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a vial and injected into your cerebral cortex while you sleep, the category of the hard-to-find, persistently-unseen, withdrawn or even banned movie is fast becoming extinct.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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From Loving to Gold, the films gripped by homebuilding in America

In all three films, capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked.

If you’ve been to the movies in the last couple of weeks, you might have seen a film set in a Southern US state. In it, a man drives out into the countryside, and finds a square of untouched land. Maybe he brings his wife with him. He stands on the land and imagines a future in which he has built his own tiny empire on this patch of earth.

Gold, Loving and The Founder, all released in the UK in the last fortnight, are all twentieth century-set films that touch on ideas of the American Dream, and all contain variations of this scene.

Loving would be the story of a typical all-American couple living out their white picket fence dreams, if it weren’t for the regressive laws that invalidate their interracial marriage and see them banned from their home state.

We first catch a glimpse of the domestic life they long for when Richard Loving drives his girlfriend, Mildred, out into a field near where she grew up. “Whatcha think?” he asks her. “Do you like it?”

“You mean this field?” she replies. “This field not a mile from my house that I’ve been knowin’ all my life?”

“I want to put the kitchen right back here,” he says, before beginning to explain. “I bought it. This whole acre. I’m gonna build you a house right here. Our house.” The violins swell suggestively, and Richard proposes.

The scene functions as a way to both paint a picture of the idyllic life that Mildred and Richard were well on track to attain: only a few scenes later we’re abruptly reminded that the deception of the American Dream, perhaps particularly in this period, is that it’s open to all, “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.

In Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) begins to make his fortune when he builds a successful gold mine in Indonesia. Shortly after his discovery, he drives his girlfriend Kay into a field at Maggie’s Creek.

She steps out of the car with her hands over her eyes. When she opens them, Kenny announces, “It’s gonna be our place, away from it all, above it all, just like we always wanted. You like it?”

When she breathlessly says she does, he begins planning: “Ok, look. The house, right here, alright? The kitchen, facing there, the great room over here, two fireplaces…”

“Can we afford this?” Kay asks.

“Almost, baby, almost,” Kenny says. “We’re almost there. Now look at this, a couple of bedrooms on this end, couple on that end. Look at this playground for the kids! How many kids do you wanna have?”

Kenny’s financial success working the land in Indonesia and the domestic bliss he could achieve building his own home back in the States are intrinsinctly linked in one upward movement, dreams achieved through persistance, self-belief and the ability to visualise a perfect future.

In The Founder, we veer slightly from these familial images. We see the McDonald brothers lovingly sketch out the floor plans for their fast food restaurants over and over again with chalk on tennis courts.

“What if the fryer goes here?” they mutter, trying to find the perfect organisation of stations to maximise productivity and efficiency. Meanwhile, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the man whose vision will ultimately eclipse theirs, drives out to a patch of land and grasps the earth in his hand, whispering to it.

We’ve seen tropes like this before: take the abandoned home trope, for example. In films like It’s A Wonderful LifeThe Notebook and Up, male protagonists adopt abandoned buildings their wives and girlfriends have romanticised in some way, and with physical, rather than financial, effort, transform these crumbling structures into a family house. There’s an idealistic quality to these scenes that suggest any American can stumble across the perfect home and move in, and present a communal attitude to landowning like something out of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.

But the scenes in these recent three films suggest something rather different - capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked. The success of Richard’s construction business and mechanic work allows him to buy the land where he can build Mildred’s home, while Kenny’s goldmine enables him to purchase a shiny new estate for Kay. Ray’s emotional connection with the ground comes after he realises that he’s “not in the fast food business,” he’s “in the real estate business”. The McDonald brothers put the love, care and attention into the floorplans of their restaurants usually reserved for domestic homebuilding. There are tonal and contextual differences in these scenes, but they all see familial and commercial spheres merge over floorplans. 

But these movies also suggest that there is a lie inherent in the idea that rampant capitalism can lead to domestic bliss. Mildred and Richard are told that the life they have built together means nothing by a Virgina courtroom. Kay and Kenny’s relationship breaks down as his financial success becomes more and more impossible. And as for the McDonald brothers? Both they, and Kenny in Gold, must later face the gut-churning realisation that as their businesses are built on land owned by somebody else, they can be taken away from them, with little to no financial compensation.

There’s a nostalgia to these films – in the blissful life Richard and Loving begin to glimpse towards the end of Loving, after their court case has been won; in the pioneering, take-life-by-the-horns spirit of Kenny Wells and Ray Kroc that secures them their fortunes.

But the Woody Guthrie spirit of “This Land is our Land” has changed its meaning over time: written while Guthrie was paying rent to Donald Trump’s father, it’s now been adopted by protesters at anti-Trump marches. And all these films also cast a retrospectively sceptical eye over the social and economic contexts in which their stories are set.

In an America helmed by the ultimate real estate capitalist with his own regressive views, there is an eerily well-timed hint of cynicism at play. The ideals of the American Dream – that you can prosper regardless of your heritage or background if you just work hard – are fragile. And you can be locked out of your home, however hard you worked in building it. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.