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Monday, April 3, 2017

The Celluloid Zeroes Present RussellMania: The Devils (1971)




Written and directed by Ken Russell (screenplay based on the novel The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley and the play The Devils by John Whiting)

Vanessa Redgrave:  Sister Jeanne
Oliver Reed:  Urban Grandier
Gemma Jones:  Madeleine de Brou

Graham Armitage:  Louis XIII
Christopher Logue:  Cardinal Richelieu
Michael Gothard:  Father Pierre Barre
Dudley Sutton:  Baron de Laubardemont

Now that's a tagline. "Hell will hold no surprises for them...". Damn. That should mean that anyone who goes to see this movie expects the two characters on that poster to wind up suffering all the torments of the damned before they are allowed to expire. And since it's a film directed by Ken Russell, one can naturally expect plenty of Christian iconography, sex, and violence. Or at least that's what I'd say, since that was in Lair of the White Worm (which I last saw around 1994 or so, but it made quite an impression). Oh, and there's that NSFW Monty Python bit that informed my view of Russell for about ten years. Basically I'm pretty unprepared as a critic to watch this one as an encapsulation of Ken Russell's themes of choice as a director, but I can sure fake it to sound like I know what I'm talking about.

This film was originally rated X back in 1971, back when that rating didn't necessarily mean "hardcore pornography" (the entire ratings system only having popped up in 1968, and the original ratings being G (innocuous), PG (suitable for kids), R (not for kids without parents also buying a ticket) and X (not for kids whatsoever). The X rating, however, was and is the kiss of death for a movie in general cinema release in America. Theater chains don't carry X-rated films. Newspapers (and, I assume, web pages) don't run ads for them.Getting an X on a film--especially in 1971, three years before the twin assaults on decency of The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would go on to make tons of money and make entire swaths of previously unacceptable content suitable for general theatrical release--because above all else, movies are a hugely expensive art form and those studios want to make a profit on every single release.

Which leads us to The Devils, a movie based on a play (that was itself based on one of Aldous Huxley's less world-famous novels), as well as on the aforementioned novel--and I'm not a hundred percent sure how that works, but it could be that specific things . I'm pretty certain that one of the reasons it was received badly by self-appointed guardians of culture is that it criticizes the human institutions that claim to speak for God--think of how many times professional talk show guest Bill Donohue complains about Catholics being portrayed negatively in movies or on TV. Ever heard him complain that the Catholic church has aided and abetted child rapists for decades? Me neither. For someone who says he cares about the institution so much he has to show up on Fox News griping about its treatment all the time, he sure does seem to let a whole lot of sins on their tote board slide. I should mention here that I've been an atheist for about three decades as of this writing, but I don't mind too terribly much of other people believe in [g/G(od)dess(s/es)]. It's when people in the "telling other people how to behave" racket demonstrate the morals of a grave-robbing necrophiliac that I take umbrage.

On that happy note, on with the show!

First we see the obligatory Historical Accuracy Note at the beginning of the film. Since it's a horror movie, it's red text on a black background stating that the people and events we're about to see depicted are genuine. Which we also get at the start of Fargo and Return of the Living Dead, both of which are fictional as fictional can be, but it's the kind of thing a prestige movie used to do in order to impress the audience that what they're seeing is SRS BZNS. There may have also been a certain amount of "if this really happened, the censors can't get too bent out of shape about it" in Ken Russell's calculations, but since the movie's never been released to theaters uncut in the US or UK since 1971 one may safely assume that this did not work.

The next thing we see is a stage play where the King of France portrays one of the characters (rising from the sea like Venus, complete with genderqueering seashell bikini and glam-rock eye makeup). What with it being the mid-1600s, European kings got to do whatever the fuck they felt like doing, saying that they had the divine right to pursue whatever Earthly activities they felt like pursuing. Some of the time this meant that a monarch would want to fund scientific experiments to learn more about the world, and some of the time this meant drunken whoremongering that led to syphillitic insanity or wars of choice that led to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. Appearing on stage in a dramatic performance seems comfortably on the "not going to get a bunch of people killed" end of that sliding scale, at least. The mermaids are played by men here, since women were not permitted to act on stage at this point in Western history (which probably was meant to clue the audience in to how little socioeconomic status and power the women characters in the film could be expected to wield as well as another nod towards historical accuracy). Cardinal Richelieu is watching the play, his face centered in the frame just as the King's was as a way to show the Church's influence and power. Richelieu is wearing spotless satin robes and gloves, with heavy jeweled rings on every finger over the gloves. During a time when the ninety-nine percent wore burlap and pigshit, it's another instant way for Ken Russell to mark the status of one of the major characters. The court is fascinated by the play (or at least knows what's good for them and pays attention even during the dance numbers) while Richelieu openly yawns, and when he's front row center the players have to notice something like that.

The play concludes to general acclimation (Richelieu doesn't join the standing ovation until the end of it), and then tells his monarch that he wishes to bring about the birth of a "new France" where there's no difference between the secular power of the state and the political clout of the church. His Majesty Louis XIII knows what side of the bread has the butter and what side has getting burnt at the stake for heresy, so he kisses the Cardinal's ring and says "Amen" instead of showing any defiance. Although it's important for both sides in the power struggle to realize that giving all the marbles to one player impoverishes everyone else, and if Richelieu isn't really careful he could wind up handing control of the church to a succession of dudes named Louis. There's something George R. R. Martin said about the two outcomes when playing the game of thrones that comes to mind here. Then it's time for the opening titles, which tell us we're watching The Devils (Ken Russell gets his name above the title; Warner Brothers may have been looking for someone to take all the blame when the film was reviled). The Cardinal also crosses himself and says that the Protestants should all be driven from France; of course when you say you're speaking for God you don't want any dissenting voices doing the same thing.

