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Sex, Politics and Religion: The making of Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’

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The great film director Ken Russell once remarked that if he had been born in Italy and called, say, “Russellini” then critics would have thrown bouquets at his feet. He was correct as Russell’s worst critics were generally slow-witted, myopic beasts, lacking in imagination and untrustworthy in their judgement.

Take for example the critic Alexander Walker who once dismissed Russell’s masterpiece The Devils as:

...the masturbatory fantasies of a Roman Catholic boyhood.

Walker was being petty and spiteful. He was also badly misinformed. Russell was not born a Catholic, he became one in his twenties and was lapsed by the time he made The Devils. More damningly, if Walker had taken a moment to make himself cognisant with Russell’s source material—a successful West End play by John Whiting commissioned by Sir Peter Hall for the Royal Shakespeare Company or its precursor the non-fiction book The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley—then he would have realised Russell’s film was based on historical fact and his so-called excesses were very tame compared to the recorded events. However, Walker’s waspish comments became his claim to fame—especially after he was royally slapped by Russell with a rolled-up copy of his review on a TV chat show in 1971—Russell later said he wished it had been an iron bar rather than a newspaper.
 
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Oliver Reed as Grandier and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne rehearse under the watchful eye of Ken Russell.
 
The Devils is the story of a priest named Urbain Grandier and his battle against the ambitions of Church and State to eradicate the independence of the French town of Loudon. In a bid to have this troublesome priest silenced, Grandier was tried for sorcery after a confession was brutally extracted from a nun, Sister Jeanne, who claimed he was an emissary of the Devil. Grandier was acquitted of all charges but a second show trial found him guilty and he was tortured and burnt at the stake. Russell described Grandier’s case as “the first well-documented political trial in history.”

There were others, of course, going back to Christ, but this had a particularly modern ring to it which appealed to me. He was also like many of my heroic characters…great despite himself. Most of the people in my films are taken by surprise, like [the dancer] Isadora Duncan and [the composer] Delius. They’re out of step with their times and their society, but nevertheless manage to produce rather extraordinary changes in attitude and events. This was exactly Grandier’s situation. He was a minor priest who was used as a fall guy in a political conflict, who lost his life and his battle but won the war.

After that they [the Church and State] couldn’t go on doing what they were doing in quite the same way, and around that time [1634] the Church did begin to lose its power. Twenty years later no one could have been burned as a witch in France. The people of Loudon realised too late that this man they knew so well simply couldn’t have been guilty of the things he was charged with, and if they hadn’t been so bemused by the naked nun sideshow that was going on and the business and prosperity it brought to the town, they’d have realised it sooner. So the fall guy achieved as much in the end as if he had been a saint. And to me that’s just what he is.

Though Russell was on a high after his international success with the Oscar-winning Women in Love (1969) starring Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Jennie Linden, and The Music Lovers (1970) a flamboyant biopic on the life of Tchaikovsky with Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson, he had found it difficult to find a backer for The Devils. Original producers United Artists pulled out, leaving Russell “out on a limb: having written a script and commissioned set designs from Derek Jarman and costume designs from Shirley Russell.

It would have been a disaster to scrap all that work. Bob Solo, the producer, who had spent years getting the rights to Huxley’s book and Whiting’s play started looking around for another backer, but it took four months of offering the package before Warner Brothers agreed to have a go.

Russell’s script was considered too long and cuts were made. He had originally made Sister Jeanne the focus of his story, following the nun through her involvement in Grandier’s execution to her career as a star:

I suppose it’s the film that turned out most like I wanted it to, though I would have liked to carry the story further to show what happened to [Cardinal] Richelieu and Sister Jeanne. At the end de Laubardemont says “You’re stuck in this convent for life”, but as soon as he’d gone Jeanne set about getting out because her brief moment of notoriety had whetted her appetite for more. So she gouged a couple of holes in her hands and pretended she had the stigmata, saw ‘visions’ and, with the help of Sister Agnes, gulled some old priest into thinking she was the greatest lady since the Virgin Mary.

So she and Agnes went on a jaunt all over France and were hailed with as much fervour as show biz personalities and pop stars are received today. In Paris 30,000 people assembled outside of her hotel just in the chance of getting a glimpse of her. She became very friendly with Richelieu, the King and Queen wined and dined her, she had a grand old time. When she died—I particularly wanted to include this scene—they cut off her head and put it in a glass casket and stuck it on the altar in her own convent. People came on their knees from miles around to pay her homage.

 
More from Ken Russell and ‘The Devils’ including special documentary, photospread and Oliver Reed interview, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
What a pact with the Devil (supposedly) looks like
04.09.2014
03:56 pm

Topics:
Amusing
Movies
Occult

Tags:
Satan
The Devils
Urbain Grandier

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Catholic priest Urbain Grandier was burned at the stake in 1634 for allegedly bewitching a convent full of nuns in the French town of Loudun. The accusation came about not because of what Grandier did, but rather because of what he didn’t do.

