Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) review


Ken Russell is a director you either hate or love--I'm with the latter, and enjoy irritating the same targets Russell does, endlessly. The simple fact that many of Ken Russell's films are hated makes me love them all-the-more. This is arguably his best film, and his only political one.

As a period-piece, this film is stylized, but looks very convincing, and the cinematography by Dick Bush and set designs by late-and-great Derek Jarman (another genius of film) are stellar.

Consider why films like this one aren't made often, and you may have part of the answer as to why this film is still so shocking. Many people dislike Russell's films because of what he reveals about all of us, but that's too bad. People didn't like what Auschwitz said about humanity, but there it is, forever.

Apparently, Warner Brothers has finally-decided to release this film as a director's-cut in 2006, or 2007 [Ed.--2008 and still waiting...]. It is being reported that all footage removed by the BBFC and American censors (mainly at Warners) in 1971 will be reinstated in an "unrated cut" approved by the director. Some very good prints have been circulating around Los Angeles, New York City, and London recently...

The film "The Devils" may have been taken from the Aldous Huxley book, and the 1960s play by John Whiting, but it's squarely Ken Russell's film from-beginning-to-end.

Also likely to be included on a future DVD is the excellent BBC documentary by Mark Kermode ("Hell on Earth"), about the making of the film, and the firestorm it created. The "renegade" DVD by Angelfire is acceptable, and will have to tide us over until then, but there is one by "Trash Palace" that looks even better (though minus the inclusion in the feature film of the deleted scenes). Both the Angelfire version and the Trash Palace edition has the aforementioned Kermode documentary, and a widescreen transfer (1.85:1, the wrong aspect-ratio, the film was lensed in Panavision at 2.35:1) of the film. Only the Angelfire version contains the "Rape of Christ" scene reinstated.

This was a film that Warner Brothers hated after the executives saw the final cut in a studio screening. The Warner pressbook itself even states that it was going to be a hard-sell, with posters marketing the film as horror. It is horrific, but really constitutes a political allegory. Some of the posters warned potential audiences that it was a film "most people won't like"! It did reasonably good business, but wasn't a hit, though it could be assumed that the studio made their money back.

In a film that bombards the viewer with violence, decay, plague, and death, it isn't surprising that people miss some of the film's thematic points: The Devils comments on the eternal threat to individual rights and spiritual liberty from irrationality, social hysteria, and authoritarianism, and that they're often played-out in the same ways in different eras. You can see this in the comparisons made between Oliver Reed's character Father Grandier, and that of the accepted Christology of 17th century France (orthodoxy being represented by the characters of Father Mignon, Sister Jeanne and Cardinal Richelieu--an unholy trilogy?).

Is there much difference in why Grandier is degraded similarly to Christ? Russell (a Catholic)goes radically further: is there any difference between the political scapegoating of Urbain Grandier and Jesus of Nazareth? What's truly degraded is the Gospel of Christ and St. Francis. "The crowd" appears to be swayed in either direction, with a tendency towards hysteria and authoritarianism, making for a grim message indeed. But, this is generally what happened to Loudon, its inhabitants, Grandier, and France, at the time of the story.

Russell tells us that Richelieu's yearnings for
theocratic power can only be seen as a threat to liberty, just as they are now in the Middle East and the United States. Russell seems to be saying that these political and spiritual struggles are one-and-the-same, and that they require an eternal vigilance against them. This is not an exploitation film, but it is as dark and horrific as any classic tale of horror. What's most horrifying is that it's true.

Keep-in-mind that not one image is in this film "by mistake," as Russell composes his framing for a specific meaning and purpose just as the old masters did. This film is a warning against the aims of power, and shines a ray of artistic truth on why Christ was crucified to boot. There are numerous tableaux that could have come from Goya or Bosch.

The images of people being tortured, vomiting, acting hysterically--they are not there to merely to shock, but as a warning about social hysterias that have a tendency to recur throughout human history. Repression can lead to greater perversions and tyranny, states Russell, and resoundingly. Set specifically in 17th Century France after the eight Hugenot Wars, "The Devils" should be read as a cautionary tale on how people willingly give-up their liberties during uncertain times...times not unlike our own.

The religious and cultural wars still rage on, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

Why a restoration is necessary: a long-overdue reassessment will come with the world finally being able see what director Ken Russell intended. World culture might see this film being very influential (it already is), and not just in spawning exploitation fare. Italian genre filmmakers were inspired by this film when they began churning-out "nunsploitation" cinema! Good lapsed Catholics, all, I can assure you. This is what the "Grand Guignol" was based-on, the real deal. From the 1600s-to-now, the threats are essentially the same. Only the technology has changed.

Bother Warner Bros. into releasing this classic at: www.warnerbros.com