– BARRE: You will scream, you will blaspheme, you will not be responsible for your actions. Denounce your devilish master Grandier and we will save you!
Having been threatened with execution if they do not obey, the nuns agree to go wild.
Jeanne is among them in the ‘freak-out’ in the cathedral.
The exorcist’s assistants, a doctor and a chemist, are making her throw up again and again. What do chemist and doctor find in the vomit? ‘Part of a heart of a child, “sacrificed at a witches’ Sabbath”; semen, and a bit of a carrot.’
King Louis arrives disguised as the Duke of Condé. Barré offers him a front-row seat at the exorcism.
– BARRE: Leviathan! Leviathan! Rouse yourself. Rouse yourself in the name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ!
‘You are not responsible for your actions’: taking full advantage of Barré’s warrant, and his cue of ‘Grandier!’, the nuns indulge in a sexual free-for-all. Sister Agnes, for her part, has a good thing going with a candle, a Paschal candle that’s the measure of Grandier in her mind.
– LOUIS: Father, may I try this?
– BARRE: What is in the casket, sire?
– LOUIS: A holy relic from the King’s own chapel. A phial of the blood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
– LOUIS: Tell me, Father, what effect would the close proximity of this relic have on devils such as these?
– BARRE: It would put them to flight.
– LOUIS: At once?
– BARRE: Immediately!
– LOUIS: Would you care to try?
– BARRE: In the name of Our Heavenly Father, I conjure thee, most frightful beings, by this most sacred substance, to depart!
Sister Jeanne, the star of the show, kicks off the ‘flight of the devils’ number, Barré’s showpiece for the King. She performs ‘gesture one’, writhing on the floor’.
The nuns, fluent in the body-language of possession, demonstrate their skill in ‘gesture two’: sticking out the tongue.
‘Gesture three’: contorsions.
Jeanne feeling the power emanating from the phial of Christ’s blood in the casket.
With a kiss on the hand, Jeanne expresses her gratitude to the disguised king and declares, ‘I am free’.
And then Louis reveals that there is no phial of Christ’s blood in the casket, no sacred relic, nothing.
The farce is enjoyed by one and all.
– BARRE: What sort of a trick have you played on us?
– LOUIS: Oh, Reverend Sir, what sort of a trick are you playing on us?
To Barré’s chagrin, Jeanne laughs in complicity with Louis. Note that while Russell’s style may strike you as over the top, at bottom the reality of exorcisms was exactly as Russell depicts it. Here’s what Huxley has to say on the matter of the ‘sincerity’ of the proceedings: ‘Of the persons of quality who came to see the exorcisms, very few believed in the genuineness of the possession—and, of course, if the possession were not real, then Grandier could not be guilty. Most of the visiting physicians came away with the conviction that the phenomena they had seen were all too natural [i.e. furor uterinus, nymphomania, sexual drive in overdrive]. All the men of letters who wrote about Grandier after his death stoutly maintained his innocence. On the side of the believers were the great masses of illiterate Catholics. (The illiterate Protestants, it goes without saying, were unanimously skeptical.) That all the exorcists believed in Grandier’s guilt and the genuineness of the possession seems certain. They believed even when, like Mignon, they had helped to fake the evidence which sent Grandier to the stake. (The history of spiritualism makes it very clear that fraud, especially pious fraud, is perfectly compatible with faith.)’
Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun. Harper Perennial, pp. 134
The hoax, however, does not stop anybody from play-acting—the show must go on! One nun burns a Bible…
… another grabs a crucifix and bops Barré on the head.
The freak-out reaches fever-pitch.
– GRANDIER: You have turned the house of the Lord into a circus, and its servants into clowns.
Father Barré, who would like nothing better than to hop into bed with Jeanne, considers her body his to possess while urging her to dispel her ‘evil seducer’. The irony is telling.
