Film: Ken Russell: The Devils (1971)

A few weeks ago I saw Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone and gave serious thought to writing it up, but I couldn’t find something to really grapple with in it.  It’s a perfectly respectable movie, clearly written and directed, if unevenly acted and photographed.  Around the same time I saw Nicholas Stoller’s Get Him to the Greek – in exactly the right frame of mind: a bit drunk, surrounded by friends – and felt pretty much the same.  I wasn’t really bored, but neither of these provided a lot of fodder for thought.  They’re both well-intended, breaking no new ground and offering little by way of a unique perspective on the universe.  It’s the case with most films.  Last night I saw a 35mm print of Ken Russell’s The Devils at the Walter Reade, and felt what I felt watching There Will Be Blood or Sátántangó: that I was in the presence of something really, really wonderful, overflowing with ambition, made with a fierce grasp of technique, designed and performed as if it were the first and last film on earth.  To see a film so ferociously executed, so bloated with its maker’s personality as to be seeping at its seams – where most filmmakers retreat, in fear of the sin of self-awareness – well, I mean…this is why I keep watching movies.  I want to see films made by people so sure of their purpose as storytellers and craftsmen that they make new rules for themselves, and for us as we watch.  I want to feel the precipitous vertigo – freed from genre conventions, with anchors aweigh and sails trimmed on a course straight out to sea – of calamitous failure averted.  And not by accident, but because the captain knows his ship and the channel as though they’re both equally a part of him.

Prior to this screening, the film has only been available on a muddy bootleg DVD that includes several scenes censored from the American release.  I’ve watched the film many times, and while it’s always been clear from the bootleg that The Devils is some kind of masterwork, the archival print borrowed from Harvard for the screening reveals its depth of detail and shocking graphic beauty.  Aside from its content, discussion of The Devils tends to go first to Derek Jarman’s set design – and it is awesome.  He’s built an entire walled city of white tiles and black columns; structures, especially interiors, are formally nebulous, but imbue the place with a sort of sterile austerity.  The nunnery always reminds me of a bathhouse – I feel submerged in the blues and whites, among the flowing robes; or perhaps a sewer, trapped behind the bars that open into the grimy street. But for me the film’s crowning achievement lies somewhere amid Russell’s obsessive chaos and David Watkin’s photography of it.  The Devils contains cinematography as texturally cohesive and head-spinningly expressive as anything Bertolucci or Ophuls ever did, not just on the level of exposure and imagery and so forth, but also in its intimation of something like inertia or velocity, of self-perpetuating motion within the film.  There’s a subcategory of kinetics called kinematics, having to do with the motion of objects without consideration of the causes leading to the motion, which seems as close to the sense of intuitive cinematic movement as anything I’ve come across.  A camera need not follow action to justify movement; it has the capacity to whisper in your ear with a swoop or a nod of its own volition, a ruleless extension of the filmmaker’s intuitions.  Like the best of them, Russell has a way of wielding Watkin’s camera as if it were slung straight out from his subconscious, a jib swinging with private precision to snag up visual grace notes we’ll have to feel our way through.  Some find this sort of thing indulgent.  I find it to be the surest sign of a human being at work behind the clothesline for thought and feeling that is, and will always be, a cinematic story.

All the better for The Devils, which is preposterous as a narrative film and full of the sort of historical and philosophical banter that would otherwise sink it in abject silliness.  Oliver Reed is as hammy an actor as Joaquin Phoenix, quickly outgrowing the drama of his characters with flourishes more befitting comedy, but Russell puts him in a film broad enough to contain him, and offsets him with spookily direct and giddy performances by Vanessa Redgrave and Michael Gothard.  The whole thing reeks of Grand Guignol excess, as startling in its carefully sustained chaos as in its carefree combination of naturalism and flamboyance – anything can happen in The Devils, from stuffed crocodiles and 1960s spectacles in a 17th-century French city to nuns masturbating on a crucifix or a piece of charred bone (both deleted from the print shown at Lincoln Center).  I suspect Russell has serious intentions buried deep, deep down inside the making of this film, but he’s happy to swing the rope as far around his head as he can, and let fly with abandon.  The end result is an absolutely mesmerizing cacophony of sound and motion in service of a Salem-like witch hunt.  If The Devils begins in formal precision and a disconcerting moral ambiguity, by its end it has essentially reversed those qualities, rooting its morality firmly within Reed’s priest while the physical world around him dissolves into formal anarchy.  To see and feel this transition over the course of the film is to experience a controlled rattling of the senses and jangling of the nerves for which, in my opinion, Russell and his collaborators deserve enormous credit.  Films like this deserve attention, in their ostentatious obstinance, just for having come to be.

