Known for creating some of the most important films in French history, and during Nazi Occupation, no less, Criterion issues two of Marcel Carne’s most widely acclaimed masterpieces, his crowning achievement, Children of Paradise (1945), which, if you haven’t seen, you need to, and a noteworthy work that directly precedes it, Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942), which has long since been popularly interpreted as an allegory of the hostile occupation. While this interpretation is hardly surprising and seems rather fitting, Carne’s film is much more universal than that, instead conveying the unbreakable spirit of pure love. Presented like the dark, harsh fairy tale it is, Carne managed to create a sumptuously poetic, luxurious film about how love does not indeed conquer all, but can perhaps endure.
Pages flipped by a dark gloved hand inform us that our tale is set in the Middle Ages, May of 1485. Two of the devil’s envoys, Gilles (Alain Cuny), and Dominique (Arletty), have been sent to instill hopelessness and despair on the human race. They arrive at a castle where an out of work executioner fishing for frogs informs them that Baron Hugues’ (Fernand Ledoux) daughter Anne (Marie Dea) is about to be married to Baron Renaud (Marcel Herrand) and thus the entire castle is in a state of abject celebration. It is not a time for crime and punishment. Before they can get through the gate, a crying man is thrown out, rambling that his pet bear has just been slaughtered inside over a misunderstanding. Gilles takes pity on the man and magically restores his bear to him, explaining to Dominique that he still enjoys doing kind things for people. She responds, “Why bother?” Posing as minstrels, with Dominique dressed as a man and introduced as Gilles’ brother, they perform songs for Anne, who is drawn to Gilles. As the envoys work their plans to warp these people’s lives, Dominique reveals her femaleness to the Barons and causes them both to be infatuated with her, while Gilles actually falls hopelessly in love with Anne, and vice versa. We learn that Dominique and Gilles share a romantic history, once believing themselves to have been in love (with the help of some singing, scarred little people, we also learn they signed a pact with the dark one), now bitterly admonish each other for their past deeds. Since Gilles has disobeyed orders, their boss suddenly shows up (Jules Berry), exposing Anne’s infidelity to the kingdom and causing the Barons to engage in a duel for the hand of Dominique. Meanwhile, the devil has designs on punishing his wayward employee Gilles and does his damnedest to drive the two new lovers apart, by pleading, explaining, and finally, threatening.
We know right away that things will not go according to plan for the envoys as soon as we hear Gilles announcing he still likes to engage in kind tasks. Les Visiteurs Du Soir is not a tale about love conquering all or good vs. evil, but rather, the indomitable emotion described as true or pure love. The devil, here played like a demure Liberace in a fabulous performance by Jules Berry, is a bitter old queen that suffers most at the prospect of others falling in love, for no one will ever love him. “At heart, I’m not a bad devil,” he exclaims. But the most impressive aspect of Carne’s film is the magical, poetic fairy tale he creates for the screen, shown here like a well-lit nightmare. There are several excellent moments of the supernatural, in particular, Berry throwing a vase that turns into a pile of writhing snakes upon shattering. Filmed both in the occupied and the free zone, it’s miraculous that he managed to create such an immaculate look for the film, thanks in large part to costume and set designer Georges Wakhevitch. And one can’t overlook the distant, sultry, ice cold beauty of Arletty, Carne’s muse throughout many of his greatest earlier works. Here she’s a frozen queen; her past experiences with so-called love have left her beyond joy, pain, and pleasure. And you don’t question her seriousness on the matter. When she’s supposed to be dressed as a man, one character comments on her funny voice, as she only slicks her hair back and keeps a full face of make-up. Ingmar Bergman managed to do a bit better for Ingrid Thulin in a similar move for The Magician (1958), but Carne manages to get the point across via extended references in the dialogue.
Criterion gives us an excellent digital restoration of this beautiful film, as usual, with the uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Marcel Carne’s sumptuous poetic realism is perfect for Criterion’s continued excellence in restoring important work, and he’s no stranger to them. His later, lesser known and unappreciated works would also makes beautiful additions down the road. Special features include a 2009 documentary, L’aventure des Visiteurs du Soir, which details excellent historical information about the making of the film from Carne’s friend and screenwriter Didier Decoin, archivist Andrew Heinrich, film historian Alain Petit, and journalist Philippe Morisson. The original trailer is also included. The audio sounds great, all clear and audible, plus there’s a New English subtitle translation. Criterion has done a great job with the restoration, with all images splendidly detailed.
The original trailer markets the film as not the film of the year but the film of an era, daring audiences not to come see it. We get several dramatic snippets, including Berry announcing himself as the devil to the unimpressed Anne. And then there’s the salacious announcement of Arletty’s name as the camera drifts over her outstretched legs.
L’aventure des Visiteurs du Soir
Fans of the film and/or Carne would be remiss on not checking out this 37 minutes documentary that’s filled with information on the making of the film. Tidbits on cast and a well explained background of Carne’s history during the time period, how he came to sign a contract with Continental (and what happened to that contract), and the overall widely acclaimed reception of the film all make for fascinating material.
Les Visiteurs du Soir may be a romantically inclined film, but it’s got an underlying dark message about love. In one sequence, Anne discusses love with Gilles and comments that “love is like death,” how belonging to another is like being locked up forever. And likewise with Children of Paradise, Carne was an expert on giving us beautiful, poetic realism, while at the same time conveying the realistic, consuming, hopeless, life affirming, and complicated aspects of life and love. Lush and extravagant, the film is never overly sentimental or schmaltzy. This Criterion restoration is a must own for any cinematic collectors, if not at least for another great role for the mysterious Arletty. Jailed at the end of the war for her romantic entanglement with a Nazi officer, she spent 120 days in a concentration camp and some additional time in prison before eventually going back into film years later. Famously, she said, “My heart is French, but my ass is international.” Her cinema is, too.
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