Filmgoers not familiar with Russell's highly imaginative television biographies were unsettled when The Music Lovers did not turn out to be a conventional cinematic biography of a composer, as they had anticipated. They were even more unprepared for Russell's baroque rendering of the story of religious conflicts in seventeenth-century France, The Devils (1971), which Russell based on John Whiting's play of the same name and on Aldous Huxley's book The Devils of Loudun.Phillips, pages 256-257:
The central character of The Devils is Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), who leads the people of the city of Loudun in opposition to Cardinal Richelieu's plan to destroy the walls that make their city independent of the crown and therefore able to resist Richelieu's efforts to centralize the French government. Richelieu's minions take advantage of the fact that Grandier is known to have been guilty of several sexual indiscretions to accuse him of having corrupted, as Satan's agent, an entire convent of Ursuline nuns, starting with the Prioress, Mother Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave). In the ensuing hysteria, Grandier is tried, convicted, and burned at the stake, and the city walls are reduced to rubble.
"What particularly drew me to the subject matter of The Devils," Russell says, "was the fact that it reflected an instance of the collision of the individual with the State. We know from history that the State usually survives while the individual loses out in these cases; but I wanted to examine what lasting impact the individual still has, even when he loses."
Russell, who was converted to Roman Catholicism in 1957 and still regards himself fundamentally as a Catholic, insists that The Devils is a Christian film about a sinner who becomes a saint. "The film has some things to say about the Church," he says, "but the Church will survive it." Like Gerald in Women in Love and Tchaikovsky, Grandier wants to achieve a more noble level of existence. "Grandier is a mixture of good and bad qualities," Russell says; "he knows what he should do, but he often doesn't do it, as Saint Paul once said. Then he gets the opportunity to stand up against Richelieu in order to preserve the rights of the city and he does so. In this crisis his good qualities come to the surface and he dies a Christian martyr for his people."
Asked about the vividness with which he portrayed the bizarre events in The Devils, Russell replied, "Once I had decided to do The Devils, I had to go along with the truth as it was reported. I had to show the violent atmosphere that the plague had created at the time, for instance, in order to explain how ordinary people could stand by and allow a man they knew to be innocent to die a hideous death. They had become calloused as the result of the plague. When there is death on every doorstep, the death of a man like Grandier becomes inconsequential, an everyday occurrence. That is why the crowd behaved at his burning as if they were attending a football match."
...Russell then made a highly commercial science-fiction film, Altered States (1980). The plot revolves around the experiment that Eddie Jessup, a Harvard psychologist (William Hurt), conducts on himself by submerging himself in a sensory deprivation tank while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. His purpose is to propel himself backward to the birth of his own consciousness and beyond that the dawn of human consciousness itself in order to more deeply comprehend the meaning of human existence as it has evolved down through the centuries.
When I spoke with Russell on the set in Hollywood, he said that Altered States reflects the religious preoccupations that often surface in his movies. Jessup goes to great lengths to obtain an experimental knowledge of the mysteries of the universe such as God has not vouchsafed to grant to any other human being, Russell explained; and the film immplies that "Jessup is wrong in arrogantly trying to wrest from God by force a grasp of divine truth that can only be God-given."
In effect Jessup is succumbing to the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge because of the blandishments of the satanic tempter who appeared to them in the guise of a serpent and advised them that, if they did so, they would become as wise as God Himself. Russell visualizes this concept in one of the fantasy sequences that punctuate Altered States. This particular hallucination is the result of Jessup's having eaten some mysterious mushrooms as part of an ancient tribal rite, in which we see him participate in the film's Mexican sequence.
In this dream vision Jessup and his wife Emily (Blair Brown) appear as a twentieth-century Adam and Eve, sitting under a beach umbrella but dressed in nineteenth-century outfits that give the vision a timeless quality. The serpent about to tempt the latter-day Adam and Eve in this fantasy is coiled around the spokes of the mushroom-shaped umbrella, which in turn erupts into the mushroom cloud of an atommic explosion. This image symbolizes the sin of pride Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden as the source of war and other kinds of large-scale disasters thorughout human history, as well as causing personal calamities in the live of individuals like Jessup, who nearly destroys himself and everything he loves because of his prideful obsession with piercing the mysteries of the universe. Happily in Jessup's case he finally comes to his senses, both literally and figuratively, with the aid of his devoted wife, whose love for him finally helps him to triumph over his inner compulsions.