Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Film Review: THE DEVILS (1971, Ken Russell)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 111 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Oliver Reed (REVOLVER, THE BIG SLEEP '78, GLADIATOR, TOMMY, WOMEN IN LOVE, THE THREE MUSKETEERS), Vanessa Redgrave (BLOWUP, HOWARD'S END), Dudley Sutton (BIG SLEEP '78, Fellini's CASANOVA), Graham Armitage (KICKBOXER 5, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD), Murray Melvin (BARRY LYNDON, ALFIE), Michael Gothard (LIFEFORCE, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), Christopher Logue (JABBERWOCKY). Production design by Derek Jarman (director of JUBILEE, EDWARD II, BLUE, the "It's a Sin" music video for the Pet Shop Boys, which has surprising connections to THE DEVILS).
Tag-line: "Hell holds no surprises for them."
Best one-liner: "What fresh lunacy is this? A crocodile?"

THE DEVILS, holy shit, THE DEVILS! I have been rendered nearly speechless. It's two hours of nonstop brilliance- melodrama, spectacle, terror, history, religion, self-destruction, despair. I'm unsure if I've ever seen a more convincing, compelling portrait of the human condition for what it is– a puppet theater of the absurd; the strings pulled by repression, indoctrination, and the gluttonous, diabolical powers that be; the propmasters wield the accoutrements and ornamentation of faith; the actors are the the overzealous, the overeager, those who thirst not for righteousness, but rather the delusion of righteousness. Those who do not recite the lines expected of them had better pay heed- knowledge and rationality will not save us! [To quote IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (a personal favorite which I've just re-watched), "A reality is just what we tell each other it is. Sane and insane could easily switch places...if the insane were to become the majority."] A whispered truth is meaningless beside a screamed deception– he who shrieks loudest possesses the most credibility! And these are harsh truths spelled out here (with visual splendor, I might add) by Mr. Ken Russell. Apparently, I've made the mistake of watching Russell's films in the wrong order: TOMMY, ALTERED STATES, even THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (which I adore!) are mere crumbs in comparison to the provocative, grotesque feast served up by THE DEVILS- a tale of politics, witchcraft, and corruption which makes THE CRUCIBLE look like THE WORST WITCH.

Based on Aldous Huxley's THE DEVILS OF LOUDUN (a work of non-fiction), which in turn is based on the historical event of the 1634 Loudun possessions, THE DEVILS takes certain liberties with its storytelling (well, of course it does, it's Ken Russell), but the end result is the same: calculating, powerhungry fucknuts (a hypocritical, pseudo-religious establishment) take advantage of human nature (low self-esteem can be raised by believing that you're 'right,' which means that someone else is 'wrong,' which means they must be punished, and ohhh, doesn't it feel so good to punish 'evildoers?' Oh, it feels so good!) in order to defeat their enemies (rationality, tolerance, enlightenment), and said enemies can't properly fight back because they're not calculating, powerhungry fucknuts, and I don't need to tell you that this happened over and over before 1634, and happened over and over again since, and keeps happening and there's nothing we can do about it unless we become calculating, powerhungry fucknuts, in which case we'd be happy to see it keep happening, and this may officially be the longest sentence I've ever written.

The performances are astounding. The legendary Oliver Reed (unfortunately now is not the proper time or place to delve into his ridiculous off-screen exploits) delivers perhaps the grandest performance of his career as the stoic Urbain Grandier. He later said of the film:

"You would think from the critics’ hostility that Ken Russell had tried to pull off some obscene hoax. On the contrary, the film is, I think, an utterly serious attempt to understand the nature of religious and political persecution. It is not in any way exaggerated. If anything, the horrors perpetrated in Loudun in the 17th century were worse than Russell has chosen to show...the character of the priest was a marvelous one to act. Ken Russell’s brother-in-law is an historian and he helped me research Grandier’s life, with particular reference to his thesis in celibacy. The people of Loudun loved him. He walked among the plague victims and comforted them. I started to play him as a priest and realized that he was a politician."

At once a weak philanderer, an eloquent defender of freedom, and a steadfast champion of his city, Reed glides through the film like a sort of elegant bulldog- unafraid to admit his own shortcomings, but ever-prepared to take on the master manipulators with a throaty bellow and mustache-twirling élan.

As the hunchback'd, repressed accuser, Vanessa Redgrave is absolutely electrifying from the instant her off-kilter presence penetrates the frame– her canted head and giggly demeanor seem at first humorous, then chilling, and ultimately pitiable.

Her pain, her despair, and her desire to be wanted fuse together to form an unholy runaway train whose ultimate destination is self-obliteration. Redgrave takes that journey from point A to B to C and beyond, into the void, and the ever-curdling weight it all effortlessly plays upon her gasping, tortured countenance and twisted form.

Ken Russell tackles the material with the fervor one would expect from his mad genius, and this film's influence can be felt from Peter Greenaway to Julie Taymor. In the first five minutes, we have glitter-daubed queens prancing about onstage in a vivid reimagining of Botticelli's Birth of Venus and maggots wriggling and slithering forth from a Protestant's corpse (lashed to a rickety wagon wheel stake). Derek Jarman's jaw-dropping, elaborate sets recall an earlier, more opulent studio era- that of Griffith and Lang and DeMille. Oliver Reed fights a man, using a crocodile's corpse as a fencing sword. Father Barre (Michael Gothard) plays a notorious witch-hunter who seems, at times, more like a modern-day rock star:

Graham Armitage plays a Louis XIII who's so flaming that he makes "Amen" ("Aaay-mennnn.") sound like a pick-up line (the historical Louis XIII was supposedly bi).

Later, he shoots peasants dressed as birds ("Bye-bye, blackbird!") as a conniving Richelieu endeavors to catch his ear. Nuns cavort nude in the midst of sacreligious shenanigans that would make even Caligula blush. This movie is all about over-the-top utter fucking mayhem, but that's precisely why it has the ring of truth to it. The quality of frothing-mouthed, fevered, shrieking performance is quite compelling... have you turned on FOX news lately? The performance becomes a mask of sorts, and there is a delicious, faux-righteous anonymity in the wearing of that mask. At Father Grandier's eventual trial, the entire crowd- the very citizens who he has continually sought to protect- wear actual masks as they join the fray (as willing participants), reciting the very lines which Grandier refuses. This is a powerful, powerful film, and one whose criminal unavailability (censored or uncensored) in this country speaks volumes about the feathers it might ruffle. See it censored, see it uncensored, but, by God, see it.

-Sean Gill


Unknown said...

Ken Russell is bat-shit crazy but in the best sense of the word. Haven't seen this one in ages but I do love THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM if only for the serpent woman hissing venom on a crucifix. Nice mention of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (love that quote also) as well!

Sean Gill said...

Yeah, I really need to see more Ken Russell (I've only seen 5 features and a short), and my DEVILS experience was only amplified by seeing it on the big-screen (@ IFC)- unfortunately his work doesn't seem to be screened all that much. In terms of Euro-arthouse cinema of the 60's and 70's, I'd say that Russell and this film should stand tall among Bergman, Fellini, Buñuel, Polanski– all of the canonical masters.

And it did make for a nice, unintentional double-feature (on consecutive days) with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, another all-time favorite.

Daniel W. said...

My top quotes:
"Confess! Confess! You have only a moment to live!"

"Lucky little bastard! It's not every day baby sees daddy burn to death!"

Sean Gill said...


Very nice. THE DEVILS is intense!