Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The Witch has us staring deeply into our bubbling cauldron, in search of other superb movies about witchcraft.
It’s impossible to talk about Ken Russell’s The Devils without talking about how difficult it is to see in its original form. Entire books have been written about Russell’s tangles with the censors in both the U.K. and the U.S., where as recently as 2014 director Guillermo Del Toro criticized Warner Bros., the studio that financed The Devils (and, by all accounts, wishes it hadn’t) for refusing to release it on DVD or Blu-ray. In its native England—where an additional 89 seconds had to be cut from an already-censored print to receive an X rating—restoration efforts led to a mostly complete, Russell-approved “director’s cut” of the film being publicly screened for the first time in 2004.
But, 45 years on, is The Devils really as profane as its reputation suggests? In a word, yes. It’s easy to see why the Catholic Church would take issue with it—though necessarily not for its perverse sexuality or its graphic scenes of torture. (Although it has both). Much has been made of Russell’s conflation of sexual and religious frenzy in the film, particularly the infamous, largely unseen “Rape of Christ” scene, where hysterical nuns violate a statue of Jesus. But the truly provocative—some might even say blasphemous—part of the film is its assertion that, even while preaching their rhetoric of sin and salvation, nuns and priests and cardinals are only human, and humans are nothing but animals. Filthy, power-hungry, lustful animals.
Every authority figure in the film, from politicians to priests to doctors, is corrupt in some way. And the witchcraft accusations lobbed against handsome, popular priest Urbain Grandier—based on a real person who was executed for witchcraft in 1634—are pure politics. Portrayed by Oliver Reed as the manliest man in the French provincial city of Loudun, over the course of the film Grandier changes from a selfish playboy to a champion of the people and devoted husband. That last part makes him a sinner in the eyes of the Church, but he and his wife are the only characters in the film with a somewhat healthy—or at least, not completely warped—attitude towards sex. He also cares deeply about the fate of his town, which scheming Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) has targeted in an attempt to gain absolute power in France.
The Devils opens with the decadence of Louis XIII’s court, its baroque extravagances juxtaposed with the putrid flesh of the plague victims whose bodies lay stacked like cords of wood outside the castle gates. Russell’s penchant for aesthetic excess is thoroughly indulged, as the director stages grotesque human tableaus straight out of Hieronymus Bosch over Derek Jarman’s intricately detailed sets. The result gives the story a sort of wanton, overripe feel, with such ostensibly austere environments as a cloistered convent about to explode with repressed sensuality. Most repressed of all is Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), a hunchbacked nun whose crush on Grandier spills over in disturbing ways. Redgrave’s performance is truly exceptional, expressing her character’s twisted emotional state by physically twisting her body, face, and voice, a spark of madness in her glassy eyes as she clutches her rosary so tight her palms bleed, collapses into epileptic fits, and practices self-flagellation as punishment for her impure thoughts. Just her laugh will stick with you for days.
It’s Sister Jeanne who explodes the already tense situation in Loudun, when, in a fit of jealousy, she accuses Grandier of visiting her in the night as an incubus, claiming that her fantasies about him are the result of witchcraft. This charge fits in quite well with Richelieu’s agenda, as well as the beliefs of fanatical inquisitor Father Barre (Michael Gothard), a long-haired zealot who looks like he wandered off the set of Russell’s Tommy. The town elders, who view Grandier as a nuisance—one of them has a daughter who’s pregnant with his child—are also more than happy to cooperate with the accusations. Things get out of control very quickly, though, as the sisters run wild under the pretense of being “possessed,” leading to some Russell-esque scenes of orgiastic bacchanal.
The situation slips out of Sister Jeanne’s control as well, and her body becomes the site of a power struggle between Grandier and Richelieu as she is subjected to cruel “exorcisms” to prove the veracity of her claims. Compared to this depraved display (and Grandier’s farce of a trial), breaking a vow of celibacy seems like nothing. And perhaps that’s Russell’s point: Maybe it’s strength of character, and not adherence to an arbitrary set of rules, that makes a person “good”—another sentiment that the Church, to put it mildly, probably wouldn’t agree with.
Availability: The most complete home-video release of The Devils currently in existence is on a two-disc, Region 2 PAL DVD released by the BFI in 2012 which runs 107 minutes (sped up from 111 minutes). For those without access to a PAL DVD player, a 103-minute NTSC all-region DVD is also available on Amazon, and copies of the 1995 R-rated U.S. VHS release turn up occasionally.