Film #284: The Devils (1971)

director: Ken Russell
language: English with some Latin
length: 107 minutes
watched on: 19 April 2017

My friend gave me this DVD (along with other recently-reviewed films like Sebastiane and Grey Gardens – the connection with Sebastiane is that Derek Jarman was also the set designer for The Devils). The cover promises something that was very controversial at its time of release, and has been specially restored to a previously-unavailable version.

A bit of digging and research later, (i.e. listening to Mark Kermode’s introduction and looking at the DVD notes) I found that it is actually still missing some key scenes that were in the original uncut movie – ones that were much more explicitly blasphemous such as the infamous “Rape of Christ” scene. The BBFC made some cuts to the original, and the MPAA in America made further cuts – the latter version was available on DVD in both countries, and this DVD is the original BBFC-cut version. It’s a bit confusing!

I’ve never actually seen any of Ken Russell’s other work, but his name precedes him, and I went into this movie not really knowing what the story was about in detail, but hoping for the best. It’s based on a historical story, and set in Medieval France. The two biggest characters are a corrupt priest and a nun with a hunchback and a lot of suppressed sexual desire. The main scene is one where the nuns are consumed with hysteria and dance naked through the halls of the church.

I think the DVD cover built me up to expect something a lot more shocking – the fact that it’s the first time it’s been restored, for example, and that it has an 18 certificate. But I think the most shocking and gory scenes have still not been reinserted into the film. I also reckon I’d be more shocked if I was religious – as it stands, what is in the film doesn’t shock me so much.

The film seems to be in a parallel reality – apparently they wanted to convey that Loudun, the setting of the majority of the movie, was considered a modern city by the standards of the time, so they designed the sets and dressed the characters as if it was modern in the 20th century. Sometimes, anyway. Bits of it look like the Paris Metro in shiny breeze blocks, and other bits are made of stone. The costumes seem to be period-accurate… until you get to the guy wearing purple sunglasses, and the 70s haircuts. I’m quite glad that the characters didn’t put on French accents for the movie, too. Occasionally we’re reminded that if it were real they would be speaking French, and they switch to Latin for some of the Catholic parts, but otherwise they use their normal English accents. I’m reminded of movies like Chocolat where some of the actors use faux-French accents and the others don’t, and the result is incongruous – not so in this film.

It’s generally a well-edited film, and it often does the thing I like that The Fifth Element also does, where it jumps between different sets of characters having the same conversation, and uses this to set up comedic moments. There are quite a lot of comedic moments in general – I liked the cardinal who never walks anywhere, for example, or that the nun is irrationally worried about her hunchback.

The cuts made by the BBFC somtimes jar a bit – it was obvious to me when watching the exorcism scene in the third act that this had been sloppily cut and re-edited. Shots I’d expect in a modern movie were just missing, like cutting to show the result of some violent action, which was deemed too gory back in 1971 but might have been left in if it had been released today. I’ve watched a lot of films, and know the rhythm that they usually take, and the cut scenes obviously didn’t flow as well as the others.

So overall good, I just hope I can see the uncut version someday!

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