Directed by Ken Russell
111 mins. Color.
17th Century France sucked. Cardinal Richelieu, the plague, lice, religious wars... Sounds like Detroit. And, like Detroit, sometimes Priests need to use dead alligators in a sword fight.
Ken Russell is perhaps best known in the States for his surrealist experimentations of the late 1970s and 1980s. Films like Altered States and Lair of the White Worm are brilliant and flawed, and widely available. Available, but largely treated like exploitation trash. You can generally find them for a dollar on VHS at Goodwill or your neighborhood record store. There should be better releases of these extremely interesting films.
Russell's fascinating 1971 film is what many call his masterwork. However, shadowed by the deep controversy, it saw little to no distribution. Officially Rated X by the British Film Institute, it was distributed by Warner Brothers in the United States. The controversial nature of the film has always left them at a loss, and they have been afraid of it since the beginning. It was originally released shredded beyond recognition, with multiple scenes completely removed.
The controversy of the film really lies amongst the intersection between sex and religion. Likewise, WB feared criticism of the church would be terrible for ticket sales and might create picket lines.
The film begins with this title card
There is generally nothing that bothers me more than stuff like this. "Based on a True Story" is such rubbish. Offering the idea that what you are seeing took place is preposterous. Embellishments, score and drama are what make great film, not historical fact. Yet, in this circumstance, it provides for a sort of grounding because what you are about to see is so over the top, it works as a reminder of the true absurdity of the mixing of power, religion and politics.
The film concerns Father Grundier, excellently played by Oliver Reed, a womanizer priest who has been made steward of a fortified town that is strategic to Cardinal Richelieu and the King's plans to remake the kingdom without protestants. At the same time Sister Jeanne, a tortured physical performance by Vanessa Redgrave, has fantasies of being with Grundier. When she learns of his secret marriage to another woman and refusal to be her confessor, she accuses him of witchcraft. Seeing the situation as politically expedient, Richelieu sends an exorcist and they begin a charade of witch-hunting and debauchery.
Period pieces, when done properly, have the ability to step outside of our own time and see contemporary situations more clearly. The Devils, from set design to acting to script, is truly impressive in this regard. The sets seem almost futuristic, which is both off-putting and extremely smart. It takes away the stuffiness of the "period" and makes the film seem almost timeless.
I have been looking for a good copy of the film for awhile. The options are limited. The VHS is heavily edited and expensive and the Region 2 DVD is also a bit pricey. So, I ended up with the Euro Cult release, which is unedited. There are two very interesting documentaries on the DVD. However, the quality of the transfer is quite poor, but that is a bit unavoidable as there are no elements good enough to make an HD transfer. So, this may be the best we ever get...
Set Yourself Up:
- This is an early 1970s art piece, so put yourself in that head-space. Some of the score is a bit wild and some of the performances are over the top.
- I had an egg sandwich and coffee in a cold basement while watching it. That seemed to fit pretty well.
- J. Moret