Double Bill: The Devils (1971 – Ken Russell) and Mother Joan of the Angels (1960 – Jerzy Kawalerowicz)


One of the greatest tricks the devil played was to convince the world that he doesn’t exist.

One of his other tricks was the invention of salad cream.

Sometimes cinema has played great tricks on us.  Films have disappeared for a while, their images whispered and half remembered by generations of fans.  In these years their power only grows, so much so, that mere celluloid struggles to contain them.  If a photograph captures someone’s soul, how many souls are contained within a single reel?

Cinema is the only medium that can truly capture the devil, for where else do we sit in devoted silence at glorious images of violence and sex?  The terror of these images will be too much for many people.  They will condemn and fear them.  Some of these cowards will be studio executives.  Some of them will never see the film, the hints and rumours of it enough to make them yearn to protect the innocent.  Cinema corrupts.  It opens your mind and takes you somewhere else – the very corruption of your sense of self and place and being in the world.

Imagine missing out on The Devils.  Imagine never seeing it.  Some of it remains unseen, the 2004 semi-restoration of Ken Russell’s pre-censor cut seen by only a handful.  I’m not sure I want to see it.  I like the fact that it is out of reach (like god himself) to most of us.

The Devils and Mother Joan of the Angels are two films based on the true (or as true as any of these stories can be) events concerning the possession of a group of nuns in Loudan in 1634.  Ken Russell’s film is set before (though filmed ten years later) than Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s contribution.

Cinema has an obsession with possession.  Understandable given it’s one of the best ways to describe the process of acting – something within you making you behave differently.  Neither film is particularly interested in deconstructing the nun’s behaviour, whether it is true possession, hysteria or a deeply political act designed to remove certain individuals (Father Grandier, played by Oliver Reed in Russell’s film) from power and influence.  Watching the two films together helps you realise that the possession continued well beyond any political ambition was achieved.

So perhaps it’s hysteria? These women, likely to be younger siblings in the family, are sent to a life of isolation and devotion.  No contact with the outside world.  No touch.  The man who plays the largest role in your life is Jesus Christ, represented through the repetition of fairy stories and elaborate carvings and paintings.  You are forbidden to talk for much of the day.  You lose your sense of self as you conform to the ridiculous elaborate rituals conducted by your religion.  The repression of sex continues to wreak its havoc upon the faithful.  It’s enough to make anyone go mad.

And yet in this a man stands unafraid to die.  He will not lie about a supposed pact with Satan in order to survive.  He stands, faithful.  Christ-like.   Does this inspire devotion?  No, for the nuns it is an irrelevance.  There is no divinity in this man.  The only man they are interested in recognising is their Father.

Priests are shown respect (no doubt in an act they invented themselves) in being greeted by having their rings kissed.  It’s an act so close to fellatio that it’s almost absurd.  In Mother Joan, Father Jozef Suryn insists on unobserved isolated exorcism between himself and Mother Joan.  Her salvation can only come from maleness, thrust upon her.  Suryn struggles with his task – he seeks advice from a Rabbi…who turns out to be himself.  There is no omnipotent deity to provide salvation, the only hope, and the thinnest of hopes it is, comes from yourself.  And that salvation is unlikely to be that radical – it’s impossible for it to be too far removed from your own prejudices.

In both films singing and dancing represent the truest form of blasphemy.  It is outrageous.  Catholicism, which dresses its priests in dresses, seems to have a problem with camp.  The nuns, used to their life of repression and omission, rebel by embracing the physical.  We as the viewer are touched by this movement (two of the most physical acts known to man, dancing and car chases are often well captured by cinema).  For something we can only see, we are so often moved by movies.

The Devils is noted for the astonishing production design from Derek Jarman – all stark modernist, gleaming white interiors.  The beauty of the architecture transforms into the beauty of physical movement in Kawalerowicz’s film.  But within both, Sister Jeanne/Joan (played by Vanessa Redgrave and Lucyna Winnicka respectively) is beguiling.  Freedom is always far more attractive than repression.

Neither film offers salvation, for perhaps there is none to provide.  How can there be within such a finite medium?  All we have to offer are the end credits, a moment to reflect on the past two hours we spent in seventeenth-century France.  The women are trapped in their possession forever.  Does it matter?  Perhaps that possession was the one time they were truly able to express themselves in their life.

Perhaps the greatest trick we can do is capture the evidence of devil onto silver nitrate for eternity.

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