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Devils, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Eagerly joins in with a piece of historical hysteria."
3 stars

There's a simple lesson to Ken Russell's "The Devils": Don't place too much power into the hands of any one person. It not only makes them dangerous, but it gives your community an obvious point of vulnerability. Russell shows this truth being spectacularly exploited - so spectacularly, in fact, that the audience may become overwhelmed by the grotesqueries used to illustrate the situation.

In Paris, Cardinal Richlieu (Christopher Logue) is cementing his power, but cannot convince the king to allow him to seize Loudon, a walled city in the south which acts with disturbing autonomy, sheltering Protestants among other things. The local head priest is also not to the Cardinal's liking - aside from being liberal, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) has very little use for his vows of chastity. The handsome Grandier is adored by the entire city, however, from the nuns in the convent to the man on the street. His behavior toward the fair sex is about to get him into trouble, though - he's just kicked a wealthy merchant's daughter out of his bed upon her becoming pregnant, secretly married the fair Madeline (Gemma Jones), and angered the convent's hunchbacked Sister Superior Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) by refusing to act as their spiritual advisor. Seeing an opportunity, the Cardinal dispatches a witchfinder, and while Grandier rides to Paris to confront the king about rumors the city will lose its autonomy, the visitors and everyone who bears any sort of a grudge against Grandier whip the city into a frenzy.

Russell establishes his world as capricious and bloodthirsty from the start, with the king using subjects brought to him by his retainers for archery practice while speaking with an undisturbed man of God. There is no flinching at torture, but after the torture is done, the nuns have a gigantic orgy in the middle of the church - after all, if they're under the beastly influence of a witch like Grandier, there's no guilt attached to doing whatever they will, and for the inquisitors, it serves to reinforce the idea that Gradier's influence is so terrible that he must be quickly tried and executed for what he's done. And for the townspeople, well, it's just good entertainment - Girls Gone Wild is centuries in the future, after all. I'm not sure exactly which cut of the film the Brattle obtained (over the years, various bits of The Devils have been excised to please various ratings boards), but even if it was the tamest (a relative term, of course), it was enough for me and then some. At a certain point, I was just like, I get it, the Church's representatives here are a bunch of hypocrites more anxious to gain power than fight sin, and the raucous laughter coming from the townspeople shows they're not much better. Since I'm not convinced that all of these nuns would throw their inhibitions to the winds, why don't we just skip back to the story before my suspension of disbelief has a problem.

It doesn't help that Oliver Reed is off-screen for a good chunk of that period. Even without his zing, the rest of the cast manages to hold their own. Redgrave has a wonderful madness to her, starting her obsession out as almost cute, but building it up to insane and monstrous, with smidgens of remorse added at just the right times. She's more interesting to watch than Gemma Jones, who is nice-looking enough and pleasant but never really gives us reason to believe that this woman is going to be the one that Grandier goes for to the exclusion of all others. And she doesn't get many interesting scenes with Michael Gothard, who plays the exorcist Father Barre with incredible zeal; there's a flat-out sadist lurking under his anachronistic haircut. There's no priestly reserve to him whatsoever, and he's one of the only actors in the movie that Oliver Reed doesn't completely blow off the screen.

Reed, you see, is absolutely phenomenal here. His Grandier is a right bastard at times, and a hypocrite even when he's at his most human and likeable, but he is likeable. A good chunk of that is animal charisma; he's a good-looking guy and carries himself with a confidence and swagger that young women of any period will find attractive. He has, by the time the film starts, made his peace with the areas where he falls short of the priestly ideal but remains a man of principle, his main principle being true to himself and others. Reed's performance is what makes us believe that a maverick priest who chases all the tail he can will stand up to the Inquisition, even if it means his own destruction.

