“Hark!”, Ken Russell’s devils sing. But just who are the “devils” in 1971’s diabolical reverie of a film? All and sundry will eventually claim that Lucifer is synonymous with one Father Grandier, a charismatic priest and part-time theologian with a gluttonous taste for coitus. Why blame him for it? Savouring his role as an excitable vacationist in a garden of earthly delights, Grandier jovially surrenders to his carnal impulses, going so far as to reinterpret Catholic doctrine to justify his indulgence: Russell’s curious revision of the classic screwball exchange features a repartee between our newlywed protagonist and his spouse as they debate the scriptural merits of chastity, the former adamant in his belief that “even the most innocent lamb is destined for the lustful ram.” A Holy Man this preacher can never be – he preys on impressionable maidens during Confession, substituting absolution for speed dating as he exacts the repressed desires of his adoring devotees (“Now there’s a man worth goin’ to Hell for…”) and devours them as if they were the elixir of life. This fantastically hedonistic adaptation of Christian morality is not without its perils, however: after impregnating one such admirer, our so-called cleric abandons lover and child with icy disregard – Grandier’s mindset thus unclothed as one that’s willing to challenge traditional mores, but not so willing to face the consequences of his actions. With a gaggle of sexually-frustrated nuns driven to near-dementia through their collective appetence for our rock star-as-clergyman, it’s no surprise that the citizens of 17th-century Loudun will come to condemn this covetous Casanova as the Antichrist himself.
Yet Grandier is – alongside his wife – the only character who remains excluded from Russell’s titular accusation. Indeed, were it possible for angels to exist in the director’s nefarious dystopia then our flawed Father would probably be best placed to fill such celestial boots (if only by default). His introduction as a skilled public orator with a powerful command over his fellow townsfolk suggests that, in a different epoch, he’d achieve renown as a great politician rather than notoriety as a wayward priest; for all his personal failings, Grandier is a man wholly committed to admirable ideals. In an era defined by religious persecution, it is he alone who pleas for tolerance, urging Catholics and Protestants to live alongside one another in peace. It is he alone who rallies to his city’s defence when wealthy barons arrive to tear down the famed fortifications that shelter its inhabitants from external turmoil. And it is he alone who poses an affront to France’s corrupt statesmen – a group of eccentrics intent upon stirring a mass hysteria to further their own fervently prejudiced agendas. Despite his questionable ethics, Grandier’s moral authority over his parishioners is (initially) unconditional – so much so that his nation’s pernicious nobility will desperately contrive to discredit him, thereby clearing the final obstacle in their path towards absolute domination. Russell is judicious in articulating the institutional hypocrisy of the times, blasting the warmongering leaders and early-modern spin doctors that manipulate a precarious order with their chicanery; their unmitigated iniquities ultimately inducing an epidemic of paranoia that will lead only to carnage. (Familiar, some?) It’s these rabid, power-hungry members of the privileged classes who collectively form the director’s Satan incarnate; the naïve civilians who lap up their every fabrication playing the subservient demons who enable the film’s cataclysmic maelstrom to wreak its destruction.
There is a disease that afflicts Loudun’s residents, one that’s even more virulent than the bubonic terror which, having manifested itself early into the film, acts as an ominous signifier of the oncoming catastrophe. Consider The Devils‘ sets: an exercise in magnificently flamboyant artifice, a grandiose series of architectural blitzkriegs that pits classicism against modernism whilst pristine, caustically-white exteriors threaten to blind the viewer with a façade of innocence (tellingly, Loudun’s cathedral – Russell’s centrepiece – has its interiors swathed in black to emulate the rotting souls of its purportedly devout worshippers). Embedded within these spectacular designs are: crosses. Everywhere. Inescapable. The real plague. Nary a scene passes by without the director somehow implanting this most potent of symbols into his imagery: in the rare instance where it can’t be found within the décor, then it will be conjured with light and shadow; if it cannot be done with optics, then it will be constructed with human bodies (always, there is a solution – for always, there must be a cross). Russell envisions the symbol as a recalcitrant infestation from which there is no escape and, amidst the chaos of his vulgar operatics, its meaning becomes totally debased. No longer is this is a representation of Christ’s benevolent sacrifice – rather, it becomes an imperious instrument of emotional oppression. Religion in this director’s world is conceived as a hotbed of atrocity, subjugation and ephemeral ideals; the purity of faith overwhelmed by the political machinations of scheming superiors: “I pray that I may assist you in the birth of a new France – where church and state are one!” Grandier’s ordeal at the hands of this governmental subterfuge will come to exemplify the disaster that ensues when the two cited Goliaths unite, though the fate of his primary accuser – the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne who heads Loudun’s sex-starved convent – is perhaps even more profound in its tragedy. Russell ensures that this delirious fetishist of a Mother Superior is constantly framed behind bars, emboldening the sexual incarceration that suffocates her deleterious psyche, and inducing ever greater acts of mania from her bruised ego as a result. She, more than any other character, is the embodiment of all that can go wrong when religion is ruthlessly enforced as a social order instead of being embraced by wilful believers.
The cost of all this repression is devastating. Not least because the director expresses its damage by pushing the film to highs (or lows?) of garish, completely ludicrous excess that remain singular within his medium. The Devils communicates to its audience almost solely through the language of obscenity – and no taboo is left unturned as Russell fashions a boisterous, bombastic and boorish nightmare that upends any comprehension of human decency with its exuberant kitsch and vicious irony. Consider that, in under two hours, we’ll have witnessed: hornets deposited upon open wounds; crocodiles placed between women’s legs; candles being furiously masturbated; exorcisms by way of enemas (and giant clyster syringes); transvestite monarchs recreating Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It doesn’t end there. The film’s most infamous sequence culminates with the “Rape of Christ” as a swarm of lascivious lunatic-nuns tear down a life-sized statue of their Redeemer and proceed to defile it – the director frenetically cutting between the orgiastic pandemonium and the sight of an onlooking priest, notably aroused by the entire affair. If Hell were really to exist, then surely it would look a little something like this, for in Russell’s vision the notion of “nothing sacred” is actualised to the point of absurdity. When an effeminate King Louis XIII (the director plays fast and loose with historical accuracy) turns up and exposes the possessed nuns and their deranged exorcist as frauds – thereby granting them the opportunity of a reprieve from their madness – the belligerents simply continue with the farce. These pathetic, tortured souls need to maintain their uninhibited masquerade; a lifetime of suppression has left them with bodies crippled by angst, yearning for any semblance of freedom to alleviate the self-created paucity within. In unleashing the full, titanic force of unexpressed desire and unfulfilled dreams, the director articulates the depth of these deficiencies with an understanding that goes so far beyond blasphemy that it reaches a point of spirituality heretofore unseen in the cinema. In this frenzied amalgam of perverse satire, visual panache and frenetic montages, Russell’s most heinous act is also his most beautiful. Positing the reformed Grandier as a contemporary Jesus, he substitutes a crucifix for a stake and rams the comparison down our throats in a cyclone of redemptive hellfire. Having lost everything that he once held dear, the charred priest looks skyward to his Saviour and tearfully decries the fate of his self, his town and his country – knowing full well that in both life and in death he will have achieved only this: fuck all.