The Devils is Ken Russell’s cinematic vision of Aldous Huxley’s documentary study, The Devils of Loudon. Not everything in the film is factual, but everything is true: the film offers us a stylized representation of documentary fact, a creative re-imagining of lived reality. That the censors irrevocably mutilated the film, that the distributor was content to consign it to oblivion, that the critics vaunted their philistinism and pandered to the audience’s prurience—all this, in terms of art, is neither here nor there: artistically, The Devils is outstanding. Who today remembers the boos that greeted Bizet’s Carmen, the howls of mocking laughter that met Manet’s Olympia, the universal indifference that killed Van Gogh? If Bizet, Manet and Van Gogh have now become sufficiently present to awaken any sleepwalker, today’s junkies, high on the opium of consumerism, need not fear The Devils just yet. It is the aim of this post to hasten the day when they will.
Aldous Huxley: ‘Philosophical and religious ideas are better expressed not in abstract terms but in terms of concrete case histories. Here is a story which is strictly historical and at the same time a parable.’ Taking a cue from Huxley’s indications, Ken Russell gave his screenplay a bold dramatic line: The Devils will tell the story of one man’s redemption, of his journey from ‘sinner’ to ‘saint’, and will do so while anatomizing the mechanisms of power wherein that man was crushed. And thus Ken Russell came to make his only ‘political’ film, a parable of the wheels of power in society—yesterday, today, and (as long as sleepwalkers proliferate) tomorrow.
Aldous Huxley, quoted in Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography, Harper & Row, 1974
Vanessa Redgrave: ‘A film can’t be special without the conception of the story, the cinematography, the acting, the editing all coming together to make a single whole. And sometimes, even with wonderful people, they don’t succeed in making a single whole. In the case of The Devils, I think all the people who took part in it did contribute to making a single whole—a masterpiece.’ The conception of the story is key: everything else flows from that. So how did Ken Russell conceive The Devils? ‘When I read Huxley’s statement that the exorcism of Sister Jeanne was the equivalent of a rape in a public lavatory, I had the image of how to do the film’. The Devils, then, was conceived organically—Russell had a vision of a ‘single whole’ and knew how to realize it cinematically. While this post focuses on Vanessa Redgrave’s role in the film, I try never to lose sight of the ‘single whole’ of which it is a part.
Vanessa Redgrave and Ken Russell in Hell on Earth, Mark Kermode’s documentary that accompanies the British Film Institute’s DVD release of The Devils.
What role does Jeanne play in the dramatic dynamics of The Devils? The central character of the film is Grandier. His primary antagonists are the key figures in ‘the mechanisms of power wherein he is crushed’, namely Laubardemont, working on behalf of Richelieu and operating through Barré and Mignon, the exorcists. These adversaries all focus on Jeanne, framing her lust for Grandier as demonic possession and exhorting her to declare Grandier an incubus. She is used by Laubardemont to impose State control over Loudun; her sexuality is instrumentalized in the service of this end. In the dramatic dynamics of the film, then, Jeanne’s role is to reveal the modus operandi of political power.
Vanessa Redgrave, understanding Jeanne’s part in the whole, either plays her ‘public’ role (to masquerade for the exorcists and the audience) or her ‘private’ one (to deal with her frustrated lust for Grandier), or plays both simultaneously. Moreover, Redgrave instinctively understands that Jeanne, as Huxley wrote, ‘was supremely an actress, and as an actress was almost always external, even to herself’. This is precisely what Redgrave’s portrayal of Jeanne hinges on—an actress playing an actress. Public performance, private desperation: Vanessa Redgrave’s ability to express these registers in all their incarnations—masquerade, theater, authority, ritual; obsession, jealousy, revenge, frustration—gives her performance in The Devils its scintillating edge.
Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun. Harper Perennial, p. 280
We see Sister Agnes high on a ladder looking out a window at the funeral procession for Monsieur de Sainte-Marthe.
There is a distinct sexual buzz in the air as the nuns, all excited, compete to get a glimpse of Grandier.
– A NUN: Is he as handsome as they say?
– SISTER AGNES: He’s the most beautiful man in the world!
