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How ‘The Devils’ holds a mirror up to today’s society

Learning from history.

The Devils from director Ken Russell is the type of movie that would have been catnip to me as a child. The 1971 film was originally abandoned by United Artists who felt it was too extreme in nature. Once Warner Brothers did release the movie, it was given the dreaded X rating in the United Kingdom and United States. Various cuts have been released with horror streaming service Shudder currently showing the 109 minute U.S. version. It is regarded as one of the most controversial movies of all time. 

The film is about a Roman Catholic priest named Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) who is inadvertently accused of witchcraft by a sexually repressed nun named Sister Jeanne des Anges. (Vanessa Redgrave) This leads to a series of events that include torture, orgies, and death. It is no wonder the film was banned in some countries until this century. 

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Abuse of power and mass hysteria are majors theme of The Devils. This is seen most obviously in the trial against Grandier. Logic and sanity are thrown out as he is publicly shamed, obvious lies are taken as truth, and he is eventually burned at the stake. The madness continues even when the authenticity of the possessions are called into question.

 The Devils, 1971 - Nun/Witch: States of Exception

These scenes are a direct parallel to today’s world. On a daily basis, rumors are spread online. In many cases, they are malicious and nonsensical, yet this does not report many from repeating them as gospel. This is the case even when the story has been discredited through truth. One only look at the previous Presidential Administration in the United States for examples. 

The Devils also tackles sexual repression head on. On the surface, this may not seem relatable in today’s world. While there is still room to grow, there is more open dialogue now than there ever was about sexuality. Russell seems more like a provocateur who is using sex to overheat his audience instead of promote genuine conversation. 

That is the genius of the film. It knows how to mix in the in your face nature of the farcical trials with the more subtle approach it takes towards sex. This is not to say The Devils is coy in its handling of sexual relations. In truth, it is bawdy and lewd. What makes the movie relevant today is its willingness to discuss these issues. The country was going through a big change regarding rights of women and minorities in the early 1970s. For women, this meant putting them in more action oriented roles while still objectifying them.

How 'The Devils' holds a mirror up to today's society

The Devils decides to play with the idea of the demure woman. Going beyond the “women also get horny” trope that was considered progress (the sad thing is, comparatively speaking, it was), the story visits the idea of sexual obsession and manipulation. This is a topic that can be played out in a number of different ways in a modern film. Unfortunately, the current news cycles is filled with stories of public figures being stalked through social media. This sometimes leads to dangerous real life encounters. 

Even more telling is how the men in power in The Devils use other women’s words against them to control the narrative. When Anges decides to tell Father Mignon about Grandier’s secret marriage, she makes a passing comment about possession. The union is largely ignored while a “professional witch hunter” uses Anges to obtain evidence that Grandier is in league with the Devil. 

These moments are some of the most sickening in the film. Anges is physically abused and psychologically broken down in order to demean her and get her to say what is “right”. At the end of The Devils, she is looked at as being demented for stating Grandier is innocent and placed in an asylum.

How 'The Devils' holds a mirror up to today's society

 There is more conversation now regarding sexual assault, but much of what occurs in The Devils still rings true today. As much as many will spout it is important to believe all women, there are still those who only believe women who say what they want to hear. Victims are often painted as liars, manipulative, and somehow putting themselves in harm’s way. There are even some states that legitimize sexual assault by stating it is consensual if the victim willingly got drunk.

Even the best films from the past find it difficult to stay relevant decades later. They may be entertaining to watch, but they are also tied to a certain period. They are timeless due to the quality of work or superficial themes like “love”. This is not a bad thing; it is the nature of art. The Devils manages to be the rare older movie that can hold up a mirror up to modern society. Its open approach to sexuality and its commentary on public frenzy are reflected in the headlines of the day. It is just as important and controversial now as it ever has been.

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