Les visiteurs du soir, the 1942 masterpiece directed by Marcel Carné, opens in high storybook style, as the opening credits are presented as if the viewer were flipping through the pages of an old-fashioned book. The story proper begins with this partial line that not only sets up the events to come, but also hints at a world beyond the strictly rational: “…and so, in the lovely month of May, 1485, the Devil sent two of his envoys to this world to drive humans to despair.”
We are placed immediately in the fairy-tale Middle Ages, as an iris shot introduces two handsome strangers riding toward a shining castle. They claim to be seeking work as minstrels, but in fact Dominique (Arletty) and Gilles (Alain Cuny) are former lovers in the employ of the Devil, on what you might call a recruiting mission. After rather unexpectedly doing a good deed by magically restoring a trained bear to its owner (you see, you never know what the devil and his minions will be up to next), they venture into the castle where a banquet is being held to celebrate the upcoming marriage of Anne (Marie Déa) and Renaud (Marcel Herrand). Anne’s father, the Baron (Fernand Ledoux), is presiding over the festivities.
The tables of this castle (in which even the dungeon seems to be clean and dry) are groaning with food, everyone is splendidly attired, and there are all kinds of entertainment on offer. Still, there’s a nasty edge to what should be a time of celebration: one of the amusements offered to the guests is a cruel display of three deformed little people (they are brought in with sacks over their heads). Most of the guests roar with laughter at this sight, but Anne turns away in pain.
Gilles and Dominique waste no time getting to work: Dominique attracts the attention of both Renaud and the Baron, while Giles has similar success with Anne. Unfortunately, from the point of view of the devil, Gilles and Dominique are actually bringing good to the world (Renaud in particular is becoming a better person through his love for Dominique), and the old boy has to pay a personal visit to get things back on track.
Most appropriately, the devil (Jules Berry) arrives, horse and all, in a flash of lightning (an effect echoed in the first appearance, in True Blood, of Russell Edgington), and claims to be a nobleman seeking shelter from the storm. He’s dressed mostly in black, immediately setting him off from everyone else, and what the costume doesn’t accomplish, his personality does. This Devil is full of life—light on his feet, quick with his tongue—and he makes everyone around him look like dullards. He’s also got quite a sense of humor as well as a major sense of entitlement, complaining to Anne without a trace of irony that “Whenever there’s a new joy in the world, or a new love shines, you can’t imagine my suffering!”
Like most great films, Les Visiteurs du Soir can be enjoyed on multiple levels. If you prefer to keep things simple, it’s a timeless fable about love and a wondrous depiction of an imagined world world (the production design was heavily influenced by Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, a richly illustrated book of prayers created in the early 15th century by the Limbourg Brothers). In this view, it’s a sumptuous period piece notable for its high degree of technical sophistication, but without any meaning beyond the obvious.
If you consider when and how Les Visiteurs du Soir was created, however, another interpretation comes to mind. In 1941, the occupying Germans controlled film production in France through the production company, Continental Films Paris, headed by Alfred Greven, a friend of Hermann Goering. Needless to say, direct social and political criticism were out of the question for French films under this arrangement, and films from countries unfriendly to Germany, including the US, were also banned in France during this period.
Fortunately, censors do not always have the subtlest of minds, and many critics argue that Les Visiteurs du Soir is a political allegory in which the Baron’s realm stands in for contemporary France and the devil for Nazi Germany. Interestingly, Carné always disavowed any overt political intent in this film, but many critics see it there nonetheless. It’s a credit to Carné and his production team that Les Visiteurs du Soir works equally well whether you buy into the allegorical interpretation or simply take the film at face value.
The “making of” documentary (37 min., in French) included on the DVD focuses on the conditions under which Les Visiteurs du Soir was made. There were many difficulties to be overcome—beyond the obvious need to dance around the censors, there were also problems of logistics (filming took place in both the occupied and free zones, so the actors and crew needed passes to travel back and forth) and also problems with getting the materials (e.g., fabric for the costumes) necessary for the production. The food used in the banquet scenes would literally disappear between takes, so it was sprayed with a toxic substance to prevent it from being eaten.
The visual quality of the restored Criterion release of Les Visiteurs du Soir is excellent—the picture is crisp and clear, and there’s very little in the way of unwanted artifacts to interfere with your enjoyment of Roger Hubert’s cinematography. The audio is also clear and there’s no distortion of either music or dialogue. Besides the “making of” documentary, this release includes the film’s original trailer and an illustrated booklet including an essay by Michael Atkinson.