Filmmakers like Russell can be hard to assess.  One the one hand, he worked with apparent freedom all through the ’70s on films with major distribution – by the time he made The Devils (released in 1971) he’d already scored an Oscar nomination for directing Women in Love in 1969.  From the pathetically few films of his I’ve been able to see (Song of Summer: Frederick Delius (1968), a 73-minute episode of the “Omnibus” series; Mahler (1974), Tommy (1975), Altered States (1980), and Whore (1991)), what’s clear is that he doesn’t quite seem to have a fixed style (not a terrible thing for a director who wants to keep working), and the craftsmanship he does bring each time is easily swayed by the peculiarities of each film.  So on the other hand, Altered States is a gloriously beautiful thing to watch, even as you’re shaking your head in dismay at how sentimentally hollow it becomes in its second half.  Song of Summer and Mahler display much of the formality he mastered in The Devils, but Mahler in particular is painful to watch, so stilted in its performances and precious in its self-regard.  He’s at his best when he’s building a rhythm – there’s certainly nothing unimaginative or visually dull about the Pinball Wizard in Tommy, or any sequence you can think of in The Devils – but then there’s always the nagging question of taste: sometimes he just doesn’t display a whole lot (he does his films no favors by casting blank and uncharismatic rock stars like Roger Daltrey…the point of Tommy is mysterious).  A real emptiness tends to creep up around the edges of his energetic showmanship, suggesting it’s all at the service of remarkably little.  The Devils is his loopy exception.  It’s not much of an intellectual exercise, but the frenzy common to his other work feels an intrinsic part of the story here rather than the arbitrary frosting it sometimes is.

The great thing about seeing it, then, at Walter Reade – aside from a reliably good projection – is that you’re surrounded by an appreciative audience, one that will pay attention, and know better for the most part than to yak during the movie.  It’s also a venue that respects the filmmaker; Ken Russell and Vanessa Redgrave were in attendance for a Q&A and general worship.  This was the second time I’ve been in a screening of a Russell film with him there – the first was at Telluride in 2001, which screened Song of Summer along with fragments of his other films – including The Devils, where I made a mental note to catch the whole film one day.  I didn’t recognize him at the time, so when he was introduced a few seats away from me, I hardly expected the rotund old man with the feathery voice.  He’s noticeably older now, and frailer, and has endearingly run out of things to say about his own films.  Which leads me to the downside of a Lincoln Center screening.  The audiences tend to think of themselves as cinephiles, and in the presence of an idol want to impress him with lofty praise and worldly insight into his work.  The sort of comments that first arose after the screening (following Russell’s agonizingly slow shuffle to the stage) had to do with questions of evil and finding hope in the world – something I don’t feel The Devils, tonally, endorses at all.  Nor do I think Russell really thinks so either.  He graciously replied vaguely to this line of thought, then left it to Redgrave to pontificate.

At risk of sounding cagey or curmudgeonly, the tone of this Q&A was all wrong.  I felt like I’d just watched a completely different film than these folks.  Russell had made such a fiercely idiosyncratic picture, one that wasn’t quite reducible to such moralistic inanity.  I suppose there will always be this debate about whether a film ought to be about its story above all, or whether it ought first and foremost to be about its maker’s personal expression, but I began to feel like this audience wanted an experience closer to Winter’s Bone or even Get Him to the Greek: one where we’re all meant to feel included in the experience, as a collective approaching from the same frame of mind, with the same expectations.  One in which a feeling of bewilderment demands mollification.  A Q&A immediately after a film is a tough prospect, because you haven’t had time to process your own response to what you’ve just seen.  It seems to me they should be about hearing a filmmaker’s thoughts, and then asking him how it was to direct a notoriously temperamental guy like Oliver Reed (the one good question, and a fantastic answer from Russell: “Moody 1, Moody 2, or Moody 3.  We usually did Moody 2”).  I badly wish we could all have sat quietly, audience and filmmaker, and regarded each other in silence for a few minutes with our own thoughts.  In my imagination, Russell would have dug that.

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