Sunday, December 12, 2021

Sister act


Written and directed by Ken Russell (based on the books The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley and The Devils by John Whiting)

Spoilers: moderate

Earlier this year, Warner Bros. released Space Jam: A New Legacy, a gross cross-branding exercise that would've been fairly lame even if it had stuck to its essential format and been presented as a two-minute ad spot for HBOMax, and in the format it did take, that of a nearly-two-hour motion picture, it became almost literally unwatchable.  (It is, in fact, the same runtime as the movie now being reviewed.)  Anyway, if you did somehow finish Space Jam 2, and sort-of kind-of paid attention during the basketball game that constitutes its final forty-five minutes, you might have noticed that within the vibrating throng of Warners properties in the background one of the cheap cosplayers they hired was dressed as Sister Jeanne des Anges, abbess of the Ursuline convent that is the center of Ken Russell's 1971 film, The Devils.  I like to think somebody did that as a joke; it's even funnier to think that the executives assumed they were dressing as the monster from the Conjuring spin-off The Nun.  It's not that the crowd scene is representative of exclusively family-friendly entertainment otherwiseI'm not laughing at the idea, "ha ha, Ken Russell's infamous and censored The Devils is sharing a screen with the Iron Giant in a kid's movie," because I didn't think it was funny to put the Droogs in there, and that was 100% authorized and on purpose, because A Clockwork Orange is evidently "a brand," God help usbut instead I'm laughing bitterly at the idea that somebody working for Warners used that piece of shit to highlight that Warners, going on fifty years now, has failed to make The Devils available for home viewing in America.  Not that they have not had their reasons.

The Devils was met in 1971 with one of the nastiest backlashes a movie's ever faced.  It was slightly cut for British distribution, and, surprisingly (given the British), faced even more scrutiny in America, where several minutes were removedand this even with Warners knowing more-or-less what they were getting into, considering that Russell had the completed screenplay in hand when he came to them, and United Artists had already recoiled in horror at it.  These cuts would not have been so much, I believe, to have justified Russell's complaints of "incomprehensibility" ("comprehensibility" could not have been Russell's watchword when making it), but they were fairly severe in that they did remove key imagery.  Inevitably, when it was released, it was brigaded by Catholics throughout the English-speaking territories; it got an X rating in both Britain and America, and one can't accuse the MPAA of unfairness on this one.  The film also made a reasonably spectacular amount of money, predominantly in Britain, perhaps precisely because of the scandal surrounding it.  And then it left theaters, and at some point around the year 2000 it must've gotten a DVD release in Europeand these days you can only watch it pirated, meaning that it's about as abandoned as a successful motion picture has ever been.

It prompts one to ask why; seeing it does present a partial answer, because even today, The Devils still shocks.  But that abandonment, I was saying, may have had something to do with the power of critics in the early 1970s, and if that's the case, maybe it's a good thing the profession's tastemaking power's collapsed, given the dumbshit ways they wielded it when they still had it.  The Devils, anyway, occasioned one of the worst Roger Ebert reviews I've ever read (the only one that's worse is only worse in an ethical sense, and that's the one for Halloween III where it becomes reasonably clear he either walked out or fell asleep, without disclosing it).  Ebert's review, anyway, is distinct from the trad-Cath fascist protests against Benedetta this last week mainly in the sense that Ebert had the decency to be amusing, though in penning a review comprising wall-to-wall sarcastic praise for its brave truth-telling (then appending a zero star rating to it), he accomplishes about the same thing, and it's not necessarily good that he did it more effectively.  (My favorite part, however, is when he complains about standing in line in the cold, like it's Ken Russell's fault he chose to live in Chicago.)  It's not the biggest surprise that early Ebert could sometimes (and seemingly almost arbitrarily) become a tiresome moralist, but he was joined by a large swathe of his peers (Pauline Kael, too, which does surprise me), and while they couldn't kill a movie as appealing to the prurient interest as The Devils admittedly is (like I said, they probably helped), I don't much doubt they did their part to bury it.

Now, I said it still shocks today, like we're so jaded.  But in a formal sense, The Devils might be more shocking today than it was in 1971, because I don't know if we've ever quite managed to replace Ken Russell with an equally gonzo-freak successor; I at least can't name a working filmmaker who genuinely resembles Russell, but then, there never was.  Russell had two great interests (he often mixed them, but let's keep it simple): religion and artistic performance, especially music.  No points for guessing The Devils, something of the ur-text of nunsploitation cinema and probably its masterpiece, is leveled squarely against the former.  Even so, it begins with the latter, in the court of an enormously gay Louis XIII (Graham Armitage), who's presently starring in a musical drag show about Venus emerging from the waters for the benefit of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue).  This is also, after all, a movie about politics, as the crushing of a haven for Protestants becomes a priority for Richelieu in his bid to centralize the power of the state.  Richelieu couldn't care less about the drag show, let alone its mythological foreshadowing of plot and theme, or the way that Venus's origins in a violent emasculation wind up reflected in the film's final shots; but he cares an awful lot about Protestants.

