Movie Discussion: Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971)

  • Monthly Theme: Witchcraft & Black Magic
  • The Film: The Devils
  • Country of origin: U.K.
  • Date of U.K. release: July 1971
  • Date of U.S. release: July 16, 1971
  • Studio: Russo Productions
  • Distributer: Warner Bros.
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Ken Russell
  • Producer: Roy Baird, et al.
  • Screenwriter: Ken Russell
  • Adaptation? Yes, from the 1952 book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley and the 1960 play The Devils by John Whiting.
  • Cinematographer: David Watkin
  • Make-Up/FX: John Richardson
  • Music: Peter Maxwell Davies
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror legend Oliver Reed (The Curse of the Werewolf, The Brood, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. British actors Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Jones.
  • Awards?: Best Foreign Director at the 1972 Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. Best Foreign Film at the 1971 Venice Film Festival.
  • Tagline: The Devils is not a film for everyone…”
  • The Lowdown: Based both on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 book The Devils of Loudun and the subsequent John Whiting play from 1960, the film fictionalizes historical events that took place in 17th-century France. A womanizing priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), is caught in a political struggle with the powerful Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) over Protestant/Catholic tensions in Loudun. When a disturbed nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), becomes erotically obsessed with Grandier, it sets a series of events in motion that lead to a case of “demonic possession” in Loudun’s Ursuline convent and charges of witchcraft and sorcery being leveled against Grandier. The Devils was rated X and thus exhibited mostly in a heavily censored format when it was released. However, uncut versions of the film have been released to DVD in recent years (thought Netflix refuses to stock the movie).

If you haven’t seen The Devils our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: I would like to open our discussion with my capsule review of The Devils: “Dangerous Liasons meets The Crucible meets Caligula.” Do you approve?

Kristine: Yes, that’s a good start. But you are missing a certain je ne sais quoi. That review needs a frisson of something… (I am going to try and pepper our discussion with as many Frenchisms as I can dredge up from high school French class). It certainly is all those things, but it is also something utterly trashy and absurd, even more so than Caligula, I think. And it’s more Cruel Intentions than Dangerous Liasons.

Sean: Well, you mentioned butch straight boys earlier today… There is no butcher straight boy than Oliver Reed.

Kristine: True, but we need to begin at the beginning… You must address the opening set piece: Boticelli’s Venus on the Half Shell drag show??? That sequence was gayer than all 5 seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race put together.

Sean: Grrr. This is forcing me to show my hand and I don’t like it.

Kristine: Zut alors.

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Chantay, you’re gay

Sean: I wanted to get at the way this movie thinks about masculinity through Reed’s character, Grandier, and then use King Genderfuck as a contrast.

Kristine: Agreed.

Sean: But yes, the queerness of King Louis XIII is over the top. I also didn’t want to go there yet because the most negative things I have to say about this movie have to do with its homophobia, and I actually love the movie. And I love Reed in it.

Kristine: I’m not sure I love it. In the cosmology of The Devils, queer = evil and silly; butch = virtuous despite sins. I really cannot get on board with that worldview. But before we get to all that, can you explain Reed’s appeal?

Sean: I mean, don’t you wanna knock boots with him?

Kristine: No, I don’t. I mean, more than anyone else in the movie, but that is not saying much. He’s better when his head is forcibly shaved and in a dress.

Sean: I think he’s totally fly. But here’s the thing: this movie is so 1970s in how it posits Reed as this very specific kind of alpha-male masculine hero. He’s like, a sex god according to The Devils.  When the women are watching the Governor’s funeral at the beginning and are saying, “Ole Grandier could have me anywhere. Even on the Scared Altar itself!” and “Now there’s a man well worth going to Hell for, eh?” I was dying.

Kristine: Right, I totally had the same thought that it was wicked 1970s. Grandier equals the dude wearing a fertility necklace with a low-buttoned shirt at a swinging singles bar.

Sean: Yes. Grandier is very much the bedhopping 1970s bachelor, like Larry from Three’s Company.

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Ken Russell to the world: “God means a penis going into a vagina.”

Kristine: Exactly. Down at the Regal Beagle. So, I’ve decided that Grandier is basically a tea partier rallying for states’ rights against big government.

