Monday, August 02, 2010

The Devils (1971)

Yesterday I took in the Ken Russell film The Devils (1971) at the Walter Reade. It's part of RussellMania which goes on for a few more days still. We don't really have gonzo English language filmmakers like Russell any more, or if we do, they don't get any attention. Everything is so safe. Even the "daring" stuff. The Devils is one of his hardest films to find (not available on DVD and everytime it's going to be, it suddenly isn't.) I figured images would be hard to come by so in order to prevent me from doing something foolish and illegal with my cel phone, my friend Ed offered to draw me stills for posting purposes. You have to admit, he captures Vanessa Redgrave's EXACT likeness in character as a filthy minded hunchback nun.

Uncanny isn't it?

I had expected the film to be more camp and less serious, but it's actually quite a sober historical epic, a true story from the 17th century which kicks off with the political maneuvering of royals and cardinals in France, and then gets more regional, zeroing in on the fortified town of Loudun and the religious posturing of clergy and civilians alike. There's politics, personal power plays, organized religion as a petri dish of corruptions, both political and personal. Faux exorcisms, the plague, corrupt legal systems, and sexual misconduct beset the characters until it all comes crashing down including, literally, Loudun's white brick city walls (designed by Derek Jarman!) All that plus erotic and visual abandon because it's...
  1. a Ken Russell film.
  2. from the least prudish decade of English language cinema and
  3. about a nun Sister Jeanne (a ballsy performance by Vanessa Redgrave) who desperately wants to get biblical with that lion of Loudun, Father Grandier (played by Russel muse Oliver Reed)
It's totally worth seeing if you get a chance. One of my friends went a few nights ago and sat two rows behind Vanessa Redgrave herself. (He reported that she cackled offscreen at her nusto cackling onscreen. How great is that?) Though it's less graphic than I'd been anticipating -- some of the scariest bits involving torture mercifully take place just offscreen -- it's hardly free of disturbing moments.

The original poster from 1971 "Not for everyone!" -- can you imagine a movie today proudly proclaiming its elitism?and intended DVD art for a release that didn't happen [photo src].

Though he's still working (supposedly there's a new version of Moll Flanders coming) the early seventies were arguably the peak Russell years. His 1970 release Women in Love won multiple Oscar nods (including a Best Actress trophy for Glenda Jackson) and other prizes and he followed that up in 1971 with not one but two films (The Devils, The Boyfriend) which went on to win him the National Board of Review for Best Director. Despite random scattered honors, success or infamy for later films like Tommy (1975), Crimes of Passion (1984) or The Lair of the White Worm (1988) he was only "awardable" in the 70s and even then he was never anything like an Oscar bait figure.

It's funny, really. He loves biographical epics as much as any AMPAS member ever has -- he made several -- but he loves them too perversely and too specifically; you can't mistake his films for someone else's.

The current RussellMania fest only covers his 60s & 70s work which is a shame because I was really hoping to watch Kathleen Turner don that platinum blonde China Blue wig and do unspeakable things that no A list actresses is ever supposed to do onscreen.

Have you ever seen a Ken Russell film? Do you think there's any director currently pushing the boundaries of "taste" that's also doing work worth celebrating nowadays?


The Pretentious Know it All said...

I was required to watch Black Narcissus Bertolucci's La Luna and The Devils as part of a unit on female hysteria. I'm so glad I did. My feelings about all three films are varied, but I agree about the "daring" often being daring within the confines of very rigid narrative archetypes, so it was refreshing. Isn't it amazing how portrayals of religious hysteria, even when they're exaggerated, are rarely too far off, even in modern times?

/3rtfu11 said...

Never seen a Ken Russell film. I suspect he’s Paul Verhoeven before Paul Verhoeven.

He’s quoted on the Robocop Criterion Edition, stating that Robocop is the best Sci-fi motion picture seen Metropolis.

Anonymous said...

Only seen Tomy, which is quite amusing and off.


Daryn G said...

I really liked The Devils, especially the over-the-top performances by Oliver Reed & Vanessa Redgrave. Reed's character was a charmingly anachronistic hippy-priest. I like how the movie veered from campy to truly frightening.

