Dec 20, 2014
Ken Russell (Lisztomania, Salome’s Last Dance) is certainly a filmmaker whose oeuvre I haven’t completely made up my mind about, namely because the idea of a rampantly heterosexual camp auteur seems patently preposterous to me, which is certainly reflected in some of the director’s more obscenely outlandish works, but I cannot help but like the man. Indeed, if there ever was a filmmaker who ever brought a flagrantly unfaggy flavor to camp, it was the ridiculously shamelessly rampantly heterosexual Russell, whose entire oeuvre contradicts virtually every single stereotype regarding the British, which is certainly something in the filmmaker's favor. Notably, Russell seemed to be perplexed by his own camp sensibility as demonstrated by his humorous response when a close friend accused him of being a latent homosexual, “Fine, maybe I am, who knows, I don’t think anyone knows themselves. We can all pretend, but I have no idea what I am, I’m me!” in what is one of his many classic quotes. Of course, Russell sometimes had help from homos in regard to his audacious camp aesthetic, arguably most notably with his masterpiece The Devils (1971) aka The Devils of Loudun aka Ken Russell's Film of The Devils aka Die Teufel, with queer avant-garde auteur Derek Jarman (The Angelic Conversation, The Last of England) working as the production designer on the film before becoming a notable filmmaker in his own right (it should be noted that in Russell's audio commentary for the BFI DVD release of the film, he credits Jarman for the look of the film, as a rare period piece with a truly modernist look). Based on the nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun (1952) by Aldous Huxley as well as the 1960 play The Devils by John Whiting, Russell’s film is a wholly idiosyncratic work set in a foreboding Fellini-esque 17th-century frog hell-on-earth of Catholic cruelty and bloodthirsty blueblood brutality of the spiritually apocalyptic high-camp sort where witch-hunters derive sadistic glee by performing ostensible exorcisms via primitive enemas and queer monarchs perform Schroeter-esque drag shows in between shooting protestants dressed up like black birds for sport. A film well known for being raped by its aesthetically retarded American backers at Warner Bros who to this day refuse to release the film in its completely uncut and undefiled form, The Devils is a rare work that straddles a healthy medium between Nunsploitation, pastoral ‘folk horror,’ Buñuel-esque arthouse surrealism of the sensually sacrilegious sort, and dichotomous Catholic and anti-Catholic sentiments and imagery that certainly reflects the filmmaker’s remark regarding his own works, “I always start out thinking that I am going to make a pastoral film but the darker side eventually creeps in. All of my films are moral, or immoral, depending on your point of view.” The surely sordid and oftentimes darkly humorous story of a pimp-like progressive Jesuit priest who has all the nuns begging at his knees for sins of the flesh and righteously fights to keep his pluralistic multi-religion town from being taken over by a scheming cunt of a queenish Catholic cardinal who wants to take complete control of France by destroying every single town and village, The Devils is arguably the most eccentrically yet elegantly bawdy tale of religious martyrdom ever committed to celluloid. Indeed, created in a country that has a history of producing so many wretched and brutally banal period pieces, Russell's film was surely a cinematic revelation of sorts.