The target of Richelieu's ire is Loudon in the southwest, a small city of soaring white walls, its governor recently dead and eulogized by the priest of the town, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who speaks with pride on Loudon's tolerance and prosperity.  Grandier is eyed from afar, however, by the nuns of the local Ursuline convent, and while Abbess Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) chastises her sisters for their display of open lust, after she's chased them all off she practically cums at the sight of him herself.  (I'm not sure Reed was a happy man, but this movie surely must've been good for his self-esteem.)  Jeanne has given herself to the nunnery in partmaybe in largest partbecause of her deformed and twisted spine, but she does still look like Vanessa Redgrave in 1971, so perhaps she ought to have made a move, for Grandier has by no means kept to his own discipline as a priest.  Indeed, our first impression of him is the way he tosses his teen lover out on her ass when she tells him he's gotten her pregnant.  Nevertheless, he's not long for the swinging lifestyle of an oversexed priest once he encounters Madeleine (Gemma Jones), who loves him (get in line, lady), but he falls in love with her, too.  He secretly undertakes a marriage ceremony presided over by himself, but that's when he gets mixed up with Richelieu's lieutenant Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), and winds up needing to seek redress from the king.  During his absence, things shift in a big way in Loudon, as Jeanne falls into an essentially psychotic state, in the process accusing Grandier of all sorts of thingsadultery, blasphemy, etc., and these are even truebut also of witchcraft, and of putting a demon inside her.  Laubardemont and Loudon's back-up priest, Mignon (Murray Melvin), send for the Church's professional witch-hunter Barre (Michael Gothard), and as far as Barre's concerned, this story checks outwhich is no skin off Laubardemont's teeth, given that ruining Grandier's reputation and burning him at the stake should make the felling of Loudon's fortifications, the massacring of its Protestants, and its absorption into the mainstream of French politics much easier than if his adversary were still popular, angry, and alive.  In the meantime, he'll simply have to deal with the fallout of condoning Jeanne's accusations, which, amongst other things, means that the entire nunnery decides they're possessed by devilsafter all, it's an excuse for doing just about anything.

It's only now that it occurs to me that the movie even has such a complicated plot; it's a perfectly well-oiled mechanical screenplay, despite its numerous moving parts and the carnivalesque distractions, but it's not a plot movie.  It is, like most Ken Russell movies, a vehicle for Ken Russell's aesthetic and thematic concerns, and, not to put too fine a point on it, every batshit idea that Ken Russell could think of in connection with a story about priests, plagues, and the villain from The Three Musketeers.  (Not to even mentions nunsit's about nuns less than you'd think given the whole "ur-nunsploitation" reputation, but when it is about its nuns, there's certainly no mistaking it.)  "Aesthetic and thematic" can't really be separated here (and in this context, they're practically code for "the formal qualities" and "blasphemous provocations"), though to try to deal with the former first, the king's drag show, besides showing off the secular hypocrisy of the central power, is so artificial (even shiny) that Loudon at least feels solid in comparison, even if it does not and is not intended to feel "real."  It nonetheless feels expensive, as if it had been bankrolled to the same extent as any old studio period epic with a huge outdoor city set (presumably supplemented by matte effects), but the production designer was still instructed to build it for a soundstage, or even live theater, and maybe as if he were designing a musical that gestures at an idea of "the 17th century" but in which comparatively few cast members would be expected to get appropriate haircuts, mainly just poor Murray Melvin. I expect these are the exact instructions that Russell gave his designer, Derek Jarman, and Russell, hot off his Oscar-winning D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women In Love, must have had his studio's faith. The Devils' reputation sets you up for something cheapjack that could boast only of its transgressions, but while I can't find a budget, it must've been at least a couple million.

The basic visual scheme is black and whitethe white walls of the city, the white bricks of the nunnery, the black bars that make the nunnery resemble a prison shower room in every interior, done with stark-but-subtle lighting that makes weird checker patterns on the tilesand there are lot of reasons for that, first and foremost (and probably most accurately) Russell correctly thought it looked cool and graphically stylized, the better for his purposes.  But of course it also replicates Shirley Ann Russell's black-and-white costumes on the nuns, equally graphic and stylized, in their environment, and that scheme has a terrifically oppressive effect throughout, most obviously when they still have those costumes on, but the black and white of their habits continues to envelop them even after they've thrown off Christian decorum to run amok with their vaginas outtheir "possession," sanctioned by the Church for its own purposes, isn't any real freedom, it's just dumb chaos.  The last reason is speculative, but besides the whole "darkness and light" thing, it was also the foundation of the equally pageantlike color scheme of The Greatest Story Ever Told (which was going explicitly for "darkness and light"), and given the impact of that production and its recency, maybe that entered Russell's mind too.

