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The Devils: A Masterpiece Resurrected | reviews, news & interviews

The Devils: A Masterpiece Resurrected

The Devils: A Masterpiece Resurrected

Ken Russell's astonishing and powerful British classic finally arrives on DVD

'The Devils': Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) fantasises about Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) as Christ

“The film is a series of very curious, strange and macabre unbelievable incidents,” said director Ken Russell of The Devils in 1971. "The point of the film really is the sinner who becomes a saint." The tribulations surrounding its release, still fresh in Russell's mind, could easily have been described as curious and strange too. The long-overdue arrival on DVD of his career landmark is important. The Devils is one of the most astonishing and powerful British films.

“The film is a series of very curious, strange and macabre unbelievable incidents,” said director Ken Russell of The Devils in 1971. "The point of the film really is the sinner who becomes a saint." The tribulations surrounding its release, still fresh in Russell's mind, could easily have been described as curious and strange too. The long-overdue arrival on DVD of his career landmark is important. The Devils is one of the most astonishing and powerful British films. Following Russell's death last year, its release now also serves as a posthumous tribute to the great auteur.

Russell was talking in the 1971 short Director of the Devils, a promotional film included as an extra on this new double-DVD. Warner Brothers, the studio backing The Devils, knew they had a hard sell and made the promo to explain it. “They say Ken Russell has gone too far this time,” intones the portentous voiceover. Warners agreed, as had the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Both insisted on cut after cut, a tortuous process detailed in the accompanying book. The US executives began complaining from the moment they saw the opening sequence. As the film continued rolling at the preview screening, Ken Russell was ushered off to the pub. Afterwards, the bigwigs told him they had never seen such “disgusting shit”.

The Devils Vanessa Redgrave as Sister JeanneThe association of religion, nudity, and sexual frustration in the context of supposed Satanic possession meant the money men were never going to embrace it. Charges of blasphemy were quickly trotted out. (Pictured right, Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne). A central scene depicting frenzied nuns raping a statue of Christ was cut. Although provocative, The Devils was never intended for minority appeal. On the back of both Women in Love and The Music Lovers Russell was hot. The Devils was shot at Pinewood Studios on the largest set constructed there since the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Cleopatra

When United Artists – for whom he’d made his last three films (The Billion Dollar Brain, Women in Love and The Music Lovers) – saw The Devils’s script, they passed. It was based on John Whiting’s play of the same name and the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudon. Both drew from documented 17th-century events in the walled French town of Loudun (also known as Loudon), where nuns of St Ursula were recorded en masse as being possessed. Public exorcisms took place and a priest was burnt at the stake. Subsequent interpretation and contextualisation of the historic record has pointed to a political cause: Loudun's Father Grandier was at odds with Cardinal Richelieu for not expelling Huguenots from the fortified town. Grandier had to be removed and the fortifications razed. He died in flames.

Watch the British trailer for The Devils

Both the witch-hunting and possessed nun aspects of The Devils were familiar. They had been dealt with in recent films – most now accessible on DVD: 1962’s Mother Joan of the Angels and 1968’s Witchfinder General. Further back, 1922’s Häxan had brought historic literature on witch hunting to the screen. Russell has said that he had the Prokofiev opera The Fiery Angel in mind. But as a late Fifties convert to Catholicism, he approached the subject with his own agenda. His concerns were the twisting of religious faith for political ends and how salvation can arrive even in the unlikeliest situations. Equally, he was never going to make a film that was restrained. This was Russell, it was always going to be flamboyant. Though there are quiet passages, in toto it burns at full octane. But disgusting? No.

The Devils Oliver Reed as Father GrandierThe team Russell assembled to bring his vision to the screen was remarkable. The beautiful, gleaming-white, full-scale recreation of Loudun was designed by Derek Jarman. It was the first film set he’d created and was informed by German expressionism and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The outstanding soundtrack music was composed by Peter Maxwell Davies and performed by experimental ensemble The Fires of London. The recording sessions are seen in Director of the Devils

A raft of British characters (pictured left, Oliver Reed as Father Grandier) were corralled for the cast. Dudley Sutton, Murray Melvin, Kenneth Colley and Brian Murphy play to intense levels. Vanessa Redgrave’s Sister Jeanne, whose fantasy-fuelled desire sparks it all, is played at and beyond tipping point. A point of light comes from Gemma Jones’s Madeleine, who turns Grandier with her calm devotion. She is his salvation. The film is dominated by Oliver Reed’s steamroller performance as Grandier. Russell and Reed’s Herzog/Kinski-like relationship had begun in 1965 with a BBC Monitor film on Debussy and continued through The Music Lovers to Lisztomania. The Devils is their partnership culminating at boiling point.

The Devils DVDGrandier is presiding over a Loudun whose citizens are being consumed by the plague. The quack remedies he comes across include a crocodile, which he throws through a window and later uses to parry a sword aimed at him. It’s a vision as unforgettable as Reed’s performance. Depictions of the effect of the plagueand the attendant mass burials are shocking. Grandier is a force beholden to no one before he meets Madeleine. He sees off Richelieu’s representative, heads off to lobby the King for support and returns to a Loudun without order. The chaos includes the orgy-like mass exorcisms of the nuns - scenes echoed in the flavour of the Countess Báthory segment of Borowczyk’s 1974 Immoral Tales - enemas as tools for teasing out the devil, self-flagellation and the eventual trial of Grandier, inevitably leading to his death. Seen here in the original British X-rated cut, not the butchered American print, it’s overwhelming.

In addition to Director of the Devils and the erudite booklet, the set includes the 2002 Channel 4 documentary Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of the Devils, a new introduction from Mark Kermode, an on-stage discussion about the film between Kermode and Russell at the BFI, editor Michael Bradsell's contemporary Super-8 footage from the making of the film and commentary from Russell and others. The 2004 version, which restored some of the cut footage, is not included; the studio will not make it available for release. Russell’s charming 1958 short Amelia and the Angel is also here, as it centres on the concepts of confession and redemption. The print of The Devils seen here sparkles. Needless to say, ownership is essential.

Watch Oliver Reed discussing The Devils on Parkinson, 1973

 

The combination of religion, sexual frustration, Satanic possession and nudity meant the money men were never going to embrace it

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