Out of the Celluloid Closet

Derek Jarman gave this iconic 70s flick its wild, hedonistic look

The filmmaker Ken Russell was by all accounts a straight man, which doesn’t explain how he came to make some of the gayest movies in history. In his storied, flamboyant career, Russell directed such chaotically bisexual films as Mahler, The Music Lovers, Gothic (featuring a very hot, very young Julian Sands and Gabriel Byrne) and the Rudolph Valentino biopic to end all Rudolph Valentino biopics.

But perhaps the most violently bisexual film of all is 1971’s The Devils, in which a magnificently unhinged Vanessa Redgrave spars with Oliver Reed at his sexiest. This historical drama has absolutely no reason to be as entertaining as it is—the stage version, starring the absurdly hot Jason Robards and Anne Bancroft, was more sedate—but everything about it works. It’s frantic, sickly, rainbow-colored, and marked by some gloriously wacky performances. And none of it, one senses, would have been half as gay and extravagant had not one budding queer filmmaker been in charge of production design.

That’s right: Jarman—born on this day in 1942—was responsible, in part, for the orgiastic look of The Devils. Before creating his own cinematic masterpieces——from 1986’s Caravaggio to 1993’s Blue—Jarman was making a name for himself in scenic design. Previously to The Devils, he worked with Russell on Savage Messiah, and a stage production of A Rake’s Progress. Jarman also helped create the moody look of the Mozart opera Don Giovanni and other stage hits before his work with the British auteur.

But it was perhaps his time spent on The Devils that gave his first feature—the deliciously gay Sebastiane, a biopic of queer favorite Saint Sebastian—some of its flamboyant charm.

Because The Devils, whether it wanted to be or not, was a gay work from the start. The story of Catholic priest Urbain Grandier begins with a tableaux staged by Louis XIII for his bestie/lover Cardinal Richelieu, and it only gets gayer from there.

By the time we meet Grandier, the soon-to-be disgraced priest whose beauty has set a local convent absolutely agog, we’ve already heard about his legendary beauty, and the way he drives people of all sexes wild with desire.

“Yes, I can see him!” One of the nuns cries after getting a glimpse of Grandier. “He’s the most beautiful man in the world!” One laments the substitution of a still quite handsome Oliver Reed for the actual most beautiful man in the world Jason Robards, but no matter: the words still ring true. The Devils gets away from its fusty subject matter—the long-ago religious wars between Catholics and Protestants for the control of France—by leaning unabashedly into the horniness of its cast. What begins with stately pageants and chaste nuns ends with orgies, burnt Bibles, and the complete downfall of nearly all its characters.

Thanks to Jarman, we don’t have the option to look away. Every frame of the film is stuffed with symbolism, almost to the point of overflowing. Lush brocades of gold compete with ivory shrouds and phallic spikes for the eye’s attention—it’s a banquet of beauty, of the kind that Jarman was to bring to his veil-heavy take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest a decade later.

Can a horny straight film still pull off a queer aesthetic? The Devils surely does, and one senses Jarman can be thanked for this. Before he launched his own career, he got a chance to learn from Russell just how exciting it can be to take visual risks onscreen. Perhaps because of his work on this bizarre, boisterous drama, Jarman found a way to bring a Russellian outrageousness to his own queer works.

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