In 17th-century France, Father Urbain Grandier seeks to protect the city of Loudun from the corrupt establishment of Cardinal Richelieu. Hysteria occurs within the city when he is accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun.
Alice Stoehr wrote:
With this film, Russell pushed his then-nascent penchant for extreme imagery of sex and violence as far as it could go. It makes up The Devils’ thematic core, expressing myriad ideas about lust, greed, power, etc. through explicit acts of unremitting cruelty. Nothing is here just for the shock value, though certainly that’s part of it.
Every flurry of carnal rage or church-sanctioned torture adds yet more pungent detail to the film’s hellish, plague-riddled world. I’m in awe of Russell’s moral craftiness—that a man as scummy as Oliver Reed’s Fr. Grandier could end up a near-martyr without really redeeming himself!—as well as the film’s subtle turns toward ludicrous, John Waters-esque comedy. It’s a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience, and it’s not something I would recommend to everyone, but I’ll definitely be returning to it in the near future. Never have I seen a movie dismantle the mechanisms of injustice and religious hypocrisy in such a mesmerizing, grotesque fashion.
Ben Sachs wrote:
Russell thought big and made big gestures, overloading most of his movies with historical references, psychedelic stylization, and outsized acting. He’s the sort of director you love or hate, but never accuse of holding back. THE DEVILS comes from the middle of Russell’s most productive period as a director of feature films (he had been a prolific director of TV documentaries for years before that), when over a four year period (1969-1972) he released five of his strongest films, which cover the full range of his style and themes. Perhaps the most extreme of that lot, THE DEVILS maintains an unrelenting air of hysteria that makes the bold, psychosexual imagery seem that much more provocative. The story, taken from true events, deals with power struggle and religious persecution in 17th-century France, but the design—as is often the case with Russell—is brazenly anachronistic. (Derek Jarman, who would become an uncompromising director in his own right, is the credited production designer.) Past and present bleed into each other to hallucinogenic effect, while Russell’s sincere interest in religious and political history vies with his strong desire to gross people out. Oliver Reed, in the role he was born to play, is a morally corrupt priest with a large flock of loyal followers; Vanessa Redgrave is the mad nun who desires him and wants to destroy him.
Nick Davis wrote:
Ken Russell’s at it with that gonzo hypersensual style of his again, but he has found the perfect (and outrageously true-to-life) story on which to slather his extreme sensibilities. The Devils revisits France in the time of Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIII, the first of whom was almost feverishly Machiavellian in his pursuit of total church-and-state autocracy, the latter one of the more famous and pathetic puppet monarchs in Western history. Unfortunately for Richelieu, as played by Christopher Logue, there exist walled-in communities with their own still-functioning systems of self-government, defiant enclaves against his project of universal authority. One such community is Loudon, a religious community under the leadership of Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), a charismatic and sanguinary man whose civic authority is strongly girded in the sexual influence this dark and swarthy fellow exerts on the thoughts of the people of Loudon, particularly the women. Grandier’s popularity has kept the town squarely behind him and the Loudon city walls impenetrable to outside invasion.
Russell makes clear that Grandier enjoys making potent and unapologetic use of his own carnal appeal, though even he underestimates the number and fervor of his admirers. Perversely, as befits a Russell film, many of his most devoted admirers are the nuns of Loudon’s convent, led by the hunchbacked, commanding, but neurotic Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). Following a Crucible-ish arc more familiar to 20th-century audiences in the contexts of 1950’s McCarthyist inquisitions or some more recent public-sphere child abuse scandals, Jeanne and the Sisters, spurned (as they of course must be) by their revered Father, accuse him of harboring a demonic spirit and even of possessing their spotless Christian souls. News of the accusations reaches Richelieu’s ever-attentive ears, and he rightly identifies the perfect puncturing point in Grandier’s armor.
A courtroom scenario of wild assertions and spectacular displays of behavior inevitably follow, but if Russell has a single skill as a director—and I belong to the population who believes he has many—it is his dogged refusal to take his films to the places we expect, at least not in the order or the style we expect. Ironically, the one predictable dimension of most of Russell’s features (which also include the Tchaikovsky-as-nymphomaniac biography The Music Lovers and the seedy Crimes of Passion, with Kathleen Turner as a prostitute and Anthony Perkins as her Bible-zealot savior/pursuant) is the visual delirium that is ostensibly his most outrageous trait. The Devils includes a protracted sequence of the decadent sexuality and rampant, lusty iconoclasm that arises in Loudon as Grandier’s fall commences that seems as gratuitously over-extended and self-consciously “daring” as the infamous nude-wrestling match between Reed and Alan Bates in Russell’s Women in Love. Elsewhere, however, The Devils is an admirably realized effort, wild enough to portray the different hysterias of religion, sex, and political power that intersected so combustibly at that moment of French history, but never spinning out of Russell’s control.
All of the actors in the picture acquit themselves well as obvious mediums of Russell’s stylized and allegorical takes of the characters in his own screenplay, adapted from a novel by Aldous Huxley and a play by John Whiting. Redgrave’s Jeanne, an exterminating angel who assaults and destroys what she most loves, captures both the passion and the perversion of the character, and interestingly, the actress often associated with tonier period pieces or more contemporary political dramas ranks The Devils in her autobiography as, together with Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, “the two greatest accomplishments of the postwar British cinema.” (That Redgrave stars in both pictures will not be lost on her detractors, nor her fans who, like myself, admire the bravado of this inimitable actress as much as her more palatable virtues.) Also look for Gemma Jones, the sapphire-eyed actress who played Emma Thompson’s mother in Sense and Sensibility, as the ingenue who seems uniquely capable of winning Grandier’s loyal affections.
Still, for all of the performers’ exertions, the camera and the sets of The Devils—the latter a dazzling super-structure of scintillant white brick, designed by future Edward II and Caravaggio director Derek Jarman—are, as the cliché goes, the real stars of the film. If 17th-century France had not existed in the way it did, Russell would have had to invent it to accommodate his own lavish impulses and baroque imagination. Then again, maybe our cultural image of 17th-century France exists as it does because Russell and other artists have produced of it such ripe and indelible portraits. Like Reed’s Father Grandier, Russell can be arrogant, libertinish, even heretical, but his hold on our attentions, and perhaps more importantly on our minds, never flags in The Devils. The movie, like a demon, possesses us.