It’s a French film, made during the Nazi Occupation, and set in the past. Several of the leading characters are performers, and the film is itself a meditation on and tribute to performance. Even more, it’s a meditation on and tribute to love. The female lead is Arletty, she of the regally aquiline nose and wondrous, wounded gaze. Marcel Carné directed. Jacques Prévert wrote the script. Alexandre Trauner did the set design. Roger Hubert shot it in a black and white that manages to look crisp yet suffused with a kind of magic. Oh, and several of the male actors have dreadful haircuts.
The movie just described is, of course, “Children of Paradise” (1945), one of the greatest and most loved titles in the history of cinema. Yet the same description applies to a much lesser-known film, “Les Visiteurs du Soir” (1942). This Tuesday, the Criterion Collection releases “Visiteurs” and the 2011 restoration of “Children” on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time. Taken together, the two films make for a fascinating study in how lightning does, and does not, strike.
The English title of “Visiteurs” is “The Devil’s Envoys.” Devil is meant literally. He’s played by Jules Berry, in one of the all-time lip-smacking, inhale-the-scenery performances. Berry’s Devil is so hammy he makes Pierre Brasseur’s crowd-pleasing excesses in “Children,” as the actor Frederick Lemaitre, seem kosher by comparison. Berry’s performance stands out all the more because it’s like a yodel in a whispering gallery. The rest of the movie, from sets to action, is a study in restraint.
Based on a French legend, “Visiteurs” takes place in the 15th century. Two mysterious strangers — Satan’s envoys — appear one day outside a castle. They’re minstrels, Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty). The lord’s daughter, Anne (Marie Déa), is about to be married. The Devil has sent his minions to seduce the engaged couple.
There are multiple complicating factors. Gilles and Dominique were once lovers. Dominique is disguised as a man. (The idea that anyone would fail to realize Arletty is female is goofy. That said, she looks fabulous in leggings.) Both the intended bride’s father and fiance fall in love with Dominique (who lets each of them in on the secret of her being a woman). The biggest complication? Gilles really does fall in love with the daughter. Hence the Devil’s decision to show up, on a fact-finding mission, as it were.
“It’s nothing but a story meant to amuse the Devil,” Gilles confesses to Anne, in explanation of his and Dominique’s activities. Berry’s hijinks aside, there’s not much in “Visiteurs” in the way of amusement. It has a trancelike quality that at its best is hypnotic — and at its worst, static. It feels like a maquette for Jean Cocteau’s postwar movies. (The print used for the disc transfer, by the way, is spectacularly good.)
What “Visiteurs” definitely doesn’t feel or look like is the next movie Carné and Prévert collaborated on. For all the carryover in personnel and themes, “Children” seems almost to belong to a different medium. Set in the 1840s Parisian demimonde, it bursts with energy and overflows with people and sights. The curtain goes up, and an entire world is revealed. Has any movie teemed quite as “Children” does? It’s like watching Victor Hugo’s, or Dickens’s, imagination visualized. You could argue, in fact, that “Children” is the greatest 19th-century novel that isn’t actually a novel — it’s that full of color and character and event.
Even in a CGI-sated era, the crowds and sets look miraculous. Factor in the circumstances under which the film was made, during the Nazi Occupation, and what’s up on the screen becomes flabbergasting.
Yet the true greatness — the greatest greatness? — of “Children” has to do with character and emotion. Garance (Arletty) is a prostitute loved by four men: Brasseur’s Lemaitre; Jean-Louis Barrault’s mime, Baptiste; Marcel Herrand’s murderous Lacenaire; and Louis Salou’s haughty Comte de Montray. Garance does some acting, and Lacenaire writes plays when not committing crimes. So only the count isn’t involved somehow in the theater. Care to guess who's the least sympathetic?
The characters speak in epigrams. “I only talk about other people’s deaths,” Lacenaire remarks. “Mine is for later.” More to the point, they behave with an openness and immediacy that owes as much to life on the stage as it does to life as really lived. But the miracle of “Children” is that such artifice seems not at all phony but rather a higher, exalted reality. Garance wears heart-shaped earrings? Of course she does, she’s the spirit of love. Lemaitre’s dream role is Othello? Absolutely, since jealousy is love turned upside down. “I only believe in what I love,” Garance says — which means a movie about love, like this one, must be pure realism.
“Children” is doubly about love. It loves performing as much as it loves love. Brasseur’s character really is the reverse of Berry’s Devil: He overacts not out of malice and self-regard but joy and generosity. “Actors aren’t people,” Lacenaire says, with mingled admiration and disdain. “They are every man and woman.” Actors are the children of paradise, since paradise — for Carné and Prévert — is the theater. Except they aren’t the only such children. Anyone who’s seen this movie has known paradise, too.