Cinema: Madhouse Notes

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Madhouse Notes The drowning of a young couple in Women in Love and the Swiss idyll corrupted by an epicene aristocrat. The aborted honeymoon in the swaying railway car in The Music Lovers and Nina Ivanovna's dementia. With each new film. Ken Russell has become increasingly obsessed with madness—which is dangerously like a kind of madness in itself. Now, in The Devils, he has made a delirious fresco about the insanity of the witch hunts in 17th century France. It is a movie so unsparingly vivid in its imagery, so totally successful in conveying an atmosphere of uncontrolled hysteria that Russell himself seems like a man possessed.

There have been movies like The Devils before, but only a very few: the Swedish silent Witchcraft Through the Ages, Pasolini's Teorema, Kenneth Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother. The Devils, however, is rendered on a far grander scale than any of these. It is like a lunatic opera, an attempt to make a furious poem out of frenzy. Russell's flamboyant theatricality and his interest in the perverse have been too much imposed on his other films; but here, style and subject are perfectly matched. The film does not work as drama. But as a glimpse of hell it is superbly, frighten ingly effective.

Russell's film script is based on both Aldous Huxley's sardonic history The Devils of Loudun and a play by John Whiting. It presents the Jesuit Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) as a sexually profligate and politically dangerous priest who threatens the intricate schemes of the insatiable Cardinal Richelieu. To gain control of the walled city of Loudun—thus crushing a steadfast fortress of independence in France —Richelieu and his minions engineer a trial at which Grandier stands accused of inducing hysteria in a convent of Ursuline nuns.

The superior, Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave), is racked by divine visions of sexual intensity, or "sex in the head" as Huxley had it, echoing D.H. Lawrence. "As heroic passion, it is one of the last infirmities of noble mind. As imagined sensuality, it is one of the first infirmities of the insane mind." But it is an infirmity intense enough to destroy Grandier and reduce the walls of Loudun to rubble.

The scenario is fairly clear-cut; it is the mise en scéne that is so complex. Cinematographer David Watkin (Catch-22, The Charge of the Light Brigade) lights the sumptuous sets to give a consistent aura of hallucination. Russell lashes his actors into a histrionic verve that is reminiscent in equal parts of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Living Theater and Bedlam. The supporting cast (Dudley Sutton and Michael Gothard most prominent among them) act like a chorus and look like creatures from a Bosch triptych. Oliver Reed is suitably forceful as Grandier; it is indeed his best performance. Vanessa Redgrave, a consummate actress, is fine as Sister Jeanne, except that she tends to get lost amidst all the sound and fury.

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