Little known fact: Judge Jason Panella is the Devil's envoy.
"Dreams are dangerous and useless. I never dream myself."
Marcel Carné's Les Visiteurs du Soir may not be as well-known as his "poetic realism" masterpieces Le Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows) or Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), but this medieval-set romantic fairytale is nevertheless an excellent film from one of the best French directors of the 20th century.
Facts of the Case
The devil (Jules Berry) sends two envoys (Alain Cuny and Arletty) to a castle in 15th century France to sow mischief during an engagement celebration for Anne (Marie Déa) and Renauld (Marcel Herrand). Mischief is sown, but not before a bunch of people learn about the power of love.
There were only a handful of options available to French filmmakers after their country was taken over during WWII. Some tried to escape. Some ended up collaborating with Vichy France to promote the Third Reich. Others, like Marcel Carné, kept busy making the best films they could, despite restrictions placed on them by the new government. Quitting, it seems, wasn't an option.
While Carné's Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise are usually regarded as the director's best, Les Visiteurs du Soir is still an excellent work, and wound up being one of the most popular films released in occupied France. It's easy to see why: Les Visiteurs du Soir works as both romantic escapism and subversive commentary on the Nazi Regime. Carné had insisted that any political subtext was unintentional, but it's hard to not to pull any allegorical elements out of the film.
Even if you completely disregard the parallels to the Nazi occupation, the movie still works as pure entertainment. It's witty without resorting to broad humor, crowd pleasing without entirely losing the edge of fatalism that's found in other French films of the era. More importantly, the main themes—the power of free will, everlasting love—don't feel stuffy or overused. This is accomplished in part through Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche's smart writing and exceptional ensemble performances, especially from Jules Berry. The verbal jousting between Anne and her sour fiancé Renauld is sharp, lyrical stuff, and a lot of fun to watch. The fantastic elements are presented in such a matter-of-fact way it makes them all the more believable than contemporary CGI bloat.
If there's a knock against the film, it's that it runs maybe 15 minutes too long. Les Visiteurs du Soir's script is never dull, but some of the dialogue does get into wheel-spinning territory by the second and third acts.
It may come as no surprise, but Criterion's technical treatment of this Blu-ray is top-notch. A new 1.33:1/1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer sharpens the picture quality significantly, with blacks that are rich, contrast that's striking, and (despite its age) only a touch of natural-looking grain. The uncompressed LPCM 1.0 Mono audio is crisp, though an understandable amount of fuzz filters through here and there.
The bonus features leave something to be desired. The 37-minute featurette "L'Adventure des Visiteurs du Soir" features French film historians and other talking heads discussing the history of Les Visiteurs du Soir. While it's full of great information, most of the making-of has white subtitles over an off-white background, which makes reading them absolutely headache-inducing. We also get the original theatrical trailer and a beautifully illustrated booklet, complete with a beefy essay by Michael Atkinson. These are nice, but not packed to the gills like other Criterion releases.
Les Visiteurs du Soir is further proof of Marcel Carné's talent as one of the filmmaking greats, and Criterion's Blu-ray does an effective job of conveying that message.
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