I purchased a copy of Ken Russell’s notorious film The Devils with mixed feelings. I had seen it before, so I knew it was unpleasant. But precisely because I remembered much of it so vividly, I felt that it warranted a re-visit, if for no other reason than to understand why it lingered in my memory.
The obvious reason is that Russell’s film about the 17th century trial of Jesuit priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) accused of commerce with the Devil and of possessing a convent of nuns led by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) is memorable because of nearly unrelenting violence that is presented as shockingly as possible. Russell spares us nothing—blood, torture, plague, running sores, vomit, excrement, self-flagellation, burning flesh, maggots, on and on and on—and presents it all with his undeniable gift for making us feel it. He also indulges his penchant for caricature, reducing secondary characters to single qualities that are insistently repeated, with lurid results. The consequence is to bury the theme of the resistance to dictatorial authority (embodied by Cardinal Richelieu) under hysterical excess. It would be hard not to remember it.
That said, obvious and sickening as it is, the mayhem is not the measure of the film. Oliver Reed deserves considerable credit for his performance as Grandier, a complex combination of sensuality, guilt, philosophical speculation and, finally, unexpected heroism. Redgrave also merits recognition. Her Sister Jeanne is tortured by lust, envy, resentment and a tragic awareness of her own corrupt motivations. As always Redgrave is brilliant, but unlike many of her performances, she does not peek around the edges of the character to remind us of her beauty.
The period recreation, including Shirley Russell’s reliably apposite costuming, Derek Jarman’s modernistic design, and David Watkins’s soft-edged, lushly textured cinematography, is strikingly effective. If Jarman’s sets seem inappropriate to the period, they have a self-referential, conceptual coherence and totality that exceeds the boundaries of period fidelity. Put simply, they feel right, and for good or ill, foreground the action effectively.
The DVD I purchased is a PAL copy of the censored British cut (which nonetheless contains more material than its North American counterpart). According to the program notes, Russell’s cut has never been shown publicly. Without endorsing the censorship, one wonders whether additional material might just be too much. The Devils, horrifying and nearly unhinged as it is, cannot be dismissed, but that does not mean we must surrender to Russell’s indulgence without demur. I doubt that a director’s cut would balance matters. As with all of Russell’s work, the issue is not the excess as such. Rather the problems arise from treating hysteria and hyperbole as the norm, thereby crowding out other expressive possibilities. Any more outrage might just provide the final excuse to walk or tune out.
In short, The Devils is memorable, but it is also an assault on the viewer that verges on unwatchable.