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Devils, The (1971)

Cruel, perverse, repulsive, sacrilegious, and vulgar, The Devils dramatises a gruesome historical incident that occurred in the 17th century.

Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) and his power-hungry entourage seek to take control of France but need to destroy charismatic priest Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) 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 of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave), the hunchback Mother Superior of the convent, who is sexually fixated on Father Grandier and – seeking revenge – accuses him of sorcery.

Hysteria ensues, leading to the spectacle of the nuns in Sister Jeanne’s convent becoming sex fiends. During the long mass-hysteria sequence, director Ken Russell assails the audience with forced enemas that are staged like anal rapes, armies of half-naked nuns, and money shots of said nuns gyrating atop a figure of Christ.

Grandier’s political enemies then set out to destroy him by painting him as a warlock in control of a devil-possessed nunnery and sadistic witch-hunter Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) is brought in to gather evidence against the priest, ready for the big trial.

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 King Louis XIII (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 blackbirds, 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 endurance test.

Father Urbain Grandier
Oliver Reed
Sister Jeanne of the Angels
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