A jump cut to a grey-skinned corpse with maggots filling its mouth and eye sockets comes next, which probably put a lot of 1971 cinemagoers off their popcorn. It's chained to a wagon wheel as a historically accurate French method of torturing people to death; one may presume it's an object lessons in defying the authorities, whether secular or spiritual. On the road below the display site of the torture victim, dozens of Protestants are being used as slave labor to transport wagons piled high with tarp-wrapped burdens. While they're dragging whatever it is they're dragging (to wherever it is they're dragging it), Father Grandier, a priest on the outdoor balcony of a gleaming white stone church, is eulogizing the mayor of Loudun, saying that the man who is being viewed in state was solely responsible for Loudun having peace between Protestant and Catholic during the most recent spasm of internecine violence. So, at least in the recent past of the story, it was possible for men and women of good faith to work together for the greater good. But we're watching a horror movie, aren't we? If one man was responsible for that state of affairs and that one man is now dead of the plague, there's only one direction things can go now.

Father Grandier proceeds along with the mourners and musicians accompanying the late mayor's body to the burial ground (with two altar boys having the duty of keeping his cape from dragging in the mud and shit of the thoroughfare). The walls of Loudun are made of brilliant white bricks or stone in this film, which probably owes something to the stage production (they don't look like actual 17th century city walls), and which is probably a metaphor for the way things can look pure and clean on the outside but be gangrenous with physical or spiritual rot inside. While the funeral procession moves past a nunnery, a couple dozen nuns shut away in a room clamor to get a look at the outside world--and specifically to steal a peek at the charismatic young Father Grandier. The nun who can actually see out into the world declares the priest to be the handsomest man in the entire world, having missed the instant-silence-producing handclap from Sister Jeanne, who is in charge of the convent. Sister Jeanne says that looking at a handsome man is just the kind of "sensual delight" that Satan places all over the world at every second to tempt virtuous Christian women into spiritual ruin. Which she might very well mean, but the hysterical giggle she can't keep suppressed after she says it makes me wonder how tightly wrapped she really is. And the way she strokes an iron key while giving one of the nuns a punishment detail makes me think she's got a brain that's a fever-cauldron of barely repressed lust (for a contemporary example, think of how many Republican politicians seem to be obsessed with gay sex; I bet there are gay porn directors who don't think about it as much as some Congressmen).

Having dismissed all of the nuns from the chamber where they could look out at the funeral procession, Sister Jeanne unlocks a stout wooden door and looks out on the procession from a street-level barred iron window. She prays for her salvation while listening to mocking gossips that point out just how much tail the priests in town (including Grandier) are chasing, but her lips stop moving and she lets go of her cross the first second she sees Father Grandier striding through clouds of incense. Eventually Sister Jeanne's emotions go out of her control and she fantasizes seeing Grandier walking on water in a simple peasant robe and she's the one to go to him in a peasant smock, falling to her knees in front of him to wash his feet with her luxuriant red hair (which the audience didn't see a strand of in her all-concealing habit). Even in her own sexual fantasies, though, she feels like a loathsome freak. This sequence is the first time the audience finds out that Sister Jeanne is a hunchback, and we all know just how much Quasimodo enjoyed the love and respect of his fellow Frenchmen and women. Her reverie ends with jeering crowds laughing at her temerity to think she could appear in public, and of Father Grandier shaking his head and leaving. There's no loathing like self loathing, of course, but even in her most private thoughts poor Jeanne hates her deformity. She prays for God to remove her hunch, which (like all such prayers since the dawn of every religion anywhere) go unanswered.

After the film abandons Sister Jeanne to her futile prayers, we find Father Grandier tutoring a local woman (her face whitened with cosmetics in what might well have been an authentic French fashion from the middle of the 17th century, but which looks goofy in 2017) in Latin. While they're both shirtless in bed; the Father is lying down and the woman is resting on top of him. Turns out that her father expects her to return from these sessions knowing more about Latin than she did before, but Grandier is teaching her (or being taught by her) several other subjects as well. One more thing that Father Grandier learns that day is that he knocked his paramour up, and he takes it pretty calmly but tells her that she's got to summon reserves of "Christian fortitude" for how she's going to be treated as an unmarried woman who did the nasty. Grandier has a monologue about what he thought in the afterglow of one night's lovemaking with Philippe, the now-pregnant woman who will bear a child he can never claim. While Grandier combs his hair and grooms his moustache to avoid that just-been-fucked look, Philippe cries in the background of the shot, ignored by the priest who eventually recommends that she tell her father the truth, and that paternal love (and probably a certain amount of realpolitik knowledge of what young people get up to) will lead her father to "find a good man. They do exist". Grandier walks out of the room and Philippe's life--perhaps the image Sister Jeanne has of him won't quite match the reality when and if they ever come to meet.

Out in the streets, there is plague and death everywhere (a pair of working-class guys toting a dead body to a cart stacked with a dozen or so corpses complain about it "leaking"). Bonfires and bells (and the atonal brass and woodwinds on the score) remind the viewer that the mayor of Loudun isn't the only person stricken by plague. As Grandier walks past the dead cart, a woman sees him and asks him to administer the last rights to her mother, who is in the terminal phase of plague sickness, hastened along by a pair of chortling goofs who think that a thin cover of eucalyptus pollen and cupping will stop the bacteria ravaging her system (they also have a hornet sting her directly on an erupting sore, operating on the theory that hornet venom will counteract the poisons in her system from the disease). The poor woman is topless in this scene, but buboes, trickles of blood and the cupping glasses make this the least sexy nudity you're likely to see in a commercially released motion picture. Grandier throws the men (and their crocodile) out of the room and tries to comfort the dying woman, telling her that she is at the verge of immortality after casting off her mortal shell. Based on the shrieks from the woman who has the plague and the sobs of her daughter, it's cold comfort indeed.