Sean: Well, the movie’s politics do boil down to conflict between self-governance and centralized rule. I think that, despite seeming risqué on the surface, The Devils has some very conservative values.

Kristine: Can I make a quick aside?

Sean: Of course.

Kristine: It bugged me that everyone looked appropriately period, or close enough, and then the freak Witch Hunter, Father Barre, bops in and he is totally styled as a 1970s groovy dude. I don’t know much about 17th century priestly fashions, but I am pretty sure they did not include blue-tinted granny glasses.

Sean: I thought the exact same thing. He is John Lennon, Witch Hunter.

Kristine: Yep. And his mannerisms, too. Like he was some weird Manson family hanger-on, right?

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“Hey, where’s Yoko?”

Sean: Even Reed’s moptop (which is symbolically shorn at the end) felt anachronistic to me.

Kristine: Sure, but Father Barre was egregious.

Sean: Well, he was supposed to be a problem, and so he was.

Kristine: Fair enough. So, what is this film’s relationship to Witchfinder General?

Sean: This movie was made in 1971, Witchfinder General came a few years before in 1968. Ken Russell, in context, was an “art film” director, whereas Witchfinder General was made and funded by Tigon and AIP, which in comparison come off like trashy b-picture studios. But I don’t know if Russell knew of or ever saw Witchfinder General. It’s a good question.

Kristine: Okay. It’s hard to believe he hadn’t seen or heard of it…

Sean: Well, this movie is based on both a book by Aldous Huxley and a play by John Whiting, so it has more “pedigree” than Witchfinder General even in the source material. I mean, we talked about how Witchfinder General could easily be read as an allegory for life in the mod 1960s. The Devils feels more like a general statement on mankind and society to me. I mean, do you agree that this movie is secretly conservative?

Kristine: Yes, I do agree that The Devils has a conservative agenda. Though I am not sure I have totally cracked its code.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 8.59.23 AM
Daddy’s mad.

Sean: In the end, Grandier is saved by… the love of a good woman.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: Kristine, Grandier’s confession was: “I have been a man. I have loved women. I have enjoyed power.” Those were his only sins, see?

Kristine: Yeah, I know… and Madeline is set up in opposition to crazy-ass Sister Jeanne. I was actually pretty offended by how Grandier was portrayed as this Bill Clinton type. Sure, he’s a scoundrel, but his gravitas excuses that and his grand good works excuse his “trivial” base moral shortcomings. And this is underscored by how the women he has wronged – Sister Jeanne (okay, only in her crazy mind) and Phillipe, the horrible ringlet-ed beast – are portrayed as so, so awful. And the non-crazy, “good” woman (translation: obedient) “gets him.” Gross. Do you agree?

Sean: I totally agree… I do like that in this movie’s imagination, “being a man” means loving women. Compared to what Louis XIII says to his boy servant: “Those are women, my darling. Look well. Vomit if you wish. No. Don’t touch them. Man is born of them. Gross things… Nasty, breeding ground. Eggs hatched out in hot dung. Some men love them – this poor, deluded priest Grandier for example. He deserves all he gets.” Kristine, that speech is what Ken Russell thinks goes on in the minds of fagiolis.

Kristine: Yes but do men actually love women as embodied by Grandier? It’s funny that Louis XIII uses the metaphor of the egg – in this case, something that arises from putrescence – because Grandier himself uses that metaphor early on in his tryst with Philippe, the girl he impregnates. He gives this speech: “I was full of that indecent confidence that comes after perfect coupling. And as I went I thought… honestly I thought, ‘The body can transcend its purpose. It can become a thing of such purity that it can be worshipped to the limits of imagination. Everything is allowed, all is right. And such perfection lends for an understanding of this hideous state of existence.’ But what is it now? An egg, a thing of loneliness, weariness, sickness….”

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Spring Break at the Vatican

Sean: The consistent use of the egg (which is linked to female sexuality/reproduction) as a metaphor for fallenness, fragility and corruptibility is a problem. Isn’t it just yet another iteration of the age-old sexist dichotomy – male = intellect, rational, transcendent; female = body, primal, limiting? I mean, a lot of this movie is predicated on mythologizing heterosexuality, as that speech demonstrates. In a Ken Russell movie, and coming from Oliver Reeds’ mouth, the word “indecent” here is meant insouciantly. But also that claptrap about sex leading to an indescribable perfection. That’s Grandier as love guru/sex mystic.

