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Controversial & Classic – Film Reviews: ‘Performance’ & ‘The Devils’

As a mid-teen I discovered my two favourite British films. Performance shocked and enraptured me from the first viewing, whereas it took many years for The Devils to have its mind-blowing effect. Interestingly both films were made within a few years of each other: Performance in 1968 and The Devils in 1971. The latter is without doubt one of the most controversial movies ever made, and every print of the film was cut until missing footage was discovered some years ago.

This missing footage is one of the most notorious scenes in film history, and is called ‘the rape of Christ’. It features hysterical nuns removing an effigy of Christ from the wall and making love to it. No wonder the film has the reputation it does. I fortuitously came across a download (not that I’m in favour of such things, but needs must) from a friend that features that scene cut back into the film. With or without it the movie pushes boundaries, and even now is still shocking, deep, intelligent and thought-provoking. Performance hits a lot of the same notes, and both marry style to substance in a way that arguably places them high in the rankings of great films, and high on my personal list.


Performance plants you right in the midst of swinging late-sixties London, and foreshadows the end of the hippie dream with a nightmarish feel. Despite this, the film is a record of a time and place that is second-to-none. The experimental and mythic feeling of that decade, which I and many others grew up hearing about from the older generation as if it was a new dawn in civilization, is reflected in its ground-breaking editing style and visuals.

The film was a collaboration between two directors, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell. Roeg would become one of the great British innovators of cinema, directing movies such as the haunting artistic triumph Don’t Look Now and the 1990 version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which haunted my dreams as a kid. Cammell would make a few films of merit, but is more known as a master emotional manipulator, testified by Keith Richards in his book Life.

Richards got to know Cammell through two of the stars of Performance, Mick Jagger and his then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, whose introduction to the film’s world is a realistic sex scene. So realistic, it is said in legend, that Richards became angry and went right out and slept with Jagger’s then-girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull. The movie is much more than just a footnote in the story of The Rolling Stones; it is a deconstruction of the idea of art and performance, and the insanity that can go with both.

Londoner Chas (James Fox) is an up-and-coming gangster in a crime syndicate, and when a job goes wrong he has to hide out in the flat of bohemian musician Turner (Jagger). He takes psychedelic drugs and lives out an intense trip, wherein the walls of reality become hazy. Many who take psychedelics don’t come back, and according to the film’s lore, Cox took the drugs for real, and never did again in real life.

Parts of the first half and almost the entirety of the second are a fever dream of surreal visuals with peaceful lulls, like the experience of a trip. There is experimentation with different film stocks, such as 16mm, and naturalistic performances (Jagger basically plays himself). Editing-wise there is use of jump cuts, a technique still in its infancy, and scenes that bring in moments which connect to altogether different parts of the film’s story, to startling visual effect. The effect of jumbling up a narrative in this manner is reflective of Roeg’s philosophy on making movies. He made them so that they would not be straightforward, but haphazard, like the contents of the characters’ minds.

To combine all of these elements imbues Performance with a mesmeric power, which for the time was groundbreaking. To the more cynical viewer this may seem pretentious, but to me the communication of psychedelia and the descent into insanity on film has never been so potently conveyed.

The soundtrack, as you would expect considering who is involved in the film, is outstanding. Atmospheric cuts from Ry Cooder and Randy Newman sit alongside Jagger originals, none more searing and gut-wrenching than the song ‘Memo From Turner’, which scores one of the most intensely surreal sequences of the film. A filmic record of the end of perhaps the most important decade in music, art and humanity, Performance documents its decline with true immersion and intelligence.

Performance was made in 1968, and was so controversial in previews, reportedly making one woman vomit, that it was shelved until 1970 and released heavily cut. Only in later years did the film receive the reappraisal it deserves, and was restored to its original form.

Rent Performance on the BFi Player

The Devils

A year later a film would be made that would eclipse Performance in controversy and notoriety, and is every bit as brilliant: Ken Russell’s The Devils.

Russell had previously worked as a television director, but by 1970 had begun to find his voice with the movies Women In Love and The Music Lovers. The former scored major Oscar success and broke boundaries with its naked male wrestling scene, while the latter left room for the bizarre nature of Russell’s style and his knack for incredible visuals. With The Devils these aspects of his style are elevated to artistic heights, and highlight him as one of the great visionary directors.

Looking at this film now, I think it is one of the monumental achievements of cinema. Dismissed and tarred with the brush of blasphemy at the time, it reveals much about the human condition and the repressive nature of religion. The film is anything but subtle in portraying these ideas. Naked nuns vomit breast milk, Oliver Reed’s priest is burned at the stake and the Mother Superior (played by Vanessa Redgrave, no less) sexually fantasises about Reed as a Christ-like figure; and these are just a few of the still-shocking images from the film.

Father Urbain Grandier (Reed) is the priest of a city called Loudun, situated in the south of France during the late 17th century. Cardinal Richelieu wishes to raze the city to the ground, whereas Grandier seeks to protect it. Richelieu hatches a disgraceful plan: to threaten the nuns in the town with death unless they pretend Grandier has possessed them.

Based on real events and the 1958 Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudun, Russell presents a surreal yet convincing world, a dream-like version of this time in history. Performances, emotions and visuals are heightened and every shot is meticulously lit and arranged, drawing the viewer in.

Although not having seen many of Oliver Reed’s films, his performance here is one of my favourites. A philandering priest who has high ideals but has done no wrong, the journey of Grandier is magnificently conveyed, especially when he is tried in a farcical court. Reed’s emotive ability is mesmerising. Vanessa Redgrave matches Reed at every turn, with a truly manic and twisted performance. The film’s final shot, Redgrave walking away from the scene of Reed being burned at the stake, is one of my favourite images in film history; once seen, never forgotten.

The Devils is arguably one of the bravest commentaries on the nature of religion in the history of art. Russell himself said the film is about how the principles of religion had been degraded, and he himself was a Catholic until his death in 2011. My personal framing of picture leans towards the repressive nature of religion. To make such a film at the beginning of the 1970s, when the sexual freedom of the previous decade had faded and there was a return to conservatism in Britain, means Russell must be congratulated. Something he was not at the time by the Catholic church and the BBFC censors.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of national institution Mark Kermode, The Devils has been reappraised in recent years and the missing footage discovered, with many calling it a landmark in British cinema. For me and many others, Performance is just as important, and I hope you readers will be inspired to check them out. Don’t expect easy viewing – but then, most film-as-art is not meant to be.

Watch The Devils on Shutter

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