The film director Ken Russell, who died last November, aged 84, was a man always eager to embrace the unconventional. Even as the passing years diminished his public profile and production budgets, the twilight of his career was nevertheless still punctuated with the extraordinary and the unexpected.
During the ‘90s and ‘00s, the mind-bending lo-fi movies he shot on camcorder in his ersatz studio complex (actually his garage) occasionally found their way into completists’ DVD collections via obscure distribution; in 2007, he surprised the British public by becoming a participant in a celebrity version of the reality TV show Big Brother, although his stay in the house was marred by arguments, and he left of his own volition soon after the programme began (personally, I was more than a little miffed that only a couple of his dunderheaded housemates seemed to know who he was).
So whilst Russell’s shock of fluffy, snow white hair and jovial, grandfatherly manner may have given him — in his later years at least — the appearance of a rather benign presence, it’s clear that the spirit of a mischievous, independent and experimental maverick continued to thrive, and the roots of his nonconformity and visual flamboyance can be traced back to the earliest periods of his filmmaking career.
In the ‘60s, Russell was commissioned by the BBC to direct a series of period docudrama films that would re-imagine the lives of famous classical composers, and his finished works (including 1962’s excellent Elgar, and 1970’s Strauss biopic Dance of the Seven Veils, which is still hampered by UK censorship issues today) began to showcase his edgy and frenetic style and marked him as a major talent. However, nothing could prepare the audiences, critics and censors of the early ‘70s for what was about to be unleashed. Everything that Russell previously embodied was perfectly synthesized into this moment, and it was a moment that would come to represent the zenith of his unique brand of beautiful and challenging chaos: it was The Devils.
Inspired by actual events, and combining strong and disturbing elements of historical drama, religion, sex, music, politics and horror, The Devils is masterful, and is unlike anything that the British film industry had produced up until that time. The ferocity of Russell’s vision represents a kind of multicoloured artistic purging, with close to two hours of invention, energy and madness loaded into a blunderbuss and fired onto the screen in shocking, blasphemous glory.
Based on both Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun and John Whiting’s play The Devils, Russell’s film portrays the conflict in 17th Century France between a local priest, Urbain Grandier (the fantastically intense Oliver Reed) and the oppressive centralised government that seeks to destroy his beloved city of Loudun. Into the fray enters Sister Jeanne (the wonderfully deranged Vanessa Redgrave), a nun who harbours illicit sexual feelings for Grandier. Erotic hysteria begins to spread throughout the convent and affect the other nuns, and matters reach a climax (ahem) when Sister Jeanne appears to become possessed by the devil. Grandier, implicated in the sorcery, finds himself the target of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), who becomes determined to remove Grandier — now perceived as an emissary of Satan — at any cost.
Unsurprisingly, The Devils attracted great controversy on its initial release (the original US trailer seems acknowledge the film’s controversial nature, with a voiceover that exercises damage limitation by proclaiming that The Devils is “not for everyone”), and a portent of the trouble that would lay ahead came when horrified US studio executives, upon first seeing the film, told Russell it was ‘disgusting shit’. Don’t mince your words, fellas.
The primary issue that many had with the film is that it projects graphic sexuality and violence upon its overtly religious characters, yet a simplistic, knee-jerk response is not the cerebral one the filmmakers and the supporters of the film would have hoped for. Beyond the controversial carnal aspects of The Devils, there is a keen political subtext (Russell himself proclaimed this his only truly political film), so to focus solely on its more salacious aspects is to do the film a disservice; at its core, The Devils is a fascinating study of the problems caused by merging the church and the government into one state regime.
However, despite the violent reaction The Devils provoked, even the most pious can surely appreciate the artistry evident in other areas of the film. Take the wonderful work of Derek Jarman, then a talented young artist yet to make his indelible mark on the film industry, who designed the large and truly stunning Loudun City set, which took up a fair proportion of Pinewood Studios’ back lot. Russell stipulated that he didn’t want any clichéd ‘moss-covered’ architecture, instead deciding that a bold, gleaming town — representative of the then modern society featured in the film — would be far more fitting; in this respect, the clean white lines of Jarman’s, huge monolithic facades are just perfect (remember, this was the Jarman’s debut as a set designer too, which makes his confident contribution all the more incredible).
Similarly, the film’s cinematographer, David Watkin, photographed The Devils with a gorgeous painterly eye (his style has been likened to the work of the painter Johannes Vermeer); notice particularly how Watkin refracts light through the colourful stained glass windows of the convent, causing rainbow hues to be cast upon the stark white robes of the nuns (at a point in the film when they’re still wearing clothes, mind you). This attention to detail is not only very impressive, but also visually beautiful.
The Devils certainly left a legacy, and it was clearly influential, too. I’d wager that William Friedkin took note of Russell’s film, as there are similarities between Sister Jeanne during her exorcism – hunched and blasphemous, with rictus grin and deep, booming voice – and Regan, the possessed girl in The Exorcist. Additionally, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ chaotic, avant-garde score for The Devils recalls the work of Krzysztof Penderecki (who himself wrote an opera based on the events at Loudun), and whose discordant pieces screeched and stuttered so chillingly throughout Friedkin’s film (Russell, a huge film buff since childhood, clearly absorbed plenty of cultural references of his own, and these certainly found their way into The Devils. For example, the visual sensibility of Hammer’s period films is liberally peppered throughout, with plenty of gore and good ol’ medieval peasantry on show: scabby faces, tortured yelling, Technicolor bloodletting — the kind of thing Hammer always excelled in).
Overall, The Devils is undoubtedly Russell’s greatest film, and the apotheosis of alternative British cinema in the ‘70s; alternatively disturbing, musical, grandly eccentric and bursting with ideas and vivacity, one can only admire the way its narrative prods and provokes the censorious, and all done with such visual grace and cheeky brilliance, too.
A landmark film such as this also justifies a definitive and comprehensive DVD release, so it’s a pleasure to report that this lavish BFI 2-Disc Special Edition more than meets requirements; not only should this DVD set serve as a timely farewell to a leading artistic visionary, but it should also represent a fitting and lasting eulogy to one of Britain’s finest and bravest film directors.
The BFI also never fails to impress with the quality and quantity of the extras on its DVD releases, and this is no exception. Included are a newly filmed introduction with film critic Mark Kermode; an audio commentary with Kermode, Russell, the film’s editor Michael Bradsell and documentarian Paul Joyce; Hell on Earth (2002): a documentary exploring the film’s production and the controversy surrounding its release; Director of Devils (1971): a documentary featuring several Russell interviews and footage of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies recording the film’s celebrated score; original on-set footage with accompanying commentary by Bradsell; On-stage Q&A with Ken Russell (2012): an excerpt from a conversation with Kermode, filmed at the National Film Theatre in 2004; Amelia and the Angel (1958, b/w): Russell’s second short film, made by the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund; the original US trailer; the original UK trailer; a 44-page illustrated booklet featuring essays from Kermode, Craig Lapper (from the British Board of Film Classification), Bradsell and magazine editor Sam Ashby, plus film notes, biographies and credits.