Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Battle Royale" and "The Devils"

In the past week, two of the most controversial, and in some circles most beloved cult films, are finally getting legitimate home media releases on DVD and Blu-Ray. One is "Battle Royale," Kinji Fukasaku's bloody tale of a class of normal junior high students, who are obliged by society to participate in a yearly competition where they are shipped off to a remote island, and ordered to kill each other off, as only the final survivor gets to go home. Released in Japan back in 2000, the film was greeted in the US with varying levels of disapproval, particularly for its graphic violence mixed with the young age of the "Battle Royale" participants. Of course, twelve years later we're a few days away from the release of "The Hunger Games," which features a variation on the same idea: teenagers pitted against each other in government mandated killing games.

The major difference between the two, I think, is probably going to come down to the levels of satire and violence. When I first saw "Battle Royale," years ago when the movie was being passed around by college students and Asian video stores stocked bootleg copies of fansubbed Region 2 releases, I was suitably impressed with how bloody it was. However, I was also put off by the very adolescent level of the melodrama. Contrary to some assertions I've seen online, you don't need to mix "Battle Royale" with "Twilight" to get "The Hunger Games." "Battle Royale" was oozing with teenage angst and drama from the outset. Subsequent viewings underlined the jarring juxtaposition of the twisted violence and schoolyard clich├ęs. As a result, sometimes the film came off as very dark comedy, bordering on camp. Suddenly childish grudges, social alienation, and all the usual problems that plague regular teenagers became matters of life and death when the kids were suddenly armed and dangerous.

I expect that "The Hunger Games" is going to steer well clear of poking fun at any social conventions, or any "Lord of the Flies" type ruminations on the dark side of human nature, preferring to elevate the teenage combatants like Katniss Everdeen as heroes, and placing the blame on more amorphous institutions like government and the media. In that sense, I doubt it's going to be nearly as effective or as interesting a piece of social commentary as "Battle Royale." Its director, Fukusaku, claimed that "Battle Royale" came about as a result of his own experiences during World War II as a fifteen-year-old, coming face to face with death and mayhem. And perhaps that's why the violence in "Battle Royale," while shocking, doesn't seem particularly exploitative or unnecessary. I have high hopes for "The Hunger Games," but I also hope people will be spurred by the comparisons to "Battle Royale" to take a look at how someone else tackled the same themes, in a more raw and unfiltered way.

Now, on to "The Devils." I haven't seen the full, unedited version of "The Devils." Most people haven't, since the 1971 film about a priest being tried for witchcraft in 17th century France has been heavily censored since its release, if not outright banned in many countries. The version being released this week by the British Film Institute in the UK is still missing several minutes of the most controversial scenes, but it's probably about as complete a version that we're ever going to see on home media. Like "Battle Royale," this is another film I saw years ago (on VHS!) when it was being passed around by my fellow junior cineastes as a piece of must-see extreme cinema. I saw Pasolini's notorious "Salo" around the same time, and I remember much preferring "The Devils" because it had such a wonderfully wicked sense of humor about it.

The story involves a sexually repressed and frustrated nun, Sister Jeanne played with teeth-gnashing panache by Vanessa Redgrave, who claims to be possessed by devils. She places the blame on the priest she secretly lusts after, Grandier, portrayed by Oliver Reed. Witch hunters and exorcists are brought in, and many of Sister Jeanne's fellow nuns in the Ursuline sisterhood are found to be similarly possessed. The women are prompted to engage in all kinds of blasphemous behavior by the unscrupulous inquisitors. One particular sequence of a statue of Jesus being desecrated during an orgy in a church has been called out for being especially heinous. Grandier, whose subsequent persecution is largely politically motivated, finds himself scapegoated for all the sacrilege, then subjected to graphic torture before being burned alive at the stake.

"The Devils" is a deeply cynical film about religion that calls out the church for hypocrisy and corruption. It's also incredibly exuberant and almost flamboyant in its venality. The orgy scenes have an almost Felliniesque circus attraction quality to them. There is copious footage of the nuns cavorting about without their habits, or any other clothing for that matter, that is oddly delightful in its total lack of boundaries. While all of this sexual content was not strictly necessary to the story, it's used extremely well, both to illustrate the heights of hysteria provoked by the church's lunatic inquisitors, and to contrast against the equally graphic physical violence meted out to Grandier in the second half of the film. Compared to other notorious X-rated films of the time like "Caligula," the content in "The Devils" comes across as far more meaningful and well-considered. There's a point to all the naked people and the sexual profligacy, and it's a strong one.

Forty years ago, it was Warner Brothers that backed and financed this film. The studio has since regretted their involvement and decided to sit on the rights and keep "The Devils" out of circulation. And so the film has been largely unseen through legitimate means until now. It still doesn't look like we'll be getting a home media release in the States anytime soon.

Oh well. I know a guy with some VHS tapes.
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