Sunday, August 3, 2014

Les visiteurs du soir (The Criterion Collection) (1942)

Les visiteurs du soirAs a huge fan of the works of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert, it is unfortunate to learn that other than 'Children of Paradise', none of their works are available on DVD. However, it is at least some consolation when you find that they are still in print on VHS. Considering that one of the finest films of all time, 'L'Atalante' by genius Jean Vigo has gone out of print on video, and that no one has bothered to put it back on the shelves, I must say that for such old French classics such as this one to still be around is a fact worth commending.

'Les Visiteurs de Soir' literally translates into 'The Visitors of the Evening', but the English world has taken the liberty of calling it 'The Devil's Envoys'. This remarkable gem, a remnant of the early 1940s, is French romanticism at its best. While the original tale is a fable that children will delight in, the film-making team also saw the story as a way to make a point about the political establishment at the time. Marcel Carne has repeatedly won my respect as a film-maker, and though his crowning glory remains 'Les Enfants du Paradis', this little known film remains perhaps his most sly attempt at movie-making. Almost every sentence is a statement of political defiance, and every frame of the film is bathed in the unnaturally brilliant light that Marcel shot his movies in.

'Les Visiteurs de Soir' looks older than it actually is. Perhaps this has something to do with the horrendous transfer that this particular edition is inflicted with. There are patches where it seems the film has burned away gaping holes and scars are evident, which leads one to wonder what condition the master film is actually in. However, that minor technicality apart, the entire story reads like an adventure worth taking, although the actual transfer from page to screen is something that works in a way quite unexpected.

This is a much slower film than 'Children of Paradise'. To be honest, the only thing the two films share in common is Arletty. Here, she plays one of the Devil's Envoys, sent to a town to teach/convert/berate/observe/spoil its' inhabitants. She arrives with a male partner, and is soon dining with lords and baronesses. The dialogue is simply stunning. Arletty's performance as an androgynous being is played up and she remains a cool and aloof creature for much of the movie. However, it is the other envoy, the man, who is more affected by his new surroundings. Played by the beautiful Alain Cuny, the male envoy is a being who has never experienced the love of a human being, and his desire for the lovely Marie Dea is what forms the crux of the film.

It is at this stage that the devil enters. Played by Jules Berry as a crass old ugly sort of monster, he is an exaggeration of everything evil. He finds pleasure in the unhappiness of others, he is thrilled when people relinquish their control to him. When Marie Dea's pure and unblemished love for the male envoy seems beyond his control, the devil is not pleased. He does everything in his power to win her soul, and this becomes his prime challenge.

As I had mentioned before, this entire storyline is filled with political innuendo, and it doesn't take an expert in European history to figure out what is actually going on. When the devil, in rage, finally turns the lead couple to stone, another shock awaits him. Needless to say, the film ends with the devil being defeated, but the lead couple pay a price as well. And the point is made that even though the couple has lost the battle, they have won the war. Very much like the ending of 'La Vita E Bella'.

Characters are very well etched. The Devil plays the face of Germany and the German Occupation. The Devil's envoys play the young German soldiers who go in with a policy, yet return with different ideals. The French play the french, all for liberty, equality, and fraternity, and the neverending struggle to achieve all of these goals.

I especially liked Arletty's character, even though she almost disappears for the second half of the film. The most visually appealing thing about this movie is the lighting. Every frame could be an exercise in film-making the bright hues of the French morning are all lovingly captured, and the close-ups of the lead characters are so beautifully filmed. The screenplay is flawless, though at times you wish they could be a little less obvious in their message.

'Les Visiteurs de Soir' will probably never be as important as 'Les Enfants du Paradis' or the other Carne classic 'Le jour se leve'. It had its own time and place, and its' meaning was probably more relevant in the 1940s than it is today. However, there is also something timeless about its' texture and quality. This is a movie I could sit through over ten times and never be bored. As with every Carne film, it helps to be a native or taught French speaker to truly appreciate the nuances of the dialogue the yellow subtitles on this edition are especially hideous, both in the way they've been translated and their appearance but it doesn't take much to be swept in by this delightful treat of a film. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves old French movies, and in particular, the works of the masters such as Carne and Francois Truffaut.

If you liked this, you'd love 'L'Atalante' by Jean Vigo, 'Le fille sur le pont' by Patrice Leconte, and Carne's 'Les quai de brumes'. I'd also like to bring your attention to the fact that many of Carne's works are now available on DVD from Amazon's French website, although this catalog does not yet include 'Les Visiteurs de soir'.

A relatively little-known but fascinating movie. Made during the German occupation of France, the film is set in the Late Middle Ages and deals with two envoys of the devil, Gilles and Dominique (Alain Cuny and Arletty, wonderful both) that arrive posing as wandering minstrels at the castle of a Baron where preparations for an upcoming wedding are being made. Their intention is to create havoc by breaking the hearts of all involved. These envoys have extraordinary powers to achieve these goals, like slowing time to a stop so that they can work on their targets at ease. Eventually, the very devil shows up at the castle in disguise. One can argue that the devil in the movie stands for Hitler and the Nazis and so forth, but the film works even if you don't try to watch it as a metaphor for the contemporary events of the time. The movie is memorable and evocative, with many great scenes and a great ending.