Opening with grotesquely effete monarch King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) giving a drag show inspired by Sandro Botticelli’s classic 1486 painting The Birth of Venus for a nauseatingly nerdy power-hungry Catholic leader named Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), The Devils immediately establishes a tone of wayward mockery for the Catholic Church and French monarchy, or at least for certain elements of the two. A seemingly sexless fellow who lives such a decadent and less than Christ-like life of leisure that he has people wheel him around on a cart instead of walk like a normal person, Richelieu humors Louis XIII’s truly aristocratic sense of narcissism so that he can con the king into allowing him to consolidate power over all of France via a universalist nationalist revolution by destroying every single town and village. The problem is that Louis XIII has agreed to keep one town, Loudun, intact as a promise to its recently deceased governor Georges de Sainte Marthe, who just succumbed to the plague. Before dying, de Sainte Marthe gave the much beloved yet superlatively sinful priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) reign over Loudun until the next election. As a man that loves women and their bodies just as much as he hates Catholic bureaucracy and greed, preternatural priest Grandier will ultimately prove to a thorn in Richelieu's side. The problem is that Grandier cannot keep his cock in his pants and after impregnating an ditzy young aristocrat named Philippe Trincant (Georgina Hale) who was sent to him for Latin lessons, the priest must face the wrath of the girl's father Magistrate Trincant (John Woodvine), who will do anything to get his revenge against the Jesuit priest for defiling his little girl and bequeathing her with the grand dishonor of giving birth to the bastard brood of a sinful holy man. Unbeknownst to Grandier, the Mother Superior Sister of the Ursuline convent in Loudun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave)—a hyper cynical and hyper horny old spinster who less than flatteringly states of her fellow sisters, “Most of the nuns here are noble women who have embraced the monastic life because there was not enough money at home to provide them with dowries. Or they were unmarriageable because ugly, a burden to the family. Communities which ought to be furnaces where souls are forever on fire with the love of God are merely dead with the grey ashes of convenience”—is deeply infatuated with him and sees him and his cock as being quite Christ-like as depicted in various nightmarish hallucinations she suffers, but being a self-loathing hunchback who engages in self-flagellation after masturbating while thinking of her Catholic crush, she would never dare confess her undying love to the super pimp padre, who does not even know she exists.
While Grandier has both holy and unholy women of all ages throwing themselves at him left and right, he ultimately falls in love with a more simple and mostly morally supreme girl named Madeline De Brou (Gemma Jones), who has been ordered by Sister Jeanne to read a book by Ursuline convent foundress Angela Merici. After telling Madeline that Merici’s book is “sanctimonious claptrap,” Grandier discusses marriage with the little lady and the two decide to get married. When Sister Jeanne learns of Grandier’s marriage after a group of nuns do a mock drag reenactment of the marriage at the convent where one of the nuns dresses like the priest, she goes completely insane. After all, Sister Jeanne is a woman who hallucinates seeing Grandier as a Christ-like figure who can walk on water and who gets off the cross so that she can lick his Christly wounds with the utmost satisfaction, so after learning that her crush has given his heart to another woman, she completely loses it and ultimately unwittingly unleashes a micro-crusade as a result of her loony lovelorn hysteria. Meanwhile, Cardinal Richelieu sends a fellow named Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) who plans to use an army of protestant slaves to level Loudun to the ground, but Grandier temporarily stops him with the armed threat, “if one more stone be torn from our city walls, you will be dead before it touches the ground.” The Baron has been brainwashed to think that Loudun is “a nest of dangerous Huguenots” and he goes back to Cardinal Richelieu to scheme a way to obtain the power to demolish the city. Meanwhile, Grandier heads to see King Louis to ensure that nothing happens to Loudun. Luckily for Cardinal Richelieu, Laubardemont, and the rest of the conspirators, Sister Jeanne, who wants her crush to pay for ostensibly betraying her, tells new convent priest, Father Mignon (Murray Melvin), that Grandier is not only a lecherous lady's who has gone against church rules by getting married to a young woman, but also makes up the absurd fabrication that the priest practices witchcraft and has ‘possessed’ her. Needless to say, Father Mignon tells Magistrate Trincant, who in turn tells Baron de Laubardemont, and the three plot together to use this information to destroy Grandier. Ultimately, they decide to bring in a “professional witch-hunter” named Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard)—a patent fraud and hateful bigot who does not even speak Latin and thus is incapable of even properly doing his job as a character that director Ken Russell intentionally made look like a hippie to show he is a “false messiah” and charlatan—to ‘prove’ that Sister Jeanne is possessed, the nuns of Ursuline convent are practicing witchcraft, and Grandier has made a pact with the devil and is the black magician behind all of this sinister behavior.
