Sin Can Be Caught As Easily As The Plague: The Devils (1971)

I had real trouble picking out a quote for this particular film, because as is the case with this and Altered States, ashamedly the only other film by Ken Russell I have viewed, every bit of dialogue is delivered with a sense of the literary grandiose, made all the more so by it narratively existing in 17th century france, a place rife with religious issues that extend outward to include intense problems in regards to repression of sexuality and a variety of diseases spreading through the country, Ken Russell who taps into such excesses and oppressions with surgeon-like precision excels with the material here.  I am aware that one could certainly read The Devils as being antithetical to all things horror, the theme of the blog this month, and to a certain degree I would tend to agree, however, I am also of the split opinion that The Devils is wholly a work of horror filmmaking, existing in the genre more so than many of the films I have viewed this month that have purported themselves to be fully genre, particularly the atrociously misguided and ill-conceived Hostel.  Russell, who makes it a method of his to question the limitations of human nature in both physical terms and sensorial, managing to extend this movement through spatial and temporal awareness to include the very means by which cinema records such non-linear trips.  A work like The Devils is horrific, in the same way the work of Kubrick, Hitchcock or Jodorowsky are intensely so, never backing down from imagery that is confrontational and though notably surreal, never inconsequential.  I will admit that I was not fully involved with this film, at least in the same sense as I was with Altered States, but that is primarily due to the somewhat lackluster prints of the film currently made available, whose graininess and general lack of cleanliness for a release print can be somewhat off-putting, especially considering that this film is decidedly cinematic, relying on detailed compositions wherein depth of field factor heavily into the interpretations of characters acts and emotions in real and quantifiable ways.  The Devils is a cinematic experiences in the same vein as Salo, becoming a point of reference for later exploitation films, most notably School of the Holy Beast, but in the hands of Russell it manages to extend to its own discordant cinematic world.

The Devils focuses on a religious town in 17th century France overseen by Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) a leader hoping to convince a flamboyant Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to change the fortifications of France as a means to destroy a Protestant power move while also assuring his own advance in power.  Louis agrees to these demands but makes special provisions for the town of Loudon, for which he promised protection to its late governor.  The town is now overseen by the well-respected, albeit sexually voracious priest Urbain Grandieur (Oliver Reed) who is the object of affection for woman both in the community and behind the convent walls longing to consummate a relationship with the priest.  Grandieur, undoubtedly aware of his sway, moves through Loudon using his power as a priest to seek confession with various women, eventually settling on marrying a woman named Madeleine (Gemma Jones), much to the frustration of Grandieur's former lover Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) who mounts a religious uprising against Madeleine, wholly a result of her feelings as a scorned lover.  Meanwhile, indifferent to the demands on the part of Louis XIII to spare the city of Loudon, one of Richelieu's men arrives in the city of Loudon intent of overtaking its population.  In the wildness of all this, Grandieur's debauchery is brought to the attention of a higher ranking priest, who mounts an inquisition on the town of Loudon, specifically on the convent in which Sister Jeanne and others reside.  The head inquisitor Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) arrives at the convent only to discover it in a state of absolute lunacy, complete with naked nuns, who are having sexual experiences atop a giant crucifix, while suggestively stroking sacramental candles.  In a false attempt at exorcism, Barre and the others reveal the false state of the possession, but also show the entire act of an exorcism to be equally performative leading to a divide within the groups resulting in the ability of the town to be overcome by Richelieu's men that much easier.  When Grandieur returns to the town, he is called up for heresy and put on trial, alleged to be in league with Satan and despite his refusal to confess to his sins, he is burned at the stake, leaving a lovelorn Madeleine to leave the space of the city, entering onto a literal long and winding road with only the company of skeletons hanging on pikes outside the city.

Russell, as a filmmaker, perhaps most closely associates with the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, in so much as their films, while linear, are only so in very tangential cohesions. Take, for example, the relationship between the experiences of of Richelieu and Louis XIII in relation to Grandieur and the town of Loudon, to a degree they could exist outside of each other, both in a temporal and spatial sense, only really relating because the film denotes itself as a historically-based period piece.  Aside from this distinction, Russell takes as many liberties as he sees fit, moving between showing the most abject of experiences available from the time, whether it be the very real plagues facing the space of France in the 17th century, or the disturbingly oppressive ways in which gender was relegated within patriarchal constructs of the time.  Russell is not attempting to make a wholly disturbing and unwatchable critique of religious wars, but instead; clearly intends to play up the absurdity and frivolity of the entire occurrence, at times overlaying his film with zany music to give even a exorcism a layer of Felliniesque absurdity.  Perhaps the best element of Russell's approach to the period piece, is to accept that a blanket recreation would not drive home the theme of unchecked authority and gendered privilege, thus making a degree of his set and visuals indicative of something within a science-fiction framework, giving the high walls and evasive angles of buildings a certain feeling that Loudon is a microcosm of a large dystopia, decidedly true of this point in history.  At times the film feels as though it could be lifted right out of an Orwell novel, while in other instances one could imagine its visuals fitting nicely inside of Michel Foucault's discussions of panopticism.  Russell is a filmmaker aware of the craft of filmmaking as an inherently fallible craft, wherein other period pieces push and strive for authenticity, without accepting that their very existence rejects a truth of the past, Russell instead uses the space to directly comment upon how past events can draw parallels to current problems, whether it be the on-the-nose references to religious power and the Ku Klux Klan or a more clever suggestion that exoticization and desire thrust upon those in a space of religious piety are far from contemporary issues, everything is working in a constant state of dialogue. Russell, wants his film to be a historical reconsideration, after all most period pieces emerge at a time when their narratives are decidedly relational to contemporary issues, The Devils was such a case, although in a nearly prophetic manner it still proves equally pertinent almost fifty years later.

Key Scene:  The exorcism obviously, whether it be for its pulling from Dreyer or from Fellini, it still manages to be a decidedly unique vision from the world of Russell.

I would rent this film, not because it is bad, but because the print is not ideal.  Hopefully, it will be salvaged by BFI or Criterion into a cleaner print than what is currently made available.

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