“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights,” Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) cautions the nuns under her care near the opening of Ken Russell’s The Devils. Released in 1971 to an immediate public backlash, extensive censoring, and outright bans for obscenity and blasphemy, almost 50 years later The Devils remains one of the most extreme and contentious films ever made. But bound up in the strident horns and Day-Glo blood, the gonzo all-white sets and bondage-collared nuns, there’s a raw, unflinching exploration of how we react to and judge ourselves and our desires.
The deeply repressed Sister Jeanne’s sexual obsession with the charismatic and promiscuous priest Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is the dramatic center of the film, the critical weakness used by agents of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) to send Grandier to trial for witchcraft and bring the town of Loudun under the direct control of the crown. Jeanne is the mother superior of a convent in Loudun, a place she describes to Grandier’s secret lover Madeleine de Brou (Gemma Jones) as a dumping ground for women whose families couldn’t afford to feed them or to pay their dowries. Within the convent’s sterile while halls, Jeanne’s fixation on Grandier—a man she’s only ever glimpsed through the bars of her cloistered life—develops beyond infatuation into something as close to real demonic possession as human experience can skirt.
The Devils’ embittered, unromantic depiction of life as a nun in 17th century France is an integral part of its sexual politics. Its excesses aren’t just exploitative shlock, but an attempt to translate a state of extreme sexual and religious excitation which is no longer a part of mainstream cultural experience into a form viewers can understand. The film does, in all fairness, dip in and out of titillation, and Russell’s casting of young, conventionally beautiful women to play the nuns depicted in the nude is less effective than a more varied cast might have been, but that titillation, too, is essential to its exploration of feminine subjugation and the self-hate it breeds in its victims and enforcers alike. The film’s sometimes pornographic tone communicates the furtive shame and daydream unreality with which its characters navigate their sexualities.
Sensuality and Obsession
Before and after masturbating to fantasies of her beloved Grandier, Sister Jeanne engages in self-harm, first by digging her crucifix into her palm, then by flagellation. While she uses the behavior to stave off intrusive fantasies and, later, to punish herself for indulging them, the cynical Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) believes this only reinforces her obsession. Pain, he argues in discussing how best to use Jeanne against Grandier, is just another form of sensuality, and penitent self-mutilation serves to deepen the connection to the fantasy as more strong emotions and sensations become associated with it.
Indeed, Jeanne’s fantasies of Grandier are themselves heavily tinted with violence. More than once she envisions him as Christ, first before and later after the Crucifixion. During one memorable vision sequence she licks at the wound in his side, bloodying her mouth in an ersatz act of cunnilingus, while in another she washes his feet with her hair—a reference to the anointing of Christ. Her fantasies are also intimately bound up with her deformity, a severe case of scoliosis which has left her with a hump. Her fantasy of washing Grandier’s feet before a crowd dissolves into a searing ordeal of humiliation as a gust of wind exposes her twisted spine. As the onlookers jeer she insists again and again that she’s beautiful, but when the dream finally dissipates we see her slumped in misery, praying for God to take her hump away. Her own fantasies reject her body.
Grandier himself, meanwhile, routinely breaks his vow of chastity with the women of Loudun. In contrast to the cruel and gullible Barre and the peevish, sexually tremulous Mignon he is the film’s only genuinely committed clergyman. His repeated transgressions force him not only to sit and contemplate his own iniquity, but to more deeply dissect his beliefs and the teachings of his church. In a way he’s the Catholic ideal, flawed and plagued by sin but conscious of it and elevated by his efforts to redeem himself. Grandier’s freedom and authority as a priest allow him room for self-exploration which Sister Jeanne is denied.
His access to sexual partners, too, grounds his erotic imagination in the reality of other people. Grandier’s sensual experiences bring him into contact with his own self-loathing much as Jeanne’s do, but unlike his cloistered counterpart he is able to turn regularly confronting his own weaknesses into something which expands his capacity for empathy not just for himself, but for the people he guides and the town he attempts to save. His marriage to Madeleine, a gross violation of his priestly vows, brings him clarity and peace of mind. His torture at the hands of de Laubardemont forces him again into introspection, leading to an ongoing narration of his own frailty and failings underpinned by his unwavering claim to innocence and refusal to confess. Even as he burns at the stake before his former lover, their bastard child, and the people of Loudun after a sham trial finds him guilty of witchcraft, his last words dwell on his own fears and the necessity of community.
Waking and Dreaming
Fantasies rule Loudun unopposed by the end of the film. Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) claims to possess a phial of Christ’s blood, which Father Barre assures him will put the demons possessing the convent’s nuns to flight. The nuns writhe and convulse only for the king to open his decorative box and reveal that it’s empty, eliciting fresh shrieks of lunacy from the nuns while Barre is left dumbfounded. The cynical exploitation of Jeanne’s obsession envelops her persecutors in her sadomasochistic daydreams. Mignon masturbates frantically while looking down on the convent’s debauched sisters, then loses his mind after Grandier’s death. Barre is as unhinged by constant exorcisms and ceremonies as the nuns around him.
Jeanne’s sole moment of self-awareness comes when, just before Grandier’s burning, she sees him dragged through the streets on a sledge, tortured and broken. At first she reacts with horror and regret, but it quickly transmutes into hateful scorn. Is this because she cannot face the consequences of her delusion? Is it because her mind rejects the shaved and beaten Grandier as too similar to herself, raped and tortured to procure her confession? In the end, there is nothing left to her but her fixation, which subsumes even its object as she uses Grandier’s charred femur as an improvised dildo, masturbating alone in the abandoned convent.