Les Visiteurs du Soir (France, 1942):
(The Devil's Envoys)

The envoys (Alain Cuny and Arletty) are on horseback, disguised as minstrels, first spotted via an iris and guided to the medieval castle by horizontal wipes. A heartbroken bear-trainer is ousted at the gates, his pet-friend having been skewered by an arrow; Cuny takes the man's empty chain, and a new ursine companion materializes at the end. "What's the use," asks Arletty, and Cuny says it amuses him, only a screen for the human compassion that he, having sold his soul, isn't supposed to have. His romantic side intrudes upon their mission, namely to infiltrate baron Fernand Ledoux's court to spread heartbreak and despair -- gloom already hangs heavily over the festivities, all jugglers and misshapen dwarves, with Marie Déa, Ledoux's daughter, engaged to Marcel Herrand, who has given up on dreaming. Herrand notices that Arletty, in pageboy guise as Cuny's brother, has awe-inspiring thighs; she then plucks a mandolin to magically slow the ball's tempo down to a freeze-frame, and Marcel Carné, the filmmaker, takes the rhythm for the rest of his fable. Far away from Jean Gabin's prole muscularity, the poetry of Jacques Prévert (assisted by Pierre Laroche) spells out its fairy-tale trappings, and the moonlit swoon rather coagulates. Falling for his intended victim, Cuny takes Déa to an au fresco rendezvous by the fountain; his evil boss arrives by lightning, a la Murnau's Mephistopheles, and Jules Berry's burlesque-hall Satan is, not surprisingly, the life of the party. He is also Hitler, or should be, taking in consideration the picture's clandestine resistance agenda, sneaked under the noses of Nazi censors -- the story's 1485 tag cloaks Vichy France in 1942, Simone Signoret and Alain Resnais amid the hungry extras, Antonioni as the assistant director. Carné's whimsy here plods more than glides, yet who can resist the aching cut from Déa locked in the tower to Cuny in chains down below, each murmuring the other's name, or the emotional-spiritual bond that elevates them from the darkness all around, l'amour piercing through the stone of oppression? Cinematography by Roger Hubert. With Gabriel Gabrio, and Pierre Labry. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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