Released by: BFI
Released on: March 20, 2012.
Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Gothard, Georgina Hale
Written and directed by Ken Russell and release by Warner Brothers in 1971, The Devils, based in part on the book The Devils Of Loudunby Aldous Huxley and on the stage play by John Whiting, has been a lightning rod for controversy even before it hit theaters in England slapped with an X Certificate by the BBFC only after the film was cut and re-cut again. Further cut to get an R rating for its US release, the film hasn’t been given a proper home video release until now, thanks to the BFI’s efforts. The VHS release was the R rated cut, the Spanish DVD was the R rated cut, the bootleg version of the uncut release was cropped and of awful quality and then there was that whole mysterious ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ iTunes release that saw the film disappear from the site as quickly and suddenly as it appeared in the first place. Though this BFI release is still missing the controversial ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence and the ending sequence in which Vanessa Redgrave’s character masturbates with Grandier’s charred bone (this was at the insistence of Warner Brothers and a condition of their licensing agreement, that same agreement also forbidding a Blu-ray release for whatever reason), it does represent the X rated British cut of the film, which hasn’t been seen properly since 1971, a few theatrical screenings here and there not withstanding.
Set in the fortified city of Loudunin the France of the seventeenth century, the film begins when Cardinal Richlieu (Christopher Logue) and King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) discuss a plan to try and take the city and get it under their control. Being done under the guise of an attempt to crush Protestant uprising in the area before they get out of hand, it quickly becomes obvious that this is little more than a power grab on the part of Richlieu. The city had been under its own rule with Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), after the passing of the governor, at the forefront of the movement to keep it independent from the rest of the country’s government. After some scheming, they decide to exploit the population of a convent in Loudun when Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) becomes obsessed with Grandier to such a point that she believes she has received nocturnal visits from him of a sexual nature. When she mentions this to the powers that be, they promptly accuse the philandering priest, who has since fallen in love and married his girlfriend (Gemma Jones) against the church’s will, of witchcraft. Before you know it, Jeanne’s madness seems to have spread throughout the entire convent, with all of the nuns unable to control their lust. When Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) is forbidden by Grandier from taking the city, he brings in Father Barre (Michael Gothard) to exorcise their demons and to put Grandier on trial.
Like many of Russell’s pictures, first and foremost The Devils deals with the theme of redemption. As the insanity in the convent begins to overtake the entire city and Grandier is quite obviously being set up, his faith becomes stronger and more pure and although his philandering catches up with him and ultimately proves to be at least partially responsible for his undoing, by the time the end credits role we know in no uncertain terms who the real heroes and villains are in this story. Russell, a Catholic himself, manages to make a film about blasphemy that despite what some will say, isn’t actually blasphemous despite what it depicts, and the film winds up one making one of the strongest cases for the separation of church and state as any film probably ever could.
Amazing on many levels, a lot of what impresses about the film are the visuals. Those familiar with Russell’s work will obviously realize that he has a penchant for flair and for what he has self described as kitsch and this film is no different, and though it’s always played straight, some black humor and flair for melodrama does rear its head here and there. Not to ill effect, but these trademarks of Russell’s work definitely ensure that his calling card is all over the picture. The visuals here are never short of amazing, with the production work interestingly depicting Loudunnot as an old relic but as a newly created and very modern and clean looking city. The sets inside the Cathedral are also impressive, portraying the massive church as a very dark place indeed, while the interiors of the convent are appropriately sterile looking – that is, until the nuns shed their clothes and basically bring about an orgy of depravity, completely under the influence of… something.
In terms of performances, all involved do some of the best work of their careers in this film. Reed is amazing as Grandier and while he had some masterful performances on his resume this one is at the top. He’s completely convincing in the role, playing it with the right mix of pompous confidence and genuine trepidation. Redgrave stands out too in her role as the handicapped nun who just can’t get Grandier off of her mind. This isn’t a glamorous role, the type any actress would probably initially be drawn to, but instead a dark, almost self debasing part that Redgrave throws herself into with complete and utter conviction. Michael Gothard’s performance as Father Barre is equally fascinating, portraying his rock star exorcist as part Vincent Price from Witchfinder General and part Tim Curry from Rocky Horror Picture Show. He’s flashy, he’s a showman, and his motives are completely questionable but damn does he ever put on a show as he’s going about his business.
A confrontational film even by the standards of today, forty years past the picture’s premiere, The Devils is surely just as powerful a picture now as it was then. Likely the film that the late Russell will always be remembered for and like the director himself sorely underappreciated in his time, it not only engrosses but also, more importantly it makes some very barbed but completely appropriate statements about the dangers of extremism, abuse of power, and corruption and sadly proves true the old adage that the more things change the more they stay the same. Parallels can easily be drawn between the events in the film and certain segments of the world today, making its message all the more poignant and all the more important.
The BFI presents The Devils in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen in an impressive looking progressive scan standard definition transfer. A Blu-ray release would have been ideal, the extra resolution offered by high definition surely would have brought out a lot more detail in the sets and costumes, but the licensing agreement struck with Warner Brothers did not allow this. As it stands, however, for those who have made due with bootleg copies over the years this is quite a nice improvement. Detail is very good as is color reproduction and while there is the expected and welcome amount of film grain evident, there aren’t any problems with actual print damage. The source material used, provided by Warner Brothers, was obviously in quite nice shape and this is hands down the best that the film has ever looked on home video – it also marks the first time that the X cut of the film has been available in its proper scope ratio on home video. Flesh tones look good, texture is solid, black levels are strong and the healthy bit rate ensures that there aren’t any serious compression issues.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono track is fine, with properly balanced levels and clean, clear dialogue. The score sounds as good as it ever has and there are no issues with hiss or distortion here to complain about. Optional English SDH are included but there are no alternate language options provided.
