Ken Russell and I have a complicated history. I watched Tommy on cable when I was but an innocent Catholic girl with my father and it sort of scared me for life. I just couldn’t understand why this musical was so different from all of the other musicals that I had seen and been in. Why were these people treating a statue of Marilyn Monroe as some sort of deity with healing powers? Why were the Who constantly singing about this deaf and dumb pinball machine champ? I had so many questions that my father refused to answer. I was so confused. It made me angry. At the time I thought I knew what was entertaining and what wasn’t and my father and I usually agreed on most things. So why did he like this film so much? Why didn’t he turn the channel when the weirdest things on-screen came on? I still haven’t figured these questions out because I have not revisited this film yet. I think that I need to be a little more versed in Russell before I do. So instead I decided to check out another one of his most controversial films, The Devils.
About a French town during the witch trials, this film is weird but in the best way possible. A priest has sex with many young girls and justifies his actions by stating that Jesus never said that his apostles had to be celibate. A nun with a hump and a vicious sense of humor accuses this priest of inhabiting the devil and tempting her. An exorcism expert comes dressed in a sleeveless gown and thick gloves and in order tortures everyone in sight. He accuses people left and right of people having the devil inside of him, but he never really knows. This priest first seen as a despicable person becomes a martyr when he admits his vanity and pride, but refuses to admit to anything he hasn’t done. He is charismatic and well spoken but it doesn’t really matter in the end. The odds are staked up against him. This is all because one person wants to demolish the walls to this town. Pretty foolish.
The look of the film is delightfully askew. People dress in period clothing only to the point that the person betrayed is flattered by it. Russell gleefully breaks period when it doesn’t suit his needs like in the set design. It looks more like a Mesopotamian town than a French one. The walls are high and sandblasted white. The nunnery is more of a prison than it usually looks, the priest chambers is decorated more like a Roman villa from the early civilizations than that period.
Vanessa Redgrave is the nun with the hump. She is deliciously broken and slightly evil that it is awesome to see her on-screen. She has this laugh that is blood curdling and her temper rages with such a vengeance that it only seems right that she will accuse the one man she loves of witch craft. Oliver Reed’s voice lends itself to bombastic speeches, but not so much to the more intimate scenes between his wife (yes a priest marries in this film) and the woman he impregnated. He always seems to be removed which may have been on purpose.
This film is an interesting take on this time of plague, religious zealousness, extravagance, and radical ideas. One that will not easily leave your mind.