Let’s Scare Jenn to Death – The Devils (1971)
(By Guest Writer James Olchak)
Welcome back to Let’s Scare Jenn to Death, a horror film-appreciation and review project, where I, James Olchak (a passionate fan of horror), subject my pal Jenn Martinelli (a fan of real-world murder and atrocity who finds horror movies icky) to a diverse selection of horror films in an effort to expose her to the best, the most underrated, or the most thought-provoking examples of the genre I can think of. Oh, and I’m trying to scare her to death.
This month, we’re delving into supposedly true-life horror, a genre that’s going through a low-rent renaissance in recent years, with films like The Conjuring series (2013-present), which follows the zazzed-up adventurers of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of professional hucksters who used superstition and lies to create a late-20th-century empire built on their supposed spirit wrangling abilities. The film we’re watching gives the audience an idea of how much more successful the Warrens could have been if they’d operated in the 17th century, instead of the 20th. Let’s begin!
OVERVIEW: The Devils (1971)
The Devils is a 1971 “historical drama,” which means, as the title card explains, many of the events depicted are true, backed up with as much historical documentation as is reasonable to expect for events occurring so long ago. Occasionally, I’ll be doing History Asides™ to point out where the nightmare-fueled world of The Devils (1971) bumps up against the nightmare-fueled world of Catholic-dominated France (1634).
The director of The Devils is auteur Ken Russell, who is apparently renowned for his provocative and flamboyant style of filmmaking. I’ve only seen a couple of his films (I’ll mention the other in closing), so I can’t deliver any sort of perspective on his career as a whole, but The Devils definitely clicks those boxes (provocative and flamboyant) in satisfying fashion. It may be a “historical drama,” but the events depicted are shot through a prism of histrionic madness. This film is a horror, and the monster is lies.
The Devils tells the story of Loudun, a fortified town in western France in 1624, where the Catholic Church is concerned Protestant citizens could foment rebellion. Cardinal Richelieu (played with sneering pragmatism by Christopher Logue) wants to destroy the town’s fortifications (in preparation for future campaigns to wipe out Protestant influence in France), but needs King Louis XIII’s edict to do so. Meanwhile, the town’s governor has died, leaving temporary control of Loudun’s operations to Father Urbain Grandier (portrayed by lusty drunk thespian Oliver Reed, never better), a Catholic priest who vigilantly defends Loudun (Catholic and Protestant alike) against Richelieu’s scheme.
Unfortunately, Fr. Grandier has a knack for making enemies of people, sometimes without so much as meeting them. At the beginning of our film, our protagonist callously abandons pregnant lover Phillipe Trincant (played with tragic venom by Georgina Hale, under a thick layer of ghoulish makeup), leading her honor-defending father Louis to attack him in a futile duel. Simultaneously, his reputation as a sexy (and emphatically non-chaste) priest leads to the Mother Superior of the local Ursuline convent (Sister Jeanne, played with icy cruelty and pathos by Vanessa Redgrave) developing a sadomasochistic sexual obsession with him. Shortly thereafter, he thwarts Baron de Laubardemont (played as ruthless vulture capitalist by British character treasure Dudley Sutton) from destroying Loudun’s fortifications without authority, humiliating him publicly in the process.
History Aside™: Grandier was a real dude, and his proclivities were well documented. He wrote scathing criticisms of Cardinal Richelieu, and book-length rebukes of the church’s insistence on celibacy among the priesthood.
Joined together by economic control of Loudun, religious control of Loudun, and sexual control of Grandier, this discretely motivated cabal of enemies sets out to destroy the otherwise beloved and devout priest. The events that follow spiral into grotesquerie, pandemonium, and eventual martyrdom.
So Jenn, Let’s get started, and find out how close The Devils pushed you towards death’s door. Let’s start by discussing the title and the movie’s theme. Much like Possession (1981), which we examined earlier this year the title “the Devils” suggests diabolical influence, and the film is largely about the themes of demonic possession, but it’s not really about the traditional sort of devilish possession story. Does that make it better or worse for the characters? Would a clear suggestion of actual demonic influence on these hateful and tragic people make any of what happens in the film feel more…justified?
No, because I don’t believe in devils or possessions, so just regular old “people being terrible” is much easier for me to accept and follow.
