Andre Bazin called it "the first and most exemplary psychologically realistic film" in French cinema. Francois Truffaut singled it out as a prime culprit of "le cinema du papa" against which he and other members of the French New Wave would rally. It was both censored and defended in France for sympathetically portraying a adulterous couple, yet reviled by the likes of Truffaut for gussying up the illicit affair with "the cinema of quality" to make it palatable to bourgeois audiences. Devil in the Flesh is a fascinating historical lightning rod, straddling both the moral and aesthetic conflicts of its time. (As of now I'd say there's more going on in this film on different levels than, say, the tasteful stiff upper lip adultery of Brief Encounter.)
Because of its contradictory significances, its best to consider the film without that largely unhelpful label "cinema of quality" (one that unfortunately is still invoked today) and consider the tensions within the film itself. It starts with French heartthrob Gerard Philipe and his strange blend of adolescent swagger and sulky introversion. Or the way the characters are seen through multiple filters. There's the extended flashbacks, summoned aurally by a strange grinding sound, as if it were the gears of a machine [a film projector?] being wound back then forth. The prominence of all sorts of frames (windows, doors, mirrors) that continually give the sense of encasement and self-consciousness. And the frequent rain that operates as more than just for typical, sentimental exclamation during emotional climaxes, but underscores the characters' physical exertion as they move through wet spaces to see each other.
The film isn't without its questionable flourishes, such as a 180 degree shot of the bed as the couple is about to consummate their affair, that ends with one of their hands turning out the light (if this is the first instance of this romantic movie cliche, then the film has a lot to answer for). It wouldn't be half as bad if a later climactic scene didn't reprise this same shot to spell out in boldface that the affair has come full circle. Such impositions speak to the complaints from the likes of Truffaut, that this is filmmaking that looks down on both the characters and the audience. But this shouldn't discount the moments of light from within, most notably in the intimacy achieved between the leads - whose fragility may actually be enhanced by Autant-Lara's insistence on boxing them in with his frames and devices.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Devil in the Flesh among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Andre Cayatte, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Barthelemy Amengual, Positif (1991) Claude Autant-Lara, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Francis Bolen, Sight & Sound (1952) Helmut Kautner, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Marcel L'Herbier, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Marc-Gilbert Sauvajon, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Noel Coward, Cinematheque Belgique (1952) Brussels Referendum: Filmmakers, The Ten Best Films (1952) Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book - 500 Great Films (1987) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Georges Sadoul, Best French Films Since the Liberation (1965) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
Devil in the Flesh, a French film which features the gifted young actors above, is a story of adolescent love that runs its course to disaster in the topsy-turvy world of a nation at war. Beautifully directed by Claude Autant Lara, it has aroused cries of jubilation from the critics and rage from the censors, who object to the film's compassionate attitude toward the sinful lovers. It is one of the two or three movies to be released in the U.S. in the past half year that are worth going to see more than once. A few years ago it would have been practically impossible to see it, or a movie like it at all, outside of New York and half a dozen other big cities. Motion picture exhibitors were generally convinced that anything which broke away from the standard Hollywood formulas was box-office poison. What they rather contemptuously referred to as "art pictures" might, they said, get rave reviews in the big-city papers, but they would never be in a class with Betty Grable when it came to reaching for the customer's pocketbook.
But since 1946 there have occurred such extraordinary phenomena as Olivier's Henry V, which has already taken in $2.5 million in the U.S.; the grim Italian picture Open City, which played in towns where no foreign language picture had been seen before and grossed a million dollars, and the even greater financial successes of the British Hamlet and The Red Shoes, and the Italian Paisan. The lesson is sinking in, and perhaps people in all 48 states wil soon be getting a chance to see Devil (although only after censor's cuts)...
- Life Magazine, June 20, 1949, Page 61
An extraordinarily frank and understanding contemplation of a tragic love affair between a 17-year-old French schoolboy and the wife of a soldier during the first World War is beautifully and tenderly accomplished in a most formidable new French film, "Devil in the Flesh," which was presented at the Paris Theatre last night.
Already celebrated by the controversies it has aroused on the Continent, where it was presented under the title "Le Diable au Corps," and also by some slight embarrassment in its admission to the United States, this film is plainly one for starting impassioned discussion, pro and con. And its merits will likely be debated on other than artistic grounds. For not only does it have forebearance for the youthful principals in an adulterous romance but it lays bare the merciless irony in certain conventional attitudes...