Kristine: Agreed. And let’s also let’s contrast King Louis XIII the fagioli’s quote with Grandier’s mucho macho take on the genders: “Even the most innocent lamb is destined for the lustful ram.”

Sean: I was just going to say that I prefer the horny cad version of Grandier at the beginning of the movie (who says that ram quote) to the fucking martyr at the end. He also says: “Even lilies decay into rottenness.”

Kristine: He certainly was more fun as a debased fuck machine.

Sean: Can you believe the lampooning of gay men in the King Louis XIII character and all his cum-guzzling courtiers? Lines like “Vomit if you wish” cracked me the fuck up, but they’re horrifying.

Kristine: Horrifying beyond all measure.

Sean: You know what other movie made by a deranged “auteur” was a big period epic that used faggy aristocrats to underscore the working class virility of its hero?

Kristine: What?

Sean: Fucking Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

Kristine: A movie I am proud to say I have never seen, and I never will.

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Photo shoot for Mormon anti-gay PSA

Sean: Ken Russell was more like Mel Gibson than unlike. That is distressing.

Kristine: Well, they are both freaky Catholics…

Sean: Yes, but I do see Russell as really rejecting Catholicism in this movie, whereas Gibson mythologizes it. I am going to be reaching here, but I want to tentatively suggest that there is something pro-sex in this movie… Am I mad?

Kristine: If by “pro-sex” you mean hetero coupling in the manner of “an innocent lamb and a lustful ram,” then sure. I think the movie’s attitude towards sex is made pretty clear by the fact that the nuns are nuts because they don’t get laid and have become sexual neurotics, right? A good roll in the hay would sort them out.

Sean: Yes. This movie has two subjects on its mind – the sexual body and the political body, and how they overlap. That’s why Grandier’s insistence that the walls of Loudun are erect and strong is so key. The big power struggle between Cardinal Richelieu and Grandier is over the walls of the city. Richelieu wants to tear them down, Grandier wants them to remain. I feel like this struggle over the body of the city is so gendered and Richelieu’s plans for the city (breaching her walls – Grandier refers to Loudun with feminine pronouns) amount to a kind of symbolic rape. As he burns on the pyre, Grandier screams out, “Look at your city! Your city is destroyed!” Just as the nuns have been defiled. Thus the nuns are crazed, repressed sexual hysterics, and their bodies mirror the psychology of the state, right? The struggle over the walls of Loudun gets transferred onto the bodies of the nuns; their bodies become the sites of Richelieu’s rape and violation of Loudun (the forced enemas given to the nuns, the “medical examination” forced upon Sister Jeanne, etc.). So, as is the tradition with Western male artists, women are used by this movie as pure symbols and nothing more. Can we now address how much Vanessa Redgrave (as Sister Jeanne) owns this movie?

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 7.53.18 AM
Free love

Kristine: Jinx. I told you that one of my two favorite things in the whole movie was the nun furiously masturbating the giant altar candle while licking the head of the flame.

Sean: Phallic power.

Kristine: My other favorite thing was Jeanne’s first appearance and the horrible, mean, hateful but totally hilarious visual joke Russell plays therein.

Sean: Remind me.

Kristine: We first see her with her head severely cocked to the side, presumably because she is under a low arch, so we don’t think anything of it. But then she walks forward and it is only then we realize that she is deformed. It’s so hilarious and so, so mean.

Sean: “Take away my hump! Take away my hump!”

Kristine: “I’m beeeeeyoutiful! I’m beeeeeeyoutiful!!”

Sean: I kept flashing forward to Vanessa Redgrave playing Julia’s mother on Nip/Tuck and dying.

Kristine: I forgot about that. Jesus, did she bring it to this movie.

Sean: When she screams “cock” in Mignon’s face? I was living for it.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 8.32.41 AM
This actually is called “Nun’s Pose” in yoga

Kristine: Throughout the first half of the movie, I was dying laughing every time she was on-screen. During the second half, not so much.

Sean: One of her first lines is, “Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sen-su-yal delights. Hahahahaha!” The maniacal laughter…

Kristine: Her insane little girl giggle made me die. I’m dead now.

