Made in the midst of the German occupation of France during WWII, Marcel Carné’s bewitching and magical Les visiteurs du soir is ripe for a variety of interpretations regarding its true meaning. While its 15th Century medieval setting and the appearance of the devil make for easy apparent analogues to 1940s France and Hitler himself, simply viewing it in this programmatic manner misses the film’s fascinating peculiarities.
Alain Cuny and Arletty star as Gilles and Dominique, emissaries of the devil who disguise themselves as minstrels and plot to sow seeds of heartbreak and despair. They enter a castle in the midst of a wedding party and are soon called upon to provide entertainment, but the groom, Renaud (Marcel Herrand), is not particularly pleased at the effect their songs have on his betrothed, Anne (Marie Déa). A bit of time-stopping trickery in the midst of a celebratory dance offers Gilles the chance to more overtly seduce Anne, while Dominique pulls out her wiles on both Renaud and Anne’s father (Fernand Ledoux).
The scheme is perfectly executed until Gilles actually falls for his target, and he and Anne’s subsequent affair is met with the expected resistance. The devil (Jules Berry) is so incensed with the turn of events that he shows up himself, determined to inject heartache and pain after Gilles’ utter failure to do so.
Les visiteurs du soir isn’t a complete departure from the contemporary poetic realist cinema Carné was making in the previous decade, as it retains that heightened aesthetic lyricism and ultimately fatalistic view of the human condition. Its detached, fantastical setting does make for a different kind of film, although its subdued rhythms and ultra-languid pacing aren’t the hallmarks of a typical baroque fantasy. In many ways, this is a film stripped down to its bare elements, with only the hyperactive Berry leavening the downbeat mood. Carné would follow this film with his masterpiece, Children of Paradise, but Les visiteurs du soir doesn’t deserve to be thought of as merely the lesser Resistance-era film. It’s far too interesting for that.