Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS

The Devils

1971.  Directed by Ken Russell.

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Ken Russell’s magnum opus, The Devils, is one of the most audacious films ever made.  Banned in several countries and edited for release by the studio, The Devils has become a modern legend for film lovers and fans of transgressive cinema.  Featuring a pair of unbelievable performances, acid trip visuals, and a scathing commentary on the intermingling of religion and politics, this film is a cornerstone of renegade cinema.

Louis XIII is being influenced by Cardinal Richelieu to destroy various fortifications across France to prevent a protestant uprising.  The city of Loudun is protected by Father Urbain Grandier; a deeply flawed but honorable rebel, and as a result of his defiance, his downfall is obscenely orchestrated by both the Crown and the Church.  Russell’s screenplay was based on the novel The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley and the stage play by John Whiting.  What begins as a psychedelic exploration of corruption and faith gradually evolves into an apocalyptic odyssey into the darkest corners of humanistic constructs.  Sexually repressed nuns, counterfeit saviors, and hedonistic priests populate the feverish world of The Devils, imprisoned in a hell designed from the inside out by violent supplication and archaic denials of primal instinct.  The final result is an unforgiving conglomeration of profane imagery that continues to shock the world today.

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David Watkin’s cinematography captures two distinct worlds.  On the surface, the stinking streets of Loudun are crowded and unforgiving, presided upon by hulking Baroque temples whose white fresco walls are yellowed with the decay of time and indicative of their occupants’ self-prescribed righteousness.  The porcelain walls of the Ursine convent present as an asylum in waiting, where endless, alien like chambers await unspeakable acts of contrition.  Beyond the filth of reality, Watkin’s eye captures nightmarish vistas in which profane orgies are carried out under the unlidded celestial orb of a wasteland of the soul.  Fever dreams are interwoven into the narrative in a seamless, almost conspiratory manner that caresses the viewer’s sensibilities before utterly annihilating them by turning the mirror outwards into the theater.

Oliver Reed’s iconoclast Grandier is the fabric of cinematic excellence.  It’s fitting that one of Britain’s “bad boys” would deliver his greatest performance with a role about a fallen priest whose final act of resistance not only defines the very nature of faith but also sees him dissent whilst fully knowing the gravity of the choice.  His utter destruction in a Kangaroo court is not only some of Reed’s best acting, but it is the film’s defining centerpiece, championing the ideals of humility and grace, even in the face of true evil and apathetic idols.  Vanessa Redgrave’s turn as the deformed Sister Jeanne eviscerates the sexual arteries of Russell’s dung caked purgatory and baths in the humors of a world undone by self-baptizing her treacherous hunchback in a storm of rumor and accusation.  It is a true testament to Redgrave’s immense power that even Reed’s seminal work could not out shadow her unforgettable performance.

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Derek Jarman’s ethereal production design is one of the most overlooked elements, creating a world that is familiar and yet distant, harmonizing with Russell’s razor sharp critique of the time period.  Shirley Russell’s costume design follows this trend, offsetting the poverty of the small folk with gaudy ensembles worn by their self-appointed saviors.  Everything swirls around Peter Maxwell Davies’ arcane score that ominously flows within the confines of Russell’s endless nightmare in which the fantastical and mundane hideously intertwine.

Available now on region 2 DVD or for streaming the edited US release version (this version does not feature certain elements of the orgy sequence or the extended final scene involving Redgrave) on Shudder, The Devils has garnered a reputation throughout the years that, in the age of cynicism, initially appears at first to be overblown and perhaps even misplaced.  However, upon witnessing this remarkable, and extremely relevant masterpiece, it becomes clear that not only is The Devils one of the most important films ever made, it also a once in a lifetime convergence of artistic ingenuity, shocking violence, and unbridled passion for the subject matter.  The Devils is an essential experience for connoisseurs of the vulgar who delight in films that expose the horrors of the past in a brilliantly risqué marriage of bacchanal abandon and uncommon fortitude.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

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