The Devils (1971)

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First time with Ken Russell.

The design is what stands out the most. Derek Jarman‘s sets are like sweeping edifices; crowds are often stacked vertically in seats or on flights of steps, architecture soars, tall flags flutter in a way that often evokes Kurosawa’s Ran (there’s an apposite sense, also, of Mordor). Especially the contrast between the baroque contraptions and costumes and the austere, alabaster architecture; something about the capacity (or even tendency) of depravity to thrive under structured constraints – this especially when considered alongside the visually consistent convent of St Ursula (this discontinuity also creates an air of atemporality which helps drag the political allegory into the present). There are some particularly standout sets: the swooning transvestite court of Louix XIII; early shots of the public plague pyres with Hard To Be A God squalor where you can almost smell the fear; the baron’s steaming and low-lit lair like something out of Star Wars; Richelieu’s Gilliam library like the vaults of a bank with nuns crawling like ants; the KKK trial; the final public execution, with its hypnotic Wicker Man totemism and Boschian sideshows like the cheering revellers spinning in the mouth of a painted dragon.

“There’s a man well worth going to hell for.” Oliver Reed is awesome as Grandier, completely magnetic and overblown. Pretty early on he delivers a speech on bodily transcendence which is lyrically Shakespearian, and this is definitely a tone which sticks with his performance. Most of his lines come in these powerful soliloquies: a tirade against national authority in the forum of Loudun; a passionate defence of his honour on trial (in which he rather chillingly evokes conflicts between an individual tyrant and national sovereignty); a plea for the people to “look at your city” screamed through a veil of flames at laughing skeletons. I think TD gains a lot from G’s very clear and honest fear of the physical pain promised to him – it tempers the bleeding romantic heroism (“I need to turn them against myself”) in such lines as “Do you love the church?” “…Not today”.

Vanessa Redgrave is perfect opposite him as Jeanne; the way she writhes under his unwitting influence, her conscience pulling her in different tragic directions as she rips the stability of the city apart like Samson – a sympathetic victim and a mad villain in one. Trapped in her half-height cubbyhole, praying and self-flagellating as her hatred and desperation grows, she’s like some creature of the sewers, a C17th Gollum or Pennywise. Obviously the absolute zenith  is the reverie before the crucifix spliced with the set-piece at Golgotha with the screaming wind, but this can overshadow her equally powerful first reverie: G gliding across the lake, J tormented under the gaze of the nuns, exposing her deformity. The bodily transcendence exalted by G is precisely what is denied her. Again, her demonstrations of fear are humanising, particularly at the exorcism, pleading that she speaks with her own voice.

Understated how funny this film can be: G fighting off an assailant with a taxidermied alligator; the fact that the bad guy looks like Warren Zevon; “bye bye blackbird!”; the pure extravagance of the king’s visit to the mass exorcism, the complete abandon by which everyone involved infuses the scene with infectious energy, laughing and screaming at the ferocious absurdity (the maggot-infested skull at the beginning recalled, for me, the sculpture at the wordless centre of Come and See). Down from these hysterical heights to the cold, tellingly sinister political symbols: the nuns almost shot in the forest like captives of the Nazis, the image of bookcases toppling behind the prosecutor as he torments G in his own house.

The single scene which appears to show any obvious restraint is of course one which, I have read, KR trimmed to attain that X rating: the crushing of G’s legs. Other censored scenes manage to suggestively imply the footage that was cut from them, such as when a self-tormenting J is finally presented with G’s charred femur. As a result, TD is, while still remaining satisfyingly intact, a dismembered but breathing testament to the savage dynamics of censorship, by which cinema can be both hurt and enhanced. In its openness and inviting, contoured incompleteness it is therefore absorbingly textual.

It’s also, surprisingly, utterly pop. An urgent plea through madness. Bold, B (look at that poster!), and brassily British. Somehow, rather impossibly, feels totally staged as spectacular enjoyment but also completely immersive as a riotously fun project to indulge in (Gilliam, again, in this sense of participation). I think its for this reason that I kept thinking of Life of Brian, a 1979 film which, considered as a potential double-bill with TD, illustrates the bizarre parallel universe that British cinema was in throughout the 1970s. TD puts a massive grin on your face even after the Dali horror of the raised, spinning gibbets and the winding path recedes behind red credits.

10

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