Outside, a man who turns out to be the magistrate of Loudun is cursing Grandier's name and looking for him; the two plague-treating quacks are more than happy to tell him where to find the priest (although the magistrate roars at them for inadvertantly calling his daughter a whore while they catalogued all the different ways the endless lusts of Father Grandier were slaked among the various women in town). When he draws his sword and confronts the unarmed Father Grandier, the holy man defends himself with the stuffed crocodile that the apothecaries were using to aid the dying woman's circulation. Incidentally, with the mention of a crocodile appearing in this film, I have now virtually guaranteed that another one of the Celluloid Zeroes is going to make time for this movie in his life. The magistrate's sword breaks on the crocodile in what certainly is not a cinematic metaphor for Father Grandier being the more capable man, despite being unarmed and clearly in the wrong. As he strolls off into the bonfire-lit night, the two alternative health care practitioners opine that if the Pope isn't going to do anything about priests breaking their oaths, the town magistrate might have an avenue to attack him--which means that the conflict between secular and religious power foreshadowed in the encounter between Louis and Richelieu is likely to play out in Loudun as well.

A mass grave full of smoldering sulfur and shroud-wrapped plague casualties is the next spot for Father Grandier to have a soliloquy; he sprinkles holy water on the pile of bodies while explaining himself to the priest that follows behind him with the incense thurible. Grandier is so incapable of controlling his hunger for the pleasures of the flesh that he's acting out in riskier and riskier ways. Since whoring turned out to be a perfectly safe way for him to exercise his sex drive, he turned to respectable women. He knew full well that an outraged father, brother or husband could kill him in a fit of justified pique, and that could fulfill his "great need to be united with God". As Grandier finishes the service (the other priest having called him a walking blasphemy for his plan to commit suicide via outraged man and stomped off), two things happen--the first, another cartload of corpses is added to the pit and second, he meets the eyes of the woman whose mother he prayed for the previous night from across the smoky haze of burning sulfur and sacred incense.

The next day, that woman, Madeleine de Brou, goes to the convent and says that now her parents have both died and she's able to serve God fully as a nun. The cynical among us in the audience might also think that a nice clean nunnery where you get fed every day and don't have to sleep in the gutters because you have no money might be a heck of a bargain, with only a celibacy requirement and some prayers as the entrance fee. Sister Jeanne mockingly praises her rosary and solid-silver icon of Christ, which drives Madeleine away in anger ("So you have one sin, at least. The sin of pride,"). Sister Jeanne drops a truth bomb on Mademoiselle de Brou by telling her that most of the nuns she's in charge of were either from families that couldn't scrape up a dowry for them or too ugly to marry off. But she doesn't kick Madeleine out; instead, she hands her a book written by the founder of this particular Catholic order and says to come back for a test after she's read it. Madeleine thanks the Sister and is confused by the contents of the book; the religious authority she consults to help with her forthcoming sacred SATs is, of course, Father Grandier.

Circling around her (Grandier at the top of his living quarters and Mlle. de Brou a floor below, which is an uncomfortable visual echo of the priest saying sacred words over the plague victims in a common grave), Grandier tells Madeleine that she's too smart a person to chant prayers in endless repetition as a nun, and that by living well outside the Ursuline convent's walls in Loudun she will be a living rebuke to the group of women that think they can merely say words often enough to earn a free ticket to heaven--he makes the analogy that a room full of chattering parrots could accomplish the same thing before going off to take confession, which means that during his conversation with Madeleine he starts out above her, descends to her level, and then descends further. That almost certainly means something, because it's a pain in the ass to move 1971-era movie cameras around under natural lighting in a big stone room and that's what Ken Russell did to capture this sequence.

Father Grandier winds up taking confession without a booth for privacy, so it's bad news that 1) the person who is confessing is Philippe the magistrate's daughter, and 2) she's crying and shouting at him so that everybody within earshot knows what's up between them. Although from the gossip at the start of the funeral procession, it's pretty likely that everyone in Loudun already figured some stuff out about them. Grandier's advice to Philippe is probably going to bite him in the ass in the third act, because he tells her "If God wants you to suffer, then you should want to suffer," and that's the kind of thing that the Demons of Irony write down for later use. He does absolve Philippe of her sins, but she's already walked off in a furious huff by the time he says the Latin to officially redeem her. The next sinner is Mlle. de Brou, who says she's a sinner because she felt pride in helping plague victims through a night of suffering; anger for wishing Sister Jeanne to be...elsewhere...while the woman was talking down to her; and unclean thoughts about a man. She doesn't want to be saved from the lustful thoughts, though. She's prayed to be relieved of them but instead finds that she loves Father Grandier the unnamed guy she is talking to Father Grandier about. She feels that the convent would have kept her safe from her lusts by locking her away from the world in general and Grandier in particular, but that doesn't look like it's going to be an option. The priest says she is to go to his house and wait for him there (and does not absolve Madeleine of her sins before taking his next confession).

Back at Grandier's house, he walks in to find Madeleine praying for salvation in front of the priest's personal altar. She also seems to be sincere as far as I can tell; there's been quite a bit of performative piety in the film and she doesn't appear to be demonstrating it here. Grandier tries to explain to Mlle. de Brou the difference between love as it exists in someone's imagination and the physical act of coitus and then sends her out as he weeps for her, and for himself, because he knows that she loves him and he knows in his heart that he loves her. It's one thing to piss all over one's vows of chastity, but priests are absolutely forbidden to marry so all Grandier can do for Madeleine is make her happy for a little while before he ruins the rest of her life.

Back at the convent, Sister Jeanne shuffles along on her knees and tells the assembled nuns to imagine the nails piercing Christ's hands as he was executed before a jeering crowd and starts to fantasize about the Savior, tortured and suffering, who has the face of Father Grandier as he climbs down from the cross to embrace her. In her fantasy, Sister Jeanne licks the blood from Jesus' hands before kissing him, then falls down to her knees in front of the Son of Man and pulls him down to the ground. I'm pretty sure this sequence was the exact moment where the British censors decided that the film would never be released uncut, but it's not meant to be titillating or arousing at all. Sister Jeanne shakes and twitches in the real world (color footage), rejecting the fantasy bubbling up out of the toxic depths of her subconscious (black and white film). She's appalled and terrified of what she's thinking of, and still aroused by it as well. So far I think she's the biggest victim in the film, and when she tells another nun to clean the entire convent while kneeling, she's just spreading some of the pain around that she's making herself feel. Back in the convent, Sister Jeanne returns from her fugue state to find that she was clutching her rosary tight enough to drive the bottom of the cross half an inch into the flesh of her palm and flees without explanation from her prayer session. The other nuns look to be genuinely concerned for her when she runs off, which speaks highly of them.