Michel de Certeau: ‘The well-established practice of the examination of conscience, the requirement of a religious faith that was certain but subject to that examination, and the general discrediting of the institutions that could be invested with meaning and act as guarantors of conformity with the Christian spirit: these factors lead constantly to the locating of real experience behind the theater of a well-regulated religious life. The dark proliferation of unmentionable intentions, is that not the reality?’
Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun, tr. Michael B. Smith (University of Chicago Press, 2000) p. 99
On hearing Madeleine’s response to Father Mignon, who’d called her wedding with Grandier a ‘blasphemous nuptial Mass’, Jeanne, seized by a fit of jealousy, fulminates against Grandier and effectively condemns him to death. She belts out her accusations:
I have prostituted myself! For Grandier. I have prostituted myself. He promised to make me a princess in the Devil’s court. He took me to the witches’ Sabbath. He defiled my body. He was naked. He bears the five marks of the Evil One, the first mark is on the shoulder. The second on the tongue, the third on the rump, the fourth, the fifth on his right testicle and his left testicle. If no blood flows when these areas are cut or pricked, this is the true sign of the Devil.
– GRANDIER: Do you, Reverend Mother, know what you must give to have your wish about me fulfilled? I will tell you. Your immortal soul to eternal damnation. May God have mercy on you.
– LAUBARDEMONT: Seize him!
– GUARD: On what charge?
– LAUBARDEMONT: Heresy!
That it is Laubardemont, and not Barré, who cries ‘Heresy!’ shows that Church and State are still fond bedfellows: I scratch your back and you scratch mine. (Grandier is too Protestant-friendly for the Catholic authorities, and too pro-local-government for the centralizing State.) Note, in passing, that as with all institutions that fetishize ideology, the simple accusation of ‘heretic’ is enough to condemn a man: principled argument will not forestall his death when the touchstone of truth is in the ideologue’s hands. (In the 20th century, ‘heretic’ became ‘enemy of the people’; in the 21st, perhaps it will be what Bowie sung in ‘Scream Like a Baby’: ‘wouldn’t buy no merchandise’.)
– GRANDIER: Forgive her! Forgive her! She has been broken by the priests!
Broken by the priests, yes, who used her sexual desperation to achieve their own ends. But Jeanne, of course, collaborated in her own degradation. To navigate between ‘victim’ and ‘accomplice’ is thus the acting challenge here: Vanessa Redgrave never plays just one or the other, but holds the two in tension. With only her voice, hands and face (from chin to brow), she conveys the rich ambivalence of the role.
Jeanne’s conscience is weighing more heavily on her now. Might an old tree trunk offer a way out?
Jeanne’s answer is yes, and she has the courage to act on her conviction.
– NUNS: Cut her down! Cut her down!
– OTHER NUNS: Is she dead? Is she dead?
– NUN: She’s still breathing.
– LAUBARDEMONT: This is Grandier’s work, my child. You’ll never be free of him until we’ve brought him to justice.
– MIGNON: The Baron Laubardemont tells me you’re ready to confess again, my dear Sister.
– JEANNE: Yes, I want to make amends. Grandier. I’ve wronged an innocent man, Father.
Decidedly, this Sister Jeanne is a more noble creature than the historic one. Vanessa Redgrave, again, conveys Jeanne’s courage and naiveté through only her voice and face/skin. Sister Jeanne is pathetic: Not villainous enough to be a Lady Macbeth, not virtuous enough to be a Hermione, she is touching precisely because, in Russell and Redgrave’s conception of her, she is a victim of her own desperation and jealousy, swinging between the ‘push’ of sexual drive and the ‘pull’ of sublimation.
– BARRE: My poor deluded child. It is not you speaking, but the devils within you, trying to protect Grandier. The exorcisms have failed. We must resort to other measures.
The exorcist is playing ‘heads I win, tails you lose’: poor Jeanne doesn’t stand a chance. ‘Other measures’: What might they be? We can only infer from the facial expressions of Mignon, looking on as Barré gets rough with Jeanne. Psychologically raped, physically abused, Jeanne shares with Grandier his lust for life, but not his lucidity or faith. Nevertheless, Russell and Redgrave make her something more than the Madame Bovary figure she was in reality.