Let’s talk about Olly Reed as Grandier. Is he a good person? Obviously, his callow treatment of Phillipe (a girl he was meant to be tutoring in Latin, not boning) isn’t, but at no point does he attempt to lie about it or shift blame. Is his solution to her pregnancy (tell your father the truth, and get him to set you up with a husband so your son can be raised without the stigma of being a bastard) the best suggestion available in 1634? Aside from this clear ethical lapse, Grandier seems to be devoted to his duties as priest and interim governor of Loudun, and his removal leads to the town’s destruction. What’s the takeaway from his being targeted and broken in such a thorough way?
He’s not a good person because of how awful he is to Phillipe but other than that, I would allow that he’s a mostly ok person, especially for the time, I suppose, and if I’m willing to overlook his Catholicism which is a big challenge for me since I hate Catholicism. His suggestion for her is probably the best available option in 1634 I suppose. Although maybe he could have found her a midwife to give her some herbs to help her miscarry. Maybe she doesn’t want his stupid bastard baby and the possible life-threatening birth because 1634 wasn’t a great time for having healthy babies.
I guess the takeaway is when a bunch of bad dudes get together to do bad stuff and they all have their own separate bad reason, then that’s gonna not turn out well for the people they’re targeting. And also maybe, if things are going well just leave it be. Like sure the dude was breaking church laws but the town loved him and everyone in the town was getting along right? What was the problem? Leave them be.
While Oliver Reed’s Urbain Grandier is the ostensible protagonist of the film, it seems that we spend more time in the presence and mindset of Sister Jeanne of the Angels, the hunchbacked nun played by Vanessa Redgrave. Unlike Grandier, Jeanne holds no real love of the church, describing the cloister as a place where women too ugly or too poor to be married off by their families are abandoned. After seeing Grandier in a funeral procession, Jeanne is beset by orgasmic visions of him, at one point accidentally driving a crucifix into her hand due to their intensity (In a scene which combines and conflates stigmata and sexual penetration, as well as referencing Christian classical art imagery). Can we blame Jeanne for getting caught up in machinations to destroy Grandier, when the closest she came to a spiritual awakening was seeing him on the street? Is Jeanne a victim or a monster?
Well. Again, Catholicism. Let’s try to pretend I don’t hate it for a minute. Then I just have to look at the fact that this woman is a woman in 1634 and so there is a limit to how many choices she has and how much power she can wield. I can’t blame her for fantasizing about things I guess, and I can never fault a woman for trying to destroy a dude, especially a powerful one. However, she of course has no love for the church, the nuns she’s supposed to be caring for, or the town, so mostly she’s not a great person. She’s a victim of her times but she’s not working with a good starting foundation because she’s kind of just a general jerk. You don’t have to be an asshole just because the world is shitting on you.
Diverting from the narrative for a moment, what did you think of the imagery of the film? There’s a lot of striking visuals, but thought the sterile white brick of the cloister (and the fortifications) was particularly affecting and claustrophobia-inducing, and likely a purely artistic conceit by the set designer. But modern photographs of Loudun depict similar historical architecture, which I think makes it work even better:
I actually am surprised by the white stone. As we were watching, BNev and I were like “WTF is this? There’s no white brick in 1600s France. What’s going on here?” Well I stand corrected to some degree. However, this is stone, and in the movie I believe it was literally manufactured brick and unnaturally white. There was also black mortar? We kept saying it looked like Xanadu because it looked bizarrely 70s-futuristic like maybe someone was going to bust out of a hallway in roller skates and hot pants any minute. We were massively confused by the whole thing. I don’t know that Xanadu is the right characterization but what we mean really is 70s.
Let’s just put it this way – my condo has a brick wall and it’s red brick with black mortar. When I moved in I hated the mortar so much that I spent a couple of years trying to cover just the mortar then tried to figure out if I could have it removed and re-pointed. In the end I just whitewashed the whole wall in its entirety. Nobody likes black mortar, folks. Nobody.
I also love that Sr. Jeanne is invariably framed through the bars of her cloister, depicting her sardonically bearing up under her religious isolation. Until her “exorcism” begins, every scene inside the cloister makes it clear that it is a literal prison:
Accurate, because it is. It is quite striking, seeing her peering through the bars.
Even Christ on the cross is overlaid with the shadows of prison bars. Is there anything especially affecting you noticed in the imagery of The Devils?
I think the most striking visuals were the cloister and the bars and the bizarre architecture of the city walls. Also Phillipe’s makeup.
I mean honestly now I want to say ten more things. The bizarre nature of the “play” near the beginning of the movie, the way the King and other people were dressed and made-up. Truly strange. We couldn’t figure out if it was supposed to be a modern (for the time – 1970s) take on it or “historically accurate.”
