The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

If Mother Joan of the Angels is an almost serene portrait of possession and adoration, Ken Russell’s The Devils is the frenzied and fevered religious vision of a mad man.  Gone are the bare and modest sets, the quiet introspection and restrained images of possession… The Devils is the portrait of an orgiastic satanic imprisonment. What is Satan? Satan is man, Satan is madness, Satan is monarchy, Satan is megalomania.  Jeanne’s (not Joan’s) possession is driven by desire, and her own ugliness. She is hunchbacked, but she has the “face of an angel”. She has no real apparent passion for Christ, she resentfully explains that her order is comprised of noble women whose families could not afford dowries or are simply too ugly to be married off appropriately… it is her intelligence that allows her to rise to the top of her order, and her swift talent with words constantly puts her in a position of power within the convent.

She has little, if any power in the outside world though. She seems aware of that, though she lures the outside in, because she is so clever and so wanting… her frustration and fury is overwhelming though, and her wanting overcomes logic. When her attempts to lure the beautiful Grandier into her world fail, she lashes out against him, unaware at the true consequences of her actions. As clever as she is, she is still sheltered and innocent. Her apparent monstrosity is a trick, for she is just a child.

The Devils insists on the humanity of it’s characters, as apparently wanton and lustful as Grandier is, his passions are not the work of evil, but of man. His lusts, though painted as disreputable, are not evil… they’re a testament to his weakness, but also to his love of life and God, as contradictory as it sounds. There is a moment though, when he asks for a young girl’s hand, and he tells her something… something about death, about her touching the dead. Is this an error in judgement? Or has he not been saved yet?

The Church and the government use Jeanne’s weakness, they see her desperation and frustration, and they indulge it… not as a gift, but as a means of destroying opposition, of destroying intelligence and destroying faith. Then, they torture her. The torture is barbaric, and you see the pain on her face and those of the sisters. Even though the sisters once mocked her, they understand her humanity and her femininity… they empathize with her pain, because they are human, just as she is. Their own rebellion against her pain, and then their imminent execution shows how helpless they all are. Their weakness is in their desire to live, which is not a weakness at all, it is an unfortunate need.

Who are the Devils in this film? The Cardinal? The Inquisition? The Torturers? I don’t think so… there are no Devils in this film, that’s what is so barbaric about it. All the evils and pains are sprung from man, just as the strengths and wisdom is. The film, as controversial, exploitive and barbaric as it may be… as apparently blasphemous as certain sequences are (the strange orgy around the crucified Christ), the film strangely enough, inspires a kind of respect in God. I can’t say I believe in God, though I believe that people believe, and I think it’s a beautiful idea. The strength that Grandier espouses is very human but it is not only his own. It is inspired by love, and in his case.. it’s the love of his wife, but as he understands his religion, all love comes from the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made. As terrible a priest he may have been, he does believe, and willingly dies for that belief.

I don’t know what to think of this film really. I find it fascinating, the performances are passionate… intense. Vanessa Redgrave is a presence that you can’t take your eyes off of her, she is beautiful, though they do disfigure her. You can believe that she could inspire adoration in spite of her humpback. The film is indulgent; the focus is not as heartfelt or heartbreaking as that of Mother Joan of the Angels… though I think that’s more in the tone than it is in the content. I wonder what this film could have been without Grandier’s wife. She does inspire Jeanne’s anger, which acts as a crucial catalyst in the film, but there could have been something incredibly potent in Grandier’s salvation through his love for this strange nun. They would have never had to meet or seen each other, her accusations could have remained the same, but in his own unforgiving promiscuity, a line like “Anything found in the desert of a frustrated life can bring hope. With hope comes love. With love comes hate. So I possess her. May God help her in her misery and unhappiness” (relating to Jeanne), could be far more nuanced and passionate…even, more ambiguous. I think, to not give him apparent salvation, even if it is through carnal love, could have made the film a touch more interesting, or perhaps I’m simply blinded by my adoration of nuns.

Review of Mother Joan of the Angels

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