In the small commune of Loudun, France, in 1634, accusations from the local nuns against the ruling priest Father Grandier of having possessed them led to the clergyman’s execution, but in the years since his burning at the stake, historians have claimed that the entire scandal had been a politically-motivated ploy against Grandier in order to remove the priest from his position in the community. Mother Superior Jeanne des Anges had been the first to insinuate that Grandier had somehow possessed her, and that the powers-that-be exploited these claims as an excuse to expel Grandier from his post as they had intended.
The story of Loudun and Grandier’s so-called possessions of the nuns would inspire and fascinate artists and historians for centuries to come, with its themes of corruption between the church and state becoming a central theme in many religious tales. In 1971, having gained notoriety of his own as a director of BBC documentaries and the controversial 1969 picture Women in Love, British filmmaker Ken Russell chose to adapt the legend of Grandier into a sexually explicit feature entitled The Devils.
Russell was not the first artist to explore the scandal that shook the community of Loudun over three-hundred years earlier. English author Aldous Huxley, best known for his iconic science fiction novel Brave New World, had first discovered the story of Grandier within the pages of Jules Michelet’s text La Sorcière and the writings of Jean-Joseph Surin – who had been present during the supposed ‘exorcisms’ in Loudun – many years earlier. Huxley’s account of the story, published in 1952 as The Devils of Loudun, would in turn inspire playwright John Whiting, whose swan song would be the stage adaptation The Devils in 1961.
The first motion picture to take inspiration from Grandier’s supposed crimes was Matka Joanna od Aniołów (Mother Joan of the Angels), a Polish drama from Jerzy Kawalerowicz that made its debut the same year as Whiting’s play, although many of the character names were changed. Russell, whose introduction to the Loudun possession had come from Huxley’s exhaustive research, was equally fascinated with the tale and set about adapting it into a screenplay.
Both Huxley and Whiting had been dead eight years by the time The Devils was released to much controversy in Great Britain. The key theme in Russell’s screenplay and the aspect that interested him the most from the case was how the accusations levelled at Grandier had been political and that his execution was little more than murder, while the supposedly virtuous nuns had been easily led astray and had even revelled in the hysteria caused by their claims.
The Devils was not the first movie to feature possession or sexual exploration in a convent, but it would certainly push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable onscreen. Inspired by Huxley’s book, Russell commenced work on the screenplay for what would become The Devils, writing an initial draft in three weeks while listening continuously to a recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel, the composer’s adaptation of a novel by Valery Bryusov, which depicted possession in a convent.
After constant fighting among the Catholics and Protestants of Loudun, Governor Georges de Sainte Marthe had succeeded in bringing about peace among the community, but his death from the plague had brought Father Urbain Grandier to power. The nuns at the local convent lust over their new leader, none more so than their Reverend Mother, Sister Jeanne. ‘Satan is ever-ready to seduce us with sensual delights,’ she warns her followers, but her own feelings towards Grandier are perverse and forbidden. Monsieur Trincant, the commune’s magistrate, vows revenge against the priest for defiling his daughter, Philippe, who claims to be pregnant.
After her mother has perished from the plague, Madeline De Brou approaches Sister Jeanne and offers to give her life to the lord, but following the Reverend Mother’s hostility towards her, she asks for guidance from Grandier, the man who had tried to save her mother’s life. Unable to hide her feelings for him any longer, Madeline reveals the truth to Grandier during confession, which forces the priest to accept his own love towards her.
The first step taking towards removing Grandier is the arrival Baron de Laubardemont, who has instructions to begin demolition of the community for fear of a rebellion from the Protestants. Grandier demands to know on whose authority these orders are to be acted out and presents papers to show that he is now the rightful ruler of the city before ordering his troops to draw their weapons on the Baron and his men, forcing them to cease their destruction of the city walls until they can present official papers.
Meanwhile, the corrupt Cardinal Richelieu tries to convince King Louis XIII that the small communities in France should not have the right to govern themselves and so their walls should be torn down so they are no longer independent. ‘Such men, sire, have little vision,’ he advises, ‘Their loyalties are to their cities, not to France.’ In the hope of saving his city, Grandier makes a statement to his citizens, advising that they should contact their king and declare their loyalty to him before Richelieu’s quest for power succeeds in destroying their freedom. And despite Louis XIII having promised the late governor that he would not tear down his city, Richelieu is determined for the government to seize control of all communities within France.
Knowing that without Loudun he will never gain control of the southwest region of France, Richelieu obsesses over destroying Grandier by crushing his pride and his spirit. Sister Jeanne writes a letter to Grandier requesting that he become the convent’s spiritual advisor before masturbating while lusting over thoughts of him, unaware that he has wed Madeline in secret. After hearing the news the Reverend Mother is crushed and lashes out in anger at Madeline, spiting and biting her while declaring the young woman to be a ‘whore, strumpet, hypocrite!’
After being advised that their new spiritual advisor has arrived, Sister Jeanne believes it to be Grandier and rushes out to greet him, only to be confronted by Father Mignon. Angry and devastated that she has once again been abandoned by the priest, she tells Mignon that Grandier ‘enters my bed at night and takes from me that which is consecrated to my divine bridegroom, Jesus Christ.’ Horrified by her accusations against Grandier, Mignon informs both Monsieur Trincant and Baron de Laubardemont of her claims, allowing the Baron to launch an investigation against the priest.