Produced by Paul Graetz, this picture is perhaps the finest, most mature from post-war France, and its admission for exhibition by our assorted censors is a triumph to be hailed.
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, May 10 1949
Devil in the Flesh (Graetz; A.F.E.), when it first appeared in France a couple of years ago, caused the devil of a row. Like the celebrated autobiographical novel on which it was based,* it was rough on French national dignity (the municipal council of Bordeaux denounced it as "shocking, painful and scabrous") but enthusiastically received by the public (it ran to packed houses for more than a year).
Devil in the Flesh is a profoundly moving film because it is profoundly honest. With an ear for dialogue as accurate and intimate as a wire recorder in a bedroom, Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (who also collaborated on Symphonie Pastorale) have provided a script that is at once ruthless, compassionate and quietly penetrating. Working in the same low natural key, Director Claude Autant Lara has produced an extraordinary fluoroscopic effect of life-in-depth. The lovers' moments of clandestine passion (as frank as any that have recently reached the screen), their childish gaiety, their anguish and fears have an almost unbearable intimacy. Sensitively conceived and superbly acted—notably by Micheline Presle and Gérard Philipe—Devil makes most cinema explorations of the human heart appear strictly two-dimensional.
- Time, March 21 1949
Le diable au corps was certainly the French film of 1947. Winner of several European awards, the film was also banned in communities across the Continent. While a proud tribute to the French literary tradition, it posed as the most avant-garde example of postwar cinema in that country.
There is no paradox here, for the aesthetic ideology of the "cinema of quality," of which this film serves as an outstanding example, openly mixes an interest in iconoclastic subject matter, high art tradition, and a refined studio treatment. Aurenche and Bost's careful reworking of a youthful and rebellious novel points up its key social and psychological oppositions. Claude Autant-Lara was then able to put these oppositions into play through the psychological realism of his handling of actors, and through the narrational commentary wrung out of decor, music, and cinematic figures.
Their grim intelligence and determined passion made Gérard Philipe and Micheline Presle an instantly legendary couple; he as a precocious teenage malcontent, son of an upright bourgeois, she the older woman whose husband is off at the front in World War I. Autant-Lara evinces sympathy for their questionable moral position by rendering the action through a series of flashbacks from the boy's point of view. The war is over and the town celebrates the return of its veterans, but he must hide in the room of their forbidden love and go through the anguish of recalling that love. This flashback structure, together with the doomed love of the couple, reminded critics of Le jour se lève , and made the public see Gérard Philipe as the heir of Jean Gabin. But the limpid expressiveness of the prewar realism had been complicated after the war. Philipe's gestures were calculated to display his passion and anguish, whereas Gabin had moved and spoken instinctively, without the hesitation of either good taste or intelligence, hallmarks of the postwar style. The same holds true for the direction. While Carné and Prévert had devised a number of highly charged objects, Autant-Lara multiplies effects wherever he can. The incessant play of reflections in mirrors and by the ferry insists on the significance of the drama, but does so from the outside. Similarly the famous 360-degree camera movement that circles the bed of the couple's lovemaking demands to be noticed as a figure supplied by an external narrator, especially since it begins on a crackling fire and ends on dying embers. This is more than a metaphor for passion, it is a poetic display that lifts an ordinary drama into telling significance.
Altogether Le diable au corps stuns its audience with the cockiness of its presentation as well as with the audacity of its subject matter. This is its conquest as well as its loss; for in only a few years the New Wave critics, led by Truffaut, would clamor for the downfall of psychological realism and of the paternalistic, elitist narration that preaches a liberal morality. If Radiguet, the novelist, likewise condemned a suffocating society, he did so from within, from the perceptions and language of his hero. Autant-Lara has used Radiguet's rebelliouness, has packaged it approvingly, but has made of it a mature, stylish film. Radiguet, legend has it, put everything of himself into this novel and then died. The movie pays tribute to his effort and his views, but is just another very good movie.
- Dudley Andrew, Film Reference.com
For (Francois Truffaut), Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary writers and he aims his ultimate reproach at them: they show contempt for the cinema and underestimate its potential. "They behave vis-a-vis the scenario, as if they thought to reeducate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they've 'done the maximum' for it by embellishing it with subtleties, out of that science of nuances that make up the slender merit of modern novels." According to Truffaut, a valid adaptation can be written only by a "man of the cinema."
