One of Marcel Carné's Best Films, Beautifully Restored: 'Les Visiteurs du Soir'

Whether Les Visiteurs du Soir is taken as a political allegory, or simply as a sumptuous fairy tale, it's a film not to be missed.

Les Visiteurs du Soir

Director: Marcel Carné
Cast: Arletty, Alain Cuny, Jules Berry
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Continental Films Paris
Release date: 2012-09

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.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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