The Devils (1971)

THE DEVILS - American Poster 1When I first heard of the film, I somehow thought it was going to be one of those Satanic horror films, but after reading into it I found myself more interested, and then I actually got the chance to see it. If you came in thinking this was a horror film, you’ve probably come to the wrong film, but it’s an even better film than I thought it would be. Dismissed by some as “distasteful” and “offensive” in its time (to the point that it was actually banned in 17 local authorities in Britain), the film is now regarded as one of Ken Russell’s best films (behind Women in Love, which I have yet to see myself), and I’d say that reputation is well-deserved.

Set in 1634, this is essentially a historical film that tells the story of Urbain Grandier, a Catholic well-regarded priest who is apparently known for ignoring his vow of celibacy. However, he is the object of the obsessions of Sister Jeanne des Agnes, a neurotic abbess who suffers from severe scoliosis. Her jealousy winds up driving her insane, and when inadvertently accuses Grandier of withcraft, she invites the zealous intervention of opportunistic church and government officials, eventually bringing about the demise of the man she was so obsessed with.

At first, the story didn’t seem to go anywhere, but then as it unfolds, the true madness of the film unravels, and it made for a captivating tale of fanaticism, and the sweeping paranoia of the age it was set in. I find that this film is also a very effective demonstration of how paranoia can be exploited by those who want to advance their agendas of power. All the while, it also plays out a tale of frustrated desires, as demonstrated by Sister Jeanne and her convent’s descent into madness, and their apparent cooperation with a clearly perverted “witch hunter”.

The performances are what carry the film with great talent. Oliver Reed gives a somewhat villainous yet incredibly charismatic performance as Urbain Grandier. He has the strange ability to seem both sinister and honourable at the same time, but Reed’s hour of power is saved for the last moments of the film, as he stands up against the people judging him even if he knows there’s no hope for him. Vanessa Redgrave also gave a magnificent performance as the salaciously insane abbess, and the supporting cast all deserve a standing ovation for their performance.

The film also sports a peculiarly opulent visual style. Derek Jarman’s modernistic white-tiled city will undoubtedly seem like an odd choice for a film set in 17th century France, but I like the design choice. There’s also a number of props that stand out, like the wheel with a corpse chained to it, the archaic wheel mechanism used to chip at the wall in Loudun, and the opening dance scene. The film is as much a visual trip as it is a hysteric fiesta, though the music score, for the most part, is quite sombre. The music generally seems to blend into the background of the film itself.

In conclusion, I contend that The Devils is an artistic triumph, stretching the limits of what could be shown on film. Laden with symbolism and lurid expressions of zeal, the film is a brilliant expression of the extremes of belief, and how they feed into frenzied paranoia. I just wish that I could get my hands on the uncut version.

  • Score: 87%
  • Grade: A
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