Richard Jonathan

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

In the core of this 3-part post I offer an appreciation of Ken Russell’s The Devils through the prism of Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Sister Jeanne.
I undertake a close reading of each of her scenes. In the Introduction, Conclusion, and mini-essay, ‘The Devils: Its Relevance Today’, I offer a broader analysis of the film.


Here, the nuns mockingly enact, in the chapel of the convent, the wedding ceremony of Grandier and Madeleine de Brou. Jeanne, spying on the proceedings, is devastated to learn that the marriage did indeed take place. The scene plays out as follows.


– NUN 1: I want to marry Grandier!
– NUN 2: You’re already married to Jesus!
– NUN PLAYING GRANDIER: Silence! And do you, Madeleine de Brou, take me, Urbain Grandier, for your unlawfully wedded husband?

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– NUN PLAYING MADELEINE: I do, most un-Reverend Father.
– NUN PLAYING GRANDIER: Then I now pronounce us man and wife!

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– SISTER AGNES: And they shall be one flesh!
– SISTER CATHERINE: Sister Agnes, please stop this shameful mockery!
– SISTER AGNES: But it’s true. The butcher told me and he heard it from the surgeon. It happened last week.


Vanessa Redgrave, again, gives primacy to Jeanne’s physicality. Having no doubt now that Madeleine de Brou has made Grandier unattainable, she puts the crucifix of her rosary into her mouth—at once stifling a scream and incorporating Grandier-Christ—and slumps to the floor. Her lover-in-reverie has tied the knot with another: into her fantasy that fact intrudes; against that reality violence is ineffective. Rage and despair mingle in her whimpering moan as she huddles in a corner.

Vanessa Redgrave & Judith Paris, The Devils, Ken Russell


– MADELEINE: I feel that I no longer have a true vocation, Reverend Mother. And my confessor has advised me that I can be of more use out here in the city.


Through the parlor grating Madeleine de Brou hands back the book ‘written by the founder of our order, Angela Merici’, that Jeanne had asked Madeleine to study and come back to be questioned on. This suggests that Jeanne enjoys intellectual sparring, and is not indifferent to theological debate: a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

The Grandier-de Brou wedding, however, has changed everything. Jeanne, in a fury of jealousy, violently attacks Madeleine: she bites her wrist, spits in her face, launches into a tirade:


JEANNE: Whore, strumpet, hypocrite! Tell me you have no vocation! Of course you have a vocation! Fornicator! Fornicator!

Vanessa Redgrave & Gemma Jones, The Devils, Ken Russell

Scratching Madeleine’s face, ripping her clothes, Jeanne’s violence gives the measure of her rage at having lost Grandier.


– JEANNE: Sacrilegious bitch, seducer of priests. That’s your calling! Your place is in a brothel. You filthy whore! Get back to the gutter where you belong!


And yet, what would Jeanne not give to trade places with Madeleine?

Vanessa Redgrave & Gemma Jones, The Devils, Ken Russell

Her sexual hunger unsatisfied, denied what she believes her due, Jeanne falls back on herself as Madeleine runs away. Behind the bars of the parlor, imprisoned in her own desire, she know her outrage will not take the longing from her tongue: tonight Madeleine will sleep in Grandier’s bed while she’ll sleep alone in her bunk. Vanessa Redgrave gives the violence its full force as she plays the scene, but when her arms slide back in through the bars and she collapses onto the floor, I, for one, feel the human, all too human, pathos of Jeanne’s situation.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell


– JEANNE: If only he’d seen me first. My face under its coif, like an angel’s face peeping through a cloud. And my eyes…


Every inch a woman, Sister Jeanne. In three short sentences Vanessa Redgrave conveys desperation, dignity, righteousness, ridicule, self-deception, enigma-feminine: her face, at once artful and artless, is a mirror-ball of emotion.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– NUN: Excuse me, Reverend Mother, but our new spiritual director is here, in the chapel. He wishes to see you.
– JEANNE: Grandier! Oh, Grandier. Grandier, it’s not too late, you’ll see.


Hope springs eternal in Sister Jeanne’s breasts; illusion comes to rescue love.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

JEANNE: Where is Father Grandier?

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– MIGNON: My name is Father Mignon.

Murray Melvin, The Devils, Ken Russell

– MIGNON: My letter was to Father Grandier.
– JEANNE: Father Grandier regrets he cannot accept the invitation to become director of your house. I am to be your new confessor. Father Grandier hasn’t the time. He has very pressing duties in the town.

