The early 1970s was hardly a propitious time for a film such as Ken Russell’s The Devils to hit the screen. Edward Heath’s right-wing conservative government had just been elected and the way was paved for attacks on the 1960s liberality of public life that Russell had come to symbolize. After the production of his films Women in Love (1969) and The Music Lovers (1970) his reputation as the symbol of permissiveness in the arts was entrenched. The Devils also represents the apex of a cycle of ‘historical’ witch-persecution films started in 1968 by Matthew Hopkins’ The Witchfinder General and made most famous, perhaps, by the 1973 The Exorcist.
The Devils proved very difficult for the censors who eventually agreed on awarding it an X-certificate after it had been cut by 132 feet. In fact it was only the forceful personality of one man, Lord Harlech, that overturned the majority of the censors to have it banned. He believed firmly that it raised important issues and that the newly converted Roman Catholic Russell was sincere. The film was slated in the press on its release and attracted the wrath of Mary Whitehouse and her like for being the sort of film that, viewed en masse, provided fertile ground for social violence to flourish. This is, of course, still very much at the centre of the censorship issue today. At the time this objection was set against the backdrop of emergent I.R.A. campaigns of terror in Northern Ireland. Such was the antipathy for this film that newspapers, right and left wing alike, warned against its radicalism and published allegations of sexual harassment and child exploitation on set. Amongst its contemporary releases was Stanley Kubrick’s The Clockwork Orange, a film that has only just been un-banned in Britain. Yet it is significant that The Devils was allowed as it does raise some interesting points from an historical point of view. It is based, in a similar vein to Le Retour de Martin Guerre, on the historical accounts of a French ecclesiastical court. The trial of Urbain Grandier and the events leading up to it, described in detail below, was of a very high profile and therefore well documented. In its wealth of resources and intrigue it has provided rich pickings for authors, dramatists and historians alike.
In the early seventeenth century, the French town of Loudon was significant as an arena for compromise between Huguenots and Roman Catholics. In 1616, an important conference was held there and it was the home of Scévole de Sainte Marthe, a literary expert known to Charles I. On his death the humanist-leaning parson Urbain Grandier took his place as one of the central figures of Loudon’s intellectual set. As portrayed in the film Grandier was an arrogant fornicator, but he was also witty and eloquent. He found his way onto the wrong side of Richelieu’s favour by supposedly writing a pamphlet suggesting that the king was surrounded by evil counsellors. He clearly represented am obstacle to Richelieu’s command of the localities and their total submission to centralised Catholic hegemony. Grandier was also suspected of fathering the illegitimate child of a leading town prosecutor’s daughter. Instability in Loudon came to a head in 1632 after a serious outbreak of the Plague killed 3,700 out of 14,000 inhabitants.
In September 1632 the relatively new Convent of St Ursula, which had escaped the ravages of the plague and contained several well-connected aristocrats, seemed to go mad. Many of the nuns started to show characteristics of ‘demonic possession’ and his enemies in the town cited the controversial Grandier as the cause of this. Richelieu, inserting an agent called de Laubardemont as investigator, saw this as an opportunity to rid himself of a political rival. In May 1634 Grandier, after a period of self-imposed exile, was brought to trial in front of powerful Catholic judges from towns surrounding Loudon. Sister Jeanne de Anges, under the close direction (and possibly torture) of the exorcist Father Barre, produced signed evidence that Grandier was involved. The nuns, under threat of execution, performed orgiastic rituals publicly in Church to bolster claims against the parson. Any local resistance to the trial was futile and support of Grandier was condemned outright as Huguenot rebellion. Even Grandier’s protestation to Louis XIII fell on deaf ears – the king was pious and, more to the point, unwilling to offend Richelieu for the sake of a local priest. On 18th August Urbain Grandier was found guilty of causing demoniacal possession of the Ursuline nuns. He was brutally tortured and burnt alive. After his death the nuns continued to be ‘possessed’ and some of the exorcists involved in the case succumbed as well. The case stands as an example of the injustice of inquisition France. “During the Enlightenment, this case was held against the French Catholic Church, which continued to conduct exorcisms, as a demonstration of Catholic oppression and bigotry.”
In 1952 Aldous Huxley wrote a book called The Devils of Loudon: A Biography based directly on the trial documents and accounts, which included considerable historical perspective. Eight years later John Whiting was commissioned to turn the story into a play for the London stage and in the process narrowed its historical field. Ten years after that Ken Russell transposed the play to the cinema. What the historian is faced with in The Devils is a story that has undergone considerable reinterpretation over the years. In the true style of overcooked historiography it has passed from mouth to mouth and received the mark of each interpreter’s agenda on the way.
However, there is nothing dishonest in the statement of the title card of the film: “This film is based upon historical fact. The principal characters lived and the events depicted in the film actually took place.” This proclamation allows for considerable ambiguity although the historical purist might be outraged by the liberties Russell immediately goes on to take in light of this promise. The opening scene of Louis XIII’s display of cross-dressing and sexual impropriety must have made many hearts sink. There is much about this film that consciously jeopardises the historical ‘accuracy’. Derek Jarman’s set is not at all in keeping with Rosenstone’s ‘look of the past’ – the white tile construction of the town walls and the convent evoke the confinement of a 1950s sanatorium more than the gritty realism of an early modern provincial town, and deliberately so. Elements of the more ‘realistic’ exist in the plague scenes where corpses line dirt streets and poorly constructed houses overshadow the nightmarish picture. Richelieu’s office is similarly unlikely – the great cardinal himself is wheeled around his sterile environment in an upright trolley like a pathological killer in a high security hospital. The doors to his office are strikingly tall and marked by a floor-to-ceiling red cross, reminiscent of the crosses painted on the doors of plague victims’ houses. David Watkins’ photography is similarly intense and as stylised as Peter Maxwell-Davies’ repellent soundtrack. The score is fittingly described by one critic as “the musical equivalent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting,” and the set by another as “like Bruegel’s painting ‘The Triumph of Death’ – to make the viewer feel the breath of insanity on his or her nape.”
The characterisation is equally contrived: Louis XIII is flamboyant and childish, Richelieu is terrible and scheming, Father Barre is completely anachronistic and over the top and Mignon is perverted and twisted, as is Sister Jeanne. Only Grandier, and Madeleine, can be said to represent ‘normal’ characters. They succumb to human desires and, because of their ability to indulge them, they maintain their sensibility. What the film attempts, and achieves, is to drag each character from their historical setting to a modern context for analysis – the idea is to compare the anachronistic exorcist with the timeless Grandier. In the marriage of past and present Grandier and Madeleine prove to be the only ones with whom we can relate – those who are the focus for institutional attack.
As a piece of historical filmmaking The Devils is intriguing. There are many aspects that it focuses on with considerable accuracy. In particular it looks at the witch-craze not as the quaint naiveties of a less-enlightened time, but as an arena for the expression of man’s darker attributes such as manipulation of power – something that will always remain relevant to human society. Witch-hunting is seen as part of the new era of central regulation and bureaucracy born of the religious and socio-political insecurity of the late Middle Ages. The historiography of witchcraft in the 1960s particularly showed it in the light of ruling class suppression of sexuality (though more typically female sexuality). The Devils shows that the lessons of history are timeless and therefore serves it well. It may not be the ultimate historical treatment of a case study but it does show how continuity and change can be applied to every facet of humanity. More specifically it showed its young 1970s audience the unhealthy effects of repression, characterised by Sister Jeanne’s unsolvable lust for Grandier , and the forgivable (even Christ-like) fallibility of man and woman in Grandier and Madeleine.
Urbain Grandier: Oliver Reed’s finest hour.