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Think of it as a one-of-a-kind cultural hothouse experiment: French cinema between 1940 and 1944, during the German occupation. No thriving cinema culture had ever before been subjected to such horrifying and bizarre sociopolitical pressures—suddenly, the substance of your film’s narrative could get you shot by the Nazis or condemned as a collaborator, or both, depending on its figurative nature. Up to 1940, the French film industry had been dominated by the studios Pathé and Gaumont, and, thanks largely to films directed by Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, Jean Grémillon, Jacques Feyder, and Julien Duvivier and starring Jean Gabin, it was an international giant, happily disseminating uniquely cool French fatalism and uniquely sexy French satire to the world’s implicitly more provincial audiences. Many of these films—thunderclouds of pessimistic romanticism, penniless rue, and tough-guy melancholy—came to be labeled “poetic realism,” and that was Carné’s terrain, with the love heaped upon Port of Shadows (1938), Hôtel du Nord (1938), and Le jour se lève (1939) making him for a time the most respected filmmaker on the European continent.
Of course, things changed, and after the Germans marched in, Carné and every other French film artiste who didn’t emigrate had to struggle to survive and keep making movies, which meant charting a blind course through the no-man’s-land between collaborationism, active resistance, compromise, integrity, and laissez-faire neutrality. Filmmakers were under enormous pressure to work for the Nazi-controlled, Goebbels-conceived Continental Films, which competed with the existing studios and sent films to theaters confiscated from Jewish owners—but was taking such work, as André Cayatte, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Maurice Tourneur, and Richard Pottier would do, abetting the occupiers or using their facilities and funding against them? The moral calculus was never simple. Some, like screenwriter Jean Devaivre (as described in both his memoirs and Bertrand Tavernier’s 2002 epic Safe Conduct), accepted Continental employment only to use it as a cover for wild Resistance derring-do.
Clearly, covert heroics aside, what each film “meant,” whether it was made for Continental or not, was the crucial question, and it was answered by the Nazis, the Resistance, and the beleaguered populace all at once. (Famously, Clouzot’s 1943 Rorschach drama Le Corbeau pissed off everyone from the Vatican to the Vichy government to the Communist Party, and it can still be easily read as either an act of spectacular subversion or an artifact of prosecutable cooperation.) It was into this ethical and interpretive minefield that Carné’s magical Les visiteurs du soir (1942), produced by André Paulvé’s independent company, Discina, gingerly stepped, a medieval fairy tale that seemed intentionally devoid of political allegory. Or was it? No longer able to breach the class-minded contemporary milieus that had made him a star in the thirties, Carné, aided by Paulvé and screenwriters Jacques Prévert and Pierre Laroche, bet the bank on an outrageously expensive, Perrault-esque romantic fantasy, something that could be all things to all people: homegrown French and yet nonconfrontational, emotionally substantive and yet metaphor-free, conspicuously goyish yet embracing of difference and disruption.
Lavish, expansively designed (by famous production designer Alexandre Trauner, a Hungarian-born Jew whose participation in the film was hidden by Carné and uncredited), and plaintively lovelorn, Les visiteurs du soir was a sensation, what critic André Bazin would call just a year later “a revolutionary event.” In retrospect, the galvanizing impact Carné’s movie had on France—it was easily the most popular film of the entire occupation period—is a little mysterious. It’s such a simple, languorous, brooding film, but in that dire moment, it satiated the French thirst for escape as no other work could. The tale is hardly a clean template for happy endings and easy solutions, however. When two of the devil’s emissaries, Gilles and Dominique (Alain Cuny and Arletty), appear on horseback, posing as minstrels, and enter an alabaster-white castle during a troubled wedding party, we may well expect a tidy morality play in which vanity and greed are trounced by way of the visitors’ trickery. But life is not so simple, and we sense immediately that the film is too somber for that. The proceedings are eventually sorcerously halted in mid-dance; Gilles seduces Anne, the bride (Marie Déa), while Dominique, in transparent drag until now, alluringly distracts both the brutish groom (Marcel Herrand) and the bride’s widowed father, the mournful Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledoux). And then the devil’s plan collapses, as Gilles (the victim of a Faustian bargain, and a kind of pre-Bogart loner whose love for Dominique died bitterly ages ago) falls in love with the pure-hearted Anne, an unforeseen circumstance that brings about bloodshed and eventually summons the devil himself (Jules Berry).
