Ken Russell on The Devils
On March 19 my masterpiece — Britain’s masterpiece — The Devils is to be released on DVD by the BFI in a UK director’s cut (ie, the master I chose before the Americans butchered it) with all kinds of extras.
I know this will please a fair number of crazed film fans, some of whom, like myself, have been driven crazy precisely because The Devils has not been allowed a proper release or re-evaluation since it came out in 1971.
What a long walk through Hell it’s been for all of us who wanted to see the film rescued from where it has languished in dust for 40 years, hidden away in vaults where even a resourceful hero like the film commentator Mark Kermode (of The Culture Show and BBC Radio) would have trouble finding it.
Was Mark joking when he told me of his Indiana Jones search in 2002 for the infamous missing segment of The Devils known as “the Rape of Christ” and found a handwritten note on the film canister: “This film shall never see the light of day”?
Is it true the film was so thoroughly buried that only one person could be found to provide an original director’s cut, having squirreled a copy into his private collection in 1971: Martin Scorsese?
In the meantime, over the last 40 years, there have been shredded versions, mercilessly cut American bootlegs, scan-and-pans from internet glimpses, copies made from ancient VHSs, rip-offs that frustrated the people who owned the film (Warner Brothers, originally) and the generations who want to be allowed to see it intact.
I know how good it is. But a new audience, and those too young in 1971 to ascertain what it was they were seeing, deserve a chance to claim the film as their own: as British, as a classic, or even as something they honestly hate. (Warner Bros had an ad: “You may love this or hate it, but you will never be bored!”)
The brave work by Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne of the Angels and Oliver Reed as Father Grandier, Derek Jarman as set designer and music by Peter Maxwell Davies deserves to be seen and heralded.
I came to the movie by way of Jonathan Whiting’s 1960 play and the original book by Aldous Huxley, the author of the non-fiction The Devils of Loudun, an historical account of a charismatic priest and group of Ursuline nuns in the 17th century caught in a political contretemps.
Two power struggles have parallel expression: the civic battle of Church and State, with Cardinal Richelieu pressuring the French King Louis III over property rights to the City of Loudun. The other power struggle is more personal and all other battles get played out through this personal confrontation: a sex-starved nun, head of a convent, with a severely twisted back and body, wreaks vengeance on the gorgeous and sexually overactive head priest after whom she lusts.
Amid religious wars, the plague, the Inquisition, the ethnic cleansing of Huguenots and Protestants, the unlimited power of the few, the disturbed and hopeless masses, the squalor, impoverishment and a pre-scientific worldview, these two anti-heroes battle it out without actually having a conversation or knowing the larger agendas that will use them as pawns.
Priest Grandier thinks he is fighting for sanity among the superstitious, Devil-obsessed medieval cultists and the soldiers who want to destroy his city walls; and Sister Jeanne thinks she is fighting for her chance at having a romantic sexual liaison with him.
Jeanne takes her revenge for Grandier’s sexual indifference to her by claiming to the Inquisitors that he has possessed her in his true form as an incubus of the Devil. Attention-seeking in 1636 enjoyed a support system that wouldn’t emerge again until our current times, with reality shows and The X Factor.
Bored and isolated, the nuns catch the hysteria of Sister Jeanne’s claim and start giving regular matinee and evening “shows” of possession: acting for the crowds by throwing off their habits and rolling about lewdly.
Because of The Devils in 1971, I have been accused of Devil-promotion, nun-lust, torture-porn, church-desecration and bad taste. I plead guilty only to the last, which is proportionate to my good taste, in my humble opinion.
I’m a good Catholic boy who finds it my duty to the Faith to question hypocrisy, chicanery, hysteria and mob decisions. Frankly, I don’t know what the fuss is over The Devils. Shocking? Passionate? Brave? Noble? Isn’t that a good thing?
It’s not a blasphemous film; it’s a film about blasphemy. The Jesuit Rev Gene Phillips, of Chicago’s Loyola University, teaches it as “the best film about the Catholic Church ever made”. I’m a true believer in the separation of Church and baser instincts like hypocrisy, power, exploitation of innocence.
All right, so I like the visual, the dramatic soundscape, the interwoven and complex, the fully developed characters, and it all gets too rich for some people’s blood. But my inspirations are Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and imagination must have its say.
In my films, you can either pay attention and receive an emotional pay-off or just enjoy them as spectacles of the extremes of behaviour — your choice. But I scrupulously followed the history and the book, with those instruments of torture — the same wheel of torture propped aloft where St Catherine met her doom; or the enemas intended to root out the devils that were thought to live in the lower intestines.
