France 1634: To get the country in their grip, church & state have
united to drive out the protestants - or kill them, whatever comes in more
handy -, & unite the Catholic church under Cardinal Richelieu
(Christopher Logue). & Richelieu & King Louis XIII (Graham
Armitage) celebrate their successes as triumphs, even though ozutside
their narrow minds, the Black Plague slowly takes its toll.
the city of Loudon, led by its priest father Grandier (Oliver Reed) puts
up resistance against plans of church & state, as Grandier neither
wants the Protestants expelled or executed, nor does he want the citywalls
torn down. & Grandier even has the city guards behind him, should need
So Richelieu & Louis XIII have to cook up another plan to
get rid of the rebellious churchman ...
In Loudon, Grandier is
known as quite a womanizer, who has impregnated quite a few girls, despite
his cloth, so it is of little wonder that he has not only made friends in
the city. Plus, the Ursulian Nuns seem to all haqve fallen in love with
the attractive soft-spoken priest, especially their hunchbacked mother
superior sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). But all of a sudden, only
one girl has caught Grandier's eye, virtuous Madeleine (Gemma Jones),
& this time the love is for real (& hers, too).
In a private
ceremony he marries himself to her & figures that would set everything
straight ... big mistake: Before long, sister Jeanne has learned of this,
& sells him off to Richelieu, the king, & their executor Baron
De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), & soon they have the splendid
idea of making Grandier the target of a witch-hunt, & thus hire
üprofessional absent minded witchhunter Barre (Michael Gothard) to
introduce his trade to Loudon ... & his first victim for questioning
(well, torturing) is sister Jeanne herself, who soon regrets having
betrayed Grandier & even revokes her confession ... but to no avail,
since Barre expects different answers, & has ways of getting them.
Barre has turned Loudon, & especially the nunnery, into a place of sin
& abandon that makes the womanizing priest look positively pale, &
sex & orgies prevail for the sole cause to get a testimony for the
sins of father Grandier ... which Barre finally gets, which leads to a
carte blanche for questining (torturing) Grandier & finally condemn
him to death on the stake in a mock trial.
As their priest is burned,
the decadent citizens of Loudon cheer on, oblivious to the poitics behind
the execution, & really, the minute Grandier has finally been burned
to death, Loudon is blown up ...
After Michael Reeves' Witchfinder
General had become a huge success in the late 1960's, it did spawn
a plethora of other witchhunt-movies. Of course, most of them were
formulaic (if often charming) drivel ... but The Devils was the big
exception. Directed by Ken Russell, who invariably puts his personal
visions over genre conventions or historical accuracy, the film has become
an absurd, orgiastic tale of sex & violence, full of provocations
towards the Catholic Church, macabre imagery, political satire & black
humour, that had little to do with the dead-serious Witchfinder
General or any of its rip-offs (e.g. Mark of the Devil, The
Bloody Judge) ... but would of course run into problems with censors
& church (which was to be expected).
The film itself manages to
unite all its diverse elements - from sex to violence to satire - with
ease, never once forgetting to entertain the audience because of some
lofty goals, & (of course) features great, often anachronistic sets
& is carried by great performances (above all Oliver Reed & his
nemesis Dudley Sutton).