RIP Ken Russell (1927-2011)

Earlier today I learned that controversial English film director Ken Russell passed away on Sunday, aged 84. First things first, if you have a problem with representations of sex and nudity or with critical takes on (Christian) religion, you probably should quit reading this post right now. And you certainly shouldn’t click on any of the embedded youtube-videos. After all, this is Ken Russell we’re talking about, and that name alone should suffice as a trigger warning…

Personally, I have to admit, I’m not sure where I stand regarding Russell’s work. It’s not that I mind his predilection for controversial topics or his fondness for naked women appearing on screen in the most unexpected situations; it’s just that with some of his movies I’m not sure if they’re actually any good. I mean, yes, they’re highly provocative and all but that alone doesn’t make them great works of art. The problem here is, I guess, that I first encountered Russell’s work way too early in my life. You see, through my father’s record collection and the musical tastes of my then best friend’s teenage brother, I got turned on to 1960s rock and pop at a very tender age: I was jumping and jivin’ to the Beatles when I was about five or six, was listening to the Kinks and the Who by the time I was eight, and first saw the Rolling Stones live at age eleven (on what was then rumored to be their last tour, lol). It was around that same time I first saw Ken Russell’s 1975 movie adaption of the Who‘s rock-opera Tommy and, frankly, I didn’t get it:

A few years later – I must have been about sixteen – I watched another of Russell’s 1970s films, Listzomania (1975). Like Tommy it features Who singer Roger Daltrey in the lead role (as composer Franz Liszt), but there’s also Ringo Starr making an appearance as the pope and, swarming around them, there’s a whole cast of naked and semi-naked women. As promising as this sounds when you’re a straight 16-year-old guy with a penchant for the Beatles, the Who and female nudity, the movie actually left me befuddled and bewildered rather than enraptured and enthused. For a long time afterwards, I was convinced that the essence of Ken Russell’s work was perfectly summarised in this 23-second clip by Monty Python:

I was, of course, wrong. Many of Russell’s films are brilliantly intense, most notably of course his controversial 1971 masterpiece The Devils – a movie which, as Wikipedia puts it, “faced harsh reaction from national film rating systems, due to its disturbingly violent, sexual, and religious content” and “was banned in several countries, and heavily edited for release in others. The film has never received a release in its original, uncut form in various countries, and is largely unavailable in the home video market.”

Set in 17th century France, The Devils tells the story of a community of nuns who may or may not be possessed by the devil, but are definitely sexually obsessive, and a priest who becomes the focus of their obsessions and eventually ends up torn and tortured and is put to a gruesome death after being (wrongly) accused and found guilty of practising witchcraft. What made (and makes) it so disturbing especially for conservative and Christian audiences is its idiosyncratic mix of religion, sex and graphic violence. Even though some of the more extreme sequences had been shortened or edited out even before the film’s release, the version that made it to the cinemas still contained plenty of scenes that didn’t go down too well with a certain segment of the public. Take, for example, this scene where Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) has a vision of engaging in a highly passionate way with the crucified Christ (Oliver Reed):

I get it that it may seem weird and probably wrong to the present-day viewer to see a nun French kissing Christ and licking his side wound. But in spite of what the religious zealots among Russell’s critics would have you believe, the correct term to describe such a scene is not blasphemous, not even inappropriate but historically accurate. Seriously, in the old days, that’s just what nuns did (at least in their daydreams and visions). As Caroline Walker Bynum has reminded us,* many medieval and early modern mystics and saints had visions of drinking blood from Christ’s side wound and were frequently depicted that way, the most prominent example being St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380):

Sano di Pietro: St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, mid-15th century, Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

And as for the kissing and embracing, many of those mystics had visions of making out with Christ, too. For instance, in the Life of St. Gertrud the Great (1256-1302), written immediately after her death, we read that she always carried a wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ with her and used to kiss, caress and embrace said figure. Then one night, just when she had said good-night to her pet-Christ, Gertrud’s biographer informs us, “the Lord extended his right arm as if from the cross and put it around her shoulder, and placed his rosy mouth at her ear, sweetly whispering that she should listen to his love song“.

St. Catherine and St. Gertrud weren’t the only medieval mystic to envision such bodily encounters with Christ. A large number of similar accounts, many of them autobiographical, survive from the Middle Ages and from the Early Modern era. One of the most explicit among them is surely this one, dating from the early 12th century:

I stood before the altar and saw on it, right in the centre, the cross of our Lord. As I looked at it more carefully, I recognised Jesus with his open eyes upon me. This wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to touch him with my hands, embrace and kiss him. But what should I do? The altar was too high for me to reach him. As soon as he saw this thought of mine and my longing, he longed for me too. For I felt that he wanted it, and through his volition the altar opened up and took me in as I was walking into it. Having entered so quickly, I clasped him, whom my soul loves, held him, embraced him and kissed him very long. I felt how much he welcomed this sign of my love for, among the kisses, he himself opened his mouth so that I could kiss him more deeply.

Now I understand if some of you should think “whoa, that’s no way for a decent nun to embrace faith”. Well, if you’re inclined to think like that, the good news is: The above piece of autobiographical confession wasn’t written by a nun at all. The bad news then, however, is: It was written by a monk, more precisely by Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075-1129), one of the most important theologians and exegetes of his time. And yes, as you’d expect he goes on to say how the above piece of sexual fantasy shouldn’t be taken literally but really had some deeper allegorical meaning. Well, I’m sure his therapist had a lot to say on that subject. And I do wonder what M. J. Ailes would make of it


* See: Caroline Walker Bynum, The Female Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages, in: Fragmentation and Redemption.  Essays of Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion,  New York 1991, pp. 181-238.

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