The main criticism about The Devils historical bona-fides is in director Ken Russell’s portrayal of King Louis XIII as an “effeminate homosexual who amuses himself by shooting Protestants dressed up as birds,” but I don’t know if the portrayal is similar in the Aldous Huxley book that the film was based on. I think it’s fair to assume it’s not historically accurate. Stuff like Phillipe’s goth lipstick and Barré’s Janis Joplin sunglasses are probably also not accurate to 1634.
Back to the narrative, after Grandier marries the newly-orphaned Madeleine De Brou, his actions stoke a rage within Sister Jeanne, who first castigates De Brou as a “priest-seducing whore,” then (disappointed that Grandier sent the rat-like and meek Fr. Mignon to be the convent’s confessor), confesses that she has had visions of Grandier slipping into her quarters like an incubus to seduce her. When news of Fr. Grandier’s secret wedding and Sr. Jeanne’s accusation reach Cardinal Richelieu, he dispatches a “Witch Hunter,” Fr. Barré, who subsequently interviews Sr. Jeanne, declares her to be possessed, then tortures her with barbaric “rituals.” This is where the movie takes a turn into some really repellent content (and starts to be a horror movie). In order to “prove” that a demon has despoiled Jeanne (using witchcraft) Barré has Jeanne roughly examined by Loudun’s quack surgeon and apothecary (both skeevy, nauseating characters). The apothecary, with blood-stained hands, reveals that Jeanne has been “had” by Grandier, and the assembled group then begin an “exorcism” on Jeanne’s privates using boiling water(?) irrigations.
Yeah this whole sequence was a bunch of NO THANK YOU for me. It really dips into torture porn, which I hate.
History Aside™: I can’t find any evidence that the apothecary’s equipment is historically accurate, but since equally perverse devices were in use during the Spanish inquisition (which was 156 years old at the time when The Devils takes place, and would continue for another 200) and the devices used on Grandier later in the story were historically accurate, I’m going to go with “seems likely.”
Oh yeah I’d be zero percent surprised if they were accurate.
Anyway, Sr. Jeanne, a nun, is being sexually assaulted by agents of the Catholic church (her church!) to gain a false accusation against Grandier, a priest (a Catholic Priest!) so that profiteers can more efficiently exploit Loudun, so that the Catholic church can more easily carry out sectarian violence against the Protestants (whom the Catholic church has currently committed to peace with), and so Laubardemont, Louis Trincant, and the two quacks can carry out petty revenge against Grandier. This is all pretty dense, plot-wise, and up until this point in the film, the evil committed has largely been ideological. Does the film go too far in depicting Jeanne’s exorcism? Can the film be fairly categorized as “torture porn,” especially as the inquisitorial savagery against Jeanne and Grandier escalates until the film’s conclusion?
Well there you have it. I think so, yes. It is not necessary actually to show it. We don’t need to see the horrors to understand them.
I think I’m more okay with historical torture porn, in that representatives of the Catholic church really did this depraved shit to human beings, and did it to really a lot of human beings for really an unacceptably long period of time. This movie came right on the heels of the Second Vatican Council (or “Vatican II: Ecumenical Boogaloo, as it’s sometimes known), where the Pope was trying to reinvent Catholicism in the eyes of the world, hoping to reconnect the lumbering behemoth of monetized sin to its parishioners, and help get younger people back in the pews, as it were. So as a counterpoint to that kind of cynical “hey kids, we’re not your stuffy old grandpa’s church!” move by the papacy, I appreciate a bit of explicitness regarding what Catholicism did during the pre-Vatican II period when they had all the power in the world. I feel like it has more purpose than, like, Saw 4 or whatever.
I am OK with showing torture for this reason and I guess OK with it overall for this movie as they also show Grandier’s torture? But overall it’s hard for me to separate the fact that for women torture always includes rape. Like, it feels like someone somewhere is enjoying watching it and that just doesn’t need to happen. We could have it explained or alluded to without seeing it.
After Jeanne’s extracted accusation, Fr. Barré accuses the remainder of the Ursuline sisters of heresy, and prepares to execute them, as a means of inducting them into the conspiracy against Fr. Grandier. Faced with a choice between “execution” and “acting like debased, demonic sorority girls,” the nuns go all-in on the latter.
