Screenplay : Ken Russell (based on the book "The Devils of Loudon" by Aldous Huxley and the play "The Devils" by John Whiting)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1971
Stars : Vanessa Redgrave (Sister Jeanne), Oliver Reed (Urbain Grandier), Dudley Sutton (Baron De Laubardemont), Max Adrian (Ibert), Gemma Jones (Madeleine), Murray Melvin (Mignon), Michael Gothard (Father Barre)
I was recently reading a book called "Nightmare Movies," a guide to contemporary horror films by Kim Newman. In one chapter, Newman briefly mentions Ken Russell's 1971 film "The Devils," describing it simply as meretricious. Despite my educational background in English, the word meretricious had somehow escaped me, so I looked it up in the dictionary. Now, after having viewed the movie, I can say Newman's one-word description fits "The Devils" perfectly. For those who don't know, according to "The American Heritage Dictionary," meretricious means "attracting attention in a vulgar manner" and "lacking sincerity."
"The Devils" is a spectacularly bad dramatic retelling of a forced witch trial in Loudon, France in 1634. The target of the inquisition was a priest named Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who was singled out by Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) because he stood in their political path to power.
Richelieu and Louis XIII were underlying schemers who wanted to bring all of France under their tight control, but Grandier insisted on his city maintaining an air of self-preservation. He wasn't against France, but at the same time, he didn't want Louis XIII tearing down the city's walls, making it vulnerable to any attack. To get him out the way, the powers that be enlisted the aid of a hunchback nun named Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) to whip up a tale about Grandier being in league with Devil, so the city would turn against him, send him to trial, sentence and execute him.
What follows is a blatantly obscene spectacle, with Russell cramming as much blasphemy, fornication, violence, torture, and naked nuns into the screen as he can. Of course, as he pointed out in an opening disclaimer about the truth of the movie's subject matter, Russell will no doubt defend his tastelessness as mere recreation of actual events as they were.
Some of Russell's most pointed criticism as a filmmaker has attacked his tendency to mix fact and fiction to his own liking. I have the feeling that this is the case here, as well. Russell based his screenplay on a book, "The Devils of Loudon" by Aldous Huxley, and subsequent play by John Whiting. Even if we are to believe that the actual events in 1634 were the same as what Russell eventually put on screen, the movie still fails because it is so exploitive.
You can almost feel Russell frothing at the mouth with the idea of filming huge orgies with nuns and people being burned at the stake, all in the name of historical realism. Russell buries his head so deeply in the grotequeries of the subject matter, that he has no chance of standing back and getting a real grasp on the material. Better filmmakers have made better film about atrocities worse than a witch trial (see Speilberg's "Schindler's List"). Just because a movie is made about a demeaning subject, does mean that the movie itself must also be demeaning.
Stumbling through the muck is Oliver Reed, who gives a good performance as Grandier, a priest with plenty of sins on his conscience, who is nonetheless an innocent victim in the end. As Sister Jeanne, Vanessa Redgrave spends most of her time slumped over with her head cocked to the left in her best Quasimodo impression, either drooling in lust for Grandier, or shrieking hysterically about her supposed possession by devils. Of course, it is her unfulfilled desire for Grandier that is the catalyst for everything, so perhaps Russell's point is that sex is the root of all evil. Or maybe not. Who can tell what the point of this film is?
I started this film with a sense of hope and curiosity, but most of that hope was quickly dashed to pieces, and my curiosity was satiated beyond what I was hoping for. I think I lost it completely when Michael Gorthad, looking like a hippie rock star with purple John Lennon glasses, finally shows up on the scene, horribly overacting his part as a professional exorcist. There was something almost hilarious about watching a Peter Frampton look-alike in black robes, pretending to cast out devils from a group of nude, masturbating nuns. If Russell hadn't been so serious about this movie, I'd call it a camp classic.
Therefore, heed this piece of advice: this is not the place to be if you want to see an artistic rendition of the insanities of the 17th-century witch trials. Go read "The Crucible" instead.
©1997 James Kendrick