HEAL ME WITH HATRED: Repression, Jealousy and Hysteria in Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS

While every instance of neurosis in film can be subdivided into tiny fractions (at least according to The Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders), it remains that almost any neurosis represented in genre film is related to repression. Every problem manifests because we have falsely constructed ideals and cannot meet them. The repeated failure to make decisions based on logic or sound belief and have our emotions follow suit is confusing to us. So we try to force it, or create a façade so water-tight that even we fall for it ourselves. That is, until a tiny crack appears and the whole thing comes crashing down on us.

How characters respond to their own repressive tendencies varies. In Jose Larraz’ Symptoms (1974), Angela Pleasance lives in an isolated house in the country, a shy, quiet girl who becomes a different person when the weather changes unexpectedly – complete with compulsive violent outbursts. The film hints at her destructive nature early on (“I like to watch things burn,” she says, “it calms my nerves”), but as the film unfolds we discover that she’s got a secret hiding away in this house, and will resort to anything to protect it. Similarly in Robert Altman’s Images, Susannah York has an isolated house that acts as a very physical counterpart to her madness. There in that house lives a doppelganger – a fantasy version of herself – that she will kill to protect.

Many of these films revolve around the person we are versus the person we want to be; horror history has no shortage of “split personality” or “double life” films. In Giulio Berruti’s The Killer Nun (based on a true story), Anita Ekberg plays a high-ranking nun who loudly condemns perceived improprieties among the patients and fellow staff, while engaging in illicit sex with strangers upon excursions to the city; in Rino Di Silvestri’s The Legend of the Wolfwoman, the werewolf story conveniently allows the protagonist to act opposite her social obligations while in a transformed state, rendering her irresponsible for any transgressions in reality; in Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, the character of Monica Ranieri takes on the persona of the predator who attacked her as a child.

Internal violence – the mental struggle that tries to reconcile the actual with the ideal – becomes physical violence, or acting out. Often this violence is perceived as nonsensical or arbitrary – in Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle, Jeanne Moreau commits seemingly random acts of vandalism; in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert molests her own mother and shoves glass in a budding pianist’s coat pocket; and of course, Vanessa Redgrave is one of the great repressed characters in cinema as the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne in Ken Russell’s masterpiece, The Devils.

In The Devils – based on true events that occurred in Loudun, France in the 17th century – screen giant Oliver Reed plays Urbain Grandier, a popular Catholic priest who takes control of Loudon after the Governor’s passing. His clandestine sexual proclivities come to the attention of Sister Jeanne, who is sexually obsessed with him, and she sets about his ruination.

A major sticking point for many of these neurotic female characters in film is the issue of control. A lack of control threatens them and precipitates a manic attempt to get that control back, even by the most irrational means. Ironically, the one thing they need to control, and they only thing they really can control, is their own behaviour. But they find this impossible; it is easier to destroy the threat. In The Devils, this means that Father Grandier has to go.

Sister Jeanne confesses to another priest that Father Grandier is involved with witchcraft, and furthermore, has possessed all the nuns in the convent. When the maniacal Father Barré, inquisitor and professional witch-hunter (and arguably the hottest medieval priest ever depicted onscreen), arrives on the scene to investigate Sister Jeanne’s allegations, his interrogations prompt mass hysteria that result in the entire convent disrobing, writing in orgiastic frenzy and eventually desecrating a statue of Christ. Meanwhile Father Grandier – who is far from innocent, but certainly innocent of witchcraft in this case – is demonized and sentenced to be burned at the stake, the obvious receptacle for the twisted longings of Sister Jeanne and her fellow nuns.

The Devils was banned in several countries, and heavily-edited in others. It is still largely unavailable in the home video market. As such, this is a RARE chance to see the film, with director KEN RUSSELL in person to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. The film/award ceremony takes place on Monday July 19th at 10:00pm in the Hall Theatre. More details including film description, credits, images and trailer on the film page HERE.

- Kier-La Janisse
(Please note that parts of this article are excerpted from my forthcoming book House of Psychotic Women.)

7 Responses

  1. Is the screening version the director’s cut?

  2. @Michael: This is the North American theatrical version, as per Warner Brothers’ request…

  3. Having now seen the film, I honestly cannot understand why WB refuses to release it. There was nothing even remotely offensive by today’s standards. Great flick though.

  4. Well on the surface, there really isn’t too much that is beyond R-rated, but the theme of the movie is profoundly and blatantly subversive. It is a blanket attack on organized religion and the manipulation of superstition by power to suppress freedom. I suspect there are probably commercial and legal reasons behind why they won’t release the film, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if there are several powerful lobbying groups who may make a stink if this movie came out. And Warner Brothers probably doesn’t think it worth the trouble. Today, you just don’t get movies that attack Christianity the way The Devils does.

  5. Mitch suggested that we should email Warner Brothers to put pressure on them to properly release the film. Can he provide a good email address?

  6. I emailed them using this customer service form:

    There’s also an online petition to release it:

  7. Thanks, Michael. I’ll follow up on both of those and I encourage everyone else to do the same.

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