The charms of Ken Russell films have always escaped me in the past but this is reputed to be his masterpiece and a groundbreaking piece of cinema so it had to be worth a try. And what a repayment on the effort! It’s not an easy watch, and it is little surprise that it’s offended censors, particularly in the USA; its depictions of religious-sexual hysteria could have been deliberately designed to offend the conservatively religious (and perhaps were).
The background to the film is the tail-end of the Wars of Religion in 17th Century France when, after the peace established by Henry IV and the Edict of Nantes, Cardinal Richelieu took a more doctrinaire attitude towards Protestantism and systematically weakened the independence of Huguenot cities of the South West. This was done both for religious ‘purity’ and also for political reasons, as he established a more centralised state around the person of the King (here, Louis XIII).
The particular case is the (historically broadly true) story of Loudun. As the governor of the city is dead with plague, the rule of Loudin is taken by a priest, the charismatic and humane, but fatally flawed, Grandier (Oliver Reed), both appointed as regent by the previous governor and a favourite of the King. But one of Richelieu’s agents, Baron De Laubardemont (a magnificently ironic turn from Dudly Sutton) arrives to take down the city walls. In a face-off between Grandier and Laubardemont, there is a stalemate, with advantage to Grandier. Grandier goes to plead the city’s case to the King and seems to be in a strong position. But Grandier has weaknesses; he has a history of sexual liaisons, dangerous for a priest, and has fallen in love, to the extent of heretically marrying his lover Madeleine (Gemma Jones). Also, unknown to him, he has become the object of fascination to the Nuns of a local convent, and particularly the hunchbacked Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), who is about to unleash accusations against Grandier that will tear Loudun apart.
The film has standout performances from Redgrave and Reed; it’s hardly a surprise that Redgrave could turn in a performance like that but, amidst his descent into alcoholism, it was easy to forget just how good Reed really was. It also boasts some fantastic cinematography and a soundtrack by Peter Maxwell Davies that absolutely works in establishing a disturbing, fractured and scary mood. Add in what looks like a witchfinder, Barre (Michael Gothard) who looks like he’s come directly from Carnaby Street and naked nuns given license to behave as madly, not just as they want, but as madly as they can (in order to save their own skins) and you have a disturbing and utterly memorable spectacle of the horrors unleashed when religious fanaticism, self-interest, political opportunism and outright sadism coalesce.
A brilliant film.