Sean: God I love her.

Kristine: I mean, I know it was campy and over-the-top and all that, but I am sincere when I say it is also a super brave performance. I mean, Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet doesn’t have shit on Vanessa.

Sean: When the torturers break out their implements, and the camera closes in on Jeanne’s face and we see her immediate future register on her face? She realizes what her lie has done and she is fucking assaulted and has scalding water squirting into her vagina…. Horrid, horrid, horrid.

Kristine: I believe the scalding hot water was an enema, not a douche. Get your lady anatomy straight, Sean.

Sean: So I guess the ending we saw was slightly edited. Apparently there’s a cut of the ending where she masturbates with the charred femur.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.12.03 AM
Is it beef-flavored?

Kristine: Okay, I read that after I watched it, and I went back and looked to make sure I hadn’t missed it (how could one miss that????). We see Laubardemont hand her the charred femur but no masturbating. Though her first masturbation scene (with the nun who later pleasures the pillar candle  watching in ecstatic delight) was epic enough for me.

Sean: Well, here’s where I want to say that I think it is possible to do a feminist reading of this movie. If we ignore how annoyingly the character of Madeline is used in the movie’s second half, she is pretty kickass in the beginning. She gives this speech: “I’ve had unclean thoughts about a man. I think of him in the early hours of the morning. My bedroom is suffocatingly hot. My thoughts are sinful, yet they are so tender. My body, Father, my body. I wish to be touched.” And she is not punished for these desires. If anything, she’s rewarded by being able to explore those feelings without repercussion. Also, she is the character we end the movie with. She’s the one walking off into the post-apocalyptic landscape, our sympathies totally with her.

Kristine: Right. I didn’t have that thought while watching the movie, but with you spelling it out (plus our agreement that the movie is sex-positive) can see how that reading is plausible. But there is still a flip side of ugliness. To wit – it strikes me as very unusual to have the “bad” woman (Philippe, the ringleted aristocrat) bear a child while the “good” woman, the wife, does not. In other words. Madeline and Grandier’s sex is just for the beauty of sex, not for breeding, which is pretty cool. Except that this underscores those horrible ideas about woman being disgusting breeding chickens, which I suspect is Russell’s true opinion.

Sean: No, I disagree. We’re supposed to be horrified by Louis XIII’s misogynistic rant.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 8.33.24 AM
Never fuck a skanky mime, Grandier realizes.

Kristine: But we are also supposed to be horrified at Philippe, the breeding aristocrat. She has a valid case to be furious and want revenge on Grandier, but she is portrayed as being so awful that it is impossible to sympathize with her.

Sean: Oh yeah she’s just a shrewish painted-up ‘ho. Remember when Grandier is casting her aside for becoming pregnant and he says, “Remember, we love as we rouse the animal, and now it’s devoured us.” Procreation is a devouring animal, a kind of annihilation. Sex for pleasure is poetry and transcendence. Working from that notion, I think there is feminist content to the movie. Russell wants us to empathize with the nuns in the convent and see them as trapped in a sexist patriarchal nightmare.

Kristine: I do agree about the nuns. When they are literally herded up and roped up in the woods and told they are all going to die… and then the men “save” them?

Sean: Oh god, that scene. Doesn’t the misunderstanding started by Jeanne’s lie inadvertently gives the nuns an excuse to release their ids? When they are about to be executed, the price of being spared is for them to fulfill a role – the role of the hysterical nymphomaniac, which they are more than happy to play. And then at the end when Sister Jeanne asks “What do I do?” and Laubardemont says to Jeanne: “Pray for salvation, do penance, stay here quietly of course. What else? There’ll be a few tourists occasionally to brighten things up, but that won’t last long. Soon the town will die and you’ll be left in peace… and oblivion.”

Kristine: Harsh, dude.

Sean: “Stay here quietly!”? That is a woman’s role in this society – shut the fuck up and pray. Russell means for us to be pissed off and horrified by that.

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Lilith Fair, 1993

Kristine: Remember when Sister Jeanne tells Madeline that the nuns aren’t there because they are particularly devoted? She says, “Most of the nuns here are noble women who have embraced the monastic life because there was not enough money at home to provide them with doweries or they were unmarriageable because ugly, a burden to the family. Communities which ought to be furnaces where souls are forever on fire with the love of God are merely dead with the grey ashes of convenience.”