Vanessa Russell & Murray Melvin, The Devils, Ken Russell

At this precise point in the film Grandier’s fate is effectively sealed. Rebounding from her disappointment at finding not her lover-to-be but a workaday priest, Jeanne, not missing a beat, begins manipulating Mignon into believing Grandier has bewitched her. To what extent is she aware that her devilry will lead to the assassination of Grandier and the subjugation of Loudon?


– JEANNE: ‘Pressing duties in the town’.


Smells like sex: ‘pressing duties in the town’ can only mean stud duty: with her signature laugh she emits the spark that transmutes lust into cruelty.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– JEANNE: I must address myself to God in this matter. Habit. Habit. It will never do. It must be demurred. He speaks to me of love. Lewd, wanton. He plies me with caresses, lustful, obscene. He enters my bed at night and takes from me that which is consecrated to my divine bridegroom, Jesus Christ.


Vanessa Redgrave: ‘I think there’s a continually changing texture and combination of contradictions running through Sister Jeanne. I’m sure that the wet dreams she must have had made her feel intensely guilty. And she probably went into denial and placed her own longings onto Grandier’.


Vanessa Redgrave, interview with Mark Kermode in Hell on Earth, documentary accompanying the BFI DVD of The Devils released in 2012.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– MIGNON: And what form does this incubus take?
– JEANNE: Cock! Grandier.


Jeanne knows the possession playbook, and she plays from it as well as with it: the ‘cock’ she pops in Mignon’s ear does credit to the actress she is.

Vanessa Redgrave & Murray Melvin, The Devils, Ken Russell

– MIGNON: What?
– JEANNE: Grandier.
– MIGNON: Are you aware, my dear, of the seriousness of what you are saying?
– JEANNE: Yes. Help me, Father.


Now there’ll be no turning back, despite Jeanne’s attempts to do so: the cat is out of the bag, and the powers that be have a rat they want it to catch.

Vanessa Redgrave & Murray Melvin, The Devils, Ken Russell


This scene, which includes the first exorcism of Sister Jeanne, begins with Father Barré, the chief exorcist, conducting a preliminary interrogation.

Michael Gothard, The Devils, Ken Russell

Sister Jeanne has pangs of conscience, for when asked who was the man walking across the waters of the lake in her vision, she answers, ‘There was a mist. I couldn’t see him’. When pressed, she adds, ‘It was night. He came into my room, smiling’. In response to Barré’s command to name him, she says, ‘I cannot. It was dark’.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

With Grandier alive in her mind’s eye, Jeanne’s lust revives: she suddenly decides to give Barré a little of what he wants and to indulge her own fantasy at the same time.


– BARRE: Was he alone?
– JEANNE: No, six of his creatures were with him.
– BARRE: Then? Then?
– JEANNE: He took me gently in his arms, he carried me into the chapel. Each of his creatures took one of my beloved Sisters with them.

Michael Gothard & Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– JEANNE: Come here. (She whispers in his ear.)

Michael Gothard & Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– BARRE: She says she and her Sisters were compelled to form themselves into an obscene altar.
– JEANNE: Shh!
– BARRE: And were worshipped.

Dudley Sutton & Michael Gothard, The Devils, Ken Russell

– JEANNE (calling Barré to her): Again. And then my love and I, in a naked embrace ascended into Heaven and bathed in a sea of stars. I have found peace.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– LAUBARDEMONT: That was no devil. She spoke with her own voice. The voice of a frustrated woman. That’s enough!
– BARRE: Do not be so easily deceived. Her very innocence is a sham, a mask of deceit devised by the cunning of Satan.


Laubardemont’s statement reminds us that, as Michel de Certeau writes, ‘the possession of Loudun is situated almost at the end of a long epidemic, and during the very years (1632-40) when reason took a brisk step forward with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637). By then, deviltry had already taken on more subtle forms.’


Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun, tr. Michael B. Smith (University of Chicago Press, 2000) p. 2


Given that, one might be inclined to see Barré’s remarks as an instance of the ‘morbid symptoms’ Antonio Gramsci mentions in his 1930 remark that ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.


Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. & tr. Quintin Hoare & Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart, p. 276.


