The Criterion Collection 626
I'd never seen Les visiteurs du soir (1942) before this Criterion Blu-ray. I doubt that many others have -- or if they did, they saw it only on badly transferred videocassettes where it could scarcely make a good impression. Director Marcel Carné's Les enfants du paradis (1945) has received much attention, with some calling it the greatest film ever made. Les visiteurs du soir, meanwhile, has been pushed to the background.
That was certainly not the case in World War II France, where it was the most popular movie being screened. Germany was occupying France and filmmaking was under German control, and audiences and critics viewed Carné's movie as an allegory of the German occupation. The filmmakers have never corroborated this interpretation, but it certainly seems plausible.
The setting for the film is the latter part of the Middle Ages. Two minstrels come to a castle where inhabitants are beginning celebrations, as Renaud (Marcel Herrand) and Anne (Marie Déa) are soon to be married. The minstrels quickly reveal their true stripes and powers -- they are Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty), emissaries of the Devil, ordered to the festivities to cause mischief.
Things get off to a diabolically good start. Gilles seduces Anne while Dominique conquers both Renaud and Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledoux). The evil plan gets sidetracked, however, when Gilles really falls in love with Anne. The Devil (Jules Berry) appears to try to sort things out in his malicious manner, but from then on it's a case of true love conquering all. Perhaps at the heart of every Frenchman who saw the film was the inspirational idea that the French spirit would conquer Hitler and the Third Reich.
Criterion has created a new digital transfer from SNC's restoration done at Scanlab in Paris. Overall it is splendid, with crisp black-and-white images. There are a few instances where there's a slight jump, as a few uncorrectable frames have been removed. I'd far rather have those moments than film tears and flaws. It's scarcely noticeable and the soundtrack does not stutter, which makes those few moments much smoother. An interesting note for music lovers -- the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, conducted by Charles Munch, ably plays the soundtrack music. The sound is certainly adequate and perhaps even good considering it came from an optical source. To cap off production, there's a new English subtitle translation that makes sense and is easy to read.
By Criterion standards there aren't many extras -- just a printed essay by film scholar Michael Atkinson, a 35-minute 2009 documentary on the making of the film, and an unrestored trailer that will give you an idea of what the movie might have looked like on videocassette.
Les visiteurs du Soir (incorrectly but effectively translated as "The Devil's Envoys") is a beguiling film that has many timeless things to say about love and seduction. At times it is poetic, and just as often it bristles with wit. Criterion's excellent transfer of a beautifully restored print makes it quite entertaining for a 21st-century audience.
Be sure to watch for: The castle is a set built for the film, and it was (so the production featurette tells us) painted yellow so that in black and white it would appear very white and flat, with a storybook texture. This is nowhere more evident than in chapter 14, where two herald trumpeters waken Anne with their playing.
. . . Rad Bennett