Essays · Movies

The Devils: Sex, Hysteria and Censorship

Assessing the legacy of Ken Russell’s masterpiece 45 years later.
Devils Nun Entranced
By  · Published on July 18th, 2016

Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) holds the distinct honor of simultaneously being the most controversial and the most banned film of all time. It is a film lauded by film critics as a masterpiece, one that routinely tops Must See and Best Film lists, and yet it is still largely unavailable on DVD and has never been released without the interference of heavy-handed studio censorship and edits. It is a film that critics encourage viewers to watch via an illegal stream, simply because it must be seen. So what is it about The Devils that makes it so beloved by everyone but the studio holding the key to its release?

The History

The Devils is based on The Devils of Loudun, a 1952 book by Aldous Huxley, as well as The Devils, a 1960 play by John Whiting. All three tell the story of the 1632 possession of 27 nuns at an Ursuline convent in France. At the center of the controversy was Urbain Grandier, a Catholic priest who was accused of possessing the nuns by the convent’s Mother Superior, Jeanne des Anges. There’s no clear reason behind the false claims; one version says she was persuaded by church officials to lie but another version states that Jeanne was sexually obsessed with Grandier, who appeared to her as an angel in dreams and hallucinations and enticed her to commit sexual acts. Either way, these false accusations were viewed by officials as a way to strip the wealthy and politically influential Grandier of his power. Ultimately, Grandier paid with his life, as he was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.

For Huxley, the religious hypocrisy and authoritarianism in the Loudun story served as a perfect critique for the ongoing McCarthy Trials, with the infamous U.S. senator being the perfect counterpart for Jeanne des Anges, who, similar to McCarthy, found a warped version of fame and power through her accusations. Although Huxley’s book was highly celebrated upon its release, the author felt that the material would not translate well and any attempt to turn the material into a film would be too powerful. While Huxley himself would not live to see the release of The Devils, his prediction would ring strikingly true.

The Rebel

Enter Ken Russell, a director who was no stranger to controversy. In 1969, Russell’s Women in Love, an adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel that explored relationships, commitment, and love, landed him much deserved success and acclaim. Women in Love was a landmark film for a number of reasons: it was the first film to contain the word ‘fuck’ and it was the first film to be given an X-rating, which it earned through a controversial nude wrestling scene that gave us the first appearance of on-screen male full-frontal nudity. Still, the film was a commercial success and was praised by critics, earning Glenda Jackson her first Academy Award and nabbing Russell a Best Director nomination.

Russell was drawn to the Loudun possession after seeing Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Matka Joanna od Aniołów (Mother Joan of the Angels — 1961), a film which focused primarily on the Mother Superior’s life following the death of Grandier. Russell saw a parallel with Grandier, feeling that he too was a man set up against the establishment. Beyond this, Russell also felt that the story reflected his own struggles with his Catholic faith. In just three weeks, Russell wrote the script for The Devils and never looked back.

The Controversy

Russell’s re-telling of the Loudun possession focuses on Sister Jeanne of the Angels and her sexual obsession with Urbain Grandier, which ultimately leads to his death. Although he had initially wanted Glenda Jackson in the lead role, Russell ultimately found the perfect Sister Jeanne in Vanessa Redgrave, who brings a surprising amount of humanity to the hunchbacked Mother Superior. Oliver Reed, a frequent Russell collaborator and star of Women in Love, took on the role of the doomed and Messianic Grandier.

In addition to the powerhouse performances by two of Britain’s finest actors, The Devils is a visual delight, with futuristic sets designed by Derek Jarman who took inspiration from descriptions of Loudun as a modern city. The sets are sprawling and sparkling; the Ursuline convent is clad in pristine white tile, while the city itself is enclosed inside of gargantuan stone walls. This modern feel is furthered coaxed by Peter Maxwell Davies’ atonal film score, which helps to foster a jarring sense of Lynchian surrealism to the more outrageous exorcism scenes.

Upon its release, the film drew immediate outrage from the Catholic Church and other religious institutions and, despite heavy studio interference and censorship, The Devils still garnered an X-rating due to its sexually explicit content and violence. Warner Brothers, who had acquired the distribution rights after United Artists dropped the film during pre-production, made two of the most significant cuts to the film. The first cut involved a scene towards the end of the film where Sister Jeanne is told that Grandier has finally been burnt at the stake. Finally, she is given a souvenir: a charred femur bone. The cut portion of the scene continues with Sister Jeanne masturbating with Grandier’s remains, which not only illustrates how broken and low she has sunk but reinforces that Grandier’s martyrdom came as a direct result of her jealousy and repression.