If you haven't seen Russell's BBC series of loosely-based docs on famous composers (Satie, Debussy, etc.), you must rent those immediately. They get progressively trippier, and are some of the most daring avant-garde films of the sixties.

I love British cinema 1945-1970! So many great, underrated directors--Alexander Mackendrick & Jack Clayton are two of my faves. Can't wait for your Black Narcissus review!

BeRightBack said...

I love Ken Russell, and wish I could see this. Lair of the White Worm is insane and campy, but fun nonetheless (also: Baby Hugh Grant!). Gothic is my favorite, though.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen a Ken Russell film? Do you think there's any director currently pushing the boundaries of "taste" that's also doing work worth celebrating nowadays?

Without having (yet) seen 'Trash Humpers', I'd have to say Korine; even if I found the Monroe/Jackson movie such a chore to sit through that I still haven't finished watching it.


BeRightBack said...

Anonymous: I think I would nominate Herzog or even Larry Clark before Harmony Korine. But maybe that just makes me an old.

No Bad Movies said...

I love Tommy, but I may be biased because I think the rock opera is brilliant and I liked The Who.

It's over the top for over the top purposes and the cameos are fun. Seeing Jack Nicholson try to sing is hilare !

Daltry is good as Tommy, playing blind, and Ann Margaret is totally sexy, but it's truly Oliver Reed and Keith Moon who steal every scene they are in. Reports from the set is that Reed and Moon, drunkenly improvised their scenes and this infuriated Russell. He was in full belief that Keith Moon was certifiable.
It's definitely a cultish, guilty pleasure for my friends and I.
Never saw The Devils. Always wanted to. Crimes Of Passion pretty underrated as well.

adri said...

I've seen 9 of Russell's movies. I'd like to see the BBC composer series that DarynG suggests. My favorite Russell movie is "The Boyfriend" (the most fun) and the one I think is probably the best (of those I've seen) is "Women in Love". That cast- so fabulous.

As a director, he seemed to have some mental and emotional issues of his own. I think I prefer his work when he's not working those issues out. Sometimes you seem to get the good parts of an artist by them working on something outside their hot buttons. And their inner complications bleed through into everything they do anyway.

I'd agree with BeRightBack on Herzog, who continues to be his own original self throughout the decades. I remember seeing Herzog's "Heart of Glass" where the actors were hyponotized. It was kind of mesmerizing for the audience as well.

kent said...

i've heard great things about WOMEN IN LOVE and glenda jackson in it. would love to see it. have you, nat?

rosengje said...

I've only seen Women in Love, but that movie made me fall madly in love with Glenda Jackson and seek out all of her movies only to find that she's now retired and possibly working for the Parliament if I recall correctly?


kent -- i have seen it but it was in, um, 1993 i think. and I don't remember it at all. Other than that famous nude wrestling scene and that I was trying to figure out the whole time how Glenda Jackson won two acting Oscars. Not that I didn't like her in it but she didn't seem like an Oscar girl to me in anyway. Though it's cool when they embrace a performer that doesn't seem like their usual type.

Arden said...

The "not for everyone" campaign had more to do with censors trying to ban the movie rather than elitism. I think. Right?

Roark said...

I saw The Devils and The Music Lovers on Saturday. The Devils I'd already seen - The Music Lovers I'd never heard of until this series, and it was quite revelation. One of the most gorgeous, immersive cinematic experiences I've ever had. Russell was there for the screening and the mood was electric, with audience members repeatedly bursting into applause in response to an especially thrilling shot or sequence. It was a great experience.

Desargues said...

I have seen and instantly loved Russell's Devils. I wish it was available on DVD, but, as you say, fat chance of that happening soon.

The film is (somewhat loosely) based on Aldous Huxley's Devils of Loudun. Yes, that Huxley. A great denouncer of religious bullshit if there ever was one, before he went New Age himself. He used to write better stuff, before he discovered drugs and put out tedious stuff like Brave New World. I love his Point Counterpoint and Antic Hay.

Among innovative, highly individual British directors, I like Peter Greenaway. He's kind of old, too. Don't know who's breaking new ground out there these days.