Sister Jeanne, her head askew due to her hump back, enters. Exerting her authority, with a clap of her hands she calls the nuns to order.
– SISTER JEANNE: Why have you left your devotions?
– SISTER CATHERINE: They were watching Father Grandier.
– SISTER AGNES: We wanted to see the funeral procession of Monsieur Sainte-Marthe, Reverend Mother.
– SISTER JEANNE: Satan is ever-ready to seduce us with sensual delights.
A little laugh—cynical, mocking, defiant, euphoric—escapes Jeanne’s throat after she delivers the last line. It will become a recurring feature in her speech. How to interpret it? It is fundamentally a feeling of pleasure that, were it to be intensified, would be orgasmic. When Jeanne says ‘Satan is ever-ready to seduce us with sensual delights’, what she means is, ‘I am desperate for sensual delights, I long to be seduced’. And thus she overcomes the repression of her lust while respecting the conventions of the convent. She ‘has her cake and eats it too’. Such overcoming of repression (as Freud showed in his study of jokes) is a source of pleasure. Jeanne’s laugh, then, is a celebration of this little victory. Vanessa Redgrave’s acting, here, gives a hint that lust calls for the defilement of beauty (that’s why sex is ‘dirty’, as Georges Bataille, for his part, showed). The stark nobility of Redgrave’s face conveys its impatience, on behalf of Jeanne, to be dissolved in a swoon.
– SISTER JEANNE: Your prayers for Sainte-Marthe will be the more zealous for not seeing his funeral. That is the strength of the enclosed order.
– SISTER AGNES: Yes, I know, Reverend Mother, but it was a solemn Requiem and the Cardinal would have given us a dispensation to attend.
– SISTER JEANNE: The powers of your uncle the Cardinal are not in dispute, Sister Agnes. You are not satisfied with the contemplative life. You should have joined the Poor Clares, nursed the victims of the plague, scrubbed out their vermin-ridden hovels.
Vanessa Redgrave, delivering her last lines here, takes her keychain, selects a skeleton key, and strokes it distractedly. The innuendo of the gesture is eloquent, and Redgrave’s elegance only serves to amplify it. This is a perfect example of Jeanne’s dual discourse: religious contemplation/sexual obsession, mother/whore, piety/lust. (Note, in passing, that the references to the plague and the Cardinal are not gratuitous: the plague fostered the possessions; the Cardinal exploited the exorcisms.)
– SISTER AGNES: But Mother, I love our order.
– SISTER JEANNE: Then you shall combine the two, scrub out the convent from top to bottom on your knees and pray for the soul of the dead man at the same time.
Sister Jeanne dismisses Sister Agnes so that she (Jeanne) can satisfy in private her desire to gaze upon Grandier. But why the severity of her ‘sentence’? The alert reader versed in elementary Freud will understand that Jeanne’s severity matches her frustration: ‘When the libido meets an obstacle, it calls on the sadistic components of the sexual drive’. Again, it is the contrast Redgrave plays between Jeanne’s cool outer elegance and her hot inner lust that engages us.
Alone, Jeanne unlocks a ‘secret cell’ from where she watches the procession and catches snippets of a conversation between two women passing by: ‘Every Tuesday afternoon, an hour in bed with the lacemaker’s widow’; ‘They do it right there, in the sacristy’; ‘Grandier could have me anywhere’; ‘Now, there’s a man well worth going to Hell for, eh?’. Prostrate on the floor of the low-ceilinged cell, clutching the crucifix of her rosary, Jeanne imagines the reality of each line, and as she does so, Vanessa Redgrave’s face expresses her guilty pleasure in the fantasy.
It is a marvelous bit of acting, and it is touching precisely because, for once, Jeanne is not acting: in the isolation of her cell, held in no-one’s gaze, she is free to be her secret self. The object of her desire is obscure, quiet desperation softens her gaze: the authority she displayed a moment ago has been replaced by vulnerability.
She then mutters a prayer as her fantasies consume her, rolls onto her back and falls into a swoon. In her mind, I imagine, the thurible swings to the rhythm of lovemaking, while a whiff of sex mingles with the smell of incense.