A carnival occasion: Grandier’s execution by burning at the stake.
– MIGNON: Ask forgiveness of Sister Jeanne and these good women you have wronged.
– GRANDIER: I have done no such thing. I could only ask. God will forgive them.
– JEANNE: He always spoke of your beauty. Now I see it with my own eyes and know it’s true.
– GRANDIER: Look at this thing that I am and learn the meaning of love.
– JEANNE: Devil! Devil! Devil!
The violence done to Grandier, the violence about to be done—appalling as it is—does not outweigh the jealousy of Jeanne. Indeed, at Grandier’s mention of ‘the meaning of love’, the ‘love’ she felt for him transmutes into hate. ‘Devil! Devil! Devil!’, she growls in a devil-voice, unequivocally aligning herself with Grandier’s persecutors.
This scene, the penultimate one of the film, is a vignette that restates, with great economy and verve, The Devils’ principal themes. First, we see Jeanne with a huge syringe (like the ones the exorcists used earlier), about to give herself a vaginal douche.
– JEANNE: I’m purging my own devils.
– LAUBARDEMONT: What devils?
– JEANNE: Isacaaron, Balaam. They say they can stand up to the Church, but they can’t stand up to this bitch.
– LAUBARDEMONT: Jeanne, you’re being hysterical.
As in the rest of the conversation, three things stand out here. First, we note the complicity between Laubardemont and Jeanne. They behave like old friends who have retrieved their wits after a wild night out. Second, we note that the imposture of possession is no longer necessary. ‘What devils?’, Laubardemont asks, meaning ‘we don’t need that bullshit anymore’. When Jeanne names the devils, he says, ‘Jeanne, you’re being hysterical’, implying that reason no longer has any use for irrationality, that the corollary of ‘power asserted’ (explosions are bringing down Loudun’s fortifications) is ‘excess tempered’. Finally, we note that Jeanne is still sexually obsessed: she calls herself ‘bitch’ and indulges in a vaginal douche.
– JEANNE: Where’s Father Barré? I was expecting him.
– LAUBARDEMONT: He’s off to Poitiers. A nun is reported to be having commerce with your lsacaaron, in the form of a three-legged dog.
– JEANNE: But there was going to be a public exorcism tomorrow in St Peter’s.
In Jeanne’s remarks we detect a complicity with Barré, the complicity of seasoned clowns who’ve got their routine down and need each other for the show. ‘Having commerce with your Isacaaron’ reprises the sexual theme, while ‘in the form of a three-legged dog’ solicits Jeanne’s lewd laughter at this bestial extension of sexual possibilities.
– JEANNE: Father Mignon could manage.
– LAUBARDEMONT: Father Mignon has been put away. He’s quite demented. He keeps babbling that we’ve destroyed an innocent man. And with no signed confession to prove otherwise, everyone has the same opinion. Pity, that.
We detect a flicker of guilt in Jeanne’s flashing eyes, but she’s not one to let scruples linger.
– LAUBARDEMONT: No, with Grandier gone, you are no longer possessed. It’s simple.
For the dimwits who don’t understand that reason of state leaves devastation in its wake, Laubardemont makes it clear that the possessions only served to get Grandier killed—that done, they’re no longer of use to anyone. Jeanne, of course, is no dimwit: she was hip to the game all along.
– JEANNE: What shall I do?
– LAUBARDEMONT: Pray for your salvation. Do penance. Stay here quietly, of course. What else? Well, there’ll be a few tourists occasionally to brighten things up. But that won’t last long. Soon the town will die, you will be left in peace and oblivion.
