliar with her, she was an incredibly influential Carmelite nun who helped reform the order at a pivotal time in its history. She is perhaps better known for her writing and mysticism, which invoked new forms of prayer and pontificated on the magical properties of holy water. She had visions of both Mary and Jesus, as well as other spiritual visions. Among them was the presence of a Seraph, a heavenly being who St. Theresa says impaled her with a golden lance. She wrote about the incident:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…
The passage, which could just as easily been a small chapter in a Marquis de Sade essay, inspires both religious and physiological ecstasy. The pleasure she associates with her excessive pain — a sign from God — has undeniable sexual weight. The imagination does not need to run far to process the almost orgasmic release of that moan and, in turn, the perverse pleasures of her impaled body. This image borrowed in Visions of Ecstasy sees a trance-like Theresa bathing her body and face in blood. The imagined horror of her impalement representing a fantasy and dream, a vision that feels real enough to touch, and ultimately has a more profound effect than even lived experiences.
Ecstasy, in a religious or mystic context, has to do with attaining a higher state: the dissolution between physical and mental experiences. In the context of religion, this becomes interpreted as experiencing a oneness with God. Yet, through art, sex and drugs, ecstatic experiences can be achieved without any religious connections at all. While more rare, collective moments of ecstasy have the potential to be inspired at the movies, where many critics unsurprisingly use language associated with both sex and religion to explain their relationship to the silver screen.
As a film, Visions of Ecstasy works towards inspiring this collective transcendence. The trance-like music and pulsating images become a vehicle for an audience response. There are certainly many films, especially in the experimental realm, that have done a better job at it, but rarely with such an overt religious bent. Due to the initial rating, Wingrove’s film has rarely been screened for audiences, and as a result, the bridge between individual and group ecstasy has not been crossed. Connected to cinema as a whole, Visions of Ecstasy does seem to resonate as an example of breaking down boundaries in an attempt to push ecstasy on a (perhaps) unwilling crowd. To feel desire in the cinema remains a taboo subject — we can laugh, we can cry… but to admit that we are turned on still crosses too deeply into shame.
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.