[24 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
His status as a forgotten filmmaking giant remains unchanged. For every director he’s inspired, for every movie that pays homage to his esoteric eye candy conceits, he’s seemingly fallen further out of favor in the discussion of greats. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, his reputation as Britain’s bad boy of cinema was rivaled only by the amazing movies he helmed, post-modern classics such as Women in Love, The Music Lovers, and his brilliant adaptation of the The Who’s Tommy. Today, he’s a punchline among all except the most erudite cinephiles. Part of the problem is precedent. Ken Russell today is not the mischievous maverick of forty years ago. Perhaps even more importantly, one of his true masterpieces, 1971’s The Devils, remains out of print and out of the conversation.
In actuality, a headstrong Hollywood continues to marginalize Russell’s rapier vision of sex and corruption in organized religion, original backing studio Warner Brothers still reluctant to release the uncut version to viable commercial formats (oddly enough, Apple’s ITunes offered it for a while a few months back, before mysterious dropping it from availability). Of course, when one actually experiences the shocking, clearly controversial nature of the narrative, it’s not hard to see their misguided reluctance. Focusing on madmen, power grabs, faith-based fallacies and the director’s always over the top visualization of same, it cemented his standing as an uncompromising, unmatched genius. It also proved to be an artistic albatross, a burden he would have to carry, comment on, and contradict for the rest of his rollercoaster career.
The setting is 17th Century France. A power struggle exists between sitting royal Louis XIII and church despot Cardinal Richelieu. Standing in their way - the town of Loudun and its titular head, the hedonistic priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed). Popular among the people, he is equally adored by the nuns of the local convent. This includes the deranged, deformed Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) who is absolutely obsessed with him. When Baron de Laubardemon arrives to destroy the city, Grandier seeks the assistance of the King. In his absence, a spurned Sr. Jeanne accuses him of witchcraft. Enter “professional witch-hunter” Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) who investigates the claims and puts Grandier on trial. Convicted under false pretenses, he is tortured and burned at the stake, while Loudun is finally destroyed.
In the history of harsh criticisms against the mixing of state and faith, in the realm of depictions of true hypocrisy and man’s inability to deny his true animalistic nature (for good and bad), The Devils is definitive. It reigns supreme over other films too scared to showcase the true debauchery in all forms of order (religious, royal, and governmental). With his clever combination of assured insight and sheer audacity, Russell redefines the socio-political commentary, moving it miles away from the similarly themed argument and expose, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Trading on history to provide support and relying on works by Aldous Huxley (who wrote the original book) and John Whiting (who based a play on same) to aide in his quest, the results reverberate in a way that not only deconstructs such narratives, but how they are illustrated as well.
The Devils is like a trip through Baroque Hell as envisioned by a high end mentor to Kubrick and Jodorowsky. It’s all textures and tactile reinterpretations, modernistic designs delivered into the bowels of a beleaguered, belligerent age. It’s an experience which pulsates and perverts, especially in those glorious moments when Russell slaps the sacred directly in its frescoed face. Be forewarned - this is not some bit of boisterous blasphemy substituting for someone’s spiritual quest. This is defamation, libel, and slander all rolled into one. There is no love lost between God, his purported patrons, and this forward-thinking filmmaker. Russell is out to sell religion incredibly short, and he does so majestically.
At its core are two performances worthy of worldwide acclaim and consideration. As he did throughout many of his collaborations with Russell, Oliver Reed steps up to show why he remains one of the UK’s most underappreciated actors. Radiating the kind of manic machismo and simmering virility that makes Grandier such a threat, he comes across as brusque, egotistical, conceited, and very vulnerable. Reed may look like the very definition of a “man”, but his multilayered turn in The Devils suggests something more complicated and considered. So does the work of Vanessa Redgrave. While some might see her as the stereotypical woman scorned, she’s actually the cold, calculating heart of the storyline. Without her fanatical passion, Grandier would probably never stand accused. Without her desire to then play pawn in a callous noble power grab, we’d never have the film’s fatalistic end.
But it’s Russell who deserves the most credit. Impish in his gleeful garroting of proper convention, his attacks are pointed, prophetic, and purposeful. Naturally, audiences in the early ‘70s were dumbfounded by the notion of adulterous clergy, sex starved nuns, and amoral officials. Today, it’s a laundry list of tabloid/TMZ givens. Of course, few could envision wantonness the way Russell sees it, blood mixing with nude bodies and equally naked emotions to take the concept of a metaphoric fever dream to new degrees of dementia. But there is more to The Devils than the standard “absolute power corrupts absolutely” meshed with flawless imagery. Indeed, Russell wants to explore the dimensions of personal pride, of how people charged with professing good can wind up more wicked and evil than the demons they have vowed to defeat.
Drape it in a scope so sacrilegious it would make the Fallen One himself blush and baste in the typical Russellian excesses and you have a masterpiece masquerading as misunderstood. If Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom can be declared an uncomfortable, corrupt classic, The Devils deserves the same - or more. There is no doubt that Russell intends to do more than feed a fan’s prurient interests and the movie makes statements so sharp and erudite that is puts similar sentiments four decades removed to shame. In this brilliant film, nothing is safe: not God, not Satan, not man, not their collective meaning. Of course, when you continually press such hot buttons you’re bound to be singled out and stifled. While others reap his deserved rewards, this anarchic auteur remains on the outside, demanding to be let in. Ken Russell and The Devils deserve better.