French History as Fever Dream

The Devils in ‘71

Illustration by Tony Stella

Artistic Control       

1971: a high time, indeed, for extreme statements. The Droogs bludgeoning, kicking, raping, ruining “Singin’ in the Rain” for all of us. Dustin Hoffman, glasses broken, passive nerd no more, scalding the face of a home invader with a pot of boiling water. A high time, indeed, for candid, explicit imagery. It’s no wonder. It’d barely been three years since the MPAA’s voluntary film rating system replaced the Production Code. Decades of the Code’s “don’ts” and “be carefuls” must have bottled up urges in filmmakers—audiences, too. Well, by ’71, bottled no more were those urges. Not only did filmmakers enjoy a newfound freedom to depict—explore—nudity, violence, profane dialogue, and “sexual perversion,” studios and producers left directors alone to do it their way.

In the U.S., Antonioni’s enigmatic 1966 film Blowup was outperforming the latest formulaic Elvis flick: Spinout? (The explicit sexual content in the former may have had something to do with it.) The more challenging, artsy-fartsy, confusing, Blowup-like the better, studios came to say. Easy Rider, with its loose plot and acid-soaked defiance of cinematic convention, grossed $60 million at the box office. Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, the latest de rigueur Doris Day comedy, didn’t crack $8 million.

By 1971, they weren’t mere directors. They were auteurs—artists whose vision needed honoring. They ought to be able to experiment, privilege character over plot, push the envelope, show sex, violence, nudity, have unhappy endings, break down barriers, and transgress taboos. And they ought to be able to do so without interference from producers and studios. So went the ethos. It applied to Americans as well as Brits—like Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, whose 1970 film Performance shows Anita Pallenberg actually shooting heroin and included sex scenes the film-processing lab refused to develop; John Schlesinger, whose Sunday, Bloody Sunday from 1971 is as frank and progressive a look at homosexuality as Billy Friedkin’s American release, The Boys in the Band in 1970; and Ken Russell, whose 1969 D.H. Lawrence adaptation, Women in Love, shows Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked. Ken Russell enjoyed American studio distribution through Warner Bros. in this revolutionary era—when the studio execs wore love beads and ate magic mushrooms, too—but they were horrified when they screened a little movie he made in 1971 called The Devils.  

The Devils is the one, purportedly, that went too far. It was lambasted by most critics of its time for its alleged poor taste. Banned in Finland. Banned in Italy. Cut in Britain. Cut in the U.S. and barely—infrequently—available. Ann Guarino of the New York Daily News: it “could not be more anti-Catholic in tone or more sensationalized in treatment.” Charles Champlin of The Los Angeles Times: “it is anti-humanity.” The Vatican: “an insult to cinema.”

The Devils takes place in 1634 France, during the reign of Louis XIII, the Sun King (Graham Armitage). For his (roll those r’s with me) rrrroyal bemusement he dresses people up like blackbirds and uses them as target practice. “Bye-bye, blackbird.” Oliver Reed stars as the elegantly Van Dyked, eloquently spoken Urbain Grandier, ruler of Loudun, where peace between Catholics and Protestants prospers till Cardinal Richelieu (“And may the Protestant be banished from this land!”) gets involved. When Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) arrives in Loudun on Richelieu’s behalf, he orders the destruction of the city’s fortifying walls. But Grandier thwarts him by force and decree. Meanwhile, the nuns at the Ursuline convent, which is supposed to look like a prison, are losing their minds, especially hunchbacked Reverend Mother Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). “Take me in your sacred arms; let the blood flow between us uniting us,” she says, not without a sensual moan or two. “Grandier—Grandier!” The nuns are overcome with impure thoughts about Grandier. Every woman in the city, for that matter, is overcome with impure thoughts about Grandier. Is demonic possession afoot?

Baron de Laubardemont sends for witchfinder Father Barre (Michael Gothard; his shaggy hair and John Lennon glasses are here to remind you that you are watching a movie from the early 1970s). Barre performs an exorcism. His finding: Jeanne’s possessed, all the nuns are possessed, and Grandier is the sorcerer responsible. Heresy proves a convenient way for Richelieu’s regime to wipe this Huguenot sympathizer out and burn him at the stake.