Grandier was a bit of a lad, a controversial churchman, who was known for having sexual relations with his female parishioners. He also questioned the validity of clerical celibacy and was often critical of the church and King Louis XIII. He was a bit of a “hip priest,” you might say with leanings towards the Left. However, all this was unimportant compared to the ire he inspired after ignoring the advances made to him by the horny Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, at the local Ursuline convent.

Sister Jeanne wanted Grandier for her own sexual gratification and hoped to snare the priest by offering him the position of spiritual director at the convent. When Grandier rejected Sister Jeanne’s advances, she planned his downfall. Sister Jeanne offered the position to Grandier’s rival and bitter enemy, Canon Mignon. Once appointed, Sister Jeanne and several other nuns accused Grandier of using Satan to send demons to seduce the convent.

After the nuns where brutally interrogated (described as being like “a rape in a public toilet”), Grandier was arrested, tortured and put on trial. However, he was acquitted.

On his release, Grandier made the mistake of attacking Cardinal Richelieu, who was King Louis XIII’s powerful First Minister. Richelieu ordered Grandier to be tried again, and although the nuns retracted or refused to give statements, new evidenced was “uncovered” and Grandier was again charged with witchcraft, tortured, and this time convicted and sentenced to death. It was a political decision, instigated by Richelieu to dispose of a troublesome and possibly dangerous priest.

During this second trial, the state prosecutor presented a document which was said to be proof of a pact between Grandier and the Devil.

The document was written sdrawkcab (backwards), sealed in blood, covered with various occult symbols, and signed by Grandier, a selection of demons, and Lucifer, himself:

We, the influential Lucifer, the young Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi, and Astaroth, together with others, have today accepted the covenant pact of Urbain Grandier, who is ours.

And him do we promise the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honors, lusts and powers.

He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him.

He offers us once in the year a seal of blood, under the feet he will trample the holy things of the church and he will ask us many questions; with this pact he will live twenty years happy on the earth of men, and will later join us to sin against God.

Bound in hell, in the council of demons.

Lucifer
Beelzebub
Satan
Astaroth
Leviathan
Elimi

The seals placed the Devil, the master, and the demons, princes of the lord.

Baalberith, writer.

You’d think if you were selling your soul to the Devil, you might ask for a “Get Out of Jail” card. But alas, poor old Grandier didn’t have that option, and died at the stake. But at least now we know what the Catholic Church believe a pact with the Devil looks like
 
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You may know this story if you’ve seen Ken Russell’s film The Devils, with Oliver Reed as Grandier, and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne; or read the book, upon which the film is based, The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley. If not, here’s the film’s trailer to tempt your very soul.
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Happy Birthday Oliver Reed

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Oliver Reed would have been 75-years-young today. Probably still making movies, entertaining audiences and no doubt fulfilling the needs of unimaginative TV commissioners by appearing, or pretending to be drunk on their tacky chat shows.

I think boredom inspired much of Reed’s bad behavior—it usually took less than 10 minutes of dumb questioning before Reed was playing-up as the resident drunk. It is still refreshing to find an olde interview with the great Hell Raiser, when he was having a night-off and talking (mainly) sense to his interrogator—here Michael Parkinson.

In interviews, Reed could still play the idiot savant (here making daft and knowingly offensive comments about intelligent women—who probably terrified him—Reed was dsylexic, and his own education had been piecemeal), if he had lost interest in the subject matter. Then reveal himself as someone who thought about what he was doing—notably here he discussed making The Devils with Ken Russell, which he tied directly into the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, where Religion had once again divided a country and set its people murderously against each other.

‘I’m still getting paid for that film. Neither Ken Russell or I got any money for that film [The Devils]. We got our expenses—but we made that film because we thought it was the proper time, and in light, maybe, of the Troubles in Ulster now, it was the proper time for that film to be made. We weren’t trying to afford anybody proper niceties, any proper little entertainments, little asides before tea, we were showing them the bigotry that goes on, or that humanity is capable of, and that was all we were doing….

....How many times have armies fought under the banner of Christianity, and how many lives have been destroyed? Let’s not have it again, please.’

The interview is from the Parkinson chat show in 1973, and amongst the guests are novelist Mickey Spillane and TV personality (famed for being on What’s My Line? in the 1950s, who sadly committed suicide after a shop-lifting charge in the 1980s). Throughout, Reed’s self-deprecating humor is evident and he did couple of funny impressions of Michael Winner and James Stewart. However, it’s still sad to think that such a naturally talented actor is no longer with us.

Happy Birthday Oliver Reed!
 

