Hurrah! The British Film Institute has just released the complete UK ‘X’-rated version of Ken Russell’s The Devils on DVD. It’s in its original aspect ratio of 2:35:1 and looks absolutely stunning. Derek Jarman’s sets are seen to the best effect, and the cast give all they’ve got to Ken’s extraordinary vision.
It’s forty years since the film was first released, and Russell had problems with both the studio (Warner Brothers) and the censors. For years, the only version that was available was a cut version of questionable technical quality in the wrong aspect ratio.
In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising that Russell had to fight to get his vision realised. Even after forty years, the mixture of religion, politics, sex (both sacred and profane) and violence is a heady brew, with more than a whiff of brimstone about it. As my favourite film critic, Mark Kermode, says, it is:
Russell’s greatest work. A fearsome, breathtaking masterpiece.
Despite the extravagance of Russell’s vision, the core facts of the story are historically true. His screenplay is based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, which documents the events of the time, and includes letters written by the protagonists. Wikipedia sums it up thus:
Urbain Grandier was a priest burned at the stake at Loudun, France on August 18, 1634. He was accused of seducing an entire convent of Ursuline nuns and of being in league with the devil. Grandier was probably too promiscuous and too insolent to his peers. He had antagonised the Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, when he rejected her offer to become the spiritual advisor to the convent. He faced an ecclesiastical tribunal and was acquitted.
It was only after he had publicly spoken against Cardinal Richelieu that a new trial was ordered by the Cardinal. He was tortured, found guilty and executed by being burnt alive but never admitted guilt.
I must get a copy of the book for myself.
I watched the DVD last night and what struck me was how little things change, the same religious and political struggles are still with us, as are those who are prepared to use them for their own ends.