Watching The Devils (1971) is an experience not unlike riding a roller coaster. The film has a slow climb at the beginning and you’re not sure what lies ahead. It reaches a peak where you probably figure out what’s happening and decide if you like it or not. It then speeds to the end and you have the slight fear that it might just fly off the tracks. Finally, you’re out of breath, left to reflect. You’re either so excited that you’d immediately do it again, or you might decide it wasn’t for you and probably won’t do it ever again, at least not any time soon.
The climb at the beginning of The Devils wasn’t necessarily slow for me; however, I knew neither what to make of it, nor what to expect. In the early part, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) seemed to represent the hypocrisy that I thought was going to be the point of the film. He wasn’t very likable and appeared to use his role as Catholic priest to his sexual advantage. When the Governor of the French town of Loudun dies, Grandier becomes the man in charge and tries to persuade Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to honor his deal to save Loudun from demolition.
The Devils reached a peak for me when I either learned that Grandier was not the man I thought he was, or he alternatively had a change of heart. (I like to think it’s the latter; it delivers more dramatic impact.) In a private, secret ceremony, he marries Madeleine (Gemma Jones), whom I believe he truly loved. From this moment forward, I sympathized with Grandier and Reed’s performance became mesmerizing. He hits emotional highs and lows, both of which represent his suffering. This made what ultimately happens to him all the more devastating and tragic.
In a way, The Devils does then fly off the tracks. However, it’s due to the story, not the control of the director, Ken Russell, who isn’t known for his subtlety. When a “sexually repressed” hunchback nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) accuses Grandier of witchcraft and an exorcist, Father Barre (Michael Gothard) is summoned, the nuns in the abbey become involved in a frenzy to compete with the most sinful of orgies. Grandier’s moral suffering becomes physical anguish as Barre puts him through a circus of a trial, with a predetermined outcome.
So, no, the ending is not a happy one. We were warned by a title card at the beginning that The Devils was based on actual events; however, it’s hard to imagine people once believed such horrific things and acted upon them so brutally. (Well, these days, maybe not so hard?) In general, I have no doubt about its historical accuracy. I’m sure any old book would tell me that King Louis, at least in this case, was not the true bad guy. Instead, it was Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) who was the little devil on his shoulder opposite Father Grandier.
I can only scratch the surface of The Devils. Rather than continue by speculating why its events unfold and what they mean, I can only tell you how they made me feel. While you might not consider it strictly a “horror” film, I can tell you I was truly horrified. Disturbing images abound, such as Sister Jeanne flagellating herself. She’s a true monster, haunted by sexually repressed dreams about Grandier, and shifting from quiet lust to outright lunacy. Her actions made me feel even more sympathy for the accused, who I believe was ultimately a good man done an unthinkable injustice.
Written by Ken Russell
Based on the play by John Whiting
Novel The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley
Directed by Ken Russell
Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton, Murray Melvin, Michel Gothard, Graham Armitage, Christopher Logue
RT 111 min.
Released July 16, 1971
Home Video Shudder (streaming)