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Wednesday, March 28, 2012 

Just what are they still scared of?

(Or, an extended review of the new DVD release of Ken Russell's The Devils. And by extended I mean almost 2,500 words.)

A couple of weeks back, as part of BBC4's Talk season of programmes, those watching the Beeb's flagship arts channel at half past midnight on a Sunday night/Monday morning were treated to a full repeat of the (inappropriately named) Friday Night, Saturday Morning discussion on Monty Python's Life of Brian. For those like me who had only seen excerpts from the debate between John Cleese and Michael Palin on the one side and Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark on the other, it only brings even closer into focus the breakdown it documented between the establishment, the public and the church. Stockwood is the stereotypically pompous man of the cloth, making his short sermon as Palin described it as in his diaries on how the communists had failed to get rid of Jesus, all the while fiddling with his outsize cross. Muggeridge by contrast is the austere yet even more insufferable epitome of unthinking orthodoxy, with his comments on how the incarnation had inspired every piece of art and culture we've come to hold dear, Cleese responding with how it therefore also inexorably led to the inquisition.

Cleese and Palin were understandably especially disappointed with how Muggeridge, having himself been a satirist, had failed to see that Brian was clearly not meant to be Jesus. It later turned out that Muggeridge and Stockwood had in fact missed the first 15 minutes of the film, and so had not seen the opening sequence in which the three wise men mistakenly deliver their gifts to Brian's mother, only to come back and swiftly retrieve them. In any case, how serious the pair were in their views was questionable, as once backstage Stockwood announced that he felt it had gone rather well, as though it had all been a performance making for great TV. It certainly is that, although not perhaps for the reason they thought so at the time.

While the controversy over the Life of Brian marked the beginning of the end of the debate over the censorship of opinions on Christianity (Muggeridge himself makes reference in the debate to how the Pythons couldn't or wouldn't have done the same for Muhammad, which while missing the point at the time does hold true today, as the idiotic censoring of the Jesus and Mo cartoons has shown), less well remembered is how at the beginning of the 70s a highly similar debate was had over Ken Russell's The Devils, which has just been released for the first time officially in this country on DVD. Having already challenged the then British Board of Film Censors with the full frontal nude wrestling sequence in Women in Love, a scene that managed to escape their scissors, Russell's latest work, and one which is rightly regarded as his magnum opus, was to push the boundaries to such an extent that even 40 years later the director's cut has only been shown at a select few festival screenings.

Based on the supposed demonic possessions which took place in the French city of Loudun in 1634, for which various explanations have been posited, Russell's screenplay was modelled on Aldous Huxley's "historical novel" The Devils of Loudun, as well as also being inspired by John Whiting's play from a decade previous. Written according to Russell in a three week spell of creativity, his script was turned down by his usual collaborators United Artists after someone there finally read it in full. Warner Brothers however stepped into the breach, and apparently regardless of the contents of his screenplay, made no attempt whatsoever to intervene in the filming.

Shot mainly on the back lot of Pinewood studios, a chance meeting between an associate of Russell's and Derek Jarman led to the then struggling artist designing the sets. Russell's only requirement was that the scenes of exorcism within the convent itself lived up to Huxley's description of them as being the equivalent of "a rape in a public lavatory", something that Jarman's white yet grimy constructions of tiles and brick more than lived up to. Rather than base the outside scenes in the usual historical setting of mouldy, rock walls, Jarman instead went for something completely different: sets that gave the appearance of pure white, newly quarried stone, which were neoclassical while also resembling the post-modern architecture of Metropolis. They give the film a timeless quality, while also providing the perfect environment for David Watkin's simply stunning lighting.

Cast as the vain and womanising but charismatic Father Urbain Grandier, Oliver Reed continued his working relationship with Russell. Delivering what has widely been described as a career best performance, Reed embodies the decadent yet urbane priest, thrust into a leading role in his community by the death of his predecessor. As much as Russell intended his film to be a savaging of the sacrilege which is inevitable when church and state are one, and as much as it is, Reed's Grandier is also impossible to see without also seeing Jesus himself. The film up until when Grandier dedicates himself to Madeleine, played magnificently by the heart-stoppingly beautiful Gemma Jones, reminds of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, where he wrote of putting away childish things. Grandier's stance against Cardinal Richileu, and his relationship with Madeleine can be seen as the effective start of his ministry, and with it the challenge Jesus posed to both the Jews and the Romans in Palestine.

Just as Reed outdid himself, so too did Vanessa Redgrave, cast as the reverend mother Sister Jeanne. On first viewing her performance doesn't quite properly reveal itself; to me it felt as though it was Vanessa Redgrave playing someone mad, rather than Sister Jeanne as played by Vanessa Redgrave. Second time around it felt perfect, Redgrave giving the deranged Jeanne just the right amount of coquettishness, as well as portraying her fear, loathing and lust. It's certainly difficult to imagine Glenda Jackson in the same role, the now Labour MP having only backed out when Russell changed the ending.

The film does have its flaws: however much Russell insists in the commentary that Louis XIII could well have organised plays in which he dressed up in a bra and pants, and also ran protestants dressed as blackbirds down a gauntlet before shooting them, it isn't quite believable. It's also hard to like the two quacks who are first seen treating a plague victim and from then appear throughout, one of whom is played by Brian Murphy (who those of my vintage might well have first seen in the children's show Wizadora), although they do bring a typical Russellian air of insanity to proceedings. These though are very small quibbles, which do nothing to distract from what is one of the most visually arresting and powerful British films of the 20th century.

