Most of my favourite films are the ones made in the image of nightmares. This because, crafting a nightmare demands a total commitment to detail. And no-one goes to all that trouble without having something they want to say. Well, Ken Russell’s The Devils, the latest BFI re-release, and a film that twists everything from the highest star to the lowliest extra, into a singular expression of a nightmarish vision, definitely has something on its mind.
The Devils is loosely based on the historical events of the possessions of Loudon. I say loosely, because if Wikipedia is anything to go by, there is a definite reorientation of focus. In the history Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), is a parish priest, whose sexual indiscretions made him unpopular amongst his superiors, who then had him removed via a scam possession to avoid crossing his friends in high places. The film takes a different tack. Here, the flawed Grandier is made into a champion of local liberties, against the predations of centralised power (symbolised here by the power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu). In order to remove the turbulent priest, the Cardinal and his servants decide to employ the coerced testimony of a local convent, and the mad ravings of their leader Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), to accuse Grandier of consorting with the Devil.
My gushing praise shall start with the wonderfully artificial, dreamlike look of the film. The world of the film is a strange one indeed. The City of Loudon is a set, designed more as the symbolic representation of a city, rather than a stickler for medieval reality: all tall buildings and walls of pristine white. Meanwhile the court of King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) is an almost inhuman spectacle, a colourful, sadistically-theatrical horror where even gender is a thing uncertain.
The outlandish appearance of Russell’s France extends to the characters. Jeanne, the instigator of Grandier’s persecution, is a bowed and shuffling hunchback, her head permanently twisted at an angle, speaking either in hushed whispers or screams. Philippe (Georgina Hale), one of Grandier’s many conquests, is constantly wearing a mask of white face paint that would make her look clownish, were her features not so malicious. Speaking of masks, in The Devils, the onlooking crowds of Loudon are always wearing them. The effect is brilliantly eerie: in this world, the main characters play out their roles, watched by a faceless mass.
Even if the characters look reasonably normal however, the performances still make them outlandish. Gemma Jones as Madeleine, Grandier’s love interest, does very well indeed, layering a soft delicacy of behaviour, over an undeniable strength of feeling. The villainous performances are all marvellous, from the soft-spoken Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), to the unctuous Father Legrande (Kenneth Colley), to the wonderfully deranged exorcist Father Barre (Michael Gothard). But really, whenever he’s in shot, this is Oliver Reed’s film. You can tell a truly great actor by the crushing force of his or her personality. Christopher Lee has it, Tilda Swinton has it, and Reed has it in buckets, and he pours it all into this performance. Grandier stands, more like a force of nature than a person, a symbol of raw sexual magnetism and tragic nobility.
But the true brilliance of The Devils is that all this weirdness, all this hyper-reality, all this is in service of a goal. This isn’t City of Lost Children, a film of nightmarish, but ultimately indulgent and pointless weirdness. The Devils is, as Russell himself described it, ‘a political film’. It presents a tale of an immoral, power-crazed central government, that, in order to crush the liberties of its subjects, manufacturers a great, invisible threat and accuses the liberties’ champions of allying with it. The fact that the government of The Devils uses the ravings of a bunch of religious fanatics to manufacture this threat only makes it more relevant to the modern political context.
So, in the end, this film is a nightmare. But unlike, say, Time Bandits or Brazil, the horror of this dream is not some low-key thing suffused in dark and ramshackle imagery. If anything, it’s the opposite. The Devils is a riot of colour and noise, packed with bright imagery of corruption, pain and sexuality taken to their extremes. Some films are quiet, some films are stern, some films yell. The Devils screams. And what it screams is a warning.
Reviewer: Adam Brodie
Release Date UK: 19th March 2012
Directed By: Ken Russell
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed , Dudley Sutton