Abstract and Keywords
This chapter details the synopsis of Ken Russell's The Devils (1973). Set in seventeenth-century France, the film tells the story of influential secular priest Urbain Grandier, who holds interim powers in the city of Loudun following the death of Governor Sainte-Marthe. A chronic womaniser, the vainglorious Grandier begins a relationship with the daughter of a plague victim. The film also tells the story of Sister Jeanne, the abbess of the local Ursuline convent, who entertains wild sexual fantasies about Grandier and invites him to be the order's new confessor. After being disappointed when Father Mignon became the new confessor instead of Grandier, Sister Jeanne tells Mignon that Grandier is a servant of Satan who has placed her, and the rest of the convent, under a spell of lewd desire. A kangaroo court finds Grandier guilty of sorcery, and he's sentenced to death by burning.
France, the seventeenth century. Cardinal Richelieu, fearful of Huguenot uprisings, is determined to centralise power in the country by stripping cities of their autonomy. One such city, Loudun, is targeted for defortification, but the move is blocked by influential secular priest Urbain Grandier, who holds interim powers in the city following the death of Governor Sainte-Marthe. A chronic womaniser, the vainglorious Grandier impregnates and largely abandons Phillipe, the daughter of Trincant, Loudun’s magistrate, who himself is subsequently mocked by the priest. While comforting a plague victim on her deathbed and angrily expelling a chemist and a surgeon who are gleefully administering barbaric, supposedly curative methods to the patient, Grandier encounters the woman’s daughter, Madeleine, and the two begin a relationship.
Sister Jeanne, the abbess of the local Ursuline convent, entertains wild sexual fantasies about Grandier and invites him to be the order’s new confessor. Grandier has secretly married Madeleine, although the ceremony is surveilled by both the chemist and the surgeon Grandier had previously clashed with; Jeanne is distraught when she learns of the marriage through her own nuns. However, she regains some hope when she’s informed that the new confessor has arrived, but is crestfallen when it’s revealed to be Trincant’s cousin, Father Mignon. An embittered Jeanne tells Mignon that Grandier is a servant of Satan who has placed her, and the rest of the convent, under a spell of lewd desire. (p.14)
Grandier temporarily leaves the city to seek assurance from King Louis XIII, a carefree, flamboyant monarch who guaranteed Loudun’s safety when Sainte-Marthe was alive. Louis is completely uninterested in and bored by politics, and his indifference to state matters makes it easy for Richelieu to assert his influence. In Grandier’s absence, Mignon and Baron de Laubardemont—Richelieu’s bellicose emissary, who was thwarted in his attempt to demolish Loudun’s walls—plot to find evidence of Jeanne’s accusations.
Jeanne is subjected to a grotesque public exorcism presided over by Father Barré, a zealous and seemingly unhinged priest recruited by Laubardemont. As the ritual descends into chaos, the nuns try to save Jeanne from her ordeal; Laubardemont orders that they be executed for their insubordination, but Barré intervenes at the last moment and claims the nuns are suffering from the same affliction as Jeanne. He exhorts them to behave in as blasphemous a manner as possible, and a disguised King Louis visits the apparently possessed order, who are now completely hysterical and almost invariably naked.
Highly amused by these chaotic scenes, Louis suggests to Barré that a phial of Christ’s own blood might help cure the nuns. An awestruck Barré carefully takes the container from the king, and the nuns are instantly calmed. Louis then opens the box containing the phial, revealing it to be empty. Because of this crucial exposé, the nuns return to their hysterical state and their behaviour grows even more outrageous: a bible is burned, a large church candle is masturbated and fellated, and a life-sized crucifix is ripped from (p.15) an altar and used as a prop for a series of sexual acts.
Grandier returns and is appalled as he witnesses the chaos for himself, and both he and Madeleine are arrested. A kangaroo court finds Grandier guilty of sorcery, and he’s sentenced to death by burning. Before his execution, Grandier is ecclesiastically tortured but refuses to confess to the bogus charges. A remorseful Jeanne attempts suicide, and her subsequent proclamation of Grandier’s innocence is dismissed as the work of the evil spirits which inhabit her. A baying crowd—including Trincant, Phillipe and the baby she’s now given birth to—witness Grandier being burned alive, with his executioner having failed to get past the flames in order to perform a planned, merciful strangulation. Mignon realises they’ve executed an innocent man, and is later consigned to an asylum for his perceived ravings.
While the burning is taking place, Laubardemont wastes no time in ordering the destruction of the city walls. Now Jeanne has served her purpose, Laubardemont visits her and speaks of the sad, lonely life which awaits the nun. He leaves her a ‘souvenir’ in the form of Grandier’s charred femur, which Jeanne later masturbates with. As Grandier’s ashes are scattered to the four winds, a bedraggled Madeleine is seen walking away from the city and its ruined fortifications. (p.16)