Beauty and the Devil
At the Brattle
Ever since Eve ate the apple, the Devil has had a particularly winning appeal for mankind. Every nation has expressed itself on this theme with its own special brand of Satan lore, climaxed perhaps by the German Faust-legend. Beauty and the Devil, the latest restatement of the old tale, may be a corruption of previous interpretations, but it's probably just what one would expect from the French. Rene Clair's treatment of the story, at the Brattle this week, is as sparkling and stimulating to the audience as it is subversive to the tragic moral dilemma that earlier Fausts enacted.
Notwithstanding the movie's happy ending, in which a rejuvenated Faust regains his rather confused soul, the legend's new and lighter mood is due mainly to M. Clair's revolutionary conception of Mephistopheles. Played by Michel Simon, the Devil's agent now appears as a wonderfully impish, intriguing, and incompetent procurer of souls--sort of a dumb burglar on a metaphysical level. Faust himself capitalizes on Mephisto's bumbling diabolicalness to lead a love life that seems well worth anyone's soul. He is portrayed by Gerard Philipe with just the right combination of gallantry and naivete. But it is M. Simon's performance that sets the mood for the movie; merely the lascivious wink of his eye, coming devilishly through a heavy growth of beard, seems to epitomize just what author Clair had in mind.
Beauty and the Devil does, however, occasionally stumble. Toward the end, for example, the light vein is momentarily broken by Faust's sudden philosophic despair. ("The poorest beggar at least owns his own soul," he complains to his lover.) Nevertheless, the picture, enlivened by Leon Barsacq's lavish sets, is a distinct triumph of French joie de vivre over the sombre morality of previous Faust legends.