Sean: Yeah, the movie is pretty savvy about the social and cultural conundrums of the period. I feel like its feminist in how it lays bare the horrors of the patriarchy and the ways in which women are trapped by the oppressive culture they live in.

Kristine: Since we are talking about the nuns, I have to say that I fucking adored that batshit crazy, super-mod, glossy red-and-white nunnery. A pretty brave choice for a period piece (as opposed to some creepy stone dungeon). In my opinion, it totally works. There is one scene when the nuns are moving about and we see these impossiblly huge white doors close, and they have red stripes on them that make this gigantic cross. Super cool and super creepy.

Sean: So awesome. Apparently Russell wanted “futuristic” designs for the city and nunnery. Not period-specific ones.

Kristine: I really, really love that choice. That alone makes me think that he is some kind of genius.

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On the bridge of the Spaceship Nunnery

Sean: Yeah, I agree with that. I feel like its safe to say that Russell despised the Church, no? I think part of what The Devils expresses is that he hates the Church for how it represses and warps and perverts female sexuality in an “unnatural” way. Thus he gives Madeline that big speech when he all paternally forbids her from joining the Ursulines. He says “I’m not surprised that book of sanctimonious claptrap confused you. Most religious believe that by crying “Lord! Lord!” often enough they can contrive to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. A flock of parrots could just as readily cry the same thing with just a little chance of success. You can do more good outside the cloister as you can within. Amongst the Ursulines or the Carmelites you will be hiding your light under a bushel. Your place is here in Loudon and your vocation to give a shining example of wisdom to all those foolish virgins whose thoughts dwell on perishable vanities.” He clearly sees most people in the Church system as fools and poseurs.

Kristine: Yeah, but at the time that he gives that speech you think he’s just being a cad, ordering her not to become a nun so he can seduce her. But then all of a sudden Madeline’s magical and pure vagina turns him into a “better man.”  Grandier is totally a stand-in for Ken Russell, right? I bet Russell loved the idea of a “rebel priest”. Oh, gross, is that how he saw himself in the world of movie-making? As a rebel priest? I am vomiting.

Sean: I want to quote from Grandier’s speech to Madeline about what he thinks the deal with Sister Jeanne is: “Secluded women, they give themselves to God. But something remains which cries out to be given to man. Can you imagine being wakened in the night by a dream? A dream of your childhood or your lover or even a vision of a good meal. Now this is sin, and so you must take up your little whip and start scourging your body. This is discipline. But pain is sensuality and in its vortex spin images of horror and lust. Our Beloved Sister in Jesus seems to have set her mind on me. There’s no reason. A piece of gossip perhaps overheard and magnified. Anything found in the desert of her frustrated life can bring hope and with hope comes love and with love comes hate. So I possess this woman. May God help her in her misery and unhappiness.”

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 8.39.24 AM

Kristine: Yes, that is sympathetic and truth talk.

Sean: “But something remains which cries out to be given to man”? Is that true, Kristine? Is there something in you which cries out to be given to man?

Kristine: More like something that cries out to take men. I am the last of the famous international playgirls, you know this, Sean.

Sean: Sorry, I forgot.

Kristine: What about when Grandier is dying on the stretcher right before he gets placed on the pyre and he and Jeanne actually see each other for the first time and he says something along the lines of “look upon me and know love” because in that moment he has become the priest he always should have been – one totally willing to sacrifice himself, Christ-like, for her, for the city? And he forgives her. That is the “knowing love”, right?

Sean: Right. Yawn. But I do appreciate that Jeanne isn’t “demonized” by the movie, but instead presented as someone with reasons for her behavior and choices… One of the scenes that really devastated me, that had me seriously on the verge of tears, was when the crowd at the “public exorcism” laughs mockingly at Sister Jeanne’s sexual fantasies (“I dried his person with my hair – I had a great knowledge of love”).

Kristine: Oh, God, all the mocking laughter was so awful.

