Friday, 6 April 2012

The Devils

Many of Ken Russell’s obituaries from last year used the word ‘incendiary’ to describe him and his films, i.e. ‘Britain’s most incendiary director’. The pedant in me needs to point out that incendiary means ‘capable of causing fire’, so it is more accurate to say that Ken was an incendiary device: he was designed to set things alight. Regular readers may sometimes detect a note of ambiguity in my feelings towards Ken Russell. I think he’s great, but I also think he can be awful. The ambiguity is that this awfulness is no impediment to his greatness (and vice versa). With that in mind, I think ‘The Devils’ is his most perfect film – the film where his buffoonery and brilliance is completely balanced.
Welcome to Loudon.
Sister Jeanne strikes a pose.
Plague Pit. Great name for a metal band.

The unmistakeable face of Murray Melvin.
I'm pretty sure that's not allowed...

Based on real events and actual people (though the script was written by Ken himself, so certain liberties were taken), ‘The Devils’ is a political film about a worldly priest, Urban Grandier, who is the de facto leader of the plague ridden walled city of Loudon in 17th Century France. The government want Loudon’s walls demolished, but Grandier won’t allow this, so they take advantage of the Priest’s licentious behaviour to accuse him of witchcraft and consorting with the Devil. The conspiracy is helped along by a convent of Carmelite nuns who, already half mad with sexual frustration, are whipped up into a state of hysteria by an insane witch hunter, and then encouraged to basically go completely mental – running around in the nuddy, shouting and screaming and wanking off candles and, in a scene with remains censored to this day, pulling a statue of Jesus to the ground and rubbing their genitals against it while Murray Melvin looks on and has a tug.

It's a sequence of such insane intensity that you actually feel tired after watching it.
'The Devils' is a film which is obviously ‘special’ from the first frame; it has an absolutely unique look and feel, even amongst Russell’s other work. The design (by Derek Jarman) is quite amazing – not a hint of Olde Worlde – Loudon is a modern, new city, the 17th century brought to fresh, vibrant life; the music (by Peter Maxwell Davies) is equally startling – atonal squawks and scrapes on period instruments.
The performances are generally very broad indeed, but this seems to fit in with the nightmarish world that Russell evokes – Vanessa Redgrave gives probably her most out there characterisation as deformed, spiteful Mother Superior Sister Jeanne, throwing herself into the most incredible shapes, her eyes both piercing and far away, her voice sharp but broken. Oliver Reed is far more subtle as Grandier, but then it must have been a character that he empathised with – Grandier is an arrogant bastard with a taste for trouble, but he is also sensitive and principled, and, ultimately, rather heroic and really unlucky. 
Ow...that looks sore.
Ken's mix of sex, religion and insanity was simply too much for people, especially those sort of people who cry 'blasphemy' every time they see a humorous Christmas card, so the film was torn to bits and dropped out of circulation. Forty years on it still remains fantastically scandalous, so much so that it has only just been released on DVD in a good looking but heavily cut version, sparking a little bit more controversy for Ken to enjoy beyond the grave. He'll like that, he'll like that a lot.  

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