Back in the de Brou household, Father Grandier is talking with Mlle. de Brou to convince her that marriage is a good thing for her soul, rather than just her social standing. During the hair-splitting dueling Bible quotes contest that follows, they decide that marriage is a sacrament and that Christ never forbade His apostles to take a wife or father children; but Paul said chastity was better than marriage, and Grandier says he'll be content to be good rather than best in that case. Which leads to Madeleine to pointedly ask if there's no sacred law commanding Father Grandier to be celibate. Grandier responds with another Biblical quote saying it's not good for a man to be alone, but before the conversation can proceed there's a loud smashing noise from outside and the viewer learns what those enslaved Protestants were bringing down the road at the very start of the movie.

A couple of massive hamster wheels (run by shuffling, bleeing, barefoot Protestants) are the power source for a series of ropes, pulleys and hooks that are tearing down the city walls, which would leave Loudun completely open to attack from any quarter, from any passing mercenaries or any armies that felt like pillaging an unspoiled town for a while. Everyone else stands around in stunned silence but Grandier bellows like only an enraged Oliver Reed character can, demanding to know what is going on and under what authority. On horseback (so, literally, looking down on the priest), Baron de Laubardemont identifies himself with a string of titles bestowed on him by the current Louis. His Majesty has declared that it's time for Loudun's walls to come down so they're coming down. as de Laubardemont explains for the benefit of the viewers, there were a bunch of Huguenots in Loudun and if they decided to rise up in (Protestant) rebellion against the divinely appointed (Catholic) monarch it would be much easier to send in troops to slaughter them by the thousands than to attack stone walls. Grandier counters that during the most recent religiously-motivated civil unrest, the Protestants in Loudun remained loyal to the king and that there wasn't any fighting; the baron says that was then, this is now, and nobody know what's going to happen re:  Huguenot loyalty in the future.

In response to de Laubardemont's comments, Grandier demands to see the royal proclamation to demolish Loudun's walls, which would at least buy some time to figure out a response before the walls come down. He is told to go piss up a rope (in essence), so Grandier stomps off to search his personal papers and find what he claims is a letter from the late mayor giving him control of Loudun until a new election can be held and a new mayor installed. He backs this up with a dozen crossbowmen and promises the baron that he'll be dead before the next stone torn from a wall hits the ground. De Laubardemont has a dozen or so musketeers to counter the threat of the crossbows, but isn't too fond of the idea of dying first in a squalid little shootout in a little nothing town like Loudun so he halts the demolition until the proper paperwork arrives. The baron and his men leave with just about unseemly haste, the Protestants on the treadmill wheels don't have to get massive splinters in their bare feet any more and (with the notable exceptions of Philippe and her father) the people of Loudun just like Grandier more than they did previously.

A quick series of intrusive, Coen brothers-style scenes take place back in the court of Louis XIII. The king is busy shooting pistols at moving targets from a bridge to the admiring golf-clap applause of his court. Cardinal Richelieu, however, is talking politics and ruining the king's day out. The little out-of-the-way towns that weren't previously of any value to the Crown should no longer be left to their own devices, says the Cardinal (who isn't laissez-faire about those little places, despite that being a French term). He says tearing down the fortifications and walls mean that those little places could never hope to hold out against a determined assault from the French army. The monarch waves a hand irritatedly at the Cardinal and says "yes", and that's all we get to explain why it's so important the Loudun is defenseless. It also explains why the mayor of Loudun was able to keep the peace there during a time of nationwide religious strife; Loudun might have been in France, but it was a tiny little postage-stamp sized patch of French soil and its walls and self-government could keep it safe and isolated while other towns or entire regions of the country were ankle deep in heretic blood (which heretics were being bled would depend on various local factors, of course, but both Catholics and Protestants would have seen the opposing side as heretical).

Back in Loudun, Father Grandier explains all that to a gathered crowd in the town square. And back at the court, Louis tells Cardinal Richelieu that he can do anything he likes to any of the other cities that are irritating him during his power grab, but that the King himself vowed to the (now dead) mayor of Loudun that the walls would stay up. If the Cardinal has them torn down, he will make the King a liar. And people who do that, no matter how much political power they've built up for themselves, are likely to kick the oxygen habit as soon as the King feels that they need an example of what happens to people who tick them off. The point is underscored as it turns out that the birds Louis is shooting from him comfortable seat are Protestants in bird costumes, who run for their lives through a gauntlet of jeering courtiers until Le Roi has a clear shot. When in a situation like that, one endeavors to be one of the people of elevated social rank politely applauding each execution, and not the poor son of a bitch in the bird suit. The score for the Protestant running for his life is light and airy, the kind of thing that elevates the mood of the listener under most circumstances; in this film, of course, it's pointing out the abject horror of his situation. Bad enough to be a political prisoner shot dead by the King, but so much worse to know that your execution is a laughing matter for the entire power structure you're dying under.

Back at the convent, the current Father Confessor has died (of the plague, I assume, and not of a pillow over the face at two in the morning); Sister Jeanne writes Father Grandier hoping he will take a position over her at the convent. The film intercuts between Father Grandier blessing a wedding ring and Sister Jeanne reciting her letter, praving to a small crucifix (and then masturbating alone in her cell as another nun listens to her moans) as it is revealed that Grandier is officiating at his own wedding, with nobody but Mlle. de Brou in attendance. Which, despite whatever he says to convince himself and his wife that it's perfectly legal, is heresy down to the core of his decision. Back at the convent, Sister Jeanne flogs herself with a spiked chain (chosen carefully from a collection of torture implements that she apparently only uses on herself) while at the wedding, the newly christened Madame Grandier says that there should be bells ringing and a post-ceremony walk out in the daylight to announce their wedding, but of course that can never happen. The kiss to seal the marriage takes place in the dark in the center of a huge empty frame, showing how isolated Father Grandier and his new bride are. And of in the corner, a pair of lurking figures observe this blasphemy (the apothecaries who were tossed out of Madame de Brou's bedroom as she died, though I didn't recognize them at first without their plague doctor nose-protectors).

