I don’t know much about Ken Russell as a filmmaker, or as a person for that matter, but from what I hear, he has a storied place in British filmmaking history, if not filmmaking in general. This, The Devils, is by far his most popular and controversial work, which I’m sure was definitely the intention behind it. Now, I’ve gone through controversial films before; films like Salo and Flaming Creatures, where the label “controversial” isn’t as much of the truth as the label “riot-inducing”, especially in the case of the latter. That said, I was underwhelmed by the controversial aspects of The Devils, but weirdly enough, I found plenty of other material that grasped my attention.
Oliver Reed is Father Urbain Grandier, the head priest and de-facto leader of a fortified French town called Loudun; a town which outside forces within the country of France wish to de-fortify in order to achieve their own ends. Naturally, Grandier is against this, and after he becomes the object of the affections of the hunchbacked nun Sister Jeanne (played with fervent ambition by Vanessa Redgrave), who desires him in a way that no nun should ever desire a man, the blowback caused by his inadvertent rejection of the sister threatens to topple his seat of power and all the good that he has done for the town. So, about the film itself; I’ll start at the beginning. The film opens with a cardboard-and-pastel stage set, seemingly right out of Melies, which then erupts into an elaborate and bombastically hedonistic dance number, as if Fellini’s Satyricon had somehow been made into a musical for the theater. Right after the title is displayed, the film smash cuts to the skull of a full skeleton being spun on a Catherine wheel, complete with maggots wriggling in the empty eye sockets. It’s these two shots or segments that perfectly illustrate what The Devils is about to give you, and if you feel uneasy at all thanks to either of these images or the juxtaposition of them together, boy are you in for a rough film to watch. For one, the name of the game here seems to be sensory overload; holy wow, was the production value in this one massive. The screen is filled with slightly unnatural versions of regular colors, in particular shades of white and black, creating an extremely sterile feel, which might be viewed as ironic given the subject matter. Not only that, but each frame of the film seems to have at least one example of clashing colors, and often an inordinate amount of examples, what with all the set dressings and props that the production value gives us that are extremely utilized throughout the film. I hesitate to use the word decadent to describe it, because thanks to the plot of the film it ends up being as far from decadent as you can muster, but it is definitely an experience for the eyes; that’s for sure.
I didn’t really go into the really controversial aspects of this one, which caused it to be recut and released in varying forms in different countries upon release (to this day, a complete version of the original cut has yet to be released at all). I think I skipped over them because they seemed rather inconsequential to me, especially after I’ve seen films like Salo and Satyricon, which trump this one in just about every way. Really, that this is in English and was made in the 1970s is, I’d bet, where most of the hindsight controversy comes from, as English-language films weren’t really known at the time for being this… incredulous. That’s probably why it made the list more than anything else, and I’m actually surprised it took this long to get there. Still, besides the overly sexualized and horrifying graphic content, I actually liked this one, mainly because it was a feast for the eyes more than anything else. Granted, there are more than a few razor blades in the apples that make up this feast, and it’s for that reason alone that I’d hesitate in recommending this. Really, if you’ve made it through films like Salo and Satyricon, this will be an easy go-through; otherwise, prepare to be, at the least, mildly taken aback by the content of this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10