Ken Russell: The Old Devil

It’s been 40 years since Southampton boy Ken Russell filmed his notorious The Devils. Stuart Jeffries asks him about saints, sinners and the most frightening film he ever saw

We’re meeting because Russell’s notorious film The Devils will be shown in a rare uncut screening on Sunday at the East End film festival. Filmgoers will be able to savour its so-called “rape of Christ” sequence in which 17th-century French Ursuline nuns defiled a statue of Jesus during an orgy – not to mention the scene in which Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) masturbates with a charred bone from a burned priest played by Oliver Reed. Plenty of other sequences kept censors the world over in business. The Devils had the singular fate of winning a silver ribbon for best foreign film from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists in 1972, while being banned throughout Italy.

Russell’s film was adapted from Aldous Huxley’s 1952 non-fiction novel The Devils of Loudon, as well as John Whiting’s follow-up 1960 play The Devils. They were all inspired by the notorious case of supposed demonic possession in 17th-century France, in which a charismatic Catholic priest, Urbain Grandier, was accused of bewitching nuns. The accusation was trumped up by Richelieu as an excuse to destroy a Protestant stronghold.

Russell takes even more liberties with this material than Huxley. Why portray the king as a cross-dressing homosexual who shoots Protestants dressed as birds in his royal park for fun? “Because that’s exactly as I saw him,” says Russell.

(Source: Grauniad)

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