chapter
Excursus II: The Devils, possession, and truth-telling
Pages 13

Ken Russell’s film The Devils (1971) focuses on a crisis situation in seventeenth-century Loudun that turned the whole town into a ‘theater’ (Certeau 1996: 199). It is a divisive film. To some, it is Ken Russell’s masterpiece. In an interview included with the DVD version of the film, Russell claims that The Devils is his ‘most, [indeed] only political film’. Many others, though, have condemned the film for being shockingly pornographic and satanic, and it was censored in the United Kingdom and the United States for many years. The film is based on Aldous Huxley’s documentary novel The Devils of

Loudun (1952) and John Whiting’s play The Devils (1965). It deals with political, religious, and sexual corruption around two related themes, possession and exorcism, and problematizes the relationship between love and politics. It is set in Loudun, a Protestant stronghold in Louis XIII’s France, in the year 1634, when feudal law is on the verge of losing its power. It opens with a regal spectacle. As the camera focuses on a seventeenth-

century baroque play, The Birth of Venus, we realize that the king, Louis XIII, is himself acting in it. This scene, a play within the play, immediately introduces us to an elementary aspect of power: its theatricality. Certainly the sense of the world as theater had existed before, but in seventeenth-century Europe that sense was significantly intense. Thus action in the public sphere and role-playing were seen to be analogous activities (Schmitt 2009: 40-41). Sovereignty, too, was on stage. Thus this initial scene must be read as a reference to the significance of the spectacle for the events to come. As the audience is cheering and exclaiming we notice Cardinal Richelieu

among the crowd. He is bored, yawning. We instantly sense a tension between the king and the cardinal, the state and the church. ‘A most original conception, Your Majesty, the birth of Venus’, Richelieu says to Louis XIII. In reality, however, he is more interested in assisting the king in the birth of a new France, ‘where church and state are one’. ‘Amen’, says the king to this, sarcastically. At this moment, the camera focuses on the faces of the two men, and the title of the film appears, coinciding with their faces. ‘And may the Protestant be driven from the land’. Hereby the dominant ideology of the time is revealed: the unification of the state and the church – nation-building – which means the end of the autonomy of (self-governing) cities.