Before the New Wave, there were French film institutions like Jean Renoir and René Clair. They began with the silent era and continued on to direct, at least in Renoir’s case, what are widely held to be some of the best films of all time. Then came the French New Wave and the critic-filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard who pushed back against the institution–too frivolous, too much fantasy, cliché. Beauty of the Devil (1950), made in the Autumn of Clair’s career, would have been a film everyone knew if it were made in English (and/or color). It is charming, fantastic, and a classic in every way. It is the story of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the devil.
Prof. Henri Faust (Michel Simon) is a well-respected, crotchety old academic who has thrown his whole life into his research. He drinks only water and eats only the meagerest of meals. Just as he closes in on the object of his research, turning sand into gold, his death is moments away. There is another presence close by, tempting him. It is the devil, or, rather the lesser demon Mephistopheles (Gérard Philipe), promising him all he ever wished for if he only signs over his soul. Faust stands firm, but when Mephisto gives him his youth, free of charge, Faust’s resistance begins to wane. First through greed, then through lust (in the form of the Princess (Simone Valère)), Faust is shown what it is he missed the first time through his life. But will the love of a pretty gypsy girl (Nicole Besnard) bring Faust back from the edge?
Seen in light of the recent economic downturn, this film is deeply resonant. Easy money lures the people into relying on devil-made cash that, when the illusion fades, chaos ensues and the pitchfork brigade wants a witch to burn. Equally, Faust’s temptation is founded in credit. Beware the devil when he gives you youth without a down payment, the rates are likely to be variable.
Finally, there is the power and allure of youth, which would again be dealt with in Damn Yankees! (1958), harkening back to Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and the compromises made there. This is all Clair and co-writer Armand Salacrou‘s creation and places it firmly in the timeless tradition of a fairy tale. Timelessness should be admired and rewarded because, while it may seem easy and derivative, it is actually devilishly difficult to get right. To be timeless, one must tap into the fundamental nature of humanity. Only the French can turn their noses up at that.
This is a clean transfer of a well made film. The tricks played by Mephistopheles and body swapping are cleverly done. Mephistopheles looks into the mirror and can show Faust the future. This is as well done or better than anything in Hollywood at the time. It’s a slight surprise to me that this is coming out as a part of the Cohen Collection rather than the Criterion Collection which seem to honor the rebels more than the simply great. But we all watch movies for different things, I suppose. That’s the beauty of it.