Aldous Huxley, for his part, notes that ‘the scientific spirit was already vigorously alive, but no less vigorously alive was the spirit of the medicine man and the witch’. He argues persuasively that the rational can never encompass all that makes a human being, but the consequent urge to self-transcendence usually takes the easy, downward path rather than the difficult, upward one. For my part, I’ll leave you to meditate Casanova’s question to Voltaire: ‘When you have abolished superstition, what will you replace it with?’. The challenge for Vanessa Redgrave, then, in conveying the vicissitudes of Sister Jeanne’s exorcisms, is how to express at one and the same time the rational and irrational dimensions of her experience.


Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun. Harper Perennial, p. 40 and p. 73.


– BARRE: Be assured, the fiend is silently lurking in some hidden recess of her body. This medical examination…

The Devils, Ken Russell

– … will reveal him and then we shall do battle.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– BARRE: My beloved Sister.
– JEANNE: Yes?
– BARRE: It must be extreme measures.
– JEANNE: What do you mean, Father?
– BARRE: The fiend must be forced from you. Consecrate the water, please, Father Mignon.

Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Gothard, Murray Melvin, The Devils, Ken Russell

– Through that instrument, my child, lies your salvation.

The Devils, Ken Russell

– JEANNE: Christ, no!
– BARRE: Do you hear me, Asmode?
– JEANNE: Mercy! Mercy! Unhand me, you Christ-loving runts!
– BARRE: You are within. The Antichrist has spoken!
– JEANNE: Forgive me. I didn’t mean it.
– BARRE: Mercy now after your blasphemy invoked against Our Lord?
– JEANNE: But Father Barré, it is I speaking to you now, Sister Jeanne of the Angels.
– BARRE: You speak with many voices. (She bites Barré’s hand.) Christ protect me from the fangs of Satan! Silence, beast!

Vanessa Redgrave & Michael Gothard, The Devils, Ken Russell

– JEANNE: No, Father!
– BARRE: Hold her steady!
– JEANNE: No, Father!
– BARRE: I exorcise thee, most vile spirit, the very embodiment of our enemy.
– JEANNE: Oh, Jesus! Dear loving Jesus.
– BARRE: The entire stricture, the whole legion, in the name of Jesus Christ.


Aldous Huxley: ‘And now she was in the hands of the egregious M. Barré. The phantasy of a downward self-transcendence had been transformed into the brute fact of his actually treating her as something less than human—as some queer kind of animal, to be exhibited to the rabble like a performing ape, as a less than personal creature fit only to be bawled at, manipulated, sent by reiterated suggestion into fits and finally subjected, against what remained of her will and in spite of the remnants of her modesty, to the outrage of a forcible colonic irrigation. Barré had treated her to an experience that was the equivalent, more or less, of a rape in a public lavatory.’ Father Barré and his accomplices effectively gang rape Sister Jeanne.


Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun. Harper Perennial, pp. 114-15.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

– LAUBARDEMONT: Who is responsible for this evil possession, Sister Jeanne of the Angels?
– JEANNE: Priest.
– LAUBARDEMONT: A priest? Of what church?
– JEANNE: Peter’s…
– LAUBARDEMONT: Saint Peter’s. Tell his name.
– JEANNE: Grandier.


Aldous Huxley: ‘The person who was once Sœur Jeanne des Anges, Prioress of the Ursulines of Loudun, had been annihilated—annihilated, not in the Mallarméan fashion, but in the Baudelairean, with a vengeance. Parodying the Pauline phrase, she could say of herself, “I live, yet not I, but dirt, but humiliation, but mere physiology liveth in me.” During the exorcisms she was no longer a subject; she was only an object with intense sensations. It was horrible, but it was also wonderful—an outrage but at the same time a revelation and, in the literal sense of the word, an ecstasy, a standing outside of the odious and all too familiar self.’


Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun. Harper Perennial, pp. 115-16.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell

Under torture, Jeanne delivers the name her interrogators need, a name they’d written into the script before the charade even started. She got more than she bargained for, Sister Jeanne. Vanessa Redgrave, using her face, hands and body-voice to full effect, succeeds in conveying her humanity amidst the horror.

Vanessa Redgrave, The Devils, Ken Russell


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

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Besieged, Cat People, Cul de Sac, Damnation, Don’t Come Knocking, Fellini’s Casanova, In the Realm of the Senses, Je t’aime moi non plus, Kill Bill, La Belle Captive, Last Tango in Paris, Meshes of the Afternoon, Possession, Spetters, Taxi to Portugal (aka Family Matters), Teorema, The American Soldier, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Element of Crime, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Mother and the Whore, The Passenger, Un Chien andalou, Viva Maria

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2021| All rights reserved