Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Day Nine: The Devils (1971) - Rank 4.5/5
Every so often, I watch a film that requires me to snap my head back and utter, "Woah!" as the credits begin to roll. To say that "The Devils" is a film that leaves you nonplussed is certainly an understatement, for I found it nothing short of astonishing. Oliver Reed, in possibly the best performance I've seen from him, plays a rakish priest by the name of Father Grandier. Set in 17th century France, at a time where Cardinal Richelieu (I love how one cardinal has such a villainous presence in fictitious, as well as actual, history) is swaying King Louis XIV to tear down the fortifications of isolated cities to unify the country. Grandier, as protector of Loudun, prevents the destruction of the city's walls and leaves to appeal to the king's senses. In his absence, a scorned priest and a shady exorcist move in and take advantage of Sister Jeanne (a hunchbacked nun who long obsessed over the suave Grandier and became embittered when he married), suggesting to her that she may be possessed and Grandier may be the individual behind her possession. The role is played with haunting precision by Vanessa Redgrave
A domino effect ensues and soon the entire convent of nuns believe they too have been possessed, feeding off of one another's love-starved madness. This was the point that the film very much became a true Ken Russell production. Moments of excess seem to be Russell's trademark, from the groping and fingering of Tchaikovsky's crazed wife in "The Music Lovers" (or the scene on the train during their honeymoon...terrifying) to Ann-Margaret's writhing in a pool of baked beans and melted chocolate in "Tommy," culminating with her humping a large, phallic pillow. The moment of excess found in "The Devils" is a scene referred to as the rape of Christ - a scene originally cut by the censors and long believed to have been destroyed. It was located, restored and inserted into the film. The scene sounds very much like what it is - an orgy of mad nuns with a large Jesus figure attached to a fallen crucifix. The current versions of the DVD lack this footage, which I find peculiar since an earlier release included it. My friend Dave got me a copy and kept lauding the version for the inclusion of the "Rape of Christ." I just found his repeating such a phrase hilarious.
While it may sound as if this scene or much of the rest of the movie was made for the sake of sensationalism, it certainly isn't the case. Those wild scenes are juxtaposed with Grandier in the wilderness, carrying out a personal mass. It's as if he's redeeming himself in the eyes of the Lord for his earlier transgressions while the rest sink into a cesspool of depravity as they betray their town. And the fact that the entire film stems from alleged actual events in France at this time of national turmoil gives the story greater depth. A decidedly dark film that leaves a heavy impression long after completion. I'd rank it as one of Ken Russell's best.
Watch the Trailer