When carny-like witch-hunter Father Barre arrives in Loudun, he decides to perform an ‘exorcism’ on Sister Jeanne by giving her a brutal enema with some sort of archaic device that looks like it would be more than a little bit painful, even for a power bottom, in front of everyone in town. Needless to say, Sister Jeanne had no idea that her malicious lies regarding Grandier would backfire against her in such an absolutely hellish fashion and she even screams, “unhand me you Christ-loving runts” at Barre and his comrades when they go to perform an enema on her, thus making it seem as if she is indeed possessed by Satan. Determined to get all the ‘evidence’ and testimony against Grandier that he needs, Father Barre has all the young Ursuline nuns brought to the woods by a group of soldiers and threatens to brutally kill every single one of them if they do not confess to being devout devil worshipers. Indeed, Barre is such a shameless and maliciously manipulative little liar that he actually tells the nuns how they should act while pretending to be possessed, stating like some sort of third-rate theater director, “The evil spirit of Grandier has taken possession of your souls. Now you resist him, but soon he will have his way! You will scream. You will blaspheme. You will no longer be responsible for your actions. Denounce your devilish master Grandier! And we will save you!” while the sisters grab onto him in a sensual fashion to demonstrate their relief that they will not be executed. The nuns immediately take advantage of the “possessed by the devil” sham by stripping completely naked and carrying out every single hedonistic fantasy they have ever dreamed of, including lesbo orgies, giving handjobs to holy candles, molesting priests and other holy man, and destroying everything in sight in a scenario that culminates in the (in)famous ‘Rape of Christ’ scene where the sinisterly sensual sisters take down a gigantic life-size crucifix from the high altar of the church and savagely molest and destroy it. During the middle of the unholy orgy, King Louis XIII shows up at the church barely disguised as a fellow named Duke Henri de Condé with an entourage of makeup-adorned little boys à la Federico Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) and wallows in the waywardly wanton degeneracy, thus indicating that he could truly care less about Catholicism and has only joined up with the Catholic Church for purely political reasons. To play a prank on Father Barre, King Louis/Duke de Condé pulls out a supposed golden holy relic containing the ostensible blood of Jesus and asks the witch-hunter to use it on the pseudo-possessed nuns in an attempt to free them of demonic possession. Somewhat humorously, when Barre uses the holy relic on the nuns and they immediately claim to be cured, King Louis reveals there was nothing inside the golden case, thus exposing the witch-hunter for the showman carny fraud he is.
When Grandier finally gets back to Loudun after his pilgrimage to see the king and walks in on the chaotic nun orgy going on at this church, he loudly declares, “You have turned the house of the lord into a circus. And its servants into clowns” and adamantly denies engaging in witchcraft, but lovelorn lunatic Sister Jeanne self-righteously contradicts him, so he and his new wife Madeline are immediately arrested under the bogus charge of “heresy” at the order of Baron de Laubardemont. From there, Grandier is forced to undergo a series of absurdly pointless torture scenarios to prove he is a member of Satan’s legion. After Laubardemont has everything in Grandier’s home searched through and destroyed in a Gestapo-esque fashion, the persecuted priest is given a preposterous Soviet style show trial that is presided over by a group KKK-esque dudes in white cloaks. Of course, the only real ‘evidence’ that they have against Grandier is love letters from his various sexual conquests, thus making it seem like he would indeed defile an entire convent of young nuns. Of course, Grandier is ultimately found guilty and sentenced to be burned at the stake in front of the entire population of Loudun. Before he is executed, Grandier suffers the public shame of having the priestly mop on his head shaved and is tortured with various bone-crushing blows to his legs by Father Barre, who tries in vain to get the priest to admit his guilt. Meanwhile, Sister Jeanne attempts suicide via hanging and even recants her claims regarding Grandier due to her overwhelming guilt, but of course professional bullshitter Barre blames her actions on demonic possession and then proceeds to rape some sense into her. Even when offered the opportunity to go free and become an active player in the increasingly powerful Catholic Church, Grandier refuses to give in and continues to maintain his innocence, which eventually convinces Mignon he is innocent, for no man would pointlessly endure such pain and torture unless they were innocent and actually believed what they were saying. While initially supporting him, the entire populous provides credence to Gustave Le Bon’s theory of mass psychology and herd behavior by actively supporting and even eagerly awaiting Grandier’s execution by throwing a huge festival, not realizing that his death will also result in the death and complete destruction of Loudun. While the executioner promises to strangle Grandier just before he is burned alive, Mignon nonsensically ties the rope in a knot after becoming consumed with guilt over the priest’s innocence. As Grandier burns alive, the bastard baby spawned from his affair with high-class harlot PhilippeTrincant is forced to watch the execution while some perverted old rich geezer says to the child, “lucky little bastard, it’s not every day that baby sees daddy burn to death.” Immediately after Grandier is burned alive, Baron de Laubardemont orders the demolition of Loudun and the entire place is reduced to rubble. After the priests execution and martyrdom, Baron de Laubardemont visits Sister Jeanne and reveals that Father Mignon has been institutionalized for being ‘demented’ due to his claims that Grandier was innocent. Before leaving, the Baron hands Sister Jeanne Grandier’s charred femur bone as a “souvenir” and she subsequently diddles herself with it. In the final scene, Grandier’s young widowed wife Madeline climbs through the rubble of ruined Loudun and leaves the town for good.