And who would they be likely to snitch Grandier out to? Well, at that very moment Cardinal Richelieu is getting an update from Baron de Laubardemont about what Grandier's deal is (while riding on a wheeled sedan chair pushed by a pair of nuns; he's got more important things to do than walk under his own power). The Cardinal wants the walls of Loudun torn down (and, not incidentally, the baron tells him that the masonry could be repurposed to build the forthcoming town of Richelieu). The King might have said the stones will remain untouched, but that's just a royal whim, not a commandment of God. Richelieu declares that it's pride-humbling time for Father Grandier, but since the errant priest was trained by Jesuits in theology it won't be easy to trip him up or successfully accuse him of heresy. Baron de Laubardemont, however, has a self-penned proverb:  "Give me three lines of a man's handwriting and I will hang him". Like the three-block rule for getting pulled over by the police, but with a short walk to the gallows at the end of it.

At the convent, the nuns are playing a game where one of them poses as Father Grandier and another as Mademoiselle de Brou and are "married" The gossips of Loudun already know what's happened and when Sister Jeanne overhears it she has a mental breakdown. When Madeleine shows up at the nunnery to return her book, Sister Jeanne physically assaults her and accuses her of seducing Father Grandier (who, it should be noted, has absolutely no idea that Sister Jeanne is obsessed with him). In her cell, Sister Jeanne looks into a mirror that she keeps hidden (obviously vanity is something you don't want to encourage in a place devoted to Christian theology) and tells herself that if Grandier had seen her first he would have fallen in love with her. She is interrupted by a nun who tells her that the new Father Superior is there to meet with her and she rushes off to see Grandier, syrupy strings on the score cluing the audience in to what she thinks will happen when the target of her obsessions sees her for the first time. Of course, it's someone else (Father Mignon, the man who was holding the thurible back when Father Grandier was performing the mass funeral for plague victims). Mignon hears Sister Jeanne talking to herself as she prays about what to do now that Grandier isn't going to be the Father Confessor at the nunnery; while describing her fantasies out loud she more or less accidentally accuses Grandier of witchcraft, fornication and heresy. Father Mignon figures out pretty much instantaneously what that means for Father Grandier if the accusation goes higher up in the Church hierarchy and runs off to snitch to Baron de Laubardemont. The word of a hysterical nun doesn't carry much weight in Richelieu's world, though, and even though Philippe (also at the snitch session) is pregnant, there's no proof Father Grandier fathered her child. The two apothecaries (also at the snitch session) have detailed accounts of Grandier's blasphemous midnight wedding (and a detailed list of how many times he fornicated with his wife; the two men were listening at the keyhole to confirm what was happening). The baron, along with all the various parties in the room--the magistrate with the pregnant daughter, asking to attend the examination of Father Grandier as a "disinterested party" among them--hatch a plan. Grandier is going to be accused of demonic possession based on Sister Jeanne's testimony. They need a professional witch-hunter in order to prove things beyond the shadow of a douby in the religious court, though, and Matthew Hopkins is busy in another movie right at that moment.

Father Barre steps in as the Cardinal's witchfinder and interrogates Sister Jeanne in a room sprinkled with holy water and tries to determine if it's the nun who has a demonic force interfering with her soul. Under interrogation, Sister Jeanne confesses her vision of a man walking across the surface of a lake, and how she dried him with her hair. But a group of lay observers starts to laugh at her testimony (obviously the thing that poor Jeanne dreaded more than anything else), and the baron sees that she's giving less personal testimony while she's being mocked by the general public. Under Father Barre's questions, Sister Jeanne confesses to being visited in the night by a dark figure that she couldn't identify. She also throws her fellow nuns under the ecclesiastical court bus by claiming a half dozen of them were taken away by other dark creatures during her nightly visits. She whispers more lurid details to Father Barre while giggling to herself, and after the apothecaries bring in a table strewn with a bunch of medical paraphernalia the baron says it's pretty obvious that Sister Jeanne is a frustrated woman at the end of her sanity's tether. Father Barre, however, isn't convinced. A thorough medical examination of Sister Jeanne will show exactly where the demon is hiding inside her, and then it can be cast out.

The gawkers who were laughing at Sister Jeanne's testimony got bored and wandered off before this, though, so at least she doesn't have to be tortured while knowing that there's an audience who finds her pain entertaining (wait a minute...I'm watching this movie for my own entertainment!). The medical quacks set up a modesty screen while they examine Sister Jeanne, but one of them has blood all over his hands when he tells Father Barre that there's been evidence of fornication. Which is all that the good Father needs in order to proceed with the exorcism. The other nuns watch helplessly as a giant syringe is filled with boiling holy water and Sister Jeanne is purged of her sins. While she screams, the other nuns try to protect her and are driven back by monks bearing scourges and the gawkers, having returned, are laughing at everything (other than two appalled men who talk about what a fiasco this is and how Fathers Barre and Mignon are torturing and innocent woman). The Baron and magistrate identify those two dissenters, and without putting it into words in public, plot to have those two men accused of sorcery, their bakery and hotel seized by the state, and then run by...oh, maybe a baron and a magistrate.