Oliver Reed’s restrained performance as Grandier is often hailed as one of his finest and certainly the pinnacle of his frequent collaborations with Russell. Following Having first worked together on the small screen in the mid-1960s, Reed and Russell encountered controversy with Women in Love in 1969, in which Reed would wrestle naked with co-star Alan Bates. Vanessa Redgrave, the daughter of renowned character actor Michael Redgrave, took the equally-challenging role of Sister Jeanne, while the parts of the Baron and Richelieu were taken by Dudley Sutton and poet Christopher Logue, respectively.
Convinced that they require the assistance of a professional witch hunter, he summons for Father Barre, an eccentric and somewhat dubious exorcist who meets with Sister Jeanne to examine her case. Threatening with ‘eternal damnation’ if she does not provide sufficient information on her possession at the hands of the priest, Barre performs an exorcism on the Reverend Mother in front of an enthusiastic crowd, something that Huxley had described in his book as being ‘equivalent to rape in a public lavatory.’
Convinced that the demonic possession has been expelled from Sister Jeanne, she confesses to the Baron that the man responsible was Father Grandier of St Peter’s Church. After saving the other nuns from execution at the hands of the Baron, Father Barre claims that the women are infected with the same evil as the Reverend Mother and that to be saved they must first ‘denounce their devilish master, Grandier.’ In order to expel the evil within, the nuns remove their gowns and parade their naked flesh as Barre oversees their salvation.
Louis XIII arrives during the orgy to observe the progress of Barre, to which he finds nuns overpowering the men and even one masturbating a church candle. Grandier returns to find the nuns desecrating the house of God, accusing the Baron of seducing the people ‘in order to destroy them.’ Sister Jeanne tries to condemn him in front of the crowd for his alignment with the Devil but he denies her claims; regardless, he is arrested and charged with heresy.
Plagued by guilt, Sister Jeanne confesses to Father Mignon that she has accused an innocent man, but Barre dismisses her claims, stating that her exorcism has failed. Grandier is placed on trial, with the Baron acting as the prosecutor, referencing the priest’s speech against Richelieu and also his sexual shenanigans with a variety of local women, including his so-called ‘mock’ marriage. As he awaits his sentence Grandier’s head and face are shaved, before the judge declares that he is to be burnt alive at the stake for his crimes.
Barre tries to torture a confession from Grandier but he refuses to submit, even as the Baron advises him to face judgement with a clean conscience. Taken to the marketplace, Grandier is forced to face the women he has allegedly wronged and is then tied to a stake a fire ignited beneath him. As he is engulfed by the flames, Monsieur Trincant holds up a newborn baby and cries ‘See how your mother’s honour was avenged.’
While some thought was given to shooting The Devils on location in France, principal photography took place at Pinewood, with the impressive sets designed by a young artist called Derek Jarman who, just five years later, would launch his own filmmaking career with Sebastiane. The Devils would become notorious for the orgy sequence, in which nuns were seen to be defiling a statue of Jesus, resulting in critics often refereeing to the scene as the ‘rape of Christ.’
The movie would be submitted to the British Board of Film Censors on numerous occasions throughout the first half of 1971, eventually receiving an X certificate on 19 May, four months after Russell had first sent an incomplete cut of the picture to John Trevelyan, then the head of BBFC. The graphic nudity and sexuality, coupled with the religious themes, were understandably a cause for concern among the examiners of the board, but after Russell made compromises and resubmitted the movie The Devils was finally released upon an unsuspecting world.
Critical response to the film was mixed to say the least. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times awarded the movie zero stars, in which he commented that ‘We are filled with righteous indignation as we bear witness to the violation of the helpless nuns.’ Vincent Canby of the New York Times was as equally unimpressed; ‘It’s a see-through movie composed of a lot of clanking, silly, melodramatic effects that, like rib-tickling, exhaust you without providing particular pleasure, to say nothing of enlightenment.’
British critic Mark Kermode has spent the last decade praising the movie as one of the finest post-war films to be produced in its native country. ‘As for The Devils,’ he said in the liner notes of the BFI DVD, ‘it remains a genuinely breathtaking work, the jewel in the crown of Russell’s magnificent career; a film which was ahead of its time forty years ago, and which (like its creator) never lost the power to enthral and enrage in equal measures.’
While its legacy would continue to build over the years, perhaps its greatest impact was on the exploitation film scene of the 1970s, particularly in Italy. Following its success, a slew of imitators were produced that would revel in their mixture of sex and religion, many of which were dubbed by critics as ‘nunsploitation.’
Among these were Le Monache di Sant’Arcangelo (The Nun and the Devil) and Le scomunicate di San Valentino (The Sunful Nuns of Saint Valentine), both released in 1973, and Giulio Berruti’s 1979 drama Suor Omicidi, which was labelled as a ‘video nasty’ in the United Kingdom during the 1980s under the alternative title Killer Nun.
‘Rebellion against the decades of repression via the church spilled out on theatre screens throughout the world,’ claimed author Danny Shipka in his analysis The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France, 1960-1980, and it was Ken Russell and The Devils that paved the way for this new type of excessive cinema.