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Devils, The (1971)

Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and his power-hungry entourage seek to take control of 17th-century France but need to destroy Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) – the priest who runs the small but well-fortified town of Loudun and prevents them from exerting total control.

Father Grandier falls in love with and illicitly marries Madeleine (Gemma Jones), much to the fury of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), the sexually repressed hunchback Mother Superior of the convent, who – seeking revenge – accuses Grandier of sorcery.

Grandier’s political enemies then set out to destroy him by painting him as a warlock in control of a devil-possessed nunnery. A mad witch-hunter is brought in to gather evidence against the priest, ready for the big trial.

Ken Russell’s adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun is repulsive, hysterical, disturbing, overwhelming, stunning, compelling and fascinating.

Predictably for a Ken Russell film, it’s the sex life of the priest, the writhing of the nuns, the crunch of breaking bones and the sizzling of the flames which dominate. For once, though, Russell’s surreal hallucinogenic style matches his frenzied material.

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When Cardinal Richelieu is trying to persuade the King (Graham Armitage) that while the provincial towns of France remain fortified the power of the central State is incomplete, his royal puppet is engaged in firing off a series of pistols at some unseen target, each shot followed by sycophantic applause. It turns out to be a group of protestants dressed as crows, released from wicker cages and picked off as they try to flap across a stretch of lawn to safety.

While it is not recorded whether Louis XIII did actually amuse himself by dressing up heretics and taking potshots at them, it is more or less certain that he was homosexual. It is highly doubtful, however, that he behaved as Graham Armitage behaves under Russell’s direction, like a drag queen in an East End pub.

In one of the most controversial and censored films of all time, Oliver Reed gives his best-ever performance as the priest destroyed by political manipulators.

The censored scenes of the “demonic possessions” include a psychedelic orgy of naked nuns ‘raping’ a statue of Christ and Sister Jeanne masturbating with a human bone. The uncut version of The Devils is a mind-blowing, audacious exploration of ecstasy (both religious and sexual).

Father Urbain Grandier
Oliver Reed
Sister Jeanne
Vanessa Redgrave
Baron de Laubardemont
Dudley Sutton
Max Adrian
Gemma Jones
Murray Melvin
Father Barre
Michael Gothard
Georgina Hale
Brian Murphy
Cardinal Richelieu
Christopher Logue
Louis XIII
Graham Armitage

Ken Russell