 
Bonus: the full interview with Oliver Reed, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Legendary Film Director Ken Russell has died

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The film director Ken Russell died peacefully in his sleep yesterday, he was 84. Russell was one of England’s greatest, most important and influential film directors, whose work revolutionized television and cinema. Russell will be remembered for his original TV docu-dramas, Elgar, The Debussy Film, Delius: The Song of Summer, and Dance of the Seven Veils, and for his cinematic work, Women in Love, The Devils, The Boyfriend, The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah, Mahler, the rock opera Tommy, Altered States, Gothic, Crimes of Passion, Lair of the White Worm, Salome’s Last Dance and The Rainbow.

The term genius is over-used these days to describe third-rate karaoke singers, but in its proper use, as a person of extraordinary intellect and talent, Ken Russell was a genius, and his films are without question some of the greatest cinematic works ever produced. As film writer Tim Lucas noted this morning:

I am reading that Ken Russell has died, and there is nothing else to do but damn the mediocrity that’s outlived him and be immensely grateful for all he gave us—in my case, many films that changed my way of seeing things, and a few that literally changed my life. There was no other film director like him, and we will not see his like again.

Born Henry Kenneth Alfred Russell in Southampton, England, on July 3 1927, to Ethel and Henry Russell. His father owned a shop and was distant and bad tempered, which led to the young Ken spending much of his childhood with his mother watching films in the local picture house. It was here that he saw Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, which inspired Russell towards film-making.
 

 
Ken Russell’s full obituary, after the jump…
 

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Rare screening of Ken Russell’s masterpiece ‘The Devils’ at London’s East End Festival

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Legendary film-director and British national treasure, Ken Russell will introduce one of his greatest and most controversial films The Devils on 1st May during the East End Film Festival at the Barbican in London.

The complete version of Russell’s infamous masterpiece arrives for its second ever UK screening. Breathtaking sets by Derek Jarman and Russell’s confrontational use of religious, sexual and violent imagery conjure a vision of damnation in 17th-century France.

Outspoken, promiscuous priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed Mother Superior (Vanessa Redgrave). As rumours of demonic possession spreads to the local nuns, Grandier’s resistance to the encroaching power of the state results in him being made the victim of a show trial in a climate of public hysteria.

Based on events documented in Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, this is a potentially once in a lifetime chance to see a lost, deeply disturbing British classic.

More details here.
 

 
Previously on DM

The Book, The Sculptor, His Life and Ken Russell


 
Bonus clip of Mark Kermode on Russell’s masterpiece, after the jump…
 

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Derek Jarman films Duggie Fields: Rare Footage

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Derek Jarman films artist Duggie Fields at home, in this rare Super-8 footage from 1975.

Jarman was an artist before he started his film career as a production designer on Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils. Jarman designed the now legendary, pristine white-tiled city of Loudon for the film. The design was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s description of the interrogation of the possessed nuns, taken from his novel The Devils of Loudon, as like “a rape in a public toilet.”

Working on The Devils proved a turning point for Jarman, as he discovered the medium through which to best express his artistic vision. From 1970 onwards, he experimented with a Super-8 camera, filming his friends in short home-made movies, which later provided him with a visual lexicon for his films.

At Home with artist Duggie Fields (1975) is more in the style of Kenneth Anger, than Russell, for as Jarman once told me:

I learnt how not to make films from Ken Russell; and how to make them from Kenneth Anger

 

 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Before The Devils: Bad-Boy Director Ken Russell Calls Down the Angels in 1958

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As the British New Wave of filmmaking took off in the late-‘50s, filmmaker Ken Russell went a slightly different route than his cinema-verite-obsessed colleagues with his 26-minute Amerlia and the Angel. Armed with a hefty £300 budget (half of it supplied by the British Film Institute), the 30-year-old newly married and converted Catholic director got Mercedes Quadros, the nine-year-old daughter of the Uruguayan ambassador to London to play Amelia for this imagistic religiously allegorical romp through the City.

Though silent like his previous two shorts, Amelia features spoken narration, which adds to its storybook quality. Russell submitted the film to the BBC, which hired him to make documentaries, and gave him the skills he’d need to eventually become the iconoclastic director of The Devils, Tommy, Altered States, Gothic, and Lair of the White Worm.

Michael Brooke at the BFI website notes:

Despite the film’s minuscule budget, there are numerous imaginative touches: the choreography of the angel ballet at the start (drawing on Russell’s own training as a dancer), the butterfly wallpaper mocking the loss of Amelia’s wings, the hand-held camera mimicking a child’s eye view of the crowded streets, the almost Expressionist treatment of Amelia’s ascent of the stairs (including a surreal shot that initially appears as an empty dress descending of its own accord), and the ascent of the artist into the heavens on a ladder (against a backdrop of painted clouds) before descending with the precious wings.

 

See Part II and more after the jump!
 

Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment