Comfortable and Furious

The Not Quite #5: The Devils (1971)

I love shit about repressed female sexuality. Take nuns. They’re a bunch of wretched, feeble-minded cowards, women who cling to a fantasy deity and starve themselves of Earthly pleasures because they’re ashamed of their pussy. Now The Devils may well appear to be about religion and politics in 17th century France, but it’s more to do with the way in which females that deny their sexuality are an absolute bloody menace.

The story: Father Urbain Grandier (Reed) finds himself in charge of the city of Loudun after its governor dies. The dastardly Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Sutton) wants to pull down its walls to help snuff out any possibility of a Protestant uprising, but the progressive, religiously tolerant Grandier tells him to piss off. A way has to be found to discredit and destroy this meddlesome priest…

Why it works: This is peak Ollie Reed, a man not only at the height of his burly powers but in the running to fill Bond’s soon to be vacated shoes. He gives a good performance as the complex, contradictory Grandier, a charismatic, committed man of the cloth who’s not afraid to grab as much skirt as possible while defying the corrupt, murderous authorities. Intelligent and articulate, he appreciates the religiously versed can be like a ‘flock of trained parrots’ (both of whom have equal chance of entering the kingdom of heaven) but fails to appreciate his own role in spreading oppressive bullshit. “If God wants you to suffer,” he tells one anguished confessor, “then you should want to suffer, and accept that suffering gladly.” Shit, that doesn’t sound like much of a pep talk to me.

Grandier knows the heresy accusations against him by a bunch of sexually frustrated nuns are merely a smokescreen because he’s a threat to church and state, but still clings to the typical religious delusion of ‘being a small part of God’s plan.’ Likewise, he can see through the nonsense of quacks (trying to cure the plague raging all around by using cupping and stinging hornets) but can’t grasp the nonsense that is Catholicism. “Turn your face toward God, my daughter,” he tells one agony-stricken plague victim. “Be glad. You stand on the threshold of everlasting life.” Grandier does, however, have clear insight into the machinations of power, although it’s hard to feel he’s locked onto anything other than a suicide mission. On one occasion he says: “I have a great need to be united with God” while at another: “Hold my hand… Like touching the dead, isn’t it?”

Elsewhere, Russell comes up with some sumptuous visuals (especially its bleak closing sequence), a sprinkling of pungent dialogue, and good production values. He vividly illustrates the church’s crushing power. There’s also a pronounced sense that state-sponsored violence, hideous diseases and an early death are much closer to the average individual than today.

The things against it: Right from its opening scene of a play being performed on stage, The Devils has a theatrical feel. This is amplified by its costumes, painted faces, dissonant score, characters jabbering away to themselves, an effete, flamboyant king, Shakespearean-like comic relief and some arty directorial choices. Occasionally the casting feels anachronistic, especially one witch-hunting priest who looks like he’s just stepped out of The Rolling Stones. Some humor is misplaced, such as Grandier fending off a sword attack with a stuffed crocodile. The Devils is very silly in places, its overheated nature undermining its frequent stretches of grimy nastiness. This is a pic crammed full of torture, rape, overflowing plague pits, and maggot-dripping skeletons broken on the wheel yet it’s difficult to take seriously. What are you supposed to make of a plethora of naked nuns waggling their tongues, publicly masturbating and running around begging to be kissed? I appreciate they’re pretending to be possessed by devils but at points The Devils feels like an X-rated Carry on Nuns.

In fact, even pre-possession, the nuns are the biggest problem. When it comes to Grandier, they’re like a bunch of silly schoolgirls trying to get a glimpse of their favorite pop star. “I can see him!” one cries, her habit all but catching fire. “He’s the most beautiful man in the world!” Now there’s sexual curiosity and sexual repression, but Russell’s portrayal of unfulfilled womanhood is hysterical. Look at Sister Jeanne des Agnes (Redgrave), the deformed, sniggering abbess who falls in love/lust with Grandier without even meeting him. She gives an arch, crucifix-biting performance devoid of nuance and subtlety. She’s a hypocritical control freak just as hungry for cock as all the rest. “Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights,” she tells her girls. Moments later she’s having tormented visions of licking Christ’s wounds while begging God: “Take away my hump!” It’s all too much: everything piles up, becomes unwieldy and falls over.

Verdict: The Devils is one fucking grotesque flick. It’s miles over the top and (apart from the grounded Reed) mainly filled with ridiculous performances. It’s almost as if he’s acting in a different pic. People simply don’t behave like this whether they’re possessed, ambitious, jealous, repressed or insincere, especially the way they celebrate the most god-awful human suffering. Even Grandier tests our patience by remaining fantastically devout and articulate under torture, an implausibility as pronounced as Braveheart’s William Wallace crying ‘Freedom!’ while being disemboweled.

However, I’m always going to have a soft spot for a movie that portrays religion in the worst possible light. The Devils shows it to be fucked, an irrational, fatalistic and dangerous means to control and annihilate non-conformers. It also wins brownie points for suggesting there’s a fair bit of pretending involved.



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