Emerging out of her swoon and the thurible smoke, Grandier walks on water toward us: Jeanne’s first vision. Touched by grace, the image is stunning. Oliver Reed, brilliant throughout the film, here has only to be: barefoot in a long tunic, arms outstretched, he is Christ.
In a flutter of black pennants contrasting with the nuns’ white habits, Jeanne, her long red hair flowing, is Mary Magdalene, descending the stairs to meet her Christ. A skull and crucifix dangling on her jewelled choker, her tunic of white gossamer a plaything for the breeze, this Pre-Raphaelite prostitute would have Christ put a different spin on ‘passion’. Thanks to Vanessa Redgrave’s charisma, Jeanne’s vision, at once intimate and operatic, shows that for this Sister, the body is the road to redemption, sex the route to salvation.
On the pebbled shore the mythical whore bends to dry Christ’s feet with her hair.
Of a sudden a wind storm rises. Mary-Jeanne, fearing her hump will be exposed, wraps her arms around herself and whirls in the howling wind. ‘Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!’, she cries out. Grandier, his indifference admitting a note of pity, looks on steadfastly. The nuns, having closed a circle around Mary-Jeanne, block her attempts to escape. ‘I’m beautiful! I’m beautiful!’ she cries out as they jeer at her grotesquely protruding vertebrae. The wind blows with supernatural force. Foreshadowing the exorcisms, Mary-Jeanne twists and turns on the ground. Vanessa Redgrave’s body-voice makes immediate the violence of Jeanne’s subjective experience: this is the theater of cruelty.
The final segment of the scene is a thrilling cut from Mary-Jeanne writhing on the ground to Jeanne in her secret cell. Bowing low from a kneeling position, reaching back with two hands and rubbing her hump, she pleads, ‘Take away my hump. Take away my hump. Take away my hump.’
Even in fantasy, then, Jeanne finds that a primary component of female seduction—the inclination to exhibitionism—is foreclosed. And so she turns to Jesus: ‘Christ, let me find a way to you. Take me in your sacred arms. Let the blood flow between us, uniting us. Grandier. Grandier.’ Three short sentences suffice to show that what begins with Christ ends with Grandier: not for long can Jeanne sustain sublimation. The exchange of blood may be more holy than the exchange of sexual juices, but it is the latter that Jeanne craves. And so, to cool the heat of her loins, she invokes the Virgin Mary and recites the ‘Ave Maria’.
– MADELEINE: I attend Mass daily. I love God. And now that both my parents are dead, I am free to serve Him. I know I have a vocation, Reverend Mother.
Madeleine de Brou, whose mother received the last rights from Grandier as she lay dying from the plague, has a conversation with Jeanne through the grating of the convent parlor. The attentive viewer will understand that Madeleine, in expressing her wish to join the Ursuline order, is speaking the truth, but not the whole truth. Indeed, her primary reason for seeking a cloistered life is to protect herself from her own desire: she has fallen in love with Grandier.
– JEANNE: You have the face of a virgin martyr in a picture book. Very pious. Respectful black weeds. Very becoming. That’s such a pretty rosary.
– MADELEINE: It was my mother’s.
– JEANNE: What’s this? Oh, yes, The Imitation of Christ. Solid silver. And downcast eyes. Hiding what? Virtue or lechery?
The cynical bite of Jeanne’s propos echoes the irony of her earlier remarks: the religious life is a charade. She finds it frustrating being a Bride of Christ; her signature laugh after ‘lechery’ indicates she has no vocation for virginity. Vanessa Redgrave, whose nun’s habit leaves bare only the face from brow to chin, lends Jeanne her wit, intelligence and red-blooded lust; the historic Sister Jeanne, in contrast, was a provincial mediocrity, ‘elevated’ only by her spiritual kinship with Madame Bovary.
– JEANNE: Do you know why most of us are here?
– MADELEINE: Because you love Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and wish to serve Him.
– SISTER JEANNE: Most of the nuns here are noble women who have embraced the monastic life because there was not enough money at home to provide them with dowries. Or they were unmarriageable because ugly, a burden to the family. Communities which ought to be furnaces where souls are forever on fire with the love of God are merely dead with the grey ashes of convenience.
