A Dig Deeper Article by Production Dramaturg Brett Dahl.
When creating the world for The Devils, Ken Russell and his designer Derek Jarman were inspired by a line from Huxley’s novel about Jeanne’s exorcism, which he likened to a “rape in a public lavatory.” As a result, the film’s visual world is a barrage of highly stylized, visceral, and sexualized imagery. Brutalist (and at times almost Bauhaus-inspired) architecture make up Loudon, the wall surrounding the city, and the Ursuline convent. The sanitary brick walls and the cold marble tile of the convent and church are harshly juxtaposed with the decomposing bodies littered across the streets. The colour palate similarly juxtaposes red, which becomes a religious leitmotif, against the nuns’ and priests’ washed-out black and white costumes. Jarman was not interested in historical accuracy but in an almost psychedelic blending of 17th Century and 1970s aesthetics.
Unlike the play, which depicts a constrained world being cracked open by the possessions and obsessions of Grandier, the film focuses on the state of France in the early-mid 17th Century, a country already disturbed and deteriorating. Russell spends considerable time and money establishing the tensions between the Catholics and Protestants, machinations of Church and state, and depictions of the poverty inflicted on the world. Russell attacks the sensationalized material in his typically lurid fashion. The film opens with King Louis XIII performing in a court entertainment for Cardinal Richelieu and his courtiers, draped in a seashell bikini as if stepping out of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Richelieu and the King end the scene by making a pact to drive Protestants from the land, and throughout the film spectacle goes hand and hand with political maneuvering.
Overflowing with wild and grotesque images, Russell’s film captures the sexual freedom and hypocrisy of the court and the sexual deprivation and shame experienced in the convent. Highly ritualistic in its vision, scenes of serenity and religious ecstasy collide with exorcisms that become violent and chaotic sexual orgies. Unlike the play, Russell shows Jeanne’s intense visions (or visitations) of Grandier, making them as real to the audience as they are to her. Although one need not speculate about the intention behind the possessions, seeing Jeanne’s visions, and the horrific way she is abused by the church throughout the trials, adds a unique insight into her mind and struggles that Whiting doesn’t address in the same way.
Of his work, Russell stated:
“The Devils is a harsh film—but it's a harsh subject. I wish the people who were horrified and appalled by it would have read the book, because the bare facts are far more horrible than anything in the film.”
Without a doubt, Russell provokes audiences with the film’s depictions of power and obsession.