Burn at the stake he does. Oliver Reed shows terror unparalleled on his face as it melts behind flames, while a mob, many of whom wear black masquerade masks, laughs and cheers.

“The film is based upon historical fact. The principal characters lived and the major events depicted in the film actually took place.” So go the opening titles. Historians agree that Urbain Grandier’s trial and execution were a sham designed to eliminate him for political reasons. Historians also agree Loudun’s Ursuline nuns concurrently engaged in wild, blasphemous behavior. Theories differ, however, as to why. The most interesting one involves the nuns having eaten wheat tainted with ergot mold, which contains lysergic acid, the “L” in LSD. Ken Russell does not suggest, explicitly, a reason for the nuns’ behavior. Instead, he treats their stripping naked, shouting obscenities, and lying on the floor lolling their tongues around as a Theater of the Absurd spectacle. I think, though, he wishes to imply: “Sexual repression has definitely got something to do with it.” Russell adapted his screenplay from Aldous Huxley’s work of nonfiction, The Devils of Loudun, and John Whiting’s play, The Devils, also based on Huxley’s book. They seem unlikely sources for such a controversial movie, with Vanessa Redgrave’s sexual fantasies in which she caresses Oliver Reed’s feet, kisses and licks him all over as he climbs down from the Cross bloodied in a crown of thorns; a douche full of boiling water; and Louis XIII prancing in a skimpy metal bikini.

In a 2011 interview when asked why about the depiction of Louis XIII—as a cross-dresser who says of women, “No, don’t touch them. Man is born of them. Gross things. Nasty”—Russell said: “Because that’s exactly as I saw him.” Russell, a classical music enthusiast, said in another interview from 2003 that he likens his job to a conductor. He interprets, like a conductor interprets a piece of music. Without the conductor unifying the players—advancing a vision—the melody is amorphous. Without the writer-director, ditto. He got to realize the pictures in his head as he saw them and wished to present them; it was 1971, after all. He enjoyed full artistic control of the production. His interpretation of this metaphorical symphony? Pretty weird, pretty extreme.

Take, for example, the look of the film. Visually, The Devils is singular. The city of Loudun looks like something out of a German Expressionist film from the 1920s. Tall, white, brick towers contrasted with tall silhouettes of crosses and pikes. Russell wanted The Devils’ sets to look otherworldly. Sick of the common, pastoral visuals of period films, he asked his set designer, Derek Jarman, to construct sets based upon Metropolis, one of Russell’s favorite movies. Costumes—designed by Russell’s then wife, Shirley—have an Expressionist, alien look, too. During the trial sequence, in which Reed begs to be spared execution, the jurors wear pointed hoods, 3-feet tall, with sinister-looking black eye slits, like wraiths from the void. And don’t forget Russell regular Georgina Hale, as Grandier’s mistress Philippe, face painted alabaster white like a marionette’s the duration of her screen time. Russell did not push his period visuals as far into the ostentatious, psychedelic, or psychosexual realm as he did later in 1975’s Lisztomania (no Vaudeville-esque musical numbers involving a penis the size of a baby dolphin here, sorry), but they are decidedly bizarre.

Too Much, Too Soon?

Let’s just get the “rape of Christ” out of the way, because no discussion of The Devils is complete without it, even though the full “rape of Christ” sequence can only be seen in a rare, 100% uncut, unmastered version. Okay, the “rape of Christ”: Michael Gothard, who looks more like a roadie for Led Zeppelin than a 17th century French priest, is mid-exorcism. The nuns, the majority of whom are by this point totally naked, are mid-orgiastic frenzy. Gothard clasps a nun by her habit as she walks upside down on all fours, incanting in a demon voice. He says, “I’m going to speak to you a name: Grandier!” That gets their attention; they scream and flail. Onlookers laugh and cheer. One nun gives a candle a handjob. Others tackle a priest and rip his clothes off, exposing everything. They burn the Bible. They bash Gothard over the head with a giant cross, knocking him to the floor, where he watches in terror as they rip a life-size statue of Christ from the wall and rub and writhe their naked bodies all over it. The camera pulsates, zooming in and out and in and out as the icon is humped—defiled. (Why didn’t the Vatican like this movie, again?)

