Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fantasia Day 12 - The Devils (and halfway through!)

The Devils was my 16th film this year, which puts me over the halfway mark. I have to admit to a bit of blogging ennui, but I will push through. The best training comes when you are the most tired.

The screening of The Devils was another special affair. I go to these classic films and special events without a lot of expectations beyond "I should really see this film and here is a great opportunity." Then the show starts and I realize that this is a hugely important film with legions of fans. I think Ken Russell got a longer standing ovation than the team from Re-Animator. He was very physically frail and while still quite eloquent and articulate, you can see that his mind is weary as well. He repeated himself in his otherwise interesting introduction. He explained the context of the film, that it is based on a true story of a town whose main priest was undone in order to weaken its independence. He went on to lay out the story in a bit too much detail for my taste, but I couldn't really yell out "NO SPOILERS!" to the venerable and respected director of the film, now could I?

Mitch also explained how much Warner Brothers resisted giving Fantasia the film. At first, they suggested the only print in Canada, which is in such terrible condition that it's basically not showable. They would not allow Fantasia to use the longer, European cut. Finally, with pressure coming from multiple fronts, they sent Fantasia the video master. It really wasn't too bad, though there were some light diagonal lines early on in some of the whites. My wife, having seen the print in film school, did not come because it wasn't on film. Her loss! I would really love to know why Warner Brothers is sitting on this film. Often, these things are simply business decisions, that there just isn't enough potential commercial value for them to make the effort to remaster and re-release it. But there was a lot of controversy around this film and it is a very direct attack on organized religion and power and I would not be surprised if there are lobby groups waiting in the wings to give anyone trouble who wants to release it again.

Also, I sat next to a stylish couple who had won the tickets through a contest at CBC radio. I was quite convinced that they were from Toronto due to the guy's safe accessorizing, glasses and structureless jacket, but I inferred that they are local. Westmount hipsters? West Islanders in the design trade? You don't usually see that type here in Montreal. He was unable to reciprocate conversation with me (another thing that made me think he was from Toronto), but she was very friendly and seemed quite well-informed about the movie. She said the interview with Ken Russell on the CBC was quite funny (I suspect it was on Homerun, but I can't find a recording or mention of it anywhere). What was interesting is when she said that she had won the tickets on the radio, I think she basically assumed that I would know that she was talking about the CBC. I like that. I remember when that's the way it was among a certain set in Canada.

The Devils takes place in France in the 17th century, where the Catholic Church, under Cardinal Richilieu, was attempting to consolidate power over the whole country. The town of Loudon maintained a certain autonomy in the wars between the Protestants and the Catholics, due to a strong governor with ties to the King and walls that protected the city. At the start of the movie (after a hilarious performance by the decadent and foppish king), the governor has died and the power of the town rests in the hands of charismatic priest, Father Grandier (played by the always welcome Oliver Reed). The cardinal and the local military leaders, seeing Loudon as a keystone that blocks the rest of the region from coming under their sway, hatches a plan to undermine the priest by attacking his faith. Conveniently, the leader of the wacky nunnery is utterly obsessed by Father Grandier, and they easily get her to say that he ravished her and possessed her with devils. And the medieval, doctrinal fun and hypocrisy really gets going!

At it's base, The Devils is a very straightforward tale of political power using religious dogma to suppress freedom. What makes it stand out artistically is the incredible design. What makes it stand out today, is how blatant and direct an attack it is on the established order and and the extreme and cynical portrayal of the church and military leaders. I can't think of a movie today that is as condemning of the hypocrisy of Christianity and the Catholic Church. There is not a hint of any real spirituality in any of the representatives of the church, except Father Grandier himself and the woman he loves. Everyone else is portrayed as being utterly cynical and unbelieving, from the Cardinal himself, to the Baron who is overseeing the plot, to Father Barré, the exorcist who looks like one of the Rolling Stones. Religion is only a means to manipulate the people and justify the destruction of the city walls. The Devils could very easily be a critique of the justifications for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Visually, it is beautiful and lavish, though utterly unrealistic. It's like somebody took a medieval town and cast a magic early-70s glam rainbow wand on it and transformed it into a bizarre costume party for elite London hipsters. Everything is clean and of white brick, though the surrounding landscape is appropriately dreary. The portrayal of the king and his court is especially decadent and awesome. He has fun shooting protestant prisoners dressed as blackbirds and released from gilded cages to taunting courtiers.

After the film, I ran into an ex-colleague of mine who turns out to be a huge Ken Russell fan. He explained how Tommy changed the way he looked at film. He was quite proud of his Ken Russell VHS collection he has at home. I never would have thought that videotapes would be collectible, but there must exist quite a few films that were released in VHS format but have not yet gotten a DVD release. So dig around in those sale bins at the dying video rental store!

The Devils is a great film and deserves (and has received I'm quite sure) proper analysis from people smarter than myself. I simply throw out these observations as they came to me. Ultimately, I am really glad I went. It was an entertaining and educating evening and I am definitely going to add his films to my future watch list.

(edit: I just read the wikipedia entry on The Devils and I think I found two of the scenes that were cut from the version we saw: one was the nuns, after the king's healing relic is shown to be fake, they sexually assault and desecrate a statue of (the) Christ and two Sister Jeanne (the awesomely disturbing Vanessa Redgrave) masturbates with the charred bone of Grandier. Oh man I would love to see those scenes. Fucking censors.)

(edit 2: The real history, as Ken Russell so strongly emphasized in his introduction, is pretty wacky! I strongly suggest you take a look at the wikipedia page on the real Loudon Possessions. "The possessions failed to stop after Father Grandier's execution. The exorcisms had been so appreciated by the public of Loudun that they became a type of tourist attraction at the convent. Nuns would lift their skirts and beg for sexual attention, beat their heads, walk on their hands, and use obscene language." Man, sexual repression has some seriously crazy side effects.)

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