Buy Les visiteurs du soir (The Criterion Collection) (1942) Now

Forget the inferior VHS version that Marc Cabir Davis describes in his 2002 review here. The now 70-year-old film has undergone a meticulous digital restoration for its debut on DVD. One can again fully appreciate the superb black and white cinematography. The soundtrack has had an impeccable 24-bit remastering, and the new English subtitles are well translated and easy to read on the screen. Also included in the new DVD package is an informative 2009 French documentary on the making of this film in 1942 under Nazi occupation and the Vichy government. In addition, there is a booklet with seven pages of text by film critic and author Michael Atkinson and seven pages of photographs from the film.

As for the film itself, see the aforementioned Davis review. I had to dock it a star because it so obviously suffers in comparison to its successor, Carne's ultimate masterpiece, "Les Enfants du Paradis" ("The Children of Paradise"). After a brilliant start (through the whole banquet sequence), the film gets progressively bogged down in its convoluted plot (that takes too long in resolving itself), becoming overly talky and a bit tedious in the process. However, the ending is so iconic that much of this can be forgiven. Also worth noting is the comment by the great French film critic Georges Sadoul, with which I would concur, that some of "the fantasy is rather forced." However, for appreciators and students of French cinema, this is a film that should not be missed, given its historical context. It launched a trend of other notable French films under the Occupation that, beneath a veneer of ostensibly escapist fare that eluded the Fascist censors, contained a subversive subtext of a yearning to be free from the forces of oppression.

Read Best Reviews of Les visiteurs du soir (The Criterion Collection) (1942) Here

"Could you be the cause of all these troubles?"

"What do you expect? No-one loves me. I amuse myself as best I can."

Overshadowed outside France by both that other Medieval romantic fantasy and its director's Les Enfants du Paradis but revered in its homeland as one of the great films of the war years, Marcel Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir has been particularly hard for non-French speakers to see for years: not released on video and unseen on UK TV for three decades, it's only with Criterion's largely unheralded DVD and Blu-ray release that many will have got the chance to finally see his tale of demons and marvels. While it doesn't cast as magic or as poetic an ethereal spell as Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, it's still an impressive fable whose added resonance for a Nazi-occupied population is easy to see even if Carne and co-writer Jacques Prevert always insisted that no anti-Nazi subtext was intended, the Medieval setting simply the easiest way to get around the German censors.

The plot is simple: two minstrels arrive at a castle, whose occupants are celebrating the betrothal of the Baron's daughter initially unaware that the two visitors (Arletty and Alain Cuny) have been sent by the Devil to sow discord by loving and destroying them and leaving the Devil to pick up the tab. Not that they don't have plenty of raw material to work with: despite the jollity of the banquets and the lack of work for the executioner, the castle is almost underpinned by sadness. The Baron (Fernand Ledoux) is still mourning his lost wife, the servant girl all too aware that her plainness ensures the page she loves won't even look at her and the groom (Marcel Herrand) is more interested in songs of hunting and killing than of love, confused by his bride-to-be Marie Dea's kindness towards unfortunates and dismissing her dreams because "Dreams are dangerous and useless. I never dream myself." For all the elegance and fairytale settings, it's a cruel world where love is a weapon to make people tear themselves apart: "It isn't worth a single tear. It's nothing but a story invented to amuse the Devil." It's a game the envoys have played so many times they're working from the same script, telling each new victim "As soon as I saw you, I knew why I'd travelled so far. I thanked Heaven for leading me to you."

Yet the envoys aren't ethereal symbolic figures but have their own tortured dysfunctional relationship of recriminations and mockery, revisiting their failed and false romance on their victims. Arletty enjoys her work, particularly if it means leading men to their death or to the very place she has come from, but Cluny is increasingly tortured by the deal he has made with the Devil, even more so when he genuinely falls in love with the bride-to-be. From then on the film becomes a battle for hearts and souls as Jules Barry's Devil enters the fray, appearing everywhere at once to mislead, corrupt or gently scold the mere mortals. It's easy to see why so many saw him as Hitler incarnate, making empty promises and offering those who collaborate with him every comfort but never able to still the pure hearts that defy him. He's a cheerful soul, certain of his eventual victory and uncomprehending of the notion of resistance, but thanks to Jacques Prevert's dialogue he doesn't get all the best lines most of those, surprisingly, go to the lovers, true or false.

It's a surprisingly lavish production for a French wartime film, Trauner's design and Roger Hubert's photography giving it a deceptively simple and attractive look for a film filled with betrayal, hopeless longing and torment. It generally favors simpler special effects than you might expect from a period fable, but at their best, such as when the envoys stop time to steal a tryst with the groom and bride-to-be, they're quietly effective. At times the film threatens to lose its grip and some of the dungeon scenes with a distressed Cluny stray perilously close to bad acting, but the spell is never broken and its easy to see why the film found such a special place in French cinema with its own brand of dark magic and cruel love. Oh, and look out for a young Simone Signoret and Alain Resnais as extras in the banquet scene.

