Possession in the Grand Siècle: The Devils

Darryl Dee
Wilfrid Laurier University


In 1971 the English filmmaker Ken Russell released The Devils, his depiction of the celebrated seventeenth-century demonic possessions at Loudun and the witchcraft trial of the priest Urban Grandier that followed. For this, he relied on John Whiting’s 1961 stage play of the same name for much of the dialogue and on Aldous Huxley’s famous 1952 novel for most of its historical details. To these elements, however, Russell added his own original interpretation, turning The Devils into what he describes as “my most, indeed my only, political film”—an excoriating attack on the corruption and tyranny of the marriage of church and state. The film was instantly controversial, inciting outraged press headlines and public protests in the UK. Moreover, The Devils’ frank portrayals of sexuality and religious zealotry provoked the British Board of Film Classification as well as Warner Brothers, Russell’s own studio, to demand significant cuts. The film’s original X-rated version was out for just a brief run before it was withdrawn, and, for almost forty years, The Devils was only available in a severely redacted R-rated version.

In 2004, Russell, with extensive assistance from the film critic Mark Kermode, issued The Devils—Director’s Cut on DVD. This version restored most of the censored material. Additionally, the DVD includes a fascinating commentary by Russell, Kermode, Michael Bradsell, The Devils’ editor, and Paul Joyce, director of Hell on Earth, a documentary on the controversies surrounding the film. Unexpurgated, The Devils is an impressive film, unquestionably the masterpiece of Russell’s long, varied and distinguished career. Yet, teachers of history seeking to present their students with a film that accurate portrays the events at Loudun and realistically represents seventeenth-century France are advised to look elsewhere.

Russell’s politics are on display right at the film’s outset. Its opening sequence depicts the decadent court of Louis XIII (played by Graham Armitage), with the king staging an elaborate dance of the birth of Venus before his delighted courtiers. One figure not amused by the royal antics is Cardinal Richelieu (a suitably serpentine Christopher Logue). At the dancing’s conclusion, the cardinal begs the king for permission to create a new France, “one in which church and state are one”; Louis XIII gives his assent with a simple “amen.” Richelieu then dispatches one of his minions, the Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), to tear down the walls of Loudun, the most heavily fortified town in Poitou and the main obstacle to the cardinal’s control over southwestern France.

The scene then shifts to Loudun itself and to the film’s protagonist, Urbain Grandier (a brilliant Oliver Reed). Russell immediately establishes Grandier as a complicated, even contradictory character. On the one hand, he is devoted to protecting his city and its inhabitants from the tyranny of Richelieu. He stops Laubardemont from demolishing Loudun’s fortifications, thus gaining the cardinal’s enmity. On the other hand, Grandier also possesses an unpriestly sensuality. He has an affair with and impregnates the daughter of one of Loudun’s leading bourgeois, who then becomes one of his mortal enemies. But worse yet for Grandier, he becomes an object of erotic obsession for the unstable Jeanne des Anges (an equally brilliant Vanessa Redgrave), the Mother Superior of Loudun’s Ursuline nuns. In one of The Devils’ many controversial scenes, Jeanne experiences a vision of Christ on the cross. Christ transforms into Grandier and descends into her embrace, where she then kisses and licks his wounds.

Grandier’s downfall is set in motion after he enters into a secret marriage with the pious Madeleine (Gemma Jones) and rejects a request from Jeanne to become the Ursulines’ new confessor. The spurned nun accuses Grandier of sending demons to possess her. Laubardemont, seeing an opportunity to rid himself of the troublesome priest, summons the professional witch hunter Father Barré (Michael Gothard, chewing up the scenery) to exorcise the Mother Superior. The exorcism—including the use of a holy water enema—is one of the most outrageous and provocative scenes in the film, staged by Russell to live up to Huxley’s description of “a rape in a public lavatory.” Not content just to prove that their Mother Superior is bewitched by Grandier, Barré goes on to convince the other nuns that they too are possessed by devils summoned by the sorcerer-priest. The witch hunter informs the nuns that until he successfully exorcises them, they are not responsible for their own actions.

Grandier learns of these developments as he is about to leave for the royal court, where he intends to petition the king to spare Loudun’s walls. To Madeleine, he dismisses Jeanne des Anges’ accusations as little more than the slanders of a nun driven to hysterics by the “desert of a frustrated life.” While he is away, however, the situation in Loudun deteriorates drastically. In the town’s main church, Father Barré conducts his exorcisms amid wild debauchery, blasphemy, and pandemonium. This scene was perhaps the most heavily cut and censored in the original film. Mostly restored in the DVD, it still retains the power to shock.

The film then shifts to Grandier’s return from court. Inspired by Madeleine, he has experienced something of a spiritual awakening. Once back in Loudun, he storms into the church and denounces the exorcisms as fraudulent. Laubardemont immediately has him arrested and then put on trial. During the trial, Grandier unleashes a fiery soliloquy in which he attempts to expose the demonic possessions as a plot to eliminate him because he opposes the destruction of the town’s walls, which would leave Loudun defenseless.. The judges ignore him, find him guilty of sorcery, and sentence him to be burned. The climactic scene of The Devils is the execution of Grandier, which Russell portrays with harrowing realism. As a final act of spite, Grandier’s accusers knot the noose meant to strangle the priest before the flames reach him. Grandier is consumed by the fire, screaming all the while that he is innocent and pleading with the people of Loudun to fight Richelieu’s tyranny. As soon as he is dead, Laubardemont gives a signal and the walls of the town are demolished in a series of massive explosions.