After her torture, Sister Jeanne names Grandier as the shadowy incubus who seduced her--after plenty of coaching from Baron de Laubardemont. And back at his own home, Madeleine tries to talk Grandier out of attending a royal audience; the Father says that he won't give up a chance to see the King "for the sake of a crazy nun", and one that he's never seen before at that. He believes that the whole fiasco will be concluded by the time he returns from Paris. But there's still fifty minutes of movie left to go, so I have my doubts. And during another speech from Father Grandier about what might drive Sister Jeanne to accuse him in the way that she has, the priest points out that even the pain meant to mortify the flesh and drive sin out (with a spiked chain, perhaps) is still sensuality and that there is no escaping the sensations of the flesh while life still remains. He also seems to be a good man underneath it all, because even when facing the possibility of torture and execution on the word of a woman he's never met before, Grandier sympathizes with Sister Jeanne and her situation. Thinking (with reasonable accuracy) that the nun overheard some gossip and fixated on him Grandier tells his wife "Anything found in the desert of a frustrated life can bring hope, and with hope comes love, and with love comes hate," and he's right. He still prays that God can bring happiness to the bride of Christ, alone in her twisted and hopeless situation.

Speaking of hopeless situations, the next we see of the nuns is outside the convent for once. Baron de Laubardemont is screaming charges that amount to Obstruction of Sacred Justice at a group of nuns kneeling in a pit, with a dozen crossbows pointed at them. After saying that what they really did was interfere with something Cardinal Richelieu wanted done, he tells all the nuns they are guilty of treason and heresy (which are the same thing when there's no wall between separation of church and state, of course). Seconds before the baron can command the firing squad to execute the sisters, Father Barre bellows for them to stop--which probably means there's something worse in store. He says all those nuns had been infected with Sister Jeanne's sins, just as so many people in Loudun had caught the plague that had been going around. Baron de Laubardemont takes on the role of Good Cop, telling the nuns that if they go along to get along, they'll be proven innocent or at least to have renounced there Satanic and heretical ways. Father Barre promises that they'll scream before that happens.

But what I thought was going to happen doesn't. Instead, Father Barre tells the nuns they're to return to Loudun and demonstrate without a doubt that they're carriers of a demonic infestation, and that Father Grandier is to be blamed as the devilish equivalent of Patient Zero. The nuns, not being stupid and not wanting to be tortured to death, cheerfully agree to go along with that and mob Father Barre in an embrace. Back at the nunnery everyone strips off to start acting exactly like their interrogators want them to and Sister Jeanne is tormented further by the two apothecaries, who make the most of their opportunity to treat a woman exactly the way the want.

Riding back from Louis XIII's court, we get one of those "voiceover / letter reading" scenes that help advance the plots of ever so many movies. As Madeleine reads a letter from her husband, we learn that Grandier has a letter from the King stating that the walls of Loudun shall not be torn down, and tells his wife that Cardinal Richelieu is the one telling the King what to do at this point in his life. Father Grandier has had a spiritual awakening after talking to the monarch of France, and decides that he wants to dedicate the remainder of his life to service in Loudun. Seeing the pinnacle of courtly decadence apparently flipped his switch off, and at least for the time being he wants only to be the town priest in an unimportant corner of France.

Back at the convent, though, Sister Jeanne has been force-fed milk until she vomits. The two apothecaries dig through her stomach contents with tweezers, pointing out that (according to their learned knowledge) the nun has ingested part of the heart of a child--a sacrifice at a Black Mass, Father Barre helpfully points out--as well as human blood, semen, and one last bit that Father Barre wants to know about turns out to be a piece of carrot. Just when things can't get any more farcical than they already are, His Excellency the Duke of Conde is carried in on a litter by nearly a dozen satin-clad bearers. His Excellency turns out to be King Louis XIII in a disguise that works well enough on the characters in the movie, but not on the audience. Father Barre uses a relic with a sacred Eucharist inside it to provoke the "possessed"nuns into a frenzy, especially after he mentions Father Grandier's name. The king has brought a holy relic from Versailles with him, though--a small golden cask containing a smaller vial of the blood of Christ. Father Barre assures his monarch that a holy relic of such power would slap the devils right out of all the women, although they might come back when the relic is sent back to the "duke"'s palace. "Of course, that would be asking too much," is the king's way of drily commenting that he knows exactly what's going on.

Barre rebukes the heck out of all the demons while holding the cask, and all the nuns collapse to the ground among electronic tones on the soundtrack, then generic "holy chanting over sacred music" stuff. Sister Jeanne kisses the hand of the "duke" and thanks him for freeing her from her demonic interference. Then His Excellency opens the box and shows everyone in the room that it was empty all along. This, here, by the way, appears to be Ken Russell's mission statement for the film as well as his take on the way politically powerful people use religion (and the religious) for their own ends. In this case, the "duke" just wanted to give his courtiers and the hoi polloi watching the ceremony a good laugh. When an outraged Father Barre wants to know what kind of a trick His Excellency played on him, the noble simply asks the priest the exact same question. Which makes me like Louis quite a bit, honestly, turnabout being fair play and all that.

The talks well and truly break down in the convent at this point, as Father Barre is beaten unconscious with a large wooden cross and the nuns haul a statue of Christ down so they can sexually assault it in an orgy of sensuality that goes far, far beyond what moviegoers (and censorship boards) were willing to put up with in 1971. The end of that sequence is intercut with Father Grandier blessing a goblet of wine for Communion which he shares with Madeleine and Father Mignon jerking off as he looks down at the depravity taking place in the church. Plenty of trombone honking on the score and mod-style camera zooms enhance the sensation of total breakdown (and now I see what the Monty Python bit referenced earlier had to be making fun of).

