Judge Daryl Loomis would sell his soul for a gin and tonic right about now.
Oh great Lucifer, inspire me!
From the silent days into the 1950s, René Clair (z Nous la Liberté) was a force in French cinema, directing fantastical and beautiful films over decades. But then the French New Wave and their false ideas of realism came around. These directors derided his work and lessened his legacy, but they were also pretentious jags and, almost across the board (with maybe the sole exception of Godard's Contempt, which I really do love), Clair's movies play better today than their work does. So in your face, French New Wave, but Clair made a movie in 1950 that, while lauded by critics and well-attended at theaters, virtually disappeared off the face of the Earth. That is, until the Cohen Media Group, in their emerging greatness, got their hands on Beauty of the Devil. This retelling of Goethe's Faust is as good as almost anything he ever did and now it's newly restored on Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Aging professor Henri Faust (Michel Simon, The Passion of Joan of Arc) is attending his retirement ceremony with sadness. He never learned everything there is to know about the physical world and, for all his accomplishments, thinks himself a failure. As he walks out, he is passed by his old student Mephistopheles (Gérard Philipe, Les liaisons dangereuses), who soon reveals his true self and offers Faust a proposition. He'll give him back his youth with no questions asked. But there is a catch: should Faust ever need his help, he'll give it, but only if he signs a contract for his soul, payable on the day of his death. Fulfillment seems inevitable, but until that day comes, the two wage a battle of wits, one to stay out of trouble and the other to force him into it.
While Beauty of the Devil is a relatively faithful adaptation of Goethe's Faust, Clair has his own take on the proceedings. Specifically, this version is significantly funnier than the original book or most of the film adaptations out there. Because of the wrinkle that the agreement is free from consequences until Faust needs Mephistopheles, the battle of wits between the two becomes the paramount issue of the movie. The two taking turns trying to trick each other is pretty amusing and, though it takes place in a similar time as the original, it makes the story seem more modern.
Alchemy and knowledge are still part of the equation, but after Mephistopheles and Faust switch places, Faust becomes far more interested in women than in turning stuff into gold. First, he starts small by seducing a young gypsy girl, but then aims higher by trying his hand with a nobleman's daughter. Soon, though, Mephistopheles gets anxious about his deal, so starts messing with Faust, setting up illusions and tricks to trap him into signing the agreement and bringing about the inevitable.
The two actors are really good playing their dual roles, as well. Each puts his own spin on the two characters, but the performances are close enough to make the switch completely believable. They play off each other really well to keep things fairly light, in spite of the vaguely satanic subject matter.
They make it fun, but it's Clair who makes the movie so good. He has a light touch, but brings a lot of style to the table. It's a slick film that's nicely edited and beautifully lit, plus a few nice-looking special effects on top of it. It's a strong film all around, with fine performances and a well-told story. If every lost movie was this good, I'd say let's lose them all, if only to rediscover them.
E1 and the Cohen Media Group have done it again with a very strong Blu-ray release for Beauty of the Devil. The restoration, while not quite perfect, is fantastic given that the movie had disappeared for over half a century. With that in mind, it's hard to ask for more from the image. The 1.33:1/1080p transfer is crisp and clear, with very nice black levels, bright whites, and a nicely variable greyscale. There are a few glitches at the edges of frame at times, but nothing that gets in the way of how nice it looks. The lossless PCM 2-channel mono sound mix is solid, as well, but not quite as nice as the image. There are a minimum of pops and very little hiss, with decent dynamic range, but it's a little bit shallow throughout.
The only significant extra is a fifty minute documentary, Through the Looking Glass with René Clair: Master of the Fantastic. Directed by Pierre-Henri Gibert, it goes into fairly good detail on the entire body of Clair's work, with a specific focus on Beauty of the Devil. It's a good piece of work, with plenty of interesting tidbits and a ton of clips from the movie and interviews with experts. The original French trailer and the rerelease trailer close out the disc.
Beauty of the Devil is a lovely, strange film that's not only an excellent retelling of Faust, a story that's always welcome in my home, but a funny and slightly different take on the subject. René Clair always had weird takes on his stories and this one's no different, but it's totally worth it. With the excellent restoration from the Cohen Media Group for this forgotten classic, it's a highly recommended release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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