Indeed, ‘for those who had no vocation for it’, Huxley writes, ‘life in a seventeenth-century convent was merely a succession of boredoms and frustrations, mitigated by an occasional enthusiasm, by gossip with visitors in the parlor, and by absorption, during leisure hours, in some innocent hobby.’ If the body is a terrible thing to waste, so is the mind: Jeanne, in Russell/Redgrave’s interpretation, has a touch of the tragic about her, for her lust for life comes up against the constraints of monastic isolation. Seen in this light, the possessions offer a relief from boredom and, potentially, an enrichment of life.
Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun. Harper Perennial, p. 94
In the chapel in the convent, nuns kneeling along each side, Jeanne approaches on her knees. Her heavy keys jangle on their chain; in her hands she clutches the crucifix of her rosary.
JEANNE: ‘The fifth sorrowful mystery of the rosary, Christ crucified. As we say these Aves, sisters, let us think of the pain that Christ suffered when they nailed him to the cross, left Him to hang there until he was dead. Think of His most beautiful body, torn by the nails, the blood oozing over his hands, which twitched with every hammer blow.’
We hear three hammer blows and see, as Jesus’ hand or face twitches, that Jeanne’s face twitches too.
– JEANNE: And He suffered all this for love. For love.
What is going on here? Is Jeanne taking seriously the routine of contemplating the Passion? As Silvia Evangelisti reminds us, ‘Nuns were encouraged to contemplate images of Christ in order to see their own imperfections, and subsequently engage in spiritual exercises to begin the long journey towards final purification and union with God. They were also encouraged to meditate on the Passion of Christ, focusing on specific moments of his suffering, one episode at a time.’ So, is Jeanne pursuing ‘purification and union with God’?
Silvia Evangelisti, Nuns: A History of Convent Life 1450-1700. OUP, 2008, pp. 164-65
The scene now cross-cuts between Jeanne’s second vision, where she is present at the crucifixion of Christ, and Jeanne in the chapel, reacting to the images of her imagination. In this vision she is again Mary Magdalene; the scenario she conjures plays out as follows. First, in the foreground of the crowd at Golgotha, before Christ on the cross between the two thieves, she cries out, ‘Forgive us our sins! Forgive us our sins!’.
Christ on the cross now becomes Grandier on the cross. Cut to the chapel where Jeanne, at once attracted and repelled by her transgression, covers her face.
Mary/Jeanne implores him to come to her: he does.
She licks the palm of his right hand, kisses the palm of his left; they kiss passionately. Cut to the chapel, where Jeanne covers her face with her rosary.
Mary/Jeanne then falls to her knees before Grandier/Christ and sticks her tongue in the gash in his side. Cut to the chapel.
Next, locked in an embrace, Grandier/Christ and Mary/Jeanne roll on the ground. In a combat of kisses they make love. Cut to the chapel.
The wild love-making continues. They come. Cut to the chapel. Jeanne opens her hands to reveal the bleeding wound where, in a paroxysm of pleasure, she had dug the crucifix of her rosary into her palm.
Hiding her hands in the folds of her habit, Jeanne runs out of the chapel… How can we characterize her practice of religion? It is both spur and cover to her sexual play. Spur, in that the violence inflicted on the naked Christ is, for a woman contemplating the Passion, necessarily sexual; cover, in that ritual and prayer, especially the mindless repetitions of the rosary, allow fantasy to express itself freely behind a veil of words and gestures. Georges Bataille: ‘The connection between the mystic and the sexual has something to do with the gulfs of terrifying darkness that belong equally to both domains.’ From this perspective, one might construe Jeanne’s fantasy as a ‘spiritual exercise’. Huxley, however, describes Jeanne as a ‘comedian of the spiritual life’, and writes that she ‘had briefly flaunted the ambition to become a second St. Teresa’. I’ll take that as a cue to give you Teresa’s description of her ‘transverberation’: decide for yourself whether it strengthens or weakens the case for Jeanne’s vision as a ‘spiritual exercise’.
Georges Bataille, Eroticism, tr. Mary Dalwood. Penguin Classics, 2001, p. 222.
Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun. Harper Perennial, p. 102 and p. 242.
