Gilbey on Film: Hell on earth

The X-rated cut of Ken Russell's <em>The Devils</em> is released on DVD.

Now that every film ever made is available at any hour of the day or night to be delivered to your home in a vial and injected into your cerebral cortex while you sleep, the category of the hard-to-find, persistently-unseen, withdrawn or even banned movie is fast becoming extinct. (And please, don't talk to me about The Human Centipede II.) For many years we had A Clockwork Orange to cling to. Your choices, if you wanted to viddy Kubrick's film, were to get a pain in the gulliver watching a ropey VHS pirate copy with German subtitles, or to hop over to Paris to see it in a cinema. You had to actually, you know, try.

Even once A Clockwork Orange became as easily obtainable as an actual orange, we always had Ken Russell's The Devils to dream about, the director's cut tantalisingly beyond reach. Would it ever be commercially available?

Well, it still isn't. But the next best thing - the X-rated cut seen in UK cinemas in 1971 - is out next week on DVD for the first time in a handsome new BFI release. The most widely available version had hitherto been the butchered US cinema edit, so it's good to know that our eyeballs can now be scalded by images no less pure and scandalous than the ones which caused such uproar more than 40 years ago.

The film's story, rooted in historical fact, demands nothing less than a visual and sonic representation of hell. Russell obliges - and then some. The sexual hysteria of an entire convent in 17th-century Loudun, sparked by the repressed fantasies of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), coincides with the efforts of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) to raze the fortified city's defences and dissolve its independent governance. The focus of these campaigns, one sexual and the other religio-political, falls coincidentally on a single man: Loudun's hulking, deeply flawed but principled priest Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). As the one persistent obstacle to Richelieu, as well as the unobtainable object of Sister Jeanne's desires, he is doubly vulnerable. The film's demonstration of how church and state do each other's bidding to bring down Grandier, and Loudun itself, is as compelling as it is appalling.

Back in 1971, there was a predictable brouhaha over the movie's sexual explicitness, violence and, most of all, depictions of blasphemy that led to the film itself being wrongly branded blasphemous. Even now the imagery is shocking. What's changed is that most audiences will accept the intentions behind it as entirely honourable. (Though before we congratulate ourselves too heartily on our sophisticated response, we should remember that a rescue attempt is unlikely to be made on behalf of Peter Greenaway's 1992 The Baby of Mâcon, a movie comparable in its conscientious horrors, but without a large and vocal following on its side.)

The chronology of the censorship battles over The Devils are documented in a booklet accompanying the DVD, and in the 2002 documentary, Hell on Earth, presented by Mark Kermode (who has been instrumental in gathering up censored footage presumed destroyed) and included among the disc's plentiful DVD extras. (Check out Kermode here discussing the absence from the current cut of the notorious "Rape of Christ" sequence, which was removed before the picture was ever exhibited publicly.)

That's the furore. What of the film? My immediate reaction, not having seen it before this week, is that it's Russell's strongest work by some distance, bolstered by its ferocious, articulate political passion and rendered with a perverse beauty.

To say it shows no sign of its age would be an understatement. The instincts of Russell and his set designer (then-newcomer Derek Jarman) in plumping for stylised expressionism over historical accuracy have been vindicated. The fresh, zinging white tiles and brickwork of the sets was designed both to reflect a phrase in The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley's book about the same historical events, which described what took place in the city as akin to "a rape in a public toilet", and to simultaneously insulate the picture from historical remoteness. The emphasis on the monochromatic led Russell to describe it as "a black and white film shot in colour"; it's interesting to note how the extensive use of white has protected both The Devils and George Lucas's THX 1138 (also released in 1971) from the ravages of four decades and all the intervening trends and fashions.

As promised by the brash opening sequence, depicting Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) dragged up as Venus in a cabaret floorshow, The Devils is a film about performance. Everyone here is putting on a show of some manner. From the King's pantomime cruelty (gunning down Protestants dressed as blackbirds) to Grandier's priapic, strutting vanity; from Sister Jeanne's writhing ecstasy to the grand and repellent orgies it fosters; from the lip-smacking opportunists performing public humiliations on Sister Jeanne to the rock-star-like Father Barre (Michael Gothard), preening in his Lennon specs; and, finally, to the gruelling public execution at the movie's climax, Russell shows torment and fallibility being exploited for political capital. Peter Maxwell Davies's wailing, abrasive score sounds suitably aggrieved by it all, as though the instruments themselves were being tortured along with Grandier.

"The Devils" is released by the BFI in a 2-disc special edition on 19 March.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.