Once the Midsummer Night’s Dream crisscrossing morphs into a true lovers’ tribulation for Gilles and Anne, the film becomes both a metaphysical farce (with Berry’s impish Mephisto popping in and out of rooms, encouraging disaster at every turn) and a tale of amour fou passionnel. It has been suggested that Berry’s urbane and destructive demon represented for French audiences the malignant presence of the occupation, or even of Hitler himself, but the movie’s crazed romanticism is a more persuasive explanation for its success. Consider the disarming moment, late in the film, when Gilles is chained and tortured for his transgressions while Anne is sequestered, and the spiritually connected and romantically empowered pair simply will themselves out of their confinement to meet in a sun-drenched meadow. This kind of daring, matter-of-fact magic, with its built-in potential for defiance of oppression and physical obstacles, may seem loaded for combat to us today, but both Nazi and Vichy censors apparently considered it merely paradigmatic Gallic escapism. For viewers, however, this return to the all-or-nothing medieval courtly love tradition was stone-cold liberation, courageous and indisputably native, all about resisting evil machinations with only the fierce devotion of an enraptured spirit.
One doesn’t quite need to label it allegory; it would be difficult to come up with any dramatically structured film that, had it been made under Nazi noses, could not be somehow construed as a protest or expression of resolve. Does that make any perceived subtext meaningless or, in this historical context, all the more poignant? According to a twenty-five-year-old Bazin, writing in Revue jeux et poésie in 1943, Carné’s movie initially had a contentious reception across France—arguments would break out in theaters, and “it even appears that several screens were bashed in.” But quickly it became the film du jour, the manifestation of the national spirit, and “the diabolical, the fantastic, and the marvelous soon became the conventions of our present production.”
Given all this, Les visiteurs du soir is a surprisingly sober film, far less entranced visually with a sense of storybook contrivance than with a medieval frieze aesthetic (when the lovers are transformed into a statue at the end, the change is hardly abrupt). Ironically, Port of Shadows, a poetic realist film with a contemporary setting, seems much more fantastic, with individual shots and stylistic flourishes compounding the story’s emotional thrust. Far colder, Les visiteurs du soir contains its fairy-tale elements in depth-composition tableaux, and there is little effort to muster a lighting-defined atmosphere. At times, as in the first visit to the wedding feast, the setting and compositions are almost sterile and still, as if the film were holding its breath, anxiously awaiting the inevitable collision between love and evil. We don’t know, but this may have given a censor a moment’s pause—nothing is frivolous in Carné’s movie, and little besides the devil is played as comedy. This small matter of emotional insurgency in the face of doom was deadly serious.
The beginnings of the path forward, for Bazin at least, had been laid by Marcel L’Herbier and his Midnight in Paris–like La nuit fantastique (1942), which “gave the signal for a reversal of steam” leading to the achievement of Les visiteurs du soir later that year. After that, the mini wave of ostensibly neutral French fantasies produced on the Third Reich’s watch got under way in earnest, with Jean Delannoy and Jean Cocteau’s L’éternel retour; Maurice Tourneur’s Gérard de Nerval adaptation La main du diable; Serge de Poligny’s Le baron fantôme, featuring Cocteau as the titular ghost; and Grémillon’s Lumière d’été (all 1943). Together, these films stand as one of the great fermentative moments in cinema, when the medium dreamed the dreams of an entire nation under spectacular duress. Hollywood saw a similarly organic spurt of id-venting gothics in response to the Depression, and certainly the deprivations and dreads of Soviet life triggered the popularity of old-fashioned fantasy yarns in the 1960s and 1970s (Boris Rytsarev, Aleksandr Ptushko, and Aleksandr Rou forged entire thriving careers in the genre).
Because of the strictures they themselves imposed, the Nazis didn’t have a chance of controlling the discourse—the more fanciful and romantic and quintessentially French the films were, the more loudly they proclaimed an intuitively nationalist creed. Goebbels had wanted to use the film industry to neutralize popular patriotism, but the French people became more French after seeing Les visiteurs du soir and the other fantasias of the era, not less. Relatively unobjectionable to the Germans, the films were like messages tied to doves’ legs, missives of salvation and cosmic hope.
Since the war, and outside of its special circumstances, this film has been overshadowed by Carné’s subsequent masterpiece, Children of Paradise (1945), in terms of scale, profundity, and the amount of occupation intrigue that plagued its production. But the latter film, for all its majesty, stands as a monument to a very real triumph over the Nazis, crafted, as it was, in semisecrecy and finished and released seven months after the liberation of Paris. Les visiteurs du soir meant something else: like its own doomed lovers, the movie embodied an unquashable will in a moment of cultural impossibility, when only what was in your heart could save you.
Michael Atkinson writes about film for Sight & Sound, the Village Voice, In These Times, and TCM.com. He is the author of seven books, including the novels Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat. His website is zeroforconduct.com.