Marcel Carné’s 1942 medieval extravaganza Les visiteurs du soir (The Devil’s Envoys) is set to be released next week in a new digital restoration from the Criterion Collection. Filmed in Nazi occupied France and the so-called free zone during the second World War, the film which was hugely popular at the time, has since lost some of its reputation in the glow from his later Children of Paradise which is now fairly well recognized as the director’s masterpiece. Much of the discussion of Les visiteurs du soir is an attempt to understand why the film had such a great effect on the French audiences of the day.
Described as a “lyrical fantasy,” the film is an example of the Carné style characterized as “poetic realism.” It tells its fabulist story in languidly played sequences of sometimes lethargic romance mixed with satiric pageantry and evil undertones. The plot concerns two envoys disguised as minstrels, a man and a woman dressed as a man, sent by the devil to create havoc amongst mankind. They arrive at a castle in which festivities are underway for the marriage of the Baron’s daughter, and during an elaborate feast they magically stop time and seduce the betrothed couple. Unfortunately for the devil, one of his emissaries has been having second thoughts, and what was intended as sabotage turns into the real thing. The devil himself shows up to deal with the renegade, but in the end true love conquers all, depending on your definition of conquer.
Overall there seem to be two major explanations of how this fairy tale came to be so popular in a war torn country under the heel of an oppressive invader. One set of critics sees the film as escapist entertainment which gave people a chance to get away from the very real horrors of their everyday lives. They see the film as exactly what it purports to be — a romantic vision of the power of love.
Those who want to find something more heroic in the film and in the people who swarmed to it prefer to look beneath the surface. They approach the film as almost, if not quite, an allegorical expression of the heart of the French people defying the evils of fascism. They even identify the devil with Hitler. It should be noted however, as one of the commentators in the bonus material points out, if it was an allegorical attack, it was so subtle as to fly over the heads of the German censors. Of course what the filmmakers intended, what the censors saw, and what the audiences saw might have been three different things. And what modern viewers might see would be a fourth.
Shot in black and white, the film stars Arletty and Alain Cuny as the devil’s emissaries and Jules Berry in an over the top performance as the devil. Sometimes one gets the feeling that he is in a different film. Arletty, as the hermaphroditic Dominique on the other hand seems to make a fetish of staring dreamily out in space. Cuny as the romantic hero becomes less and less lethargic as the story moves along. The woman he loves is played with idyllic idealism by Marie Déa.
There are some who will find an intrinsic charm in this legendary tale. There are some who will find it important cinematically insofar as it is an example of the work of a universally recognized great director working under horrendous conditions both politically and economically. There are some who will find it simply an important historical document of the era. There may even be some who see it as merely a sellout to the occupiers. It is a film that raises questions that may not be easily answered but surely deserve to be discussed.
The Criterion Collection DVD includes a 2009 documentary on the making of the film, L’aventure des Visiteurs du soir, which gives a lot of information on the political situation and its effect on the French film industry at the time and well as the actual filming. Like the film, it is in French with English subtitles. There is also a booklet with an illuminating essay from film critic Michael Atkinson.