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.