Colorful devils and angels and other mysterious creatures in a fragment of a mural painted on a white brick wall. From photo of a mural signed by Dominica Harris. I took the photo in New York City in September 2023.

Repression and blasphemy in The Devils

Sex in art needs no excuses, part 3

by AK Krajewska

It's back to sex talk on the blog. I mean art sex talk. This week, I'm going to talk about another film that takes sex as its subject. This post is the third in the series.

My overarching point, which I will remind you of in case it's been a while, or in case you're reading this post first, is that sexuality itself is a legitimate subject of art. In that same post I argued that the usual standards by which we judge the merit of works of art is likely to be ineffective for evaluating art that is about sex.

Last week, I wrote about the sexual joie de vivre of Poor Things. Despite being something like one third sex scenes by weight (according to my highly scientific measurement of guesstimation and vibes), Poor Things was pretty easy to acknowledge as a film and thus art. It had plot, character development, badass costumes and all that. It even won some Oscars!

It also had, as I kind of make obvious in the title of my post, a really joyful vision of sex. The film I discuss this week is rather more troubled and troubling.

The Devils, based on a true story! #

In Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) bottled up sexual obsession erupts as demonic possession of a group of cloistered nuns in 17th century France. A repressed[1] nun develops a sexual obsession with an extremely not repressed priest and soon everyone is running naked and screaming while doing very naughty things with crucifixes. It does not go well for anyone, and the story ends in ashes and tears. The story is based on historical events, the Loudun possessions, and some of the weirdest and saddest shit depicted in the film actually happened.

Vanessa Redgrave in Ken Russell's "The Devils"

Vanessa Redgrave in Ken Russell's The Devils

Because Russel dared to mix religious imagery and themes with extreme sexual acts, the film was very controversial, at times banned, censored, and in fact it's still very difficult to get a hold of even in its edited form. (It's on Criterion through the end of March though.) You can get a supposedly restored version through the naughty-net, but don't--not because it's wrong to steal but because it's basically just a fan edit putting back in the removed "Rape of Christ" scene by taking the bits of it that you can see briefly in the documentary, Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils (2002) [2]. Ken Russell's intended cut of The Devils still exists in Warner's vaults, but they refuse to release it, the cowards!

While there is some loving, fun sex in The Devils it's almost all humiliating, sad, and occasionally horribly violent. Because it's so violently suppressed, when it finally erupts, it's twisted and intense. I think that's what's so interesting about it as a vision of human sexuality. And it's a vivid contrast with Poor Things where there is almost no inhibition and the sexuality flows joyfully.

The heavy philosophy and extremely stylized sets (the walls are so obviously fake and no one cares!) definitely push The Devils into art film territory. Aha, but there is that word! I think that the controversial portrayal of Christian religious figures and iconography are exactly what makes it easier for critics to accept The Devils as legitimate art, even if it's too controversial to be popularly accepted.

The Devils is only partly about sex. It really is more about the abuse of power and the role of clergy in government and justice, and also, oddly, about what genuine religious devotion is and isn't. As a film it depicts blasphemy, but it's not itself blasphemous (a priest agrees with me [3]) which is a pretty subtle artistic and philosophical point to make.

And yet, for sex haters, all the artistic and philosophical merit of the film is destroyed by a nun fucking a partly-incinerated bone.[4] So, to return to my point, even though the The Devils has plenty of qualities that should make it legitimate art and redeem its many sexual scenes, they don't need redeeming, and asking that they should be is a trap. The sexuality is as much a legitimate subject of art as any of the rest of its themes.

Next time #

Oh no, I can't believe I'm not done yet. Yes, next time I will finally talk about Liberté which is like, what if 120 Days of Sodom but consensual? At this rate I'm going to have to rewatch it just so I'm not making things up when I write about it. You're welcome and/or I'm sorry.

About the header art: The image is a fragment from photo of a mural I took in New York City in September 2023, near the Hudson Yards. The mural was signed by Dominica Harris.

  1. You would think all nuns would be repressed, but first no, and second this nun is repressed extra hard. And if you want not-repressed nuns check out The Little Hours (2017). It has Aubrey Plaza being absolutely fucking hilarious. ↩︎

  2. You can also see Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils on Criterion, and I suggest that you watch it either right before or right after The Devils for some cool history, discussion, and surprisingly positive takes on the film from some Catholic priests. ↩︎

  3. See footnote 2. ↩︎

  4. 90% sure that happened. Because I've been writing this series for so long my memory is getting a little vague. Maybe she only looks at the bone lovingly and it's implied she fucks it later. ↩︎