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Friday, June 14, 2013

LES VISITEURS DU SOIR / THE DEVIL'S ENVOYS (1942)

While CHILDREN OF PARADISE/’45 holds the title as the most famous film to come out of WWII Occupied France, it only hit the screens after the German retreat. This film, the previous collaboration of helmer Marcel Carné & writer Jacques Prévert was the unlikely deluxe offering that hooked the French movie-going public while still under Vichy/Nazi rule. (Note our German Poster.) A period piece, set in the 1400s, its tale of love triumphant, even in defeat, held a timely resonance we can only guess at. No surprise that its popularity outside of France never matched the Carné/Prévert poetic-realism pics that preceded it, let alone art-house champ LES ENFANTS. Its simple story, often read as an allegory of Nazi Occupation, has the Devil sending two aids, posing as minstrels, to a court where a loveless marriage is being readied. Arletty, everyone’s favorite seductress, fascinates both the groom & the widowed father of the bride, causing misery all around. But her partner in despair-dispensation, stiffly handsome Alain Cuny, peals off the unhappy bride only to discover tru-love at last. (This pair is right out of PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE, with grace-notes from PETER IBBETSON’s ‘dream-true’ lovers.) It’s an aberration that brings forth the Devil himself in an overly ripe perf from a hammy Jules Berry. The film’s pace is dreamy (or hangs fire, depending on your mood), and the physical production remains very special indeed, thanks to a superb Book of Hours design from an uncredited Alexandre Trauner, working secretly in Free France to the south. A new Criterion DVD from 2012 shows off a stunningly clear restoration which does wonders for a film that lives or dies on texture. Check out the less pleasing old print on a fine historical EXTRA about the film production, as well as an imaginative original Trailer with a pixilated image that gives a picturebook effect.

DOUBLE-BILL: Carné, whose post-war films were less well received, tried to revisit some of the VISITEUR’s themes in his last film, LA MERVEILLEUSE VISITE/’74 where an angel drops in for an Earthly visit. The film was not a success, but perhaps makes a neat bookend.

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