I think of Ken Russell’s The Devils as the consummation of my relationship with Oliver Reed. I didn’t want to watch him get tortured and burned at the stake until I had seen enough of his movies to fully appreciate him as an actor and a sex god. As far as artsy fartsy Ken Russell movies go, Ollie was also in The Debussy Film, Dante’s Inferno, Women in Love, and Tommy.
I do not really know where to start with The Devils…I’ll go as far as to say that it’s Russell’s magnum opus. It honestly is mind-blowing. About ten minutes in, I seriously said, “This is [expletive] mind-blowing.” All I can say to you is, if you can manage to get ahold of this film, do. I ended up getting my copy from Korea, and the sound is off sync. Boo. Yet, my brain still ended up all over the walls.
Premise: A batshit crazy mother superior becomes dementedly obsessed with Urbain Grandier, an uber sexy French priest with an attractive haircut and impressive mustache. Not knowing how to psychologically deal with her unfulfilled sexual desires, obviously the nun has no choice but to accuse Grandier of possessing her with demons. Sounds totally logical to me. Unbeknownst to her, a group of conniving pricks was looking for an excuse to get rid of Grandier so as to progress in their political power schemes…as well as to generally punish him for being so punk rock. So, they jump on the opportunity to put him on trial for witchcraft. Urbain Grandier unexpectedly finds himself in a nightmare, and, well…he never wakes up.
This movie sounds too good to be true, right? Furthermore, it all really happened in 1634. Which is why I could care less about these plot spoilers.
One of the most perfect things about this movie is the “professional witch hunter” who wears John Lennon glasses and is basically a crucifix-wielding rock star who douses everything with holy water. I love the fact that I love the character who crushes Oliver Reed’s legs and sets him on fire.
In court, a sheared & humbled Urbain Grandier admits that he has lived a vain and disordered life. He really has. He was kind of an arrogant asshole. So, despite being innocent of commerce with the devil, he knows he is somewhat getting what he deserves. Oliver Reed nails all the troubled phases that the character experiences. Pretty heartbreaking. We watch his larger-than-life pride diminish into pure vulnerability. Absolutely no real devils are present in the story. The villains are politically powerful men who use religion, with its idea of devils, as a twisted tool to punish a man standing in their way. Repeatedly told that his soul is damned if he does not confess to possessing the nuns with devils, Grandier denies supernatural crimes but finally humbles himself to observe his other vices. He remains sincerely dignified throughout all the pain and humiliation, and that’s why the film is so effective.
Roger Ebert’s review conveys exactly how powerful the controversial movie is:
“A burning at the stake, an afternoon in the rack, headscrews, a douche with boiling water, nails into hands, induced vomiting, ripped tongues, dead babies, human target practice, possession by devils, rape, transvestism, nude orgies in the nunnery. Put them all together and they spell Committed Art–because these are modern times and I certainly hope none of us is opposed to truth… Like everyone who’s committed, I found it my duty to bear witness against the moral outrages of, if not my time, at least somebody’s time. I mean, you can’t just sit around.”