But this is just the backdrop, and while "black and white" probably does describe the modal image, there is almost always something that cannot be ignored within that two-tone matrix, whether it's obscenity, blasphemy, or just something altogether absurd: this is a movie that initially brings us to Loudon in the midst a plague, replete with corpses, yet not long after it's introduced its protagonist (hero is probably not too strong a word, but let's just say "Grandier") as a philosophizing philanderer whose first act is a post-coital brush-off, it gets us slightly back on his side when he accosts a pair of "medical professionals," decries their superstitious nonsense, and cries "what fresh lunacy is this? a crocodile?"  By which he means a crocodile, which he confiscates and then, almost immediately, uses as a weapon in a swordfight against his paramour's angry dad.  That's the first fifteen minutes, incidentally.  There are 96 more, front-to-back overclocked and overstimulating, to the point of being nearly assaultive, smashed into your eyes by grotesquely-distorting lens choices and the hammer of Russell and editor Michael Bradsell's downright belligerent cutting.  Virtually everything in the film is like a fever dream, which means the actual fever dreams need to be even more excessive, and Russell finds a way, engaging in the film's first unforgiveable blasphemy when Jeanne's fantasy of Grandier bleeds over into religious ecstasy, and she casts the object of her erotic obsession as Christ on the cross, who descends from Calvary to embrace her, whereupon she performs oral sex upon the vaginal wound in his side.  (Verhoeven, I'm afraid, really missed the obvious on this one.  I mean, if it ain't broke...)  The performances rise to the occasion, however inhuman and high-pitched they are: from the extras whom I hope didn't get too chilly as they rape a statue of Jesus, to Melvin's drawn, bizarre man-boy features as he jacks off to that aforementioned rape of a statue of Jesus, to Redgrave's scene-stealing freakishness as Jeanne, emphasized by the prosthetic hump and the way she keeps her head tilted at a constant 45 degree angle to her body like she's a broken doll, grinning and tittering as she devolves further into the Church's authorized version of psychosexual madness.

The whole movie is like this, though, essentially not a single frame passing by without Russell's heedless imagination making itself known, ranging from the depraved and violent, like the crimes of the "good" king who uses captive Protestants for target practice, to the mere unstressed weirdness of Richelieu being too lazy to walk, and so having attendants push him through his archives with a handcart.  It is 111 minutes of aesthetic and intellectual attack, some of it just for fun, and most of it unchecked anti-clerical fury.  But here's the thing: it's as blasphemous and sacrilegious as they say, but I don't know if it is, in its deepest heart, aimed at God.  It's aimed at the symbols and institutions of Godbut made by menand it viciously prosecutes a cogent thesis as regards to the ways that the cruelty and insanity of attempting to crush human sexuality beneath a church only breeds even more cruelty and insanity.  (Part of Ebert's review was sarcastically praising Russell for the relevance of this theme... aged well, didn't it?)  It's obviously not very impressed by the naked power politics of religious persecution, either.  But all of this excess and wretchedness, to use Ebert's usual words for describing Russell, culminate in a passion play, in which spiritual virtue is tested precisely on the model of Christand not found wanting.

It's humanist as much as Christian (not for nothing is the film's only reasonable and ultimately most holy figure the dissolute cad), but it's not not Christian; in any case, it's surprisingly affecting, given where we started.  The film's biggest problem, then, could be that it's difficult to figure out how the sincerity of its final act connects to a first act that involved a man using a prop crocodile as a bludgeon.  (Though its objectively-biggest problemand the one that bothers me the mostis that it does not adequately ground Grandier's transformation from king sex of Loudon to the committed husband who wants to honor Paul's injunction to marry, even if he does so highly un-Catholicly.)  But I won't say it doesn't connect the brutish goofiness of that first (and second) act to the sublimity of the third: it anchors it in the one major performance that cuts against the grain of the rest, Reed's smug, somewhat assholish, but always self-deprecating evocation of offended dignity, which becomes steelier and more confident as his persecution continues.  Eventually, he's relieved even of his hair, not just his fancy mustache, but his eyebrows; he becomes a contemptuous thumb who will not remove himself from the Catholic Church's eye.  Reed offers something like an immoveable center for the storm swirling around him.  When everyone else is a clown, The Devils was in need of somebody like that.  There is, I believe, only one scene that even feels like humans are in it otherwise; surprisingly, it's a Redgrave scene, when Jeanne mocks Madeleine for asking to join the Ursuline order out of genuine spiritual desire, when what the nunnery really is is just a hole in the ground for unwanted women.

But I don't mean the lack of human-scaled acting as a criticism.  I really don't have many criticisms of the film: its shrill tenor and the extreme visuals are not just its selling points as geek show spectaclethough you damn well get your money's worth on that countit is, in fact, the reason it works.  In its violent, often-comic absurdism, it wants to tear away one of the masks people wearin this case religionin hopes of finding the pulsating glob of animal horniness underneath.  It's a truly fearless movie in this regard (and not in the facile way people describe such movies today; I frankly wonder if it invited real danger).  But I don't know if it didn't find something else down there too.

Score: 10/10

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