Despite the BFI's recent success in securing a DVD release for the 'X' certificate cinema version, four decades on it's scandalous that there isn't a top quality DVD or Blu-ray director's cut available. That this film has languished, unwanted, on Warner's shelves for decades has surely hampered its reputation and rehabilitation.
I've been able to take or leave Ken Russell in the past. Here, his trademark over-the-top style doesn't hamper the subtle power of his screenplay; it heightens it. From Grandier duelling Trincant with a crocodile, to a humpbacked Sister Jeanne screaming "I'm beeaaaauutiful!" via Louis XIII sporting a fetching little shell bikini, the whole thing is dripping with camp but it's just part of what gives The Devils its perverse, spellbinding edge.
Despite the film's explicit and violent nature, for me much of its unsettling (and sexually charged) power is in Vanessa Redgrave's performance. Only ten minutes in I was already profoundly disturbed by the strength of her obsessive visions and her weird, sinister, almost coquettish demeanour. Like Redgrave, Oliver Reed gives a breathtaking performance. His Grandier is vain, grandstanding, shrewd, libidinous, hypocritical; but also strong, true and devout. Reed portrays this complex character so naturally and with such naked force he makes it look easy. A truly great screen performance.
From a supporting cast of some of the finest British character actors and Russell favourites, Dudley Sutton deserves special mention for his cheerfully devious Baron de Laubardemont, Grandier's nemesis. Also the late, lamented Michael Gothard for his utterly insane exorcist Father Barré, who looks like he's just walked offstage from playing with Jefferson Airplane.
Russell's direction is the star though - cranking up the conflict, the insane religious fervour and the pitch black comedy almost to breaking point then delivering a finale as moving as it is disturbing. A brooding, atonal score from Peter Maxwell Davies adds to the darkness and the whole thing takes place on the outrageous sets of Derek Jarman. The stark white of the convent and town square are memorable backdrops but best of all are the giant swing doors in Cardinal Richelieu's headquarters, adorned with a glittering red crucifix...
It's easy to see how The Devils has caused controversy in the past but accusations of blasphemy are far wide of the mark. Despite its withering scorn for organised religion this is the story of a man (albeit a flawed one) who refuses to renounce his faith, one of the only good things in a world rotten with evil and chicanery. And the religion in the film works as a metaphor for any kind of mass delusion. The citizens of Loudun (those who aren't in on the deception) are intent on deceiving themselves, accepting their status as political worms and willingly looking the other way while their liberty is stolen from them.
One of the towering achievements of British cinema.