Things have gone too far in Loudun to stop, but the shocked silence when Grandier returns to the church and thunders accusations of blasphemy at Barre and de Laubardemont brings the current chaos to a sudden and silent halt. The counter-accusations fly back at Grandier with a quickness, of course, although Madeleine declares that she and Father Grandier are married without guilt in the eyes of God, who saw it happen and did nothing to prevent it (which doesn't say much for the prospect of divine justice, because He had to have seen all the shenanigans at the convent and church while Grandier was gone and didn't do jack about them). Sister Jeanne picks this moment to accuse Grandier of consorting with Satan and defiling her, promising her a place in the court of Hell. Which, naturally, Father Grandier denies (while still confessing to the vanity and lust he was genuinely guilty of). He also says he's too vain and proud to serve the Devil, which is a unique and utterly unsuccessful defense. He forgives Sister Jeanne of her trespasses against him and says that he knows what's going to happen next. And that's right when Barre says to seize Father Grandier. Since the original charge of witchcraft doesn't look like it's going to stick, the all-purpose "you have the wrong opinions" charge of heresy is substituted. A couple of dissenters stand up for Father Grandier and are immediately hauled off by musketeers (which means that de Laubardemont has all the projectile weapons in town under his control by now). The nuns, who clearly know what side of the bread has butter on it, decry the two dissenters as being in on Grandier's plot (whatever that's going to turn out to be). Nobody listens to the people who tell everyone in Loudun to rescue Father Grandier--who, to his immense credit, bellows to everyone within earshot that Sister Jeanne should be forgiven, as the priests tortured her to the point where she'd say anything to make them stop.

So next up we have Grandier shackled to a chair with his tongue stretched out with pincers, and one of the apothecaries noting that there's no blood from the spot they poked in his tongue (a lie, but a convenient one, and once Grandier's been executed there will be nobody around to contradict the official records that a flunky for Baron de Laubardemont is writing down. And back at the convent the nuns are lounging around in various states of licentiousness while the baron gets the sisters to sign documents accusing Grandier of physically impossible feats of lechery. He also tells them that if they recant their stories, they're getting a one-way ticket to the gallows (or stake) and then directly to Hell. It's all too much for Sister Jeanne, who attempts to hang herself in the rain-soaked courtyard but is cut down in time to save her life. The baron reassures her, saying that once Grandier is dead she won't think about him any more. Back in the torture chamber, Grandier has his own dark night of the soul, pleading with God to reveal His mercy. And when Sister Jeanne tries to confess that she's lied about Grandier from the start, Father Barre decides that he's got to exorcise the demons speaking through her. The audience doesn't see whatever that is, but Sister Jeanne is moaning instead of screaming and Father Mignon, watching, seems much more aroused than appalled.

The next morning, Baron de Laubardemont stops by Father Grandier's house to let him know that his execution has been scheduled, to which the priest reponds that he was rather expecting a trial before that. The baron shrugs and says that there's going to be a day or two of torture (with a crowd of thousands milling around outside Grandier's house, hoping for a good show) and then the priest will be allowed to die. While soldiers smash the statues and tip over the bookshelves in Grandier's house, the baron tries to taunt his victim with the promise of further pain and the possibility of Mlle. de Brou also falling into his hands. Grandier correctly points out that he's seen plenty of torture so he knows what to expect and that he'll confirm whatever Madeleine says so that she won't be guilty of perjury. He also promises that after enough torture he'll scream like a child and confess to whatever his accusers want eventually. The baron promises to pray for Grandier, who assures his captor that he will return the same favor.

At the trial, Baron de Laubardemont plays to the gallery of spectators--and it cannot be an accident that in the third act, there's always a gallery of spectators to laugh at the witticisms of those in power--while laying out evidence against Father Grandier. A panel of hooded judges in white robes (would Ken Russell necessarily have known he was making Grandier's judges look like they're in the KKK?) listen to every accusation that de Laubardemont can throw at the priest. The only thing that Father Grandier denies during this trial is that the wedding ceremony between him and Mlle. de Brou was a fake. He declares it was a real ceremony, and that he was trying to get a glimpse of the true nature of God through the love of a woman. Stirring, and delivered quietly rather than in an Oliver Reed shout, but of little use when the baron has a packet of letters from various women that Grandier did not marry. Those two dissenters who spoke up for Grandier are at the trial as well, ashen-faced (and one flinches away when de Laubardemont touches his shoulder; obviously, their testimony--that the audience did not see--took some coaching).  During the baron's wrapup of just how much has been said against father Grandier, the priest finally has had enough of this bullshit and tears into the trial and his chief accuser. He also drops the totally awesome epigram "If the Devil's evidence is to be accepted, the most virtuous people are in the greatest of danger, for it against these that Satan rages most violently." There's no chance for him to drop the mic after this, because there's no electricity in France in the 17th century.

He accuses Barre and Laubardemont of inventing brand new heresies to destroy him, and to further Cardinal Richelieu's ambitions, in the service of destroying anything that the Cardinal wants destroyed--whether it's a single man, a single town, or the entire nation of France. The judges tell Grandier that it's a religious trial he's taking part in, not a political one (since it's useful to have a pretense that those things are different) and that they're going to consider the evidence and render a verdict. Grandier crosses himself and then turns to the spectators and blesses them as well before walking home to meet his fate. The apothecaries are there, waiting to shave Grandier's head before he returns to the court dressed in a sackcloth marked with a giant red cross (the spectators find this hilarious, as they were meant to). To nobody's surprise Father Grandier is found guilty of all charges and sentenced to torture and execution and a plaque that his estate will pay for will be put up at the convent to commemorate his death (and, again, to make sure that only the official story of what happened at Loudun will exist in the future). Father Grandier, in his final statement to the court, says he is innocent, terrified, and realizes that his life was vain and but that he still holds out hope that God will have mercy on his soul.

Well, that sets Father Barre off into a screaming fit to denounce Grandier and general uproar in the court; the judges send everyone away at musketpoint, and the film switches to Grandier shackled to a torture table while Father Barre sprinkles holy water on the wooden wedges and mallets that are going to be used to shatter his legs. And let's ponder for a moment that one priest in the movie used holy water to bless the corpses in a plague pit while the other is sanctifying implements of torture. Both men believe in the same deity and read the same holy book, and only one of them is in the right according to his society. Father Barre sprinkles more holy water on Grandier and asks for a confession. Father Grandier confesses to what he is actually guilty of--that he's a man who enjoyed the perks of his station in society and that he has loved women. It isn't what Barre wants to hear, though, so Father Barre shatters the bones in Grandier's legs with a metal hammer for the defrocked priest's own good. The sequence only shows Oliver Reed and Michael Gothard's faces rather than a makeup effect on Reed's legs (except for a split second thrown in for shock value), and it's all the more powerful for it. And, of course, the viewer will recall the soldiers smashing the legs of one of Grandier's statues at this point, with the shattered plaster standing in for flesh and bone (just as the melting statues in House of Wax let you know what's happening to Vincent Price's character without the film having to depict it).

