The collusion, indeed marriage, of Church and State: this is the dangerous aim of Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII in seventeenth-century France. But by his independence Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed, at his best) threatens this outcome; a priest, he is also the governor of Loudon. He must be destroyed. The mechanism for his destruction consists of two components: his bald sexuality and promiscuity; the degree to which this has excited the fantasies of the inhabitants of the local nunnery, including—especially—Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave, harrowingly brilliant). No one listens to Sister Jeanne when she recants her damning testimony that Father Grandier has had her possessed by devils. Refusing to “confess,” even after his legs are sledge-hammered into bits, Father Grandier is publicly burned alive.
Based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, midwived by John Whiting’s play, The Devils is probably writer-director Ken Russell’s best film. This color film leans toward black and white as an index of the nuns’ sexual repression. However, its finest visual coup, without doubt, is the hunched space inside the nunnery that conforms to the deformed body of Sister Jeanne, who is a hunchback. (Even in her dream of “normality” her back is publicly exposed and derided.) Future filmmaker Derek Jarman’s production design would remain the peak of his cinematic accomplishments.
The film opens with a theatrical performance in which King Louis participates—a metaphor for historical contrivance, the staged absurdities of rule and power, “the end justifies the means.” Russell therefore maintains a veneer of excess, theatricality, artificiality throughout; it is keyed to Sister Jeanne’s imagining herself “onstage” rather than, as is the case, hidden away as incapable of being married off.
Alternative view of the identical historical material: Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (1960).
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