When Ken Russell’s provocative religious horror “The Devils” became available to stream for the first time last week, cinephiles the world over were re-introduced to one of the greatest under appreciated films of all time — one that is surprisingly poignant in our current state of political unease. Infamous for its controversial release (the film was banned in several countries and received an X rating only after Russell cut a handful of the most incendiary scenes), the 1971 epic offers a stylish and scathing parable about the dangerous ways that the powerful can exploit religious zeal to stay that way.
Based on the true story of the trial of Urbain Grandier, a Catholic priest who was executed in 1634 on charges of witchcraft, Russell adapted “The Devils” from John Whiting’s 1960 play and Aldous Huxley’s 1952 novel, The Devils of Loudun. Russell digressed stylistically from his source material, taking a contemporary approach to the historical fare by saturating it with markers of the sexual liberation in 1970. Blending religious iconography with sumptuous sexual imagery in outrageous ways, the film drew ire from religious groups at the time, causing Warner Bros. to release it with little fanfare. A few months later, “The Devils” was overshadowed by another controversial Warners release, “A Clockwork Orange.”
The film stars Oliver Reed as Grandier, a rock star priest in the progressive town of Loudon, where Catholics and Protestants coexist peacefully. Oozing 70’s sex appeal in a robust mustache and a thick mop of hair, Reed’s Grandier inspires admiration from all the young women in town, including the hunchbacked head nun Sister Jeanne, played with rabid lust by a young Vanessa Redgrave. When Sister Jeanne learns of his romance with young and pretty Madeleine (Gemma Jones), possessed by jealousy, she accuses Grandier of being possessed by the devil. Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), under orders from Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) to destroy the progressive town, seizes on Sister Jeanne’s accusations, and enlists Father Barre (Michael Gothard, sporting John Lennon glasses and looking like a lost “Hair” cast member) to exorcise the town’s demons.
The production design by a then-unknown Derek Jarman, who would go on to be one of the leading voices of the New Queer Cinema, is a feast for the eyes that sets the stage for Russell’s modern take. It opens with a colorful drag performance by King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage), who enters like the Venus de Milo, and later appears in a comically oversized white cowboy hat, shooting heretics in full-body blackbird outfits. (Louis: “Bye, bye, blackbird.”). The nuns wear plain off-white habits, blending in with the crisp white brick of the town walls and the convent. The modernist white is a deceptive blend of insane asylum monotony and chic simplicity.
Though the notoriously lost scenes are still absent from the streaming version, which is the British Film Institute’s 2012 restoration, “The Devils” is just as provocative as any film made today. From a sweaty Grandier lying naked with his lover moments before taking confession, to a reveal of Sister Jeanne’s deformed back and a close-up of Grandier’s melting face as he is burned alive, it’s not hard to imagine “The Devils” ruffling some feathers if it were released today.
Once thought to have been destroyed, much of the lost material was discovered by film critic Mark Kermode in 2002, and a version closest to the original has since been screened only a handful of times. That version includes the famed “Rape of Christ” sequence, which includes shots of the nuns lounging around naked, making love with each other, eventually enacting their desires on a statue of Jesus Christ. Another scene involves Sister Jeanne masturbating with Grandier’s charred tibia. The BFI version contains traces of these scenes before cutting abruptly.
If those scenes were still included, “The Devils” could cause walkouts at festival screenings. This is not only noteworthy to Russell’s recognition as an envelope-pushing auteur, but it is also a reminder that progress — in art as in government — is not linear. Film has not continued down the path forged by Russell and his contemporary Peter Greenaway, whose “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” remains an unparalleled cinematic achievement. We could certainly use a dose of their extravagant bravado right about now.
Watch “The Devils” on Shudder.