As a huge fan of the works of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert, it is unfortunate to learn that other than 'Children of Paradise', none of their works are available on DVD. However, it is at least some consolation when you find that they are still in print on VHS. Considering that one of the finest films of all time, 'L'Atalante' by genius Jean Vigo has gone out of print on video, and that no one has bothered to put it back on the shelves, I must say that for such old French classics such as this one to still be around is a fact worth commending.
'Les Visiteurs de Soir' literally translates into 'The Visitors of the Evening', but the English world has taken the liberty of calling it 'The Devil's Envoys'. This remarkable gem, a remnant of the early 1940s, is French romanticism at its best. While the original tale is a fable that children will delight in, the film-making team also saw the story as a way to make a point about the political establishment at the time. Marcel Carne has repeatedly won my respect as a film-maker, and though his crowning glory remains 'Les Enfants du Paradis', this little known film remains perhaps his most sly attempt at movie-making. Almost every sentence is a statement of political defiance, and every frame of the film is bathed in the unnaturally brilliant light that Marcel shot his movies in.
'Les Visiteurs de Soir' looks older than it actually is. Perhaps this has something to do with the horrendous transfer that this particular edition is inflicted with. There are patches where it seems the film has burned away - gaping holes and scars are evident, which leads one to wonder what condition the master film is actually in. However, that minor technicality apart, the entire story reads like an adventure worth taking, although the actual transfer from page to screen is something that works in a way quite unexpected.
This is a much slower film than 'Children of Paradise'. To be honest, the only thing the two films share in common is Arletty. Here, she plays one of the Devil's Envoys, sent to a town to teach/convert/berate/observe/spoil its' inhabitants. She arrives with a male partner, and is soon dining with lords and baronesses. The dialogue is simply stunning. Arletty's performance as an androgynous being is played up and she remains a cool and aloof creature for much of the movie. However, it is the other envoy, the man, who is more affected by his new surroundings. Played by the beautiful Alain Cuny, the male envoy is a being who has never experienced the love of a human being, and his desire for the lovely Marie Dea is what forms the crux of the film.
It is at this stage that the devil enters. Played by Jules Berry as a crass old ugly sort of monster, he is an exaggeration of everything evil. He finds pleasure in the unhappiness of others, he is thrilled when people relinquish their control to him. When Marie Dea's pure and unblemished love for the male envoy seems beyond his control, the devil is not pleased. He does everything in his power to win her soul, and this becomes his prime challenge.
As I had mentioned before, this entire storyline is filled with political innuendo, and it doesn't take an expert in European history to figure out what is actually going on. When the devil, in rage, finally turns the lead couple to stone, another shock awaits him. Needless to say, the film ends with the devil being defeated, but the lead couple pay a price as well. And the point is made that even though the couple has lost the battle, they have won the war. Very much like the ending of 'La Vita E Bella'.
Characters are very well etched. The Devil plays the face of Germany and the German Occupation. The Devil's envoys play the young German soldiers who go in with a policy, yet return with different ideals. The French play the french, all for liberty, equality, and fraternity, and the neverending struggle to achieve all of these goals.
I especially liked Arletty's character, even though she almost disappears for the second half of the film. The most visually appealing thing about this movie is the lighting. Every frame could be an exercise in film-making - the bright hues of the French morning are all lovingly captured, and the close-ups of the lead characters are so beautifully filmed. The screenplay is flawless, though at times you wish they could be a little less obvious in their message.
'Les Visiteurs de Soir' will probably never be as important as 'Les Enfants du Paradis' or the other Carne classic 'Le jour se leve'. It had its own time and place, and its' meaning was probably more relevant in the 1940s than it is today. However, there is also something timeless about its' texture and quality. This is a movie I could sit through over ten times and never be bored. As with every Carne film, it helps to be a native or taught French speaker to truly appreciate the nuances of the dialogue - the yellow subtitles on this edition are especially hideous, both in the way they've been translated and their appearance - but it doesn't take much to be swept in by this delightful treat of a film. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves old French movies, and in particular, the works of the masters such as Carne and Francois Truffaut.
If you liked this, you'd love 'L'Atalante' by Jean Vigo, 'Le fille sur le pont' by Patrice Leconte, and Carne's 'Les quai de brumes'. I'd also like to bring your attention to the fact that many of Carne's works are now available on DVD from Amazon's French website, although this catalog does not yet include 'Les Visiteurs de soir'.