Sean: They laugh again like that when Grandier’s been shorn. I think Russell means for us to connect those two characters together…

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Sister Act 3: Plague Bitches

Kristine: Anyway, my problem with Grandier is that I get his character arc, but I totally don’t buy it. At all. You didn’t answer my question about Russell identifying as a rebel priest…

Sean: I think that’s right. I think Russell also saw himself as a satyr and a mystic. Remember his claim to fame is a saucy, dirty adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel that, like, scandalized the earth.

Kristine: As you pointed out, the explanation given for Grandier’s “change” (from fornicatin’ asshole to contemplative poet-mystic) is the love of a good woman, and I hate that and think it rings false false false.

Sean: Marriage = “the hope of coming to God through the love of a woman.” Love redeems all. Russell may have hated the Church, but he loved God.

Kristine: Meh, I think he loved his idea of a mucho macho man of God. I don’t know about actually loving God itself. Well, speaking of scandal, what are your feelings about the massive orgy scene?

Sean: Awesome. I loved it loved it loved it. Though the image of Mignon jerking off under his vestments has been seared into my brain for all time, which is gross. But I was dying when Barre and the torturers were examining what they’ve expunged from the sisters’ rectums – “That slimy substance could only be semen! And that… that’s a carrot.”

Kristine: I loved it, too. Those torturers were so disgusting.

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Top Chef All-Stars. Ingredients: anal sludge, digested carrot, holy water. Go!

Sean: Ugh. One of the movie’s cleverest conceits is how Barre draws a parallel between the actual plague ravaging the country and the “possession” of the nuns. Of course he doesn’t realize he’s talking about psychological contagion when he says “The evil of in her flesh has infected the young and innocent bodies of her charges. Sin can be caught as easily as the plague.” But we know he is.

Kristine: Another nod towards feminism is when the nuns (led by the one who was getting off watching Jeanne abuse herself, both euphemistically and straight up literally with the metal cat ‘o nine tails) rush to stop the torturers when they realize what their plans are for poor Jeanne.

Sean: Yes. I call that “Sisterhood in Dirtytown.” Did Grandier’s torture scenes and burning rattle you? I was like, doubled over and covering my eyes and moaning in horror.

Kristine: Jeanne’s torture scenes bothered me more, especially because they were so meaningless. At least they were trying to get a confession out of Grandier. But his were bad, too. As was the torture of the Protestant woman with the hornets on her wounds and the crocodile between her legs????? There was actually a lot of rough stuff in this movie. I was shocked by how graphic the violence was… and how graphic the candlestick handie/blowie was.

Sean: The hornets in the cups. That made me think of…. Goopy Paltrow. Celebrity cupping enthusiast.

Kristine: Yep. Paltrow is a total Sister Jeanne-esque neurotic.

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The judging panel for So You Think You’re a Racist

Sean: That scene where Grandier bursts in on the torturers treating that dying woman and throws the crocodile out the window and throws aside the cups of hornets serves to remind us that he’s the hero of the movie. Because he “sees through” what to our modern eyes looks like sorcery. That’s part of the irony. Stuffing a crocodile between a sick woman’s legs to heal her is straight-up voodoo, yet Grandier is the one burned at the stake as a witch. But also remember, Grandier tells that dying woman: “Turn your face towards God, my daughter. Be glad, you stand on the threshold of everlasting life. I envy you.” Later on the pyre as he is beginning to burn, he keeps insisting that he’s about to meet his maker and be fairly judged.

Kristine: That’s right. According to Russell, a hero is a man with a big, hard cock and an ability to see through the petty corruptions of sniveling bureaucrats, social climbers and snake-oil salesmen. Perception and virility. Poetry and Penthouse.

Sean: Totally. Remember Grandier’s big speech about his own private philosophy: “I begin to understand at last that all worldly things have a single purpose for a man of my kind – power, politics, riches, women, pride, ambition. I choose them with the same care that your cousin might select a weapon. My intention is different. You see, I need to turn them against myself. I have a great need to be united with God.”

Kristine: There’s so much self-important masochism in that sentiment. Like, I’m so perceptive and deep, I must wound myself. What to you are pleasures to me are torments.

Sean: The whole movie’s an S&M playground. That is, after all, how people in this movie are “united with God.” Through profound bodily suffering – like the woman dying of the plague, or Grandier on the pyre. One thing I realized watching this again was how tightly constructed it is.

