Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Devils (Ken Russell)

An obscenity

I think The Devils, Ken Russell's fifth big-screen feature, is a culmination of previous works dealing in history (Pop Goes the Easel, The Debussy Film) literary fiction (Women in Love) surreal and sustained passages of cinema (The Music Lovers), the same time it casts a shadow--or glimmers and flashes if you like--over subsequent films: the slippery nature of reality (Altered States) the link between sexual and religious mania (Crimes of Passion) the exploration of mythic origins (Gothic)--here the true story of an entire convent of nuns reportedly possessed by demons in the small town of Loudon. Or put another way: he's explored and experimented throughout his career and thrown everything he's tried and wanted to try into this project, and whenever any film he's directed needs a scene of surpassing strangeness or shock value, he's gone back to this film (or deepwell or treasure chest--or cesspool if you like) for inspiration.


Russell's (putting it a third way) masterpiece was censored by countries or banned outright; it was savaged by critics--Vincent Canby of The New York Times compared the director to a "a hobbyist determined to reproduce 'The Last Supper' in bottle tops;" Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times sniffed sarcastically "If the movie industry had more hard-nosed, tell-it-like-it-is artists like Ken Russell, Loudon might never happen again." The film was pointedly ignored--is in fact still being ignored--by its own distributing company (Warner Brothers), all these actions contributing to the strange silence that has hung over the film for decades.

Still the film was seen, and has influenced a number of filmmakers and their work: William Friedkin's The Exorcist of course, including the vomiting the masturbating the woman arching her spine backwards like a spider; films with passages of psychedelic horror, from Suspiria to The Black Swan; filmmakers who make a career of constant provocation (Lars Von Trier, Park Chan Wook, Gaspar Noe); even the sight of a lone figure walking into a landscape of utter desolation has resonated at one point or the other (Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman, wandering devastated Warsaw in Roman Polanski's The Pianist).  

Two qualities distinguish Russell from the rest: a talent for characterization, a driving sense of mission. We're introduced to Fr. Urbain Grandier (the massive Oliver Reed) early on, a small figure perched on a high building, looking down at the bier of the former governor of Loudon. The camera circles to rise and peer at the governor's body; cuts to a long shot of the same angle; to a reverse shot (looking at the governor's chin instead of his forehead); to another long shot of that same angle; swings up to catch Grandier explaining (in a voice that fills the vast courtyard) what citizens of Loudon owe the governor--peace between Catholics and Protestants, the city's continued existence in a country drenched in war and plague. The sequence of shots and Reed's presence sell the idea that the mantle of authority has passed from one to the other, that Grandier is in effect the city's acting patriarch

As the funeral procession passes the Ursuline convent Sister Jeanne Des Ange (Vanessa Redgrave) fantasizes about wiping Grandier's feet with her long lustrous red hair; later we see the priest lying naked with young Philippe (Georgina Hale) verbally caressing her with a translation from Latin: "But in everlasting leisure like this, lie still and kiss time away. No weariness and no shame. Now, then, and shall be all pleasure. No end to it." When she weeps and declares she's pregnant Grandier sighs: "And so it ends."

As Grandier gets out of bed and walks deftly past Philippe's clutching embrace we wonder: this is our protagonist? A hedonistic priest, bedding women right and left, preaching a philosophy of transcendence through pleasure?

Apparently yes. Russell channeling Huxley's original text through John Robert Whiting's play proposes that Grandier was in fact a deeply flawed yet heroic man, perversely seeking salvation ("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 and ambition--I choose them with the same care that your cousin, Monsieur Trincant, might select a weapon. My intention is different; you see, I need to turn them against myself." "And bring about your own end?" "I have a great need to be united with God.") and finding it in the arms of Madeleine de Brou (Gemma Jones) a virgin whose directness of thought and feeling ("I am a sinner, but I do not think that God has deserted me. I would not be afraid to come before Him with you, even in our sin") startles and ultimately subdues him. 

That's part of Russell's secret really; at the heart of this parade of maggoty corpses, crotch-grinding nuns sans wimple (or any other stitch of clothing), and harrowingly graphic tortures (those involving bone being in my opinion some of the worst) is this oddly persuasive love story between a refreshingly simple beauty and her barrel-chested beast. You're charmed by them (as Grandier was by Madeleine); you develop feelings of affection; as with some of the best horror films when the film darkens still further (yes it's possible and yes it happens) you fear for their future.  

