THE DEVIL’S ENVOYS (Marcel Carné, 1942)

This medieval parable about evil’s attempt to destroy love on Earth refers to the present, to the plight of Occupied France. Jacques Prévert, who co-wrote the script, intended the Devil as a stand-in for Hitler. Director Marcel Carné’s use of the past enabled him to get this film past Vichy censors.
     Les visiteurs du soir—literally, Evening Visitors—captivates. The opening irises out, in a downward long-shot, on the Devil’s two envoys masquerading as minstrels, Gilles and Dominique, who is masquerading as a boy, Gilles’s brother. (Think Manda in Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, 1958.) The use of the iris, by its connection to silent cinema (for instance, D. W. Griffith’s), underscores the sense of the past that Carné means to conjure. The camera’s distance may also suggest cosmic observation, God’s or the Devil’s. In any case, a series of cuts makes our view of the riders increasingly accessible; we are being drawn into the past as correlative to our being drawn into the story. The envoys’ destination: Baron Hugues’s fairy-tale castle, which is celebrating the (loveless) betrothel of Anne, Hugues’s daughter, and Baron Renaud, a figure so close to being satanic he may represent Pétain. The envoys aim to uncouple the couple; Gilles himself falls in love with Anne, and she with him, while Dominique sets sights on both barons.
     The castle is ravishing white. Think painter Kasimir Malevich’s White on White—but also, perhaps, Hitler’s notion of Aryan purity. In the grand ballroom Dominique’s strum of her lute gradually slows down the dancing couples to a complete halt so that the envoys can choose their partners for romance. The scene eerily anticipates the film’s ending, where the Devil turns Gilles and Anne into stone, but their hearts—the soul of France—keep beating.

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