This, the ending of The Devils (there’s one more scene, but it’s a coda), reminds me of the ending of The Truman Show. In that film, having escaped from the simulacra of reality in the service of consumerism that was his world, Truman puts an end to The Truman Show. Here, it is Grandier’s death, releasing him from the simulacra of devilry and possession, that puts an end to ‘The Exorcism Show’. When the TV screen turns to snow as The Truman Show goes off air, the security guard watching it with his colleague asks, ‘What do you want to watch now?’. Prisoners of consumerism, they flip through the channels and come across another world of illusion. In The Devils, Jeanne’s ‘What shall I do?’ echoes the security guard’s question. Laubardemont proposes prayer, penance and oblivion. The historical Jeanne would go on to tour France as an ex-devilry star, recounting her ‘possession’ and showing off her ‘stigmata’ and ‘miracle’ tunic. Were she alive today in the USA, she’d be doing the rounds of the game shows, to earn a dollar, as well as the talk shows, to give the public their daily dose of ‘prolefeed’. And, of course, she’d have millions of followers on Instagram.
– Oh, I almost forgot. Souvenir.
Lest the boredom of prayer, penance and oblivion be too much to bear, Laubardemont, ever so thoughtful, gives Jeanne a phallus-shaped bone salvaged from Grandier’s charred remains. Embarrassed, Jeanne nevertheless knows what to do with it. Of this scene (more developed before the censor took his scissors to it), Vanessa Redgrave had this to say: ‘It was a very terrifying sequence, as written and as filmed. I don’t think it was done with anything that wasn’t simply an accounting of that fact—a very pitiful, terrifying fact—that Sister Jeanne took this bone and fucked herself with it. I was quite frightened of the sequence, but at the same time I thought that it expresses in the most pitiful way the depths of Jeanne’s dementedness and need for humanity.’
Vanessa Redgrave, interview with Mark Kermode in Hell on Earth, documentary accompanying the BFI DVD of The Devils released in 2012.
While Oliver Reed is outstanding in The Devils, for me the ‘salt on the egg’ (as Buñuel, cited earlier, put it) is provided by Vanessa Redgrave. Indeed, it is she, playing Sister Jeanne, who gives the film its particular scintillation, that shower of sparks it emits whenever she’s on screen. Unfailingly multi-dimensional in her portrayal of the wayward Prioress, she lends her intelligence, wit and sexiness to what otherwise might have been a more pedestrian Sister Jeanne. Perhaps an actress can take no credit for her charisma, but for deploying it in just the right shading for each scene, I believe she can. This Vanessa Redgrave does in The Devils, and in so doing, she turns a very good film into a great one.
Also in 1961, Jerzy Kawalerowicz released Mother Joan of the Angels, based on a 1946 Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz novella. It is an excellent film, taking Father Surin, the one true mystic in the Loudun drama, as its central character.
First performed in 1969 and revised multiple times since, Krzysztof Penderecki’s Die Teufel von Loudun, with a libretto based on a German translation of Whiting’s play, is, I find, an opera entirely lacking in dramatic tension. In 1971 Ken Russell made The Devils. In 2016, Frédéric Gros published a fine novel, Possédées, that imaginatively recounts and reflects on the events at Loudun.
Of all these works, only Ken Russell’s film was prevented from finding its audience. Warner Brothers, the distributor, has never explained why they pulled the film. ‘The cocktail of religion, sex and politics is too explosive; the parallels with the events of today are too pointed’: so would go the obvious guess. But why the lingering reticence, decades later, to promote the film? (The partially-restored 2012 release had some impact, I understand, but never made much of a splash.) I find it idle to speculate further, as the reception of a work of art depends on a multiplicity of factors: a definitive pronouncement on the matter is impossible.
I can only hope The Devils’ day will come. Why? Three reasons. First, because in the authoritarian turn the world has taken, the film offers a clear-eyed vision of how autocrats hoodwink citizens, co-opt institutions, break individuals, exploit social divisions, take themselves for the state, torture and murder for ‘reason of state’, fetishize ideology, suppress critical thinking, deaden feeling, spur sensation, and offer amusement-unto-death. If seeing the film wakes up one sleepwalker, that’s one less useful idiot for the autocrat. I am not naïve enough to think that The Devils alone can make a difference—after all, most citizens prefer amusement-unto-death to the burden of responsibility, the coma of consumerism to wide-awake wonder—but I do believe The Devils, like all great art, can reinforce our resistance to all that diminishes us.