The second and perhaps most significant censored scene is referred to as the “Rape of Christ.” Following Sister Jeanne’s accusations against Grandier, which are the direct result of him turning down the opportunity to be the convent’s confessor and secretly marrying another woman, the entire convent erupts into chaos, with the sisters falling under the sway of their Mother Superior’s hysterics. The Church then sends officials to document and perform exorcisms on the women, which are completely invasive and ineffective. In the penultimate scene, a massive exorcism in town turns into a frenzied orgy, in which the nuns remove their robes and create chaos inside of the church, tearing pages out of the Bible and running amok before finally writhing and humping against a giant crucifix.

It’s important to note that Russell insisted on depicting the events in Loudun precisely as they were reported, which includes even the most inflammatory scenes. For example, in the scene where Church officials are sorting through and detailing the contents of Sister Jeanne’s vomit is not hyperbole or fiction, it’s really what was listed in Church documents. With these scenes, Russell isn’t just courting controversy, he’s showing viewers just what a Church-sanctioned interrogation and exorcism meant in the 17th Century. It packs a punch, especially in the film’s overall statement on power and corruption versus faith and integrity.

The Contemporary

To further contextualize The Devils, it’s worth taking a look at another controversial film that was also released by Warner Brothers in 1971: A Clockwork Orange. The film follows the exploits of Alex, a teenager living in a dystopian Britain of the near-future, who partakes in drugs, acts of rape, and violence along with his gang of friends. After he murders an elderly woman, Alex is sent to prison where he becomes the test subject for aversion therapy, where he is forced to watch films depicting sex and violence while being injected with drugs that make him physically sick. Although the treatment initially works and Alex is released, in a twist worthy of The Virgin Spring (1960), Alex later finds himself at the mercy of a man whom he had tortured in the past. In the end, Alex’s aversion to sex and violence is short-lived and the morality behind both his actions as well as the aversion therapy used on him is called into question.

Like The Devils, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel also drew an X-rating due to explicit depictions of sex and violence. Although Kubrick later chose to remove 30 seconds of explicit sexual content from the film to receive an R-rating for a re-release in 1973, the film we know today (and the one that still bears an R-rating) is the original uncut version. In some ways, it seems inexplicable that a film that depicts violent rape, including child rape, as the book explicitly states that the two girls from the record store are around ten years old, could somehow be less incendiary than The Devils. This isn’t to say that the themes present in A Clockwork Orange aren’t important but it’s perplexing that the commentary on authoritarianism and hypocrisy can be lifted from one film and not the other.

The Devils Today

Even as we mark the 45th anniversary of its release, The Devils has never been seen in its entirety. While Russell’s uncut film runs at 111 minutes, the only versions available top out at 108 or 109 minutes. In 2002, critic Mark Kermode found a treasure trove of deleted scenes, including the “Rape of Christ,” which were thought to be destroyed. This longer version of the film premiered in 2006 at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film. It was shown at a smattering of special events over the years, usually featuring a post-film Q&A session with Russell, but it has not been screened since 2011. The Devils is also notoriously difficult to acquire on DVD and Blu-ray, particularly in the United States, where the only copies circulating are poor quality copies of a television broadcast of the R-rated version of the film.

But in 2016, are the inflammatory scenes in The Devils really still shocking? Is the “Rape of Christ” scene really more blasphemous than seeing Regan (Linda Blair) masturbate with a cross in The Exorcist (1973)? With The Devils, Russell offers a skeptical look at the Church while still respecting the sanctity of pure faith, as evidenced by the juxtaposition of the lunacy in the exorcism scenes with the quiet beauty of Grandier’s performing a solemn Mass in the countryside. But even beyond this, The Devils touches on the threats that irrationality and social hysteria pose to individual rights and even spiritual liberty, a message perhaps even more powerful and necessary today than when the film was released.

The Devils is so much more than the shocking scenes that it is often reduced to. It is a work of art that stands as a testament to the great mind that conceived it and on its 45th anniversary, The Devils is a film that must finally be seen as Ken Russell envisioned it.

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Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. She loves horror movies, Keanu Reeves, BioShock and her Siberian Husky, Nugget.