The first of the two discs in this set starts the extra features off in grand style with an excellent commentary track with Ken Russell himself, joined for the talk with film historian and Hell On Earth writer/host Mark Kermode, Hell On Earth director Paul Joyce and Michael Bradsell, who was Russell’s editor not just on The Devils but on a few other projects as well. The track is busy and informative with Russell understandably having the most to say about the film and the controversy that surrounds it. They discuss working with the cast and crew, the censorship issues that Russell ran into not only with the BBFC but with Warner Brothers as well, and about the reception that the film received when it debuted. All involved have a good sense of humor about themselves, they make this evident from the start, and the end result is a very interesting track that explains pretty much everything you’d want to know about the film from Russell’s perspective, from the obvious, like working with Reed, to the more esoteric such as possible scientific explanations for the real events that inspired the film.
Also included on the first disc is an early black and white short film that Russell made in 1959 shortly after converting to Catholicism entitled Amelia And The Angel. At roughly twenty five minutes in length this odd piece tells the story of a girl who steals some butterfly wings from a school play and the resulting incidents that, not so surprisingly for those familiar with Russell’s work, lead to her redemption. Shot on a miniscule budget and consisting of no live sound but of a score and some narration, the film was well made enough that it brought Russell to the attention of the BBC and eventually lead to his work in feature films.
Rounding out the extras on the first disc are both the original British X-certificate trailer and the much more pedestrian American export theatrical trailer, an optional on camera video introduction from Mark Kermode which explain Russell’s preferred vision for the film, some classy menus and chapter selection sub-menus.
Extras on the second disc kick off with the documentary Hell On Earth, which clocks in at just under fifty minutes in length and which gives an interesting look at the history of the film. Russell is interviewed here quite extensively, at his home where he and the interviewer, Mark Kermode, stroll through his garden and enjoy some apples! The director talks about his influences and his inspiration for writing the film, how he always intended the film to look like it was taking place in a modern city, why he gave it the look he did, the style behind the film, and his choice of soundtrack music. Of course, he also talks about the controversy surrounding the film and critical reaction to it, which leads to a discussion of the still controversial Rape Of Christ sequence, which at the time was recently discovered and then shown to Russell and a few of the cast members who joined him for a reunion for this piece. A few critics are also interviewed, as is a member of the Catholic League of Public Decency who actually speaks in favor of having the scene left intact and speaks highly of the film’s message. The main point made is that the scene was important not for shock value but for the juxtaposition it would have provided when intercut with the scenes of Grandier taking communion at the side of the road, a sign that while everything around him was going to Hell, his faith and quest for redemption were only strengthening. The documentary also discusses and shows footage from the infamous ‘bone scene’ in which Vanessa Redgrave’s character masturbates with a charred bone given to her after Grandier is burned at the stake. Redgrave herself gives her thoughts on this sequence, noting that it’s not played for sex appeal but instead demonstrates how sad her character is and to what extent her insanity has set in. They also discuss how Russell himself goofed up and wound up blowing up the walls of Loudunbefore the rest of the crew was ready and completely botched one of the film’s most important and expensive scenes. There’s a fair bit of crossover here with this material and what’s on the commentary but the added visuals help to keep this one very interesting and make it absolutely worth a watch for those with an interest not only in film but in film censorship as well.
Director Of Devils is a vintage promotional film that interviews Russell around the time of the film’s production in the back of a car. He speaks about the film, about its message and importance and about the production as a whole. From there we get some interesting on set footage and stills and a look at the scoring of the film. This is an vintage piece that presents a very different and considerably more cocksure Russell than the first documentary. Using bizarre historical drawings of the actual Father Grandier and some ominous narration, it’s a darker look at the film but no less fascinating, particularly as it gives us a chance to see Russell directing and some great footage of the studio musicians and composer hard at work on the score as it was being created.
Also included on the second disc is an eight minute section containing some 8mm film footage that Davies shot while he was on set. There’s no live sound here so commentary from Davies provides some welcome context, with the focus being on Jarman’s amazing set design and the intricacies involved in constructing such a massive and ornate set on the studio lot. Closing out the extras on the second disc is a thirteen minute featurette documenting a Question And Answer Session that Russell participated in at a 2004 screening of the film hosted by Kermode. Here Russell fields questions about his use of classical music, how to best get a group of semi-naked female extras to act like a bunch of nymphomaniacal nuns in heat, and of course, about the film’s controversy and reception. Again, there’s some crossover here but Russell makes for such an interesting subject that fans aren’t going to mind in the least.
If that weren’t enough, packaged inside with the discs is a full color booklet containing an essay from Kermode on the history of the film and what influenced Russell to make it in the first place, a fascinating look back at the cuts required by both the BBFC and the studio producing the picture, a bit of background information on Amelia And The Angels, tributes to the late Ken Russell and the late Oliver Reed, some biographical information on the director and his two leads, disc credits, production credits and a few more bits and pieces. Really, the BFI have not really left a single stone unturned here, this is a truly impressive collection of supplements that compliment the feature beautifully.
The Final Word:
Yes, the film should have been released as Russell intended and no, it hasn’t been here (though through no fault of the BFI) and yes, there should have been a Blu-ray release and no, there hasn’t been here (again through no fault of the BFI) but when you take into account what has been delivered here, the quality of the transfer and of the supplements, it’s impossible not to walk away impressed. In regards to the film itself, The Devils, even in the British X classification form it is shown in here, is still an amazingly powerful and poignant piece of work and quite literally one of the most impressive and important films of the decade in which it was made.