Baron de Laubardemont pops in with a confession that hasn't been signed yet to taunt Grandier and ask him if he loves the Church. ("Not today.") The baron tries to convince Grandier that by confessing and begging for forgiveness he'll be doing the Catholic church a great service, while in defiance he will be harming it. If he still loves the institution he'll help it, even with every bone in his legs shattered and weeping with pain. The baron leaves, sullen at Grandier's refusal to go along with the program, and tells the condemned man that the walls of Loudun are coming down after his execution. Grandier faints as Father Barre hits him one more time, and his unconscious body is dragged out to the convent of St. Ursuline, where he's told to ask the nuns to forgive him for his trespasses against them. Grandier instead asks God to forgive them, because he knows what kind of a situation they're in. Sister Jeanne gets dragged away after hissing at Grandier and accusing him of being at least a devil, if not the Devil. From there it's time for Grandier to drag himself on the ground to the stake he'll be tied to and burnt (with Father Barre kicking and stepping on his mutilated feet to inspire him to keep moving). The executioner asks Grandier to forgive him for everything that's still due to happen to the poor sucker. He also lets Grandier know that he's going to be allowed to make one more speech. The former priest is tied to the stake and shouts to Loudun that he's sorry he failed in the city's defense and then asks Father Barre to give him the kiss of peace and let him die. Barre refuses to do so (which I guess is part of the execution ceremony), but the crowd of hundreds of spectators chant for him to do it. And, after all, the mob wants its show so he tells Father Mignon to do it, and when the flunky does so the crowd starts chanting "Judas! Judas!" at him. The poor guy who went along to get along suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of the crowd's anger and looks absolutely pants-shitting terrified.

Father Barre lights the kindling at Grandier's feet to the consternation of the executioner, who promised him a strangling via noose before the flames took his body (Barre's so pissed that he didn't get a confession out of Grandier that he skips a step in the procedures). As the flames rise up, Grandier looks out at all the spectators in a curtain of flames, and Loudun, to him, truly looks like it is in Hell. With his dying breaths, Grandier screams that if the people of Loudun don't fight the soldiers tearing down their walls everyone in the city will become the slaves of whoever has a gun pointed at them. As Grandier's soul leaves his body the walls and blown down by gunpowder; Sister Jeanne hears the detonations from her cell in the convent, and Baron de Laubardemont comes by to thank her for her service, and to inform her that she isn't possessed any more. Lastly he drops off a several-inch-long chunk of Grandier's charred thigh bone, which Sister Jeanne picks up and kisses (it looks quite a bit like an erect penis, with the knob at one end standing in for a pair of testicles, which is the most outrageous image in a movie full of them). Then she bends to her devotions, sliding the tip of the thighbone between her legs.

The final image of the film is Madeleine de Brou watching the executioner scattering the ashes of Grandier's pyre so that he's denied a Christian burial, his remains sent to the four winds. She climbs the pile of ruined brick and stone that used to protect Loudun from the evils of the world and leaves for an uncertain future as the film's colors desaturate to black and white and the credits roll in blood red.

Well. I have no problem believing that this was an intensely controversial movie when it was released--even four and a half decades later it's got the power to shock and appall. But what people said they were mad about (nudity, shocking images) and what they were really mad at (the depiction of the Catholic church as a political entity willing to torture an innocent man to death for worldly gain) are two quite different things. It's easy to see that Ken Russell is one of those directors, like Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson, who believes that nothing exceeds like excess. But his images are used in the service of the story and of the subtext of the film; they're not simply in there for shock value. Yes, there's plenty of shocking images on display, but they keep reinforcing the subtext of the story, which is that people who think they've been wronged or who want something that they can't have are willing to stoop to any level at all in order to get what they want. The two apothecaries that Grandier kicks out of the plague sufferer's room, for example, go from being scabrous little nobodies to trusted allies of Cardinal Richelieu because they're willing to do what he wants them to do. Which means they end the movie cheering Grandier's death, dressed in finery and watching the execution from the magistrate's balcony-mounted viewing box. They have been literally elevated above the commoners who are also watching the death (and, pointedly, when the commoners start chanting "Judas!" at father Mignon, the higher-ups are not shown joining in).

Those two horrible opportunists are the story of the film in microcosm--all they do is hurt people and get things wrong, but if you can do that in the service of the powerful, there's a comfortable place that will be prepared for you while you watch your enemy suffer and die.

Talk about your horror stories. There's one for you now, and one that's sadly applicable any time there's a short-sighted angry person with his hands on the levers of political power.

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The Celluloid Zeroes celebrate the career of visionary director Ken Russell with the RussellMania event. The other participants taking part are:

Cinemasochist Apocalypse / Gothic

Micro-Brew Reviews / Altered States

The Terrible Claw Reviews / Lair of the White Worm

Tomb of Anubis / Louse of Usher

Web of the Big Damn Spider / The Boy Friend

2 comments:

  1. This may be my favorite of Russell's movies, though a large part of that goes to the performances. Oliver Reed is amazing, his transformation from a rather sleazy priest to a martyr is the cornerstone of the movie. And what a martyr he is! A martyr for truth.

    The worst part may be that this sort of thing surely happened at various times during the Middle Ages. The Knights Templar, the Albigensian Crusade, the Inquisition...

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  2. Yeah, I love that it's called THE DEVILS but every single character is all too human. I think Russell comes down hardest on the sleazy apothecaries for being opportunistic dicks and the crowds of laughing onlookers for enjoying the suffering in front of them. A fantastic movie, but one I can easily see pissing off people on every arc of the political spectrum.

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