Criterion Review: #626 LES VISITEURS DU SOIR (dir. Marcel Carné) 1942
THE FILM: Marcel Carne’s Les Visiteurs du Soir is one of those films that comes rich with history, but nevertheless — to contemporary viewers — risks being viewed through the lens of kitsch. It’s an unabashedly earnest slice of medieval fantasy, a convincingly earnest tale of love’s conquering power, the kind of film in which chains are literally broken by one heart’s need for another, and even the Devil is susceptible to the beguiling charms of a beautiful woman. Les Visiteurs du Soir (“The Devil’s Envoys”) was a sensation when it was first released in occupied France on December 4th, 1942, perhaps the country’s most successful movie of the wartime era, but divorced from its context it feels rather blithe and soft, like a cutesy warm-up to the epoch-defining epic that Carné would make next (The Children of Paradise). Of course, when the film was first released in the dead of winter, dodging the vicious collaborating censors and inspiring French audiences to form queues several blocks deep, it wasn’t seen as a stiff and poetically sensitive drama, but rather as an urgent inspiration to an occupied people, a reminder that evil is petty and short-lived, and that hope is always the greatest choice of all.
Les Visiteurs du Soir begins with two of the devil’s envoys (hey!) riding across the French countryside disguised as minstrels on horseback (well, they’re pretending to be minstrels, but I suppose that the horses are real). There’s Gilles (a brawny Alain Cuny, rocking / anticipating a mean Ziggy Stardust haircut), and Dominique (the raven-haired, gender-bending Arletty) — there’s the past between them, and the mischief they aim to cause. They clomp upon a beautiful castle in the hills, the domain of the buffoonish Baron Hugues, who happens to be in the midst of hosting his daughter’s wedding. The Baron’s daughter, Anne (Marie Déa) is scheduled to marry the testosterone-mad warlord Renaud. But then the Devil’s pranksters start to get involved, and chaos reigns, with things going so far off the rails that the Devil himself (Jules Berry) soon has to show up and get the situation under control.
There’s a composed and magisterial quality to the film’s early portions, and Carnés’ essence as a showman with a fierce and romantic righteous streak is allowed to come to the fore. There’s something smirkingly sinister to the scenes in which Gilles and Dominique first arrive at the Baron’s castle (maybe it’s the hooded little people, whose satanic chants are pure nightmare fuel?) and the lavish production values only serve to underscore the enormity of the feelings at stake. Carné was already a budding master by the time he shot Les Visiteurs du Soir, but he was still something of a dabbler, and the memorable banquet sequence that first brings all of the film’s characters together beautifully subverts the integrity of the film image to express its poetic nature, anticipating Cocteau’s Orpheus by using the mechanics of dreams to stress the urgency of the present. This passage is so richly transportive, and so elegantly establishes the geography of the romances to come, that the formal stiffness to which Carné then commits has a somewhat deadening effect. Les Visiteurs du Soir progresses with the tone and ribaldry of a Shakespearian comedy, but it’s too simple to sustain much interest beyond its ample allegorical power (Arletty may not be a redeemed character, but her subdued performance emanates with a stoic resistance, and grippingly communicates the extent to which the production of this film was a brave act of sly defiance).
It’s only when the Devil arrives that Les Visiteurs du Soir transcends its historical value — Berry’s impish self-interest and the bargaining it inspires from his playthings certainly works as an allegory for Hitler’s maniacal march across Europe, but Carné empowers the character with the same fable-like banality that suffocates the story’s mortal lovers , allowing the Devil to be so unthinkingly cruel that his every betrayal underscores the enduring need for love and decency. Obviously, the Devil doesn’t enter the story primed to become the hero, but the renewing optimism that first made the film such a blockbuster is most indelibly expressed not through the prosaic promises of romance, but through the specter of hatred and the reliability of its frustration. Les Visiteurs du Soir endures because it knows that while evil is inevitable, it can never be complete.
THE TRANSFER: Criterion’s blu-ray is beautiful, so pristine that it never hints at the film’s contentious history. The contrast is sharp, the black & white picture clear, and all of the (very minor) annoyances seem to be inherited. As I so often say, I can’t imagine the film ever looking better on home video.
THE EXTRAS: Typically, when Criterion simultaneously releases two films by the same director, they load all of their best supplements onto the more prestigious of the titles and sell the bastard one at a discount (see: Summer With Monika / Summer Interlude). It’s the same deal with Carné, as their new Children of Paradise blu-ray is loaded with creamy goodness, while Les Visiteurs du Soir is left with just a 38-minute documentary. Fortunately for us, that documentary — bluntly titled “The Making of Les Visiteurs du Soir” is vital stuff, rich with interviews that provide pivotal context for the film’s inception and release. Also, the Michael Atkinson essay printed in the booklet is likewise illuminating.
THE ARTWORK: F. Ron Miller’s lush and cracked cover painting is utterly brilliant, providing the disc a formal tapestry feel that nails the classic feeling of the film it sells. Simple medieval designs extend to the booklet inside and the top side of the disc, itself — if this is a minor Criterion release, it’s nevertheless a beautiful one.
THE ARBITRARY VERDICT: 72 / 100.