History Aside™: History is divided on the chicken-or-egg question as to whether the Ursuline nuns began suffering these fits as a sort of mass hysteria, with the nuns following the lead of a legitimately disturbed Sr. Jeanne (and Fr.s Mignon and Barré simply took advantage of the “possessions” to fuel their scheme to remove Grandier), or that Mignon pitched the idea to Sr. Jeanne and the whole thing was made up specifically to destroy Grandier.
None of this is making me want to convert to Catholicism!
Anyway, the Ursuline nuns are driven into a orgiastic frenzy by Barré (played with an anachronistic 60’s cult leader vibe by Michael Gothard), defiling the altar (and the crucifix, in the uncut version of the film). His attempts to “exorcise” the demons possessing them pretty much consists of him writhing around in the midst of the nude nuns, to the amusement of the slack-jawed yokels who have come to Loudun to witness the pandemonium. King Louis XIII shows up “incognito” with a purported holy relic which Barré affirms will set the demons to fleeing, at least temporarily. On cue, the Ursulines suffer the effects of the holy item:
Such good actresses, these nuns.
Only for King Louis to reveal that the relic (and thus, the possession) is a fraud. Which has no effect whatsoever on the momentum of the plot against Grandier! Louis even tells the “possessed” Ursulines to ‘have fun’ as he departs! What is the point of this scene? Is it just so the king can point out that he’s not fooled by Barré (and Richelieu’s) machinations, but is willing to let it play out? That lies are way stronger than truth?
Sadly I do not know, I honestly was having a very hard time following at this point. I don’t think I caught all of this necessarily. I just remember shrugging and saying “what?” a lot.
Grandier, in a staggering display of bad judgement (even worse than knocking up a mime-faced student) returns to Loudun to face the charges against him, rather than fleeing to the safety of…somewhere else. He’s defiant in the face of Barré’s “circus:”
Yeah that’s a real bad call, dude. I definitely did not understand that. I mean, I have been having a lot of “but this should be a certain way” moments lately and I can understand the desire to clear your name or win the battle but you should know better, honestly. Just go be somewhere safe with your strange shag-haircut having wife you weird French priest.
And he legit seems to have a chance to turn the situation around in the eyes of Loudon’s citizenry, until Sr. Jeanne (Whom he has never so much as seen!) doubles down on her accusations. I feel like this sequence has even more resonance in 2018 than it did in 1971, because Grandier’s fate completely rests in the hands of completely anonymous forces. He’s never met Sr. Jeanne, but more importantly, the crowds of demon-watching tourists crowding Loudun are far more invested in the entertainment value of the spectacle of the possessions, the exorcisms, Grandier’s trial, and his assumed execution then they are in his innocence or guilt (or the fate of Loudun itself), whose security and independence will be destroyed along with Grandier. Are the Loudun rubberneckers the 1634 equivalent of Twitter trolls?
Yes. It’s bread and circus. That’s a perfect comparison.
Grandier is examined by the surgeon and apothecary, who probe for the bloodless “devil marks” on his body, using needles to pierce his tongue, and ignoring the flood of red that issues forth, providing a parallel to Sr. Jeanne’s violation earlier in the film. It’s hard to say what Sr. Jeanne’s goal was in any of her actions, but given her masochistic predilections, was her goal to somehow share her bodily degradation with the object of her obsession, in order to create a kind of closeness with Grandier she was otherwise unable to achieve?
Maybe? Or maybe the movie was just made by a bunch of creepy men who wanted to make torture porn.
Yes, what was this? Such disturbing imagery!
History Aside™: It’s worth noting that in reality, the physician and apothecary who examined Grandier said the exact opposite, that no such marks existed. As with every other piece of exculpatory evidence in Grandier’s persecution, this was ignored. Fun fact, here’s the actual document that purports to be the contract Grandier signed to a host of famous devils of filmland, including Satan, Leviathan, and Dee Snider:
WHAT? Please explain.
Well, not Dee Snider. But yeah, this is the real document that was used at the real Grandier’s trial. Whether Grandier signed it under torture or it was completely forged is unknown. But thanks for saving evidence of your witch hunt, French Catholics!
Dear Catholics: overall, you just are never helping yourselves, are you? Yikes.