The wasps in sucking cups, the stuffed crocodile, were all actual cures not much different than our contemporary beauty fads for fish on the feet or pins-on-rollers perforating the face. Yes, green lipstick was the rage at the time. And the modern-looking city: it was brand-new at the time. I gave Jarman one cue: Huxley’s line, “The exorcism of Sister Jeanne was the equivalent of a rape in a public lavatory.” Hence, the white tiles.
I am most proud too that I made the film with my brilliant and sexy hand-picked company of actors: Oliver Reed, Judith Paris, Max Adrian, Brian Murphy, poet Christopher Logue, Dudley Sutton, Twiggy (playing a cameo), Graham Armitage. Glenda Jackson declined to be in it, but her heart is there — her relentless love of truth.
Gemma Jones, the virgin heroine, is wonderful, a diamond-pure soul who awakens Father Grandier’s better nature. Michael Gothard plays a creepy cult-leader exorcist with issues. Georgina Hale is a wronged and sexy temptress, Murray Melvin is a judgmental scion of the Church.
The magnificent Vanessa Redgrave plays Sister Jeanne with such brave impulses and majestic intelligence that it’s like watching an oil painting by Breughel or Bosch come to life before your eyes. “I’m beautiful,” she cries in protest against the jeers, during a dream sequence in which her hunchback is straightened. That she is. Beautiful and alas, twisted.
There are so many significant choices with which Ms Redgrave startles us: a surprise expletive, a melting into desire, a sudden terror of victimisation in one so dominating, a cold imperiousness, a confidential clarity, a vengeful lunacy, all vying for expression in the personality of a nun who is obviously a genius but isolated by the times and her office to the point of self-destruction and revenge; her interpretation is harrowing and poignant at once.
When Vanessa and I were reunited to watch a special showing of The Devils together at Lincoln Centre in New York in 2010, she and I found ourselves chuckling at much of it. Aside from the pleasure of being in one another’s company again, were we responding to a terrible tale that had suddenly become too funny, too camp?
No. There are elements — the scenes with the apothecary and surgeon, for example — just so on the mark, so timeless, extremely modern. The venal instincts of people under pressure are never out of date. I daresay The Devils was ahead of its time so much as to have finally caught up with it.
I know in 1971 the censors weren’t prepared for naked nuns and pubic hair. The Americans wanted every hair on the cutting room floor. Oh dear. I’d already given the actress-nuns £150 to shave their heads; it was too late to put them in underwear; the film was done. These were nun characters going from one extreme of shame-based behaviour to the other, to exhibitionism. How could I write fig leaves into a script on truth? So, I didn’t, and the Americans cut out so much footage as to make the film disturbingly fragmented.
On live TV, the film critic Alexander Walker contemptuously dismissed my film, repeating his scathing review and adding that I show Reed’s testicles crushed. (There were NO crushed testicles, not even implied — maybe Walker was confused in that a marble statue has his pelvis broken; this hurt Jarman more than anyone else — painstakingly constructing such sets to see them destroyed was hard for him.)
I took Walker’s review in the Evening Standard, rolled it up and bopped him one on the head while cameras rolled. If I meet him on the other side I shall know I did not make it to Heaven.
John Trevelyan, the official BBFC chief censor, old colleague, was much more reasonable and circumspect. He asked only that a 12-minute segment in the middle be cut as well as a few masturbatory bits. Fair enough.
But I’d rather have the film seen, even censored. The new DVD version is as close to its original form as I approved it and as Mike Bradsell, my long-term editor, shaped it, in a time when editing involved actual film reels and splices.
The Devils is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with open sores, open bonfires, court intrigue, the King shooting Protestants for sport, the callous and ludicrous behaviour of the Inquisition, the two-facedness of the King’s soldiers and sex-deprived nuns. It’s about the corruption of a whole town and the man at the centre who defies it.
Polanski gave The Devils an homage in The Pianist, whether he realises it or not (take a look at the Warsaw ghetto when it tumbles). And may I just say, The Devils has a happy ending. Ambivalent, yes, but I swear it. Anytime you live through that and keep going, more aware of right and wrong and the self, it’s happy.
Oliver and Jarman may have been exhausted by their hard work on The Devils, but it’s Oliver Reed’s best work. He rivals any great actor for power and nuance and earns his title of sexiest man in films.
It was certainly a happy experience for me. Vanessa taking up collections every day for the disenfranchised, Jarman and I sparking off each other; my psychic editor, Mike Bradsell, able to achieve what I wanted in every instance, David Watkin filming impeccably, the young Peter Maxwell Davies finding that uncomfortable sound in his brilliant score.
I made a good film, for England and the world, and for Huxley, who said in his letters, “I pity the poor chap that is making a film of the Devils.” I can’t help but be thrilled that my film will have its day. We’ll turn down the lights, play the DVD, my wife will hold my hand and we’ll have a blast, waiting for that moment when Reed declaims, “Satan’s boy I could never be!”
From The London Times 13-3-2012