The Devils is a visually exuberant, superbly acted film that conveys a powerful current of political outrage. Yet historians will find it of limited use in their classrooms. For The Devils takes a decidedly anachronistic approach both to the specific events it portrays and to seventeenth-century France in general. The anachronisms begin with the look of the film. In the commentary, Russell admits that he has never visited Loudun. For him, Loudun will always be “a city of the imagination.” He had his set designer, a young Derek Jarman, construct the town in the back lot of England’s Pinewood Studios. Jarman chose to depict Loudun as a collection of massive, geometrically severe, starkly black-and-white structures. Russell could not have been more pleased at the final result: “I didn’t want mossy rocks,” he states in the DVD commentary, “these were modern people and to them Loudun was a modern city.” The sets create a stunning backdrop for the film’s action and they are still considered among Jarman’s finest work. For an undergraduate student, however, they convey no impression whatsoever of the actual physical setting of the historical events that the film depicts.

Russell’s explanation for the demonic possessions is equally problematic. He shuns any complex causes, psychological or otherwise, for the behavior of the nuns. Instead, they were simply a severely repressed, bored group of women, mostly the younger daughters of the nobility who had been confined to the convent because their families could not afford to marry them off. When given license by Barré to act with sexual abandon, they indulged in what Russell called “a free for all” as an antidote to their dull, cloistered lives. This explanation was actually proposed by some nineteenth-century historians of Loudun. But modern scholars reject it entirely, arguing instead that the possessions were rooted in a complex combination of causes including mental distress, internecine rivalries among religious orders, and the expression of particularly female forms of Catholic spirituality.[1]

Perhaps the film’s most flagrant anachronisms are found in its treatment of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church. Russell grossly distorts the sexuality of Louis XIII, depicting him as flamboyantly homosexual. He also seriously exaggerates the decadence of court life: in one scene, Protestant prisoners dressed as blackbirds are forced to run a gauntlet of courtiers as the king takes potshots at them with pistols. The result is a grotesque parody of the king and his court that bears little relationship to historical reality.

Ken Russell reserves his most savage satirical strikes for Cardinal Richelieu and the Catholic Church. The film’s main historical source, Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, makes an implicit comparison between McCarthyism and the Church’s role in the Loudun affair. In Russell’s hands, however, the sinister roles of the Cardinal and the Church are pushed much further. Richelieu and the French clergy are portrayed as nothing less than a totalitarian secret police force, a seventeenth-century STASI in clerical garb. This portrayal is driven home in two unforgettable scenes. In the first, the Baron de Laubardemont consults with Richelieu about Urbain Grandier. Their conversation takes place in a massive archive lined with shelves packed with records and files. The Baron reads from one dossier, briefing the Cardinal on the particulars of Grandier’s life. They walk as they converse and all around them priests and nuns busily rush about retrieving documents; some approach Richelieu with papers for him to sign. The implication is that the Church has files on everyone. The scene ends with Laubardemont and Richelieu passing through a pair of massive metal doors emblazoned with a huge red cross. The crucifix recalls a swastika or hammer-and-sickle.

The second scene is the trial of Urban Grandier. The scene is highly stylized and dramatically stunning—it includes Oliver Reed’s finest moments in the film. Yet Russell makes no attempt whatsoever at historical accuracy. The trial is conducted by inquisitors; in reality, Grandier was tried by secular judges. Besides the fact that France had no Inquisition at that time, the inquisitors are fantastically but inaccurately costumed in capirotes, the tall, pointed hoods that were historically worn mainly in Spain and were reserved for penitents. But the most anachronistic element of the scene is the conduct of the trial itself. It bears no resemblance at all to early modern judicial proceedings; it is instead a twentieth-century political show trial.

These anachronisms—and many others could be mentioned—mean that historians seeking to show their students an accurate depiction of seventeenth-century France should pass on The Devils. However, if one lays aside the problem of accuracy, then the film could still raise some valuable questions for class discussion. For example, instructors could show students the scenes depicting Cardinal Richelieu’s machinations, then have students contrast them with his actual actions during the Loudun affair and what these actions reveal about his wider policies. Both Michel de Certeau and Robert Rapley, who has written the fullest English-language account of the Grandier trial, argue that Richelieu only intervened in November 1633, a year after the Loudun possessions began, and that he did so for raison d’État.[2] For the Cardinal, Grandier was a personal enemy (he was suspected to have authored a pamphlet criticizing Richelieu), a threat to the rising absolute monarchy, and the worst type of unruly priest at a time when reform of the French Catholic Church was a pressing political concern; for these reasons, he had to be made an example. Thus, the trial of Urban Grandier was a political trial, but one that needs to be understood in its proper context. Similarly, Russell’s caricature of the possessed nuns could serve as a useful foil to more sophisticated explanations, such as de Certeau’s discussion of a “discourse of possession” or Sluhovsky’s treatment of female spirituality. In short, for all of its shortcomings in terms of historical representation, The Devils could nevertheless spur profitable classroom conversations about the nature of politics in seventeenth-century France or early modern European witchcraft.

Ken Russell, Director, The Devils (1971), 107 min., color, UK, USA, Warner Brothers, BFI Video.

  1. See, for example, Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: the Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun, translated by Michael B. Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); and Moshe Sluhovsky “The Devil in the Convent,” The American Historical Review 107/5 (December 2002), 1379-1411.
  2. Robert Rapley, A Case of Witchcraft: the Trial of Urbain Grandier (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998).




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