TERESA OF AVILA: ‘In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God. It is not bodily pain, but spiritual, though the body has a share in it—indeed, a great share. So sweet are the colloquies of love which pass between the soul and God that if anyone thinks I am lying I beseech God, in His goodness, to give him the same experience.’ Jeanne is not a second St. Teresa, but might she not be a second-rate one, at least in this vision?
Teresa of Avila, in Georges Bataille, Eroticism, tr. Mary Dalwood. Penguin Classics, 2001, p. 224.
This scene, constructed in contrasting parallels, cuts between Jeanne in the convent fantasizing about Grandier and Grandier in the cathedral celebrating his marriage with Madeleine de Brou. This continues a pattern established earlier, wherein Grandier consecrates his beloved as his sole sexual partner while, for her part, Jeanne’s sexual hunger for Grandier grows ever more intense. Indeed, where he integrates spirit and flesh she expunges spirit from flesh. Where he burns a double flame, she is on fire. Where he seeks light from heat, she is in heat. The scene consists in three segments, three juxtapositions of Jeanne and Grandier. Grandier’s segments make up his marriage ceremony; the wedding is solemn, dignified, and motivated by love. The first segment with Jeanne finds her seated in an alcove, laughing. That laugh, we know by now, is the sign of the split between reality and fantasy: writing a letter in reality, fucking Grandier in fantasy.
– JEANNE: Father Moussault was a very good man. It was God’s will, but his death leaves us with a problem. We need a new Father Confessor. I have never met you, Father Grandier, but God has often put you into my thoughts lately.
Cut to the Grandier-de Brou wedding, then back to the alcove in the convent.
– JEANNE: And so Father Grandier, I trust you will become our spiritual director and provide us with the guidance we need. Yours in Christ.
Jeanne signs the letter, silently rereads a line or two, then stands the page next to the crucifix on the wall and prays. Again, what is so effective in the way Vanessa Redgrave plays the scene is how she transforms adoration of Christ into lust for Grandier. Play-acting is inherent in lovemaking, fucking requires fantasy, so Redgrave’s playful infusion of lust into her natural elegance strikes us as true. Watching her play Jeanne, we are convinced that the Serpent was not outside Eve, but inside.
Cut again to the Grandier-de Brou wedding, then back to the alcove in the convent. This segment consists in two views, and they are both stunning. In the first view, we see Vanessa Redgrave’s long leg stretched out, held in tension from the ball of the foot—on the floor, pumping—to the thigh. We understand Jeanne is on her back on a bed; we see her right leg, flexed at the knee, stretched out in the other direction. We notice her right hand, resting in her crotch; we see her left hand, busy fingers stroking: Jeanne is masturbating. ‘Grandier!’, she cries out. She moans as she continues her pursuit of the absolute.
In the second view, the camera, having made a smooth pan-tilt, rests on Sister Agnes’ face: she is standing outside the door, observing. Judith Paris makes these few seconds of film enthralling; through a twitch of the lips and a shadow of a laugh—nervous, edgy, otherworldly—she conveys the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of observing a sex act. For me, this is one of the finest moments in all of cinema: Judith Paris relaying the attraction and repulsion of watching someone in the throes of sex strive, in sanctity and solitude, for the transcendent.
Cut again to the Grandier-de Brou wedding, then back to the alcove in the convent. In extreme close-up we see Vanessa Redgrave’s face: Jeanne, soaked in sweat, is a scintillation of flesh. She mutters inaudibly. Again, what is striking is the richness of emotion Redgrave conveys: this is no cliché of post-sex blues, no blank wondering what that was all about. Instead, we are given the gravity and grace of a voyager returned from a strange land: humility, intelligence, guilt at transgression. As the camera zooms in even closer, Redgrave shows Jeanne anticipating the self-flagellation by which she will atone.
Jeanne gets up and goes to a whipping station.
Gripping a cross at the crux, with barbed chain she beats her back.
At the swoosh and landing of each lash, Sister Agnes, seen through the barred opening in the door, cries ‘Grandier’ and twitches as if receiving the blow (in her imagination, the thrust from Grandier’s hips). Thanks to this indirection, this, paradoxically, is one of the most powerful scenes in the film. (It is only paradoxical, of course, for those unaware that in art, it is always detour that gives access.)
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By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2021| All rights reserved