Home Video Hovel- Les Visiteurs du Soir, by Scott Nye
Given that Marcel Carné, along with screenwriter Jacques Prévert, pretty much perfected poetic realism, it seems only natural that they would abandon the “realism” for “fantasy” and craft a truly stunning, resonant medieval fable like Les Visiteurs du Soir. Translating directly to “The Night Visitors,” but more commonly released in English-speaking territories as The Devil’s Envoys, it concerns two minstrels (musicians, that is; played by Alain Cuny and Arletty) who are tasked by the Devil (Jules Berry) to spread heartbreak by breaking up the soon-to-be-wed Anne (Marie Déa) and Renaud (Marcel Herrand). Why the Devil would be so concerned with breaking hearts is one for religious scholars to ponder; in Marvel Carné’s carousel of romance, it couldn’t be more natural.
Romance is, after all, the central preoccupation of gangsters and deserters (Port of Shadows), criminals on the run (Le jour se lève), depressives (Hotel du nord), and, well, everyone else (Children of Paradise). Why would the Devil not be equally possessed by its allure? And it should be clear, for as much as the characters in all of these films talk about love, what they’re referring most (and best) to is romance, that undeniable pleasure when two people come together and haven’t another care in the world, their future included. It becomes clear very quickly that Gilles’ seduction of Anne goes deeper than a mere promise to the devil. She is shown early on to be dissatisfied with the the prospects of living with Renaud, who would prefer she keep her emotions so buried that she not even dream (“I never dream,” he boasts), and as with all such heightened depictions of romance, death is preferable to a life without love.
Even if you’re not yet familiar with Carné’s work, this will provide a superb introduction. For those who know his swooning touch all too well, you’ll find but more to love here, as he abandons reality even further towards some very pure expressiveness. One of the failings of the early Cahiers du cinéma crowd (including Godard, Truffaut, and other New Wave luminaries) was dismissing his filmmaking, which was made under Nazi occupation but hardly felt “occupied,” so to speak. They do fit somewhat into the idea of the French “Tradition of Quality” cinema, with lavish sets and melodramatic performances and so forth, but they’re so unerringly earnest, and Carné’s camerawork is endlessly joyful. Even when the films take mournful turns (as they often do), they’re a joy to behold. To see Gilles and Dominique stop time to take their lovers out to the garden, to the frozen moonlight…this is cinema, plain and simple.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray release provides a fine avenue for discovery. It glistens and shimmers and is as vibrant and alive as the unspooling of a new print. Contrast is fine, there’s just a hint of grain, and the depth ensures you can see far into these massive rooms. It’s a gorgeous presentation. The audio quality is slightly worse, sometimes sounding like it’s being projected into a large drum, but it’s never difficult to make out the dialogue, and these instances are relatively rare.
My only hesitation in fully recommending this is the lack of special features. Since Criterion introduced “streamlined” Blu-ray releases, which have no extras but cost significantly less to own (see: Three Outlaw Samurai, Summer with Monika, and Letter Never Sent from earlier this year), it gets a little hard to swallow a full-price release with merely one special feature. Nevertheless, what we get is a very good documentary on the making of the film. Produced in 2009, it features interviews with film scholars, historians, archivists, and even a friend of Carné’s to piece together his career and his work on this specific film. It goes a long way towards disabusing one of any notion that Carné was a Nazi sympathizer – he was even able to secretly employ Jewish craftsmen – and also provides some fun behind-the-scenes facts. Of particular note was that they had such difficulty keeping people from eating the food in between takes of the banquet scene (in which future genius Alain Resnais was an extra) that they tainted the food to keep it on the table.
We also get an essay by film scholar Michael Atkinson, who nicely breaks down the history behind the film and the social phenomenon that soon came (occupied France was, unsurprisingly, extremely receptive to a fantasy that promised escapism and the ability to free oneself from the constraints of an evil force).
f you are already a bona fide Carné fan, the lack of special features won’t make the difference when considering a purchase – this should be in your library immediately. For the rest, at least seek this out as a rental, or watch part of it on Criterion’s Hulu channel (where it’s available in a less-refined transfer) and see what you think. If you take to it as I did, this will definitely be one you’ll want on hand in the finest possible quality.