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DEVILS, THE (director/writer: Ken Russell; screenwriters: from the play by John Whiting/from the book The Devils of London by Aldous Huxley; cinematographer: David Watkin; editor: Michael Bradsell; music: Peter Maxwell; cast: Oliver Reed (Father Urban Grandier), Vanessa Redgrave (Sister Jeanne), Gemma Jones (Madeleine Dubroux), Dudley Sutton (Baron de Laubardemont), Michael Gothard (Father Barre), Murray Melvin (Father Mignon), Christopher Logue (Cardinal Richelieu), Graham Armitage (King Louis XIII), John Woodvine (Tricant), Georgina Hale (Philippe), Judith Paris (Sister Agnes); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: X; producers: Ken Russell/Robert H. Solo; Warner Brothers; 1971-UK/USA)
“Ken Russell at his excessively visual best and dramatic worst.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This loose interpretation of an infamous historical event in 17th-century France is based on an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun,” and of the 1961 play that John Whiting based on Huxley’s 1952 book. It’s Ken Russell (“Women in Love”/The Music Lovers”) at his excessively visual best and dramatic worst as he tells the story ofthe carnal and radical Father Urban Grandier (Oliver Reed) and his downfall in those religiously charged times. Russell’s overwrought version is diabolical fun as camp but has little value as a cathartic vision. The film always looks great thanks to Derek Jarman’s dazzling eye-catching sets (such as the convent built out of white brick tiling). If you don’t take it seriously but view it more like an indigestible garishly derived Andy Warhol freak show you might not get so worked up at such outrages as masturbating nuns, continual sequences of sado-masochism and a blasphemous dream of Jesus and find it to be an idiosyncratic howler of bad taste that sensationally takes things to their most absurd points. It’s in the ‘each to his own idea of what bad taste means category,’ meaning that how it affects you is according to your own sensibilities.

It’s set just after the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in 1634 in the walled off town of Loudon, a Protestant stronghold that a few years before reached a flimsy peace with the majority of Catholic France thanks to the efforts of a wise man who just died from the plague. The ambitious Catholic Cardinal Richelieu, who has the morally corrupt King Louis XIII’s ear, schemes for political reasons to tear its walls down and rid it of its Lothario troublesome priest Grandier. Things come to a head when the priest has gotten one woman pregnant, a cousin of a nobleman, and then marries Madeleine Dubroux (Gemma Jones), a wealthy heiress, in secret where he conducts the church service.

In the Ursuline convent, for those who have turned their back on the world, the sexually frustrated humpbacked mother superior, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), has the hots for the virile priest and when Grandier refuses to hear her confessions but sends instead substitute priest Mignon, she confesses to him made up stories of being seduced by Grandier and of orgies the priest had with the nuns. Richelieu uses this as an excuse to send an exorcist, Father Barre (Michael Gothard), to extract in a circus-like public stage confessions from the nuns that they have been possessed by the demon and then force Grandier to confess his guilt as a sorcerer. It leads to Grandier being tortured and burned at the stake as a heretic.

This mind-blowing unforgettable disturbing spectacle of the bizarre also has going for it Oliver Reed’s powerful sexually driven performance, which is his best ever on the big screen.

REVIEWED ON 12/19/2005 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”