In its strangely ‘feel-good’ and mirthful approach to depicting religious and political corruption, mass hysteria, heresy, religious hatred, sexual perversion, mental illness, the plague, medieval style torture, enemas, and exorcisms, among other things, The Devils ultimately demonstrates Ken Russell’s greatest talent as a filmmaker as a man so charming that he could make coprophagia seem like an absolutely delectable experience. Indeed, in its highly addictive compulsively carnivalesque approach to everything from human atrocities to religious martyrdom, Russell’s film is like the artsploitation equivalent of a ‘popcorn movie,’ as a classic work with seemingly infinite replay value that can be enjoyed by even the most prideful of philistines, though the film might offend more anally retentive types as Roger Ebert, who was himself a lapsed Catholic, and seems to have suffered a yeast infection after watching the work and gave it a notoriously scathing review. Notably, considerably cunty kosher film critic Pauline Kael also once wrote regarding Russell, “What Sen. Joe McCarthy did to people’s reputations is nothing to what Ken Russell does…he is the chief defiler of celebrities of the past and present,” yet I doubt any man or woman could get through The Devils without thinking that Urbain Grandier is the ultimate charismatic pimp, player, and man’s man, which cannot be said of many priests, be they fictional or nonfictional. Russell’s film is also notable for bringing celluloid life to ancient paintings ranging from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus to the work of Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, especially his 1562 oil panel painting The Triumph of Death. Of course, the film’s production designer, Derek Jarman, should be largely credited for the film’s overall look. Unquestionably, the influence of The Devils on Jarman’s oeuvre can be seen everywhere from the sadistic queenish Emperor Diocletian (who has more than a couple of things in common with Louis XIII) of his debut feature Sebastiane (1976) to the allegorical religious imagery of his highly autobiographical arthouse work The Garden (1990). Of course, with its emphasis on hairy cunts over flaccid cocks, Russell’s film demonstrates a singularly rampantly heterosexual camp sensibility that is second to none. Not surprisingly, Russell's work is not the only film inspired by the Loudun possessions of 1634, as the event also influenced the Polish film Mother Joan of the Angels (1961) aka Matka Joanna od Aniołów aka The Devil and the Nun directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz and the West German TV opera Die Teufel von Loudun (1969) aka The Devils of Loudun directed by Rolf Liebermann (who also adapted his version from Huxley’s novel and Penderecki’s play). Although more overtly serious and thus more brutal than The Devils as a work featuring a far from campy portrayal of Sister Jeanne receiving a holy water enema, Liebermann’s The Devils of Loudun seems to have too many similarities for Russell to have not seen it and been influenced by the work. Interestingly, William Friedkin also used part of the score from The Devils of Loudon for The Exorcist (1973), which is another work that blurs the line between Catholic celluloid and pure heresy. While it is true that Russell converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1950s, the circumstances of the filmmaker's conversion seem somewhat dubious as reflected in his remark in the audio commentary track for the BFI DVD release of The Devils, “I was brought to the faith by intimate intercourse with a nun in the Poor Clares.” Personally, I see the character of Urbain Grandier as a sort of alter-ego for Russell, as a sort of proud sinner who truly believes, albeit in his own highly idiosyncratic sort of way, with The Devils not only being the director's final word on religion, but also authority in general, the aristocracy, politics, and the masses as well as a work that more or less encompasses his entire weltanschauung, thus making it the perfect introductory work for novices of the singularly eccentric English auteur.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:37 PM
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