The brilliance of the film was also immediately recognised by the BBFC. Craig Lapper's essay in the booklet with the DVD provides the extensive background to how the film was first presented to the censors, and then mercilessly slashed to ribbons. The then BBFC Secretary John Trevelyan, in a letter to the Reverend Gene Phillips in the US (who has now been teaching the film for 40 years), said "[I]t is, of course, brilliant, and it raises the question of whether artistic quality justifies total freedom", a question which it should be noted we are still answering in the negative. Before the board had even officially seen it, Trevelyan made private recommendations to Russell, resulting in the cutting of the now notorious orgy scene, where the nuns run amok naked during the group exorcism in two. Russell begged that they leave what has become known as the "rape of Christ" scene during the orgy remain in tact, where the nuns take down a statue of Jesus on the cross and masturbate upon it, to what was eventually no avail. The scene is or should be the film's centrepiece; it is the moment when the nuns, egged on by the state and church commit the ultimate blasphemy, and the intercutting with Grandier's moments of realisation and taking of the communion shows their debasement and his epiphany.

It should be the noted that the studio also intervened, and that while they did not request the removal of the "rape of Christ" there were a further 10 changes they demanded before the film could be released. The BBFC then imposed further cuts, after successive viewings, before it was finally given an X certificate. Around 4 minutes was cut in total. Controversy ensued regardless: the newly formed Festival of Light called for it to be banned, and for the new head of the BBFC, Trevelyan having stepped down, to resign. Eight councils, as is still their right, viewed the film and imposed their own bans. It was also far from rapturously received by the critics: the Evening Standard's Alexander Walker, having misconstrued a couple of scenes in the film denounced it, and then refused to retract his arguments when confronted by Russell on live television. Russell's response was to smack the now venerated critic around the head with his own newspaper.

The BBFC's cuts were still however nowhere enough for Warners in the United States, who having been given an early screening seemed genuinely horrified at what Russell had produced, one executive later lambasting him for making "this disgusting shit", regardless of how everything filmed had been in the script. While it's dubious in the extreme whether the X-rated cut would have been passed in tact by the MPAA, Warners went back to editor Michael Bradsell with a specific instruction to remove "every pubic hair" from the film before even submitting it. The end result was a further 3 minutes of cuts, and a film that made almost no sense, but one which received the commercial R rating.

Adding insult to injury, the international prints of the film were subsequently recalled and cut by the studio, until it seemed as though only the R rated version remained in existence. As Mark Kermode details in his introductory essay, it was only when the BBC tracked down a copy of the X-rated cut for their own "forbidden cinema" season in 1995 that it was seen after its initial run in a version even resembling Russell's intentions. Kermode's obsession with the film and his own search for the footage eventually p
aid off, with some of it, including the "rape of Christ" scene, turning up in a lone canister in this country. From this Bradsell constructed the Russell approved version mentioned at the outset.

Imagining that this new director's cut could now finally be released to the masses, preparations were made for a DVD release, including the recording of a commentary featuring Russell and Kermode. Warners however refused to budge, for reasons known only to themselves. Last year the British Film Institute gave up attempting to persuade Warners to allow them to include the cut footage, and so the DVD contains only the original X-rated version. The studio also stipulated that the film could only be released in standard definition, and that the "rape of Christ" sequence, first shown in Paul Joyce's Hell on Earth documentary had to be cut from that too, lest bootleggers create their own version from the new high quality material.

Why the studio still seems to be terrified and ashamed of a film they commissioned 40 years ago is difficult to ascertain. It could simply be that they want to see how it performs in its truncated version, before launching their own expensive restoration of the film. Why though would they go about it in such a truculent and convoluted way, especially when the BFI could have bore the full costs for them? While the film is still powerful and has the power to shock, far more explicit material involving religion is now easily if not immediately accessible, even if it is not produced by major corporations. It's also highly dubious whether the Catholic church would raise a fuss: Gene Phillips's view that the film depicts blasphemy rather than is blasphemous won't be shared by everyone, but you really can't imagine it becoming a major issue.

One suspects instead that it's the film's political message, which is still as strong as ever and only enhanced by the full version that it means it will remain unreleased. As forthright as Russell's criticism of the Catholic church is, and he personally had converted to Catholicism about 10 years before he made The Devils, with the film attacking the waste of life that is becoming a nun and its clear statement that the celibacy of the clergy is unsustainable, it's the assault on convergence of church and state that retains its edge. The religious right has never been as powerful, and in Rick Santorum there's a Republican presidential candidate who has not only given speeches where he says Satan has been destroying American institutions, but is also distinctly iffy on the fundamental separation of church and state. Add in the US mainstream's squeamishness over sex, something that becomes ever more absurd when culture is saturated with every aspect of it other than the act itself, and you seem to have the real reason behind Warners' cowardice.

This is an even more incredible position to take in a post-The Passion of the Christ world. John Cleese pointed out in the FNSM debate that prior to his researching the Life of Brian he hadn't realised that crucifixion was a standard method of execution in Roman times, as indeed it was. Knowing this doesn't detract from the specific punishment meted out to Jesus, but it does put it into context. Mel Gibson's film, described by Roger Ebert as the most violent film he had ever seen, was despite the mixed reviews it received (and I personally would take Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS over the Passion every time) recommended heartily by churches across America. The violence in The Devils doesn't even begin to compare, while anyone offended by the sex would have to be quite the shut-in.

Russell's film, regardless of how it was treated, was still incredibly influential: the Wicker Man, that distinctly British horror film, would take its cue from The Devils final stages. It also more or less launched the entire nunsploitation genre, which if nothing else gave us Gilberto Martínez Solares's Satánico Pandemonium and Juan López Moctezuma's Alucarda. The Devils should though be judged purely on its own merits, and we deserve the opportunity to be able to do just that.

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