Friday, April 01, 2011
This is my contribution to White Elephant 2011 at Silly Hats Only.
It's revealing to place Ken Russell's The Devils in context with two other highly controversial movies released in 1971, A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs. The shocking material in Kubrick's film was framed within a very cerebral movie-length dialogue about society and free will. Peckinpah employed the brutal rape scene in Straw Dogs to provoke audiences into considering man's savage nature. In The Devils, sex and violence are used to condemn organized religion and moral hypocrisy, yet the film (and I don't mean this as a criticism) doesn't really work as serious social commentary. Russell's film is more of a wet raspberry blown in the direction of God and the crimes committed in His name. Known best for his unapologetic directorial flamboyance, Russell is like Kubrick with a raging boner, and The Devils is like the scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex dreams of flogging Jesus Christ extended to feature length. Its images of nubile, bare-assed nuns writhing in delirious fits of sexual ecstasy and religious hysteria do not just aim to provoke, but to shock, arouse, disorient and completely overwhelm us.
Based on the book The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley and the play The Devils by John Whiting, the film is set in 17th century France, in the village of Loudon, which is under threat of demolition due to a plan by Cardinal Richelieu to eradicate such small villages to stop the rise of Protestantism. After the death of thevillage's governor, Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) has been placed in charge of Loudon and has organized the village to stop its destruction. But after Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), who is obsessed with Grandier, reveals Grandier's sexual affairs to another priest (Murray Melvin), claiming that he has bewitched her, the baron (Dudley Sutton) tasked with destroying the town sends for Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard), an inquisitor and exorcist whose job it is to investigate whether Grandier has possessed the entire nunnery. Barre's interrogations amount more to brainwashing, as he compels the nuns through suggestion and bizarelly fetishistic rituals to believe that they are possessed. The subsequent scenes of the nuns tearing off their clothing and engaging in a variety of blasphemous acts is a potent statement of the danger of religion's repressive force - it is the power of the church's message of an ongoing war between good and evil that inspires' the nuns' depravity.
At the same time, Roger Ebert wasn't exactly wrong when he wrote in his review that "We are filled with righteous indignation as we bear witness to the violation of the helpless nuns, which is all the more horrendous because, as Russell fearlessly reveals, all the nuns, without exception were young and stacked." There's little question that Russell is getting off on having assembled so much explicit desecration of all things holy in every frame. There's a definite sense throughout The Devils of having gotten away with it; it's sort of endearing, in Mark Kermode's documentary about the film, to hear the middle-aged actresses recall the shoot with a giggly fondness for the naughty things they did when they were young. The Devils is as interesting a historical record as it is a story; it's inconceivable that a big-budget British-American co-production directed by an acclaimed English filmmaker would even remotely approach the level of disregard for good taste and mass appeal that Russell's film flaunts. Try to imagine Tom Hooper remaking Salo and you get the idea.
It's Russell's libidinous sensibility that drives the film's admittedly questionable but nevertheless potent thesis - that sexual repression is at the root of most violent conflict between humans. All of the historical figures depicted are homosexuals or sadists or rich weirdos. The deformed Sister Jeanne is fixated on Grandier, fantasizing about the priest as a bleeding Christ whose wounds she tenderly sucks off. Most potent is Father Barre - the intense, slightly androgynous Gothard (who could have played Alex in A Clockwork Orange had Malcolm McDowell not been available) seethes with madness as he compels the nuns to do increasingly strange things in the name of God. The bizarre exorcism climaxes, quite literally, with the infamous "rape of Christ" sequence, which was banned from the original release and only reappeared in Kermode's documentary a few years ago. The images of the nuns having their way with a large crucifix not only predate The Exorcist, they are a perfectly blunt, graphic and unforgettable representation of the possible dark underside of Christ's "marriage" to his followers.
My favorite thing about The Devils is the casting of Oliver Reed as the village's advocate for progressive thought and free love. A softer, more counterculturally oriented actor might have been a more obvious choice; instead, peace and love are embodied by a burly, hairy man's man who looks like he might bugger a lady without asking first if he's had a few too many. Grandier's persecution and martyrdom are tragic to Russell in that they represent the triumph of celibacy over full-bodied vulgar masculinity. Warner Brothers has famously cancelled the DVD release of The Devils repeatedly, odd given that they've released special editions of A Clockwork Orange and the director's cut of Natural Born Killers. WB's execs need to relax and embrace this significant footnote in the studio's storied history - that moment, 40 years ago, when nunsploitation briefly went mainstream.