After the examination, Laubardemont makes it clear to Grandier that his trial is a farce and his fate is to be burned at the stake as a heretic. Unfortunately, this will have to wait until after he is subjected to the “extraordinary question,” a series of tortures designed to elicit a confession from heretics that was frequently fatal (and thus only used against sinners already slated for execution). Meanwhile, Sr. Jeanne, plagued by regret, recants her accusations in private, and is “correctively” raped by Fr. Barré. There are no winners in Loudun. Grandier refuses to confess, even after Laubardemont tells him that the King has recanted on his promise to protect Loudun’s fortifications, and Grandier’s inevitable martyrdom can only weaken the church that he serves. As a commentary on religion, Grandier’s refusal can be read as an affirmation of the Catholic faith (Grandier: “I am about to meet the God who is my witness! And I have spoken the truth!”) or a decrial of it (Laubardemont: “Confess, and by confessing, proclaim to those thousands that you have returned to the Church’s arms. By going to the stake unrepentant, you do God a disservice, you give hope to unbelievers. Such an act can mine the very foundations of the Church.”). But both sides are representing the same church! Which do you think is the overall message?
If you’re asking what the intention of the director is I can only guess. If you’re asking my personal interpretation of which is correct, since Catholics are supposed to be Christians, and Christians are supposed to follow the second testament part of the bible and not the first testament part, I have to believe that Grandier is right – anyway didn’t Jesus die for everyone’s sins? If he even made any? And where in the second testament does it say priests can’t have sex? What was his sin exactly? Arguing with the government? So what? If one were to follow the actual spirit of this Jesus dude he wouldn’t give a single eff about that.
After Grandier’s execution, the fortifications are instantly destroyed, and Loudun is abandoned by the jeering crowd, giving the place a post-Coachella sort of vibe. Mignon is committed to an asylum, Barré moves on to another witch hunt, and Laubardemont tells Jeanne that her usefulness is at an end. Loudun will become a ghost town, and the Ursulines will be abandoned to their lonely fates. Laubardemont callously tosses Jeanne a burnt fragment of Grandier’s femur as a souvenir, and leaves. Is this the fate Sr. Jeanne deserves?
The closest we get to a happy ending is seeing Grandier’s widow wandering the streets of the desolated Loudun before escaping through the destroyed fortification to a road lined with catherine wheels bearing the bodies of executed Protestants. She’s the final girl of this bloodbath!
I mean…….. She’s alive at least? Sr. Jeanne I mean. I don’t know how her life could really go from here that would be any better than leave her to her own devices? I don’t really have much sympathy for her. I feel like I should but I kind of don’t.
CAUSE OF DEATH
Now that you’ve successfully and frustratingly endured the inquisitorial tortures that The Devils had to offer, It’s time for you to quantify how near death you are. On a scale of one-to-five severed Acadia heads, describe how well the film inflicted the horror movie virtues of dread, shock, and horror?
I would not say that this movie is very slow to build to horror, it’s pretty horrific right from the start, so I don’t know that I could say it really used dread very effectively at all. 0/5
Well there was a lot that was shocking in this movie, from the unnerving sets to the extremely overwrought acting to the torture and the horrible lives of the people and you know, the plague and whatnot. All pretty awful and shocking. 5/5?
Well there was also a lot of horror, basically right from the start also? If we’re talking about things just feeling… wrong. That was pretty much everything that happened from start to finish. 5/5
Okay, Jenn, it’s time to put up a tombstone over The Devils (1971). Now that you’ve watched a true-ish story about corrupt priests, corruptible nuns, even more corrupt priests, boiling holy water enemas, really truly corrupt priests, and so much torture, what do you think you’ll remember most about it?
The black mortar.
I mentioned in my opening statements that I had seen one other Ken Russell film, and that film is 1980’s Altered States. It’s a mostly-forgotten piece of Sci-Fi ephemera that’s more notable for having inspired the look of the infinitely better-known A-Ha music video for “Take On Me.”
Altered States is a story about Edward Jessup (Played by the bolt-solid William Hurt), a psychological researcher studying altered states of consciousness using sensory deprivation. After going on a sort of vision quest with the help of a South American shaman and loads of psychedelic drugs, he achieves a breakthrough, successfully causing his body to regress to earlier evolutionary forms. He eventually loses control of these transformations and his wife and fellow researcher (the incandescent Blair Brown) has to drag him back to reality.
Altered States isn’t a classic, but it’s a charming low-stakes Sci-Fi potboiler, and most importantly, is filled with unique and bizarre visual effects, and the story is weird enough to draw you in, even if you’re not exactly rapt. It’s also not nearly as much of a downer as The Devils, so if you liked Ken Russell’s visual palette, give it a shot.