Aside from the customary booklet there's also a 37-minute talking heads documentary with friends of Carne and Prevert and film historians that provides much information and anecdotes about the film's tortuous development Carne had been having trouble finding a project that would pass the German censors after getting out of his contract with the German-backed Continental Films while Jacques Prevert and composer Joseph Kosma had been collaborating on an unrealised version of Puss in Boots and its difficult production, which was complicated by wartime shortages (fabric for the costumes was almost impossible to find while the food in the banquet scenes had to be sprayed with toxic chemicals to stop the starving extras eating it), Vichy bureaucracy (because it was shot in both Occupied and Unoccupied France), anti-Semitic laws (both Kosma and production designer Alexander Trauner had to use fronts because it was illegal for Jews to work in French films) and scheduling (Jules Berry was making three films at the same time, shooting one in the morning, one in the afternoon and another in the evening and couldn't remember his lines), and surprisingly rapturous reception from both right and leftwing critics.

It even covers the problems of exhibiting films in wartime newsreels were shown with the lights on and a gendarme in attendance to stop the audience booing the Nazis, while only a limited number of tickets were sold to ensure that the nearest air raid shelters didn't get filled up, making it's hugely successful run it was the biggest French hit of the war years all the more remarkable. The documentary is not particularly strikingly made, but it tells the stories in a pleasingly straightforward fashion and puts the film in its historical perspective even if the transfer is obviously taken from a video master. The film's original French trailer fares worse in the picture quality stakes, looking like it was mastered from a juddery dialup internet download, but the transfer on the film itself is a beautiful restoration job with clear, sharp detail, plenty of depth and no obvious signs of digital tinkering. However, do be aware that the Blu-ray version is Region A-locked.

Want Les visiteurs du soir (The Criterion Collection) (1942) Discount?

Les visiteurs du soir (titled The Devil's Envoys in America) was the fourth collaboration between director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, released a few years before their masterpiece Children of Paradise. Being a big admirer of that film, as well as their other collaborations Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Lève, I had eagerly awaited this film to receive a proper release and was pleased when Criterion added it to their collection this month. With the Nazi's occupying France during this timeframe, it's said that Carné set out to make a straight-forward film that would avoid any trouble with the censors. Upon its release the film was met with acclaim with many seeing it as an allegory for the Occupation, a charge Carné fervently denied. While memorable and beautiful to look at I find Les visiteurs du soir inferior to their other collaborations, possibly because of the constraints they imposed on themselves by purposefully and carefully making a film that wouldn't upset the censors. As a result, there seems to be less freedom than in their earlier and subsequent collaborations. Their films fall under the category of poetic realism, with the poetic nature coming largely from Prévert's knack for writing beautiful, poetic dialogue. Much of the poetry here comes from the images in the film rather than words.

The story opens in May, 1485 where the Devil has sent two of his envoys to drive humans to despair. The envoys Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty) arrive at the castle of Baron Hughes (Fernand Ledox) dressed as minstrels as the castle celebrates his daughter Anne's (Marie Déa) engagement to Renaud (Marcel Herrand). The two wreak havoc by enticing those in the castle; Gilles first seduces Anne, while Dominique entrances Baron Hughes and Renaud. Things go according to plan until Gilles actually falls in love with Anne, provoking the Devil's wrath and causing him to appear at the castle to ensure that the happiness of those in the castle is truly destroyed. The Devil, as played by Jules Berry, arrives halfway through the film and this is when it really gains traction.

Shot in Nice, with uncredited art direction by Alexandre Trauner (a Hungarian Jew, whose involvement was hidden by Carné); the sets are a grand achievement. In creating a storybook world Trauner really captures a far away time and place. Of course the film is also gorgeously shot by Roger Hubert, who would go on to beautifully shoot Children of Paradise as well. The acting is terrific, with Berry giving the stand-out performance as the Devil. His maniacal energy towers over the latter hour of the film and he outshines nearly everyone in his wake. It's a mannered yet showy performance that is tremendously effective.

As stated earlier, I found the film slightly inferior to Carné and Prévert's other collaborations and much of this stems from the script that Prévert co-wrote with Pierre Laroche. Much of the dialogue revolves around declarations of love and chit-chat about love and there are times when it grows repetitious. Children of Paradise featured dialogue in the same vein and Prévert succeeded at crafting much more beautiful and memorable dialogue about that subject in far fewer words. This opinion may reflect more on my own bias than the actual quality of the film, but I was slightly let down by how unscathed I was by the dialogue here when their other films have affected me so profoundly. It was the poetic beauty of the dialogue in addition to the beauty of the images that made their other collaborations so compelling.

Regardless, Les visiteurs du soir is another triumph from Carne and Prévert's magical partnership and it's presented here in all its glory with a beautiful transfer from the Criterion Collection. The crisp elegance of the black and white photography was enough to make me swoon even when the dialogue and story failed to. Those who already deeply appreciate Carné's films will probably rank this highly, but those who are unfamiliar with his work should familiarize themselves before trying this film. Still, for any complaints I may have, it's hard to deny what a breathtaking film it is.

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