Ken Russell, the director of Women in Love, The Boy Friend, and Altered States, died Sunday, Nov. 27, at the age of 84. Coincidentally, the British Film Institute, with much fanfare, announced several months ago that it would be releasing for the first time on DVD the X-rated version of Russell’s The Devils, a mix of history, political intrigue, religious fanaticism, and unbridled sex in 17th-century France. The X-rated version is purported to be the uncut version of The Devils. Well, it’s not, really.
Adapted by Russell from John Whiting’s 1960 play and Aldous Huxley’s 1952 historical novel The Devils of Loudun, The Devils stars Vanessa Redgrave (in lieu of a recalcitrant Glenda Jackson) as Loudun’s Ursuline convent head Sister Jeanne, a neurotic, physically deformed woman who is sexually obsessed with local priest Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed). Following a series of “possessions” in the convent, Grandier is convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake.
As the BBC’s Mark Kermode and blogger Allan McInnis explain, missing from the bfi’s The Devils DVD will be the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence and the “charred tibia masturbation scene,” both featured in Russell’s original director’s cut and unearthed by Kermode in 2002. The former is an orgy sequence in which the nuns at Loudun’s Ursuline convent let go of their libidinal “thou shalt nots” and have sex with one another, with priests, and with assorted religious icons, including an oversized statue of Christ on the cross. The latter features Sister Jeanne masturbating with what’s left of her beloved Father Grandier, i.e., the aforementioned charred tibia.
The Devils was banned outright in a number of countries. In the United States, the Motion Picture Association of America’s demands led to the elemination of several scenes featuring sex acts and kinky religious visions. The until recently rarely seen Warner Bros.-released R-rated print of The Devils became the only available version of the film for decades. The bfi’s The Devils DVD is slated to come out in March 2012.
In addition to Redgrave and Reed, The Devils features Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton, Murray Melvin, Max Adrian, Michael Gothard, Georgina Hale, and Brian Murphy.
Check out this Ken Russell interview with Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian, and these The Devils reviews at E-Film Blog and Mondo Film & Video Guide. And below is a sequence featuring one of Sister Jeanne’s erotically charged religious visions.