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Catholic slumber party

Kristine: Yeah, seriously.

Sean: The ending orgy scene is really in dialogue with the earlier scene where Jeanne is saying to her sisters: “Think of [Christ’s] most beautiful body, torn by the nails, the blood oozing over his hands which twitched with every hammer blow. And he suffered all this for love. For love!” This speech leads into her sex fantasy about licking Grandier-as-Christ where she is tongue-fucking his spear wound and then fucking him in public…. The Grandier-as-Christ sex fantasy was more shocking and hilarious to me than the orgy. Though the orgy, with literal vagina on Christ’s face, was fucking delightful.

Kristine: Yes, and remember when Jeanne self-stigmatizes with the crucifix on her rosary? That was… wow. But the Christ rape was pretty good stuff.

Sean: I think Russell would have liked to see Christianity merged back with orgiastic paganism. I think he saw papal control of the body as a disgusting perversion and the church’s anti-sex attitude as destructive and inhuman. I almost cheered when Grandier says to Madeline, “It is not good for a man to be alone.” Fuck yeah.

Kristine: I agree, but Russell is still criticizing all of it from such a tired and lame straight male perspective.

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In the women’s locker room at the YMCA

Sean: But it made me think of what the Mormon Church is doing right now to deal with gays. Do you know about this?

Kristine: I know that for a while now the Morms have said you can exist as a gay, but you can’t actually get gay with anyone. Basically, lead a nun-like existence.

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Yeah, I know of that.

Sean: Be out and proud and fully accepted as long as you are alone and celibate for the rest of your gross gay life.

Kristine: Yep. Vile.

Sean: Kristine, “It is not good for a man to be alone.”

Kristine: Especially the boos.

Sean: Right?

Kristine: I can’t stop thinking about Vanessa Redgrave. About her reading this script and being all, “I’m in!” Love her.

Sean: So I know this is bad but I loved Jeanne beating the fuck out of Madeline. I also was into it when Jeanne openly mocks Madeline’s religious ambitions by saying, “You have the face of a virgin martyr in a picture book. Very pious.” She was totally reading Madeline to filth. Am I a bad feminist?

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 8.46.13 AM
Whiny angel

Kristine: Madeline bugs. I didn’t love or hate it. I wanted the ladies to rise up together. Sigh.

Sean: The nuns are portrayed as infantilized lesbos. But I still adored the nuns playacting the nuptials of Grandier and Madeline (“We shall be one flesh!”) with one nun in full-on Grandier drag.

Kristine: “Urbain Grandier” is a pretty good drag name, by the way. This is an excerpt from Ebert’s (R.I.P.) review: “And Ken Russell has really done it this time. He has stripped the lid of respectability off the Ursuline convent in Louden, France. He has exposed Cardinal Richelieu as a political schemer. He has destroyed our illusions about Louis XIII. We are filled with righteous indignation a we bear witness to the violation of the helpless nuns; it is all the more terrible because, as Russell fearlessly reveals, all the nuns, without exception, were young and stacked.”

Sean: That is an infamous zero-star review. But I won’t speak ill of the dead, other than to say that I’m pretty much convinced that Ebert had no queer sensibility. None.

Kristine: I loved the wedding re-enactment, too. Especially with Sister Jeanne swallowing her own tongue and flipping around like a dying fish in the shadows during said nuptials.

Sean: I just wanted her to get some dick, yo.

Kristine: Riiiiiight? She throws in her lot with the boys and gets screwed, and not in the right way. Similarly to Alien, I think the female lead deserves special props, and it’s worth it for anyone to see The Devils just for Vanessa Redgrave’s performance.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.12.50 AM
Cute torture wheels. So retro.

Sean: The only other issue I’m interested in is if you think this movie has anything important to say about politics or the idea of “the city” (in a modern sense). I mean, I do think this movie sees the city as an expression of masculine/patriarchal order. “Our walls stand proud and erect,” says Grandier in the opening scenes.

Kristine: I told you, he is a total tea partier/Minuteman.

Sean: But isn’t he a “liberal”?

Kristine: Nope. Why? Because he likes to fuck? No, maybe he is libertarian, but not a liberal.

