Providing inspiration to writers, filmmakers and painters over the last century, the classic German legend of Faust has undergone numerous updates and delineations from its original tale. Often, the central themes are kept intact; greed, vanity and a desire for fame have been the focal points of the story. But Faust has been everything from a scientist and a rock star to a city-dwelling office worker.
René Clair’s version of the Faust legend comes in the form of a serio-comic adaptation called The Beauty of the Devil. Once again, the usual themes of greed and a thirst for fame come into play, but the setting retains the original time period from which the story originally took place. Clair’s film also retains the key plot points; wanting to earn status in a world where he feels ignored, Faust calls upon the Devil for help, who agrees to assist the man in exchange for his soul. While Clair doesn’t exactly do anything with the story that really puts it through the wringer and therefore challenges its original structure, he does do wonders with the film’s visuals aesthetics. In fact, this is one of the genuine appeals of Clair’s version.
Often rivaling his contemporary Max Ophüls for visual extravagance (Ophüls was known as the king of opulence), Clair made a career out of reimagining France as one fantastically stylish set-piece. Where Clair differed from Ophüls was in his ability to use restraint and pare back some of the excess while keeping the sense of sophistication and style at the forefront. Even when he told stories of poverty, such as in Under the Roofs of Paris, Le Million and À nous la liberté, he managed to create a sense of refined simplicity and elegance.
Like most versions of the Faust legend, the film at certain points gets bogged down in the studied, furrow-browed themes of the story, which at heart is a morality tale – something many viewers have come to see as antiquated storytelling. Because of this, Clair’s visuals are not enough to float the story alone and the film’s success now entirely rests of the shoulders of the two leads. Here is where the film truly soars.
Clair further ornaments the tale through the casting of the film; the strikingly handsome Gérard Philipe and one of France’s most revered actors of the time, the great Michel Simon. Both actors play the roles of Faust as well as Mephistopheles, the Devil’s representative who appears to Faust to do his bidding. While this double role-duality at times causes the viewer some confusion, it also allows Philipe and Simon to engage in a thoroughly charming, often humorous interplay of dialogue and action that betrays their level of skill in their erudite readings of their characters.
Simon’s greatest strength was his ability to show emotion, particularly sympathy, through simple contortions of his face. He neither had to utter a word nor wildly gesticulate in order to communicate to the viewer a certain turn or inflection in emotion. A simple, subtle pull of the face was enough and this ability probably extended over from his days as a silent actor.
For his part, Philipe uses his debonair charm and matinee looks to good effect. Rather than simply wallow in romantic schmaltz, Philipe opts for slapstick humour, which offsets Simon’s wizened old-man approach. Clair often delights in framing their theatrical, often ludicrous interactions against ornate backdrops; Philipe and Simon argue, bargain, laugh and scheme with one another in carriages, saloons, ballrooms, alleyways, labs and drawing rooms with the same intense absurdity in every setting. It almost seems as though Clair simply pulls the film along with a series of scrims, luxuriously shifting along in rhythm to his leads’ quarrelsome exchanges.
Cohen Film Collection has done the public a great service by digging up this film as it isn’t one of Clair’s most well-known works. The Beauty of the Devil is also unique in that it offers an interesting entry into the canon of Faust adaptations simply through the inspired casting of the film. The Blu-Ray and DVD offer a nice, solid transfer for a film of its age (released in 1950), with a minimal amount of flickering here and there, which is neither distracting nor considerably noticeable.
Where there does seem to be technical flaws is in the audio at the very beginning of the film, which is warbled right up until the title sequence is over and just before the story actually begins. As for extras, there is a 2010 documentary on the film that offers some perspective on Clair’s take on the tale, for those who may have an interest in the director’s designs on the Faust legend. As it is, this is a release aimed at French-film (and perhaps Faust) aficionados and once again, Cohen Film Collection does the admirably duty of digging up little-seen (and perhaps much talked-about) films to satisfy a cinephile’s curiosity.
The Beauty of the Devil doesn’t do too much to mess with the Faust formula in structure or theme. Clair seems more interested in showcasing the provocations of his characters if only to simply underscore the performances of Philipe and Simon. For a director who had a champagne-taste for visuals, it merely displays a gracious sense of generosity to give his actors the floor, an artistic decision and direction that actually lends an almost genial angle on a tale often told with bitterness and angst.