The depiction of sexuality as rebellion—more precisely, of women assuming their sexuality, freely disposing of their bodies—is the second reason I long for The Devils’ day to come. The times are increasingly puritanical, and The Devils’ nuns—call them maenads, if you like, call them manipulated, exploited and abused, it doesn’t matter—offer an antidote. Indeed, in their sexual effervescence lies a deeper truth: joyful sex vitalizes what ideology sterilizes.
Michel de Certeau: ‘Many Ursulines fall at this point into despair, to which they are drawn by an experience that is certain but unstable, with doubts and urges intolerable in the language of faith. According to the received theological schemes, all they can do is attribute all this reality to the Devil, recognize him in the infernal shadow spreading out onto their inner landscape and dividing it. But if such is the true story, that of the ‘interior’, it must be expressed, confessed, reintroduced into the social language. To make a pact with the Devil or (which amounts almost to the same thing) to suppose it of someone else, but also to enter into the character of the demoniac, is this not at once, with the cultural material on hand, to allow what is (‘I am a demon’) to come to appear, and to allow a secret that is too burdensome (‘I demand to be known for what I am’) to come into communication? In this respect, the exhibitionism of the nuns allows them to attain a truth with respect to themselves and society.’
Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun, tr. Michael B. Smith (University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 99-100
Whoever would have thought the nuns of Loudun have something to teach the women of today?
A compelling demonstration of the decadence of religion, as relevant today as yesterday: this is the third reason why I long for The Devils’ day to come. Indeed, the film can rewardingly be read as a parable on the difference between morality (the Church) and ethics (Grandier), as outlined in the following chart (from my days as a teacher of ethics at a business school).
The Devils demonstrates Lao Tzu’s insight (referenced in the ethics-morality chart) that is familiarly formulated thus: ‘When the wise man points to the moon, the fool looks at the finger’. To achieve one’s humanity one must respond to the demands of one’s spirit. It’s a kind of quest, in which each one of us is called upon to work on himself. Every individual must undertake it, each in his own way. It’s very hard work, and just about everybody tries to avoid it. Spirituality, conceived as this work on oneself, this work to find ‘the way’, is the moon. Religion—rote recitation, dogma—is the finger. At best, it is a call to find ‘the way’, but it can never be ‘the way’ itself, as fools take it for. In The Devils, Grandier has his eye fixed on the moon, while the Church is fixated on the finger. Ursula Le Guin’s translation of a Lao Tzu poem (which I refer to as the ‘morality arises when goodness is lost’ poem) expresses poetically what The Devils shows cinematically: the distinction between ethics (Grandier) and morality (the Church). I offer it here.
In the degradation of the great way
come benevolence and righteousness.
With the exaltation of learning and prudence
comes immense hypocrisy.
The disordered family
is full of dutiful children and parents.
The disordered society
is full of loyal patriots.
Ursula Le Guin, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (Shambhala, 1998) p. 25
The Devils is a contest of sexuality, religion and power, desire, dogma and dominance; as such, it is both universal and timeless. In Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, Ken Russell found a ‘concrete case study’ in which this contest plays out. His screenplay is a model of cinematic discord and resolution, his direction an exemplar of sculpting in space and time. If, from the trilogy of sexuality, religion and power, Russell chose power as the tent pole of his big top, what gives his film its enduring interest is the way sexuality and religion, even if instrumentalized, both stretch the high wire and excavate under the floorboards, making for a multidimensional drama. For those with eyes to see, Russell’s stylistic exuberance is not simply a display of showmanship, but an attempt to capture something of what Michel de Certeau calls ‘the wild violence of desire’. I take my hat off to The Devils, and hope its day comes before consumerism zombifies all citizens.
Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun, tr. Michael B. Smith (University of Chicago Press, 2000) pp. 99
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By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2021| All rights reserved