It’s an extreme statement, yes, and Russell wanted to film it. Why not? He enjoyed the autonomy to do so, though he knew he was going to have to remove most of the sequence before submitting it to the MPAA—if for no other reason than that it showed female pubic hair, forbidden even for an “X” rating at the time. Russell admits, “I don’t know whether I like that rape of Christ sequence. I don’t know if it was that good, anyway.” Still, the outrage he felt at the time, at having read Huxley’s book, at confronting the malfeasances done by his own Church, compelled him to say something extreme—to literally show Christ being defiled by his followers. Oliver Reed says, in a British TV interview from the time, “We weren’t trying to afford anybody proper niceties…We were showing…the bigotry that goes on—that humanity is capable of.” He cites the Northern Ireland Conflict, then exploding into political violence. Even with the “rape of Christ” sequence extensively trimmed—even with the removal of Vanessa Redgrave shoving a fire poker between her legs, before Dudley Sutton tosses her Grandier’s charred femur to masturbate with—Russell allegedly went too far. Regardless of how deeply he felt the injustice, which is The Devils’ impetus, the film was met with adverse reception. Few held in high regard crucifixion sex fantasies, hammer-smashed legs, or nuns saying, “Your place is in a brothel, you filthy whore!”

It’s understandable. But The Devils, actually, is not your edgy-for-the-sake-of-edgy middle finger to the Church many at the time took it to be. It’s, in fact, a very religious film made by a Catholic artist trying to make sense of his own faith. In Russell’s own words: “It’s about the degradation of religious principles…and about a sinner who becomes a saint.”

As the story begins, Grandier is an unapologetic philanderer. We find him in bed, naked and post-coital with a “Latin pupil” (Georgina Hale, yes, in the marionette makeup). She informs him she’s pregnant; he brushes his hair, twists the ends of his mustache, and enumerates half-assed platitudes to her while she sobs. He knows he has nothing to worry about. He is a Priest, the most important man in Loudun. His reputation? Invincible.

Her magistrate father, furious, confronts him about the illicit affair. Grandier laughs him off and breaks his sword in half with a crocodile carcass he confiscated from two local surgeons. (I love this scene.) But then it happens: the phenomenon that, at least for a while, compels us to improve. Nowadays, people say—and it’s a cliché—“I want to be my best self for you.” Grandier falls in love with Madeleine (Gemma Jones), a modest, pure-hearted, pious young woman turned away from the nunnery, and he grows closer to God. He repents. He matures. He “becomes his best self for her.” Yet, interestingly, he does not grow closer to the orthodoxy or to his priestly role.

“Saint Paul says that he who marries does a good thing, but he who remains chaste does something better,” Madeleine says. 

Grandier says, “Then I am content to do a good thing and leave the best to those that can face it.”

Oliver Reed, in each scene with Gemma Jones, sells wholesale the character’s devotion to her. It’s in his face and in the way he looks at her: his philandering days are over. On trial, he defends his marriage to the court. He lowers his voice but in no way diminishes the fury in his eyes. “It was a real ceremony, a simple act of committal done with my heart, in the hope of coming to God through the love of a woman.”

With respect to sex and love, Grandier’s character arc is the opposite of Jack Nicholson’s Jonathan in another controversial film from 1971, Carnal Knowledge. Grandier becomes more romantic, pure, and enchanted with life through sex and love. Nicholson’s character, burning through marriages, callously collecting women and sexual experiences, loses what little faith he ever had in romantic relationships. As Carnal Knowledge’s concluding slideshow scene evinces, he’s a bitter, drunken, cynical, misogynistic shell of a man, left with as much spirituality as a bag of Doritos. But at least he doesn’t have to get burned at the stake. Romantic wanderings bring salvation just as easily as they bring ruination: the things you learn watching ’70s movies.