I mentioned a mission; the film's key exchange happens early on, when Cardinal Richeliu (Christopher Logue) addresses Louis XIII (Graham Armitage): "I pray that I may assist you in the birth of a new France, where Church and State are one." That's the film's true conflict: not mere good and evil but independent city-states trying to steer clear of an encroaching theocracy. Russell (through Whiting's streamlining) captures Huxley's complex portrait of 17th century France--the politics and social dynamics--to a remarkable degree, setting the background for Jeanne Des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave) and her fellow sisters' hysteria, and why they were chosen by the government to be used as weapons against Grandier (think a depraved Man for All Seasons with more explicit excruciations and a fiery execution). Russell reportedly lost his Catholic faith soon after--presumably because of the church's ferocious response to the picture, presumably from learning details of all the injustices the church inflicted on Grandier. The anger inspired, honed by Russell's facility with historical facts (developed through a decade of making biopics and documentaries) powers the film's unflinching cruelty, its relentlessly corrosive satire. 

Which would have little impact without Russell's gift for blasphemy (Skip the next two paragraphs if you intend to see the film!). Like that other gifted heretic Luis Bunuel, Russell seems to know how to pick a traditional religious image and skewer it in such a way as to provoke the most extreme reactions--Sister Jeanne's vision of a half-naked bloodied Christ, for example, who transforms into a half-naked bloodied Grandier (Reed sheathed in sweat and bulging flesh); when she spreads her legs to prepare for his penetration she penetrates her own palm with a crucifix. The infamous 'Rape of Christ' is a kind of jawdropping apotheosis, not just of unleashed carnality and uninhibited hilarity (at one point a naked nun twirls from a suspended rope, the kind found in some of the more extravagant strip joints) but of a supine crucified Christ statue with genitals helplessly exposed (standard practice in Roman executions but not Catholic icons). The point is too obvious for words--particularly when the director crosscuts the sequence with one of Grandier celebrating quiet mass with his self-wedded wife--but by this point Russell may have felt he was beyond subtlety, that all that rampaging religious hysteria required a cry of pure rage. Does he lose control with the cry? Not of the filmmaking, arguably--the editing is as fluid as ever, the juxtaposition of shots and visual effects as startling (at one point one of the exorcists glides up the wall of the church and you wonder if he's possessed--the only true case if so--when you realize he's on a ladder climbing with startling speed, to gain a bird's eye view of the orgy). Even the constant zooming in and out has its own hypnotic (onanistic, orgiastic) rhythm.

Warner Studio deleted the Rape of Christ sequence before submitting the film to British censors, plus a later sequence involving Sister Jeanne masturbating with Granier's femur bone--ironically the only time she has actual sexual contact with the man. Neither scene was restored for the American commercial run, nor for the American VHS release; the complete film was made available in 2012, but only on British DVD.

Not just imagery but set design--Russell took his cue from Huxley's declaration that "the exorcism of sister Jeanne was equivalent to rape in a public lavatory" and encouraged Derek Jarman into realizing the Ursuline Convent as a white-tiled institution, the city of Loudon itself as a mighty porcelain fortress--abstract and faintly futuristic in shape, the tiles suggesting both convent and city were designed to handle physical and spiritual ordure (or worse--Loudon for all its progressiveness is still afflicted with plague--are able to flush everything down a drain)

Mind you I wouldn't consider The Devils the pinnacle of horror filmmaking--it doesn't have the sense of everyday evil found in Rosemary's Babythe eerie effortless irrationality (though there's plenty irrational here) of Dreyer's Vampyr; it doesn't have the slyly sophisticated humor (tempered by a strong sense of good contrasted against evil) of Whale's Bride of Frankenstein. But the film stands head and shoulders above its imitators: Noe, Von Trier--even Wook, whose late work I've come to enjoy more and more--look like self-indulgent amateurs in comparison, sitting in their own puddle and stirring things up with a stick. Russell engages with the world,mocks it and condemns it and celebrates it in all its complexity

Can't help but go back to Ebert's sneer: Loudon never happen again? Far as I can see it's happening right now, in the one country where you thought it would never happen, Muslim bans and Christian intolerance and all. "(T)he work of men who are not concerned," Grandier informs the theological court "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." 

Sounds like anyone we know? We need a Russell to 'tell it like it is' now more than ever. Warner Brothers' continued suppression of the film is in my book unconscionable and obscene. 

* Online horror streaming service Shudder has just recently made the film available--but only the American release version, without the two aforementioned deleted scenes (one can be seen online; portions of the other can be seen in a documentary on the film, also available online).

First published in Businessworld 3.31.17

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