And when Reed gets to get atop a high horse in the last act, the movie is rousing, even if his efforts appear to be futile. The political machinations that could bring about Loudon's fall, however, are far more interesting than the soap opera that gives Richlieu his opportunity. As brilliantly as this movie finishes, it sometimes meanders getting there. It also seems to require the perfect blend of dysfunction to come together; even if the film is based on a true story (filtered through a book by Aldous Huxley and a play by John Whiting), it feels like there are big leaps taken.

"The Devils" is far from dull - any dull parts are blotted out by bits that are more than lurid enough to compensate - but it's straining. Shifting some of the focus might have made me a lot more enthusiastic.

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originally posted: 06/15/06 15:26:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/28/15 stanley welles a beautifully disturbing film 5 stars
9/25/09 ROBYN ALEXIS ASTOUNDING, seen it 3x at the movies, check out FELLINIS SATYRICON 5 stars
10/16/06 JLRoberson To add to my review--I found an uncut widescreen DVD on Ebay, and my god, it's even better. 5 stars
8/11/05 Nancy Robinson Unbelievably well done 5 stars
8/08/05 jeanne Oliver Reed at his gorgeos, magnetic best - this was THE ROLE of his life. 5 stars
4/13/05 mdl A masterpiece - dazzling, flamboyant and unforgettable 5 stars
8/22/04 JLRoberson Truly great. AND WHERE'S MY DAMN DVD FOR THIS? WHERE, HOLLYWOOD? 5 stars
3/30/04 Ernesto Catalán Mercilessly Brilliant 5 stars
1/06/04 Louise Harris My God, I love Michael Gothard! 5 stars
12/26/03 Gianandrea enchanting 5 stars
10/03/03 haridam Poor Film 1 stars
10/02/03 Paul Hardy masterpiece 5 stars
7/16/03 Fred Brilliant. 5 stars
3/08/03 Claudio Catallo The best movie you can see 5 stars
1/24/03 james clarke compelling , haunting, fascinating. 5 stars
1/12/03 David Stech It's Oliver Reed at his best. Why he didnt win an oscar for it I'll never under stand. 5 stars
1/09/03 Carl Kamuti Oh My God!!! If you only see one film in your life it should be this one 5 stars
11/26/02 Paul Humphreys I was staggered and moved .... and its a true story! 5 stars
11/26/02 Keith Barnes The review says it all - see it! 5 stars
11/07/02 walter blount the truth as it was 5 stars
10/06/02 cvoptimus truly excellent, engaging, fascinating 5 stars
4/30/02 Jamie Bolton A dark, disturbing picture of the worst of religion 5 stars
3/12/02 stephen clark unpleasant, bizarre, different. 3 stars
2/17/02 Clarance Definitely not a fan...hell the Crow was better than this movie 1 stars
1/30/02 Andrew Carden Oliver Reed's High Point Of His Career. Very Scary and Almost Perfect. 5 stars
1/29/02 John Linton Roberson Oh yes. 5 stars
1/26/02 zol incroyable !!!! 5 stars
1/24/02 Elliot Those hot glass bubbles for plague! This movie is healing 5 stars
1/23/01 dave Underhill larry i dont think you quite got it did you?? an amazing movie and i beleive one of oli's b 5 stars
9/18/00 Antz Pure excess 2 stars
9/15/00 Walt Lockley incredible, excessive, disturbing, over the top, don't drop acid beforehand!!! 5 stars
1/13/00 Chrissy T Too good to pass up, Russell-ites! Oliver Reed is the sexiest! 5 stars
9/23/99 Suzanne Haunting film - I saw it a long time ago, and I need to again; the church sucks anyway. 5 stars
9/22/99 little jerry Yes,this IS the one,an opinion held by Russell himself.Please release original version. 5 stars
9/21/99 the Grinch "NOT the only KenRussell film you need to see:Altered States, Gothic, good review though! 5 stars
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  16-Jul-1971 (R)

  01-Jul-1971 (18)

  16-Jul-1971 (M)

Directed by
  Ken Russell

Written by
  Aldous Huxley
  Ken Russell

  Oliver Reed
  Vanessa Redgrave
  Dudley Sutton
  Max Adrian

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