Ken Russell’s 1971 film deliberately sets out to shock and does so with a verve and an integrity of purpose that few films can equal. The shock does not simply reside in its subject matter of religious hysteria, taken from the Aldous Huxley book The Devils of Loudun and a 1961 play by John Whiting, also based on the Huxley book, but arrives in a 360-degree arc. There is the disgusting body horror of the plague, the soundtrack by Peter Maxwell Davies, hell-bent on giving an aural rendering of Pandemonium, and the radically shifting tone of the film, which lurches from low comedy to high tragedy, often in the same shot.
It is 17th-century France and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) conspires to have the battlements of various French towns torn down. When Baron De Laubardemont (played by Tinker from Lovejoy, Dudley Sutton) tries to carry out the orders in Loudun the charismatic but deeply flawed priest, Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), intervenes, having been given control of the town by the dying Governor. Unfortunately, Grandier has made a series of powerful enemies, including the Baron, a pair of conniving quack doctors and a noble, whose daughter Grandier has impregnated, and Grandier is set for a fall. This promptly happens, when rumours of his secret marriage to Madeleine (Gemma Jones in her debut) incense the local convent. Unwittingly, Grandier has become the object of the nuns’ repressed lust, and a specific dream object of Vanessa Redgrave’s hunchback Sister Jeanne. During a hysterical outburst, Sister Jeanne names Grandier as being party to a demonic possession of several of the sisterhood. The reenactment of the hysteria is itself hysterical, and of course Russell leaves himself open to the criticism that he ‘goes too far’. But thank god. His camera doesn’t just show an orgy of cavorting nuns, but leaps right in and takes part. With a disapproving priest masturbating under his cassock the camera starts a delirious zooming in and out, in and out, in and out until … oh… my.
Aside from the orgies and the enemas and the frolicking nuns and what not, Russell has great fun with the satire. One of the quacks, Adam (Brian Murphy, famous as George from George and Mildred), while assisting in the exorcism, comments, ‘nice day… bit chilly, but still…’ to Sister Jeanne. A disguised King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) also assists and in the process exposes the whole thing as a sham, but rather than denounce the rock’ n’ roll exorcist (a fantastic performance by the tragically wasted Michael Gothard), he sees it as all part of the fun. After all, his monarchy is based on an empty box of sorts and he shows himself to be a keen fan of the theatre. ‘Enjoy yourself,’ he tells Sister Jeanne.
The tragedy comes with Grandier’s fall. Oliver Reed is magnificent. His Grandier is carelessly witty and licentious and yet convincingly heroic. In the shambolic comedy of the trial, he maintains a credible dignity and indeed begins to rise to grandeur. Only Reed could deliver the line ‘Go away, De Lauberdemont, you grow tedious’ while he is being tortured and make you at once laugh and feel crushing sorrow. His tormentors and Russell refuse him every consolation, and in a particularly horrific moment his illegitimate son is held up so the ‘lucky bastard can watch his father burn’. Of course, as the flames climb high it is no longer Grandier who burns, but all of Loudun and us as well.
The film looks wonderful - sets designed by Derek Jarman - and the healthy punkish nihilism, the anger, is as relevant today as it ever was. We could have a paean to what might have been, if Warners hadn’t so hated the film and if Oliver Reed and Russell had formed a collaborative partnership similar to Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog that somehow balanced their crazy talents, but as one of the most outstanding 70s films to come out of Britain, I am simply thankful that it is at last (almost all) here.