Sean: He says, “We have to show him that the city is the strength that lives in the hearts of men. That greed and dissension will never destroy her. And with God’s help we will change her walls to terraces that have the color of stars.”

Kristine: Ho hum, classic “rebel” talk.

Sean: I feel like he’s more Cory Booker than Sarah Palin. When he speaks in court and says, “This new doctrine – Laubardemont’s new doctrine, Barre’s new doctrine…  especially invented for this occasion is the work of men who are not concerned with fact or with law or with theology, but a political experiment to show how the will of one man can be pushed into destroying not only one man, or one city, but one nation.” Isn’t he railing against anti-intellectualism?

Kristine: Nah. “One man” easily equals Obama. What political persuasion was Russell?

Sean: I have not a goddamned clue.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 9.09.01 AM
Medieval tanning bed

Kristine: I also have a question for you. Do you have a straight male puppet master that makes all the really important decisions for you while you are flipping around being a frivolous, yet dark-hearted, fagioli?

Sean: Not since Obama got elected.

Kristine: Hee hee. Did you think I would love or hate The Devils?

Sean: I thought “love,” but I guess you’re not the filthy, degraded whore that I thought you were. Before we’re done I do want you to know that not only is Oliver Reed a total horror movie hero – he was in dozens – but a legendary drunken maniac.

Kristine: Well, that does make me cotton to him a bit more.

Sean: From Wikipedia: “Reed was often irritated that his appearances on TV chat shows concentrated on his drinking feats rather than his latest film. David Letterman cut to a commercial when it appeared Reed might get violent after being asked too many questions about his drinking. In September 1975, in front of a speechless Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, the bellicose Reed had a glass of whiskey poured over his head on-camera by an enraged Shelley Winters. (Winters had been upset by Reed’s seemingly derogatory comments toward women).”

Kristine: Hmmm, interesting. What a scoundrel. I have one last question for you. This movie got an X rating, right? Was it for sex, or violence, or sacrilege, or all of the above?

Sean: All of the above. But sex and sacrilege mostly.

Kristine: And did Russell hate the rating or love it (street cred for the rebel priest of film)?

Sean: No idea.

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 8.39.53 AM
Pudding hands

Kristine: God, I thought the super graphic violence was really shocking. But then, I am more shocked by people being tortured to death then muff riding Jesus’ face.

Sean: I just want you to know that it was like Jeanne was reading from my diary entries about dating my boyfriend when she said: “I have prostituted myself for Grandier. He promised to make me a princess in the Devil’s court. He took me to a witch’s Sabbath. He defiled my body. He was naked.”

Kristine: Hahaha!

Sean: I am being serious.

Kristine: You are why the Mormons don’t want any hanky-panky amongst the gays. You are their worst fear (and their biggest fantasy).

Sean: They can’t handle the cock.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Total trash! I’m not sure I loved it.

The Freak’s Rating:  Sleazesterpeice!

Pottery Barn-yard
Pottery Barn-yard

12 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971)

  1. Great review! I love this movie, but I think you’re right about its secret conservatism.

    One thing I love about Ken Russell’s movies is that they tend to feature strong and interesting roles for women, as well as utterly uninhibited performances. Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne is a standout, as are Glenda Jackson as Antonina Miliukova in The Music Lovers (his insane Tchaikovsky biopic), Kathleen Turner in Crimes of Passion, Ann-Margret in Tommy and Amanda Donohoe in The Lair of the White Worm.

    I still can’t believe he was on Celebrity Big Brother.

  2. YES. Love Crimes of Passion and Lair of the WW. Never seen any of his non-genre stuff, not even Tommy. Worth a look, it sounds like. I also forgot to mention that Redgrave’s doomed daughter Natasha Richardson later played Mary Shelley in Russell’s movie “Gothic.” Can’t wait for Kristine to see The Brood later this month, with Reed returning as warped self-help guru….

  3. Sorry to be off topic, BUT – ‘The Brood’! Yes, yes, yes! One of my all time faves. Kristine, have you seen any early Cronenberg?

  4. I haven’t – The Fly is the earliest in his filmography that I have seen!

  5. Ken Russell + Aldous Huxley = Unstoppable freakery.

    I have only seen clips from the movie on YouTube… and I know there are various versions out there on video and DVD. Do you recommend one version for completeness/quality?

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