It’s fair to say that the great French filmmaker — and early sound innovator — René Clair never fully recovered from his years abroad (1935-1946). Oh, he made some enjoyable films and one great one — And Then There Were None (1945) — during his years in Great Britain and Hollywood, but nothing quite like his early masterpieces. And when he returned to France after World War II it wasn’t quite the same. Either his talent for innovation had dried up, or his kind of innovation was just unfashionable in the post-war years. But he could still ring the gong on occasion — as is evidenced by his slyly comedic take on the Faust story, The Beauty of the Devil (La Beauté du Diable).
The film stars the great French actor Michel Simon as both Professor Henri Faust and as Mephistopheles. Not only is Simon obviously having a grand time as this “second-rate demon,” but he insures that the audience has just as much fun as he does. At the same time, the tragic (he died of liver cancer at the age of 36 in 1959) Gérard Philipe makes for a very appealing and dashing young Faust (and briefly as Mephistopheles). The story is pretty much the traditional Faust tale — with one major change, which the stuffier British critics at the time decried as “not playing the game” — but played largely for laughs with great cinematic inventiveness (if not actual innovation).
But so much of the film’s delights come from Simon’s performance as the slightly inept demon out to snare Faust’s soul by any means necessary — while fully indulging himself in the delights of being human and laughing at human folly up close. (His reaction upon seeing humankind’s notion of the devil is worth the price of admission by itself.) However, don’t overlook Clair’s rich visuals and flair for theatricality. This rarely seen film may not be quite up to the filmmaker’s early sound films, but neither is it that far removed from them.
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Beauty of the Devil Tuesday, May 27, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.