While its parent country ceded to German occupation in the early 1940s, the French film industry was counterintuitively spurred on by a mounting sense of nationalism and a newfound industriousness. Forced to engage in alternate modes of creation, and thus taking the French away from the poetic-realist strain of cinema they helped pioneer, many of the era's best and most popular filmmakers trafficked in the historical or the fantastical in unassuming yet pointed fashion. As a result, the films made under the watchful eye of the Nazi regime are uniquely subversive artifacts, at once monuments to their country's resolve and the inherent power of the cinematic image. To that end, Marcel Carné's 1942 medieval fable de l'amour, Les Visiteurs du Soir, may well represent the most subconsciously potent iteration of this coerced methodology.
Set in the dark age of France circa 1485, the film merges the religious and the romantic with grand eloquence, lacing its extravagant veneer of stark fortresses and lush pastures with a political subtext reflecting not the era in which it is set, but rather in which it was made. When Gilles and Dominique (Alain Cuny and Arletty), two lithe, sexually ambiguous minstrels, unexpectedly arrive at the wedding party of Anne and Renaud (Marie Déa and Marcel Herrand), the curiously acute pair are quickly revealed to be both more and less than human. Sent by the devil to disrupt the nuptials, Gilles and Dominique, in a virtuoso visual display that anticipates Alain Resnais, literally freeze the reception mid-dance and proceed to tempt the bride and groom in a pair of seductive verbal rendezvous. Emotion, however, begins to take hold on each side of the sensual sparings, forcing the devil himself (an indelible and darkly funny Jules Berry) to materialize and splinter these mounting relations.
The allegorical implications of this setup are clear yet easily disavowed when couched in such spectacle. Gilles and Dominique, outsider representations of Nazi militia, overrun (and therefore occupy) a castle of unsuspecting French aristocracy before their monstrous leader, a symbolic personification of Hitler, arrives, taking matters into his own, self-serving hands. But to reduce the film to simply wartime subversion would do an injustice to the yearning romance at the heart of the film. Written by Pierre Laroche and Jacques Prévert, who was doing concurrent and equally important work with director Jean Grémillon, Les Visiteurs du Soir remains one of cinema's great paeans to everlasting love. Even in opposition to their master, Dominique and Gilles pursue passion at all costs, with the latter going so far as to forsake his destiny to remain in eternally transient union with Anne. These two would rather remain suspended in a kind of emotional purgatory than potentially lose each other, and their bittersweet convergence at film's end is both tragic and liberating.
Carné shot the film in typically ornate fashion, sweeping across corridors, allowing his camera to dance nimbly in two-shot framings, flirting with each couple, while also capturing the castle's vast surroundings and sonorous vistas. Alexandre Trauner's art direction, meanwhile, is rich in period detail, as are Georges Wakhévitch's costumes, with hoods and cloaks and lavish gowns popping against the austere whites and variegated shadows of the castle's chambers. The whole of the production seems to have had a visible effect not only on the aforementioned Resnais (who, to further the connection, actually appears in the early wedding-banquet sequence), but also Ingmar Bergman (you can almost draw a straight line from here to The Seventh Seal and through to The Magician) and Orson Welles, who would take his forthcoming Shakespeare adaptations to similarly vivid and authentic lengths.
Carné and Prévert's next collaboration, 1945's Children of Paradise, would prove even more influential, taking its liberated sense of poetic realism to its most epic and logical end point. But the clandestine missive of Les Visiteurs du Soir arguably breeds a more heightened, tangible sense of affection between character and audience, with Gilles and Anne's sacrificial compromise a more emotionally satisfying denouement than Baptiste's vain pursuit of his unattainable love through the Boulevard of Crime at the conclusion of Children of Paradise. As such, Les Visiteurs du Soir may not play as poetic realism per se, but the film's simultaneously playful and reverent approach to love is suffuse with emotional truth and a similarly enchanted poeticism. That an undertow of indignation inspired and ultimately reinforces this darkly mysterious fable is indicative of the period in which it was produced. But the faith the film betrays in our capacity for love is perhaps its greatest takeaway, a testament to the allure of allegiance and lengths we oftentimes go to relinquish or realize it.
Criterion debuts Les Visiteurs du Soir for North American audiences in a new 1080p digital transfer, and it's richly rendered, particularly for a 1942 production, with a surprising sense of depth and hints of grain, resulting in a mostly clean, nicely contrasted display of the film's black-and-white palette. Audio, meanwhile, stays faithful to the source, going the linear mono route, and is clear, upfront, and easily discernible. Musical sequences show some range, while dialogue scenes are well delineated, sidestepping undue sonic distraction.
Supplemental material is unfortunately on the slim side. Besides the film's theatrical trailer, all that's offered is a 37-minute making-of documentary featuring interviews with author and Marcel Carné friend Didier Decoin, archivist Andrew Heinrich, film historian Alain Petit, and journalist Philippe Morrison. Together they do a commendable job outlining the production of the film, its reception, and its importance to Carné's career. A nicely illustrated booklet featuring an essay by Michael Atkinson completes the package.
Marcel Carné's subversive medieval fable de l'amour remains one of cinema's great paeans to everlasting love, a testament to the allure of allegiance and lengths we oftentimes go to relinquish or realize it. [Slant]