With respect to religion, Grandier’s character arc reinforces the thought of Kierkegaard that, “the crowd is untruth.” The crowd—namely Richelieu’s Catholic myrmidons, like Baron de Laubardemont, who says, “give me three lines of a man’s handwriting and I will hang him”—is Christian in name only. They weaponize their religion for their own gain—for power and greed and the ascent of a violent, hegemonic regime. They do evil in Christ’s name. They are hypocrites and liars. They’re willing to torture and murder an innocent man as a matter of political convenience. But Grandier, by the middle of the movie, is a real Christian whose religion has become homespun and individualistic: it’s between God and Grandier. The intensity and conviction in Reed’s voice when he says, “I have a vague sense of meaning and can think of myself as a small part of God’s abundance, which includes everything—and I know I want to serve it,” and “I know I am a weak, bad man, but I may find the strength to change;” his expression, assured yet humble, when he hoists the broken bread towards the sky, alone, before a cliff face: Grandier believes. “Christ did not appoint professors but followers,” Kierkegaard said. Well, Grandier, by at least the end of the movie, is a follower amidst a world of professors. No, The Devils does not suggest that one should throw the baby out with the bath water, or that Catholicism is for the birds. Russell does not use, as the Vatican claimed, “images and sounds of such an obscenity as had never been seen before on the screen, in order to accomplish a crude lynching of the Church of yesterday, of today, of all time, as a political instrument of oppression.” Rather, Russell’s film addresses the fascinating, mystifying question every person of faith should toil to answer: Why bind yourself to a religion whose institutions have caused this degree of suffering?

“I’m sure glad I don’t live in those times.” How often has this been uttered once The Devils’ end credits roll? Roger Ebert, one of the myriad critics who hated this, wrote with his funny characteristic sarcasm: “I didn’t want to be the only member of my generation unaware of the terrible events of 1634, a year that will live in infamy.” Right, who cares? It was 1634. No one gets tortured anymore. No one suffers wrongful conviction. Mob mentality has gone the way of the penny-farthing. But of course The Devils’ fundamental, classic theme is timeless. It doesn’t matter when. It’s a movie about the individual versus the collective. The individual struggles to become righteous; the aggregate of individuals is inherently corruptible. A breakdown of integrity—of truth—occurs somewhere within the collective’s aggregation. “You’ve got the force of nature and truth and beauty against the corruption of a decadent society,” Russell says, “and I think that’s what all my films are about.”  

 Fifty Years Later

I doubt The Devils would meet any controversy whatsoever if released now. We’re desensitized. Masturbating with a burned-to-death man’s charred femur? That all you got? Interpretable aspersion toward the Catholic Church? Great! Not to say movies no longer have the capacity to stir controversy—but I don’t know what The Devils shares with American Sniper or Joker. Controversy is always relative to a given time’s mores. Being shocking won’t cause much of a row anymore, not with our mores, because movies have pushed our threshold for shock, at least on its own terms, into the outmost regions.

And here we encounter a peculiar situation. Pure shock doesn’t shock like it used to. Linda Blair already thrust a crucifix in her crotch; Divine already ate real dog shit. The old taboos have transgressed themselves into seeming nonexistence. We take full frontal nudity, explicit sex scenes, and brutal violence on-screen for granted. It’s all part of the cinematic package. But, now, a movie far less “extreme” than The Devils has the capacity to provoke serious controversy. In ways we are more sensitive now. In the case of Joker, an evil protagonist resembling—allegedly—modern day pariahs was all it took. Will it incite violence? Will it embolden the wrong people? The narrative universe will always be one of moral relativity, but don’t push it. American Sniper derived its controversy from telling the story of Navy Seal killing machine Chris Kyle, deemed by many to be a wrong kind of hero. You want to make a controversial movie nowadays? You better start by writing a story about the “wrong kind of hero.”

But Grandier…he is and hopefully will remain the right kind of hero for any time. He awakens to the pursuit of redemption. He learns that he must strive for a life that is moral and just and beautiful. The Devils is no longer hated. It’s more or less revered, in fact. It’s still extreme, still shocking, but Ken Russell’s indulgences—which he’s now known and celebrated for—no longer distract as much from what the movie is really about. And The Devils is really about a right thing in a wrong world. We’re in a better position—thanks to our desensitization—thanks to the cumulative cultural effect of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and A Clockwork Orange and Audition and Man Bites Dog—to let the simple, beautiful, and tragic power of The Devils’ right thing in a wrong world resonate. For now.