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  • Writer's pictureLucas Friesen

Sunday Cinema: The Devils

The Devils is a 1971 Warner Bros. movie, directed, written and produced by Ken Russell. Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave star, with support from Dudley Sutton. It is an adaptation of The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley and John Whiting’s 1960 play, The Devils. The movie was mainly shot at Pinewood Studios, London. It received an X rating in the U.K. and U.S. Several countries banned the movie or extensively edited it prior to release. The Vatican condemned the picture. Among the contemporary, negative reviews, Roger Ebert gave it zero stars. It won best director at the Venice International Film Festival and from the National Board of Review. It made $11-million in rentals.

Set during the plague, Reed plays Urbain Grandier, a Catholic priest and romancer in Loudun, France. Grandier gets a woman pregnant and leaves her, starting his myriad of troubles. He is also the obsession of Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne, a mother-superior nun who catches one glimpse of Grandier from her convent and begins having sexually charged visions involving the priest. Meanwhile, a baron, played by Sutton, comes to Loudun and begins tearing down its fortifications on orders from King Louis XIII (played by Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richeleau (played by Christopher Logue). When Reed’s character puts a stop to the destruction of Loudun’s fortifications, the baron makes it his duty to ruin Grandier.

The Devils is based on a true story. I had never heard of the Loudun possessions before. Based on my preliminary research, it seems that The Devils sticks mostly to the facts of the 1634 witchcraft trial. History is often a lot darker than we like to imagine.

Derek Jarman did The Devils’ scenic design. Later in the 1970s, Jarman would release his directorial debut and become an icon of gay cinema. The shades of black and white make up the majority of the movie’s colour palette, with hints of red and brown. My guess is that the stark colour palette is meant to visually evoke the contrast between good and evil in the movie.

The Devils is a damning critique of the Catholic Church. The story frames possession as a ploy used by the church and state to get what it wants. It shows the Catholic Church as complicit in Louis XIII’s frivolous reign, which had little regard for its own people. This portrayal may not be indicative of the French king’s actual reign. The movie shows the absurdity of archaic church practices like exorcisms and the fallacies of Medieval medicine like quack doctors.

It has a central theme revolving around the dangers of sexual repression. The story is framed like Sister Jeanne’s obsession with Grandier comes from her own lack of sexual release. It is also framed like her fall into insanity only starts with Grandier but is expedited by the actions of Sutton and Michael Gothard, who plays a priest brought to complete the exorcism on the nuns. How the insanity jumps from Sister Jeanne to all the other nuns is not entirely explained, at least after a first watch. Perhaps it was due to the intensity of the things that Gothard’s priest exposes them to.

There is a lot of evocative imagery in The Devils. Among them are naked nuns, judges wearing hoods synonymous with the Ku Klux Klan and multiple scenes of torture.  The exorcism of Sister Jeanne in the convent is particularly evocative and sadistic.

The Devils not for the faint of heart. I wouldn’t show this movie to my mother and, if someone were Catholic, it is more than understandable that this movie would be offensive. However, if you like movies that revel in midnight madness (camp, gratuitous violence and the obscene), The Devils is a must-watch.

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