Ken Russell’s The Devils is indeed a classic in occult/cult circles. If you’re a fan of this film you might have heard of the new unrated and restored version of the film that you can see by joining Shudder:
We haven’t gone that far yet but the buzz about it got us jazzed to see this again, and my wife managed to track down a rare DVD which we watched last night. I know it was a special event for as I inserted the disc into my Xbox One I got an error warning that I needed to download an app to play DVDs. Really? I hadn’t even tried to play a DVD in how long? 3…4 years?
It was in this “let’s-not-think-about-the-passing-time” moment that I realized I hadn’t seen The Devils since I’d rented it from an old fashioned video store in Lincoln in the 90s. This was when I was going through my Adept phase in TOS trying to rent everything I could find from TOS reading list. So I saw The Devils around the same time I saw The Satan Spectrum, Rosemary’s Baby, Omen Trilogy, The Devil’s Rain, and so forth.
At that time I evaluated it as being largely about mass hysteria, and recall being mildly disappointed by a lack of representation of supernatural forces. This is probably due to expectations more in line with the Exorcist, the whole thing being based on the famous Loudon Possessions, occurring in Loudon, France in 1634, and also all those other films I mentioned where at least you get a moment in the end to cheer for the Man Downstairs and flash the sign of the horns in victory. I also remembered being totally disturbed by all the torture stuff (Torture genre films happen to rank pretty low on my personal list, just above Gore).
The torture thing in this film was one thing that hadn’t changed for me, but almost everything else did. Watching it this time I found it totally layered with meaning and significance. The fundamental theme of this film is stated clearly in the opening sequence – a conversation between Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, then freeze-framed with the title “The Devils” superimposed over them. In other words, Church and State are the real Devils in this story. As well their moral basis is clearly stated – Collectivism and coercion to fleece the masses of their freedom and wealth.
However you interpret Russell’s film it must be admitted that his narrative deviates from the already blurry historical facts, so you can assume he has his own story to tell with the key events. So while it is based on a true story, what Ken Russell actuallygives us is clearly the classic story of the Individual versus the Collective. In this case the Collective is the partnership/collusion of Church and State, bound together in the shared goal of robbing the masses. Each character is used as a symbol for either the Individual or the Collective or various collator effects of from the struggle between them.
The hero here is the Jesuit Priest Grandier. In the opening sequences the Governor of the town of Loudon has passed away and left Grandier in charge. In the first 10 minutes of the film Grandier establishes his moral basis in his eulogy to the Governor, and it is of Freedom, cooperation, mutual respect, peace and so forth. The Governor is noted for having kept the town safe during the recent Protestant/Catholic conflicts. He’s a good guy, and Grandier is his narrative progeny.
With an established moral conflict of the Individual vs. the Collective the remainder of the story really has more in common with an Ayn Rand novel than the Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist – the bad guys are all totally bad – all medieval forms of Peter Keating, Elsworth Tooey, and Gayle Wynan; while Grandier represents a medieval Howard Roark or Hank Rearden – fully dedicated and unwavering to his principles all through his trial, torture and on up to the bitter end where he is burnt at the stake. He even has a powerful courtroom speech about freedom in the spirit of Howard Roarks courtroom speech from The Fountainhead. There is no such thing as supernatural forces in this film, only the evil that corrupt men do to each other. There are many great examples of what Anton LaVey referred to as ‘Man’s Inhumanity to Man.’
The whole conflict starts when the representative of the State – Laubardemont – arrives with Orders from the King to demolish the city to discourage future protestant uprisings. Grandier stand up to him and puts him off. Laubardemont is now looking for a way to put him down, starts finding dirt on him from the local Ursuline convent of oversexed Nuns.
Meanwhile Grandier gets the ‘good’ girl – Madeleine De Brou – an applicant to the Ursuline convent of nuns ends up becoming his lover. Grandier makes love to his moral equivalent and sexual counterpart like Hank Rearden and Dagney Taggart while their enemies are plotting against them.
And the nuns – led by Vanessa Redgrave – and their bizarre and often comical sexual antics will distract you and lead you to think they are the central point of the film if you’re not careful. The antics of the Nuns of Loudon are indeed what history recalls, but I feel Ken Russell while appeasing that appetite is also trying to show us something deeper. They represent the idea common to Rand, Wilhelm Reich, and many others from the Modern period that when sexual energy is oppressed, eventually it explodes and forces it’s way through, often in unexpected, perverse, and unhealthy ways.
Grandier may well play the Medieval Randian Hero to the end, but unlike, Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged – where the hero ‘wins’ either by getting his way or else vacating and establishing a new ‘Eden’, The Devils ending is more like Rand’s We the Living – where there is no such thing as overcoming or surviving the force of Central Authority, not even for a hero who sticks to his principles. In the end everyone who was good dies and all that is left are fragments of a story that someone was here and they fought for the good.
So as a narrative piece, the Devils is ultimately nihilistic. The good are punished, the evil are rewarded and evil Totalitarianism wins in the end. All the more disturbing when one realizes that even in the world we live in today Church and State are generally considered to be the good guys. The final shot of the Devils pans up over the piles of bricks of the fallen walls of Loudon to and endless white road that winds off into the distance lined with Breaking Wheels, reminiscent of the road to Rome lined with the crucified; just like the real Devils of Church and State, leading profane humanity down a road that ultimately leads only to more of the same.