During the Nazi Occupation of France, the best way to conceal your Resistance tendencies in the filmmaking world was to make a period drama. Distancing yourself from the present circumstances going on around you offers you a more subtle and covert way to comment on current events. Many French directors used this technique in order to keep working under Vichy and its Nazi patrons and not be persecuted while also rebelling against the system. One of the best examples of this tenuous time in French history is Marcel Carne’s Les Visiteurs du Soir.
Les Visiteurs du Soir takes place at the end of the fifteenth century. Two minstrels ride up to an alabaster castle in order to entertain the royalty inside. The royalty is in a period of transition, having just engaged two of the most promising royal figures in the area. Anne and Renaud do not love each other, but they seem to tolerate each other enough. During their engagement banquet, the two minstrels we saw outside are called on to entertain Anne. One of the minstrels, Gilles, croons to Anne, making love to her with his words. She has become enraptured by the music. After a couple of songs, Renaud comprehends what is happening to Anne and forces the minstrels to end their little concert. During the dance after the meal, the other minstrel, Dominique, pauses the action and transforms into a beautiful woman. (She is played by Arletty, who was magnificent in Children of Paradise) Dominique takes Renaud from Anne in order to make love to him. Gilles does the same to Anne. We soon realize these two minstrels are not all that they seem. They are in fact agents of the devil sent to trick these two people into loving them only to break their hearts. But something goes wrong. Gilles falls for Anne. Gilles refuses to trick Anne and the devil comes up to the surface in order to exact his revenge on both Gilles and Anne. Meanwhile Dominique is faithful to the devil and turns two former allies against each other. Bloodshed, lovemaking, and tons of magical tricks follow.
On the surface this film may seem slight. Just another costume drama set in the time of Medieval romance. But once you understand that this film was made during the Occupation, everything lends itself to French Resistance rhetoric easily. I can talk here about how the devil can be seen as Hitler and the ending can be seen as a complete encapsulation of the Resistance fight, but that would mean spoilers and I know how much blog readers hate those. So I will content myself with an event that happens very early on in the film. Before the minstrels meet their “victims” at the engagement banquet, someone else tries to entertain them. These guests and the royalty have been banqueting for several days and their thirst for entertainment has entered into the grotesque realm. An older man comes forth with three small dwarves with hoods over their heads. The older man makes a speech and takes off their hoods to reveal severely disfigured faces. Everyone at the banquet erupts in laughter except for Anne. Anne shield her eyes from the monstrosity and begs for the act to be done. She cannot cope with the awful joy that people get off such misfortune. Throughout the whole film, Anne can be seen as a human form of France itself. (This is made clearer by the ending) Just like France is upset with the wicked and privileged ways of the Nazis and Vichy, so is Anne upset with everyone’s reactions to disfigurement. This is just one scene in many that can be interpreted this way, but also could be read for just its surface implications. This is what makes this film so fascinating. If you were a Nazi censor, you would see nothing in this scene, but if you were an under cover Resistance fighter looking for a couple of hours escape, you could easily be hopeful that you are not a part of the laughing majority. This film gave hope to many beleaguered French people, showing them that they have a rich and interesting history that they must keep alive at all costs. This is why this film is so important.