In Radiguet's short novel, written in the first person by the young narrator, the central character-narrator recounts how he met Marthe, the heroine, for the first time as she got off a train on the platform at a train station:
When the train drew into the station, Marthe was standing on the step of the railway carriage. "Wait till it stops!" cried her mother... The girl's recklessness delighted me. Her dress and hat, both simple, evidenced her lack of respect for the opinion of outsiders.
Aurenche and Bost transposed the action to the courtyard of a lycee, or secondary school, transformed into a military hospital. Marthe is a volunteer aid, helping the seriously wounded soldiers arriving from the front. This change in location allows the scriptwriters to introduce a very bitter indictment against educational, military, and medical authorities, on the one hand, and against the matriarchy, on the other: the professor is a guard dog, the military doctor is a sadistic brute, and Marthe's mother-in-law is a real harpy. Thus, from these few details we can readily see how the adapters introduced via transposition a number of motifs completely absent from the original novel, whose anti-militarism, while real, was signified in a totally different, and more subtle, manner. "What is the point of this equivalence? It's a decoy for the anti-militarist elements added to the work by the screenwriters, in concert with Claude Autant-Lara. Well, it is evident that Radiguet's idea was one of mise-en-scene, whereas the scene invented by Aurence and Bost is literary."
Finally, Truffaut defends the idea that it is impossible to appreciate simultaneously those directors belonging to the tradition of quality, such as Autant-Lara, Jean Delannoy, Rene Clement, Yves Allegret, and those considered auteurs, principally Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Jacques Becker, and Robert Bresson, because he does not believe in the "peaceful co-existence of the tradition of quality and the cinema of auteurs." The fundamental opposition established by this young critic between these two antagonistic categories rests in their directors' attitudes towards their characters: for the former, there is an all-powerful attitude in which the protagonists are only puppets manipulated by the director. "In the films of 'psychological realism' there are nothing but vile beings, but so inordinate is the authors' desire to be superior to their characters that those who, perchance, are not infamous are, at best, infinitely grotesque."
-Michel Marie, Richard John Neupert, The French New Wave: An Artistic School. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003. Pages 37-38.
Director Claude Autant-Lara presents a faithful adaptation of the novel published originally in 1923 by Raymond Radiguet, supposedly semi-autobiographical, when the author was only 20 years old. He died of typhoid fever later that same year. The film is linked to the school of cinema known as "cinema de papa."
Sensitive performances by the stars and atmospheric footage from the period keeps the fires going, in this otherwise overcooked romantic drama.
- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu's World Movie Reviews
The script feels like it was written by an eighteen-year-old. It wasn't, but it was adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel written by an eighteen-year-old, Raymond Radiguet. Radiguet died two years later of typhoid fever. The two lead characters are never more than shallow archetypes: a hormonal teenage boy and an attractive but lonely older woman. It's never evident what either one sees in the other beyond pure carnal desire. They are given no personalities.
The best thing about the film is its atmosphere. The sets are elaborate and impressive in their period detail. Michel Kleber provided lots of rainy or misty days, giving the film an ethereal quality. There're some artistic shots and interesting camera angles. The music by René Cloërec is very romantic and would have worked had the love story itself been more profound and moving. As it is, the music feels overblown. The VHS copy that I purchased is very poor quality, both for the video and the audio. The film available in America is also dubbed rather than subtitles, so the poor sound quality is a major deficit.
I sought out this film on the basis of one sourcebook rating it at 4-stars (our of 5 possible) and, most especially, from a desire to see Micheline Presle in her heyday. I had enjoyed her work at a later stage of her career in The King of Hearts (1966), one of my all-time favorite films. Presle gives a nice performance, but her character is so shallow that I had no sense of experiencing anything of her beyond her surface beauty. Although Gérard Philipe went on to be a popular romantic lead in France, until his untimely death at just thirty-nine, his casting here at age twenty-four as a seventeen-year-old destroys the credibility of the story. Although Philipe manages to convey the lack of depth and immaturity of a smitten seventeen-year-old, he never looks less than his real age. Since a significant part of the story's point was the mismatch in ages of the lovers, the casting mishap is a major deficit for the film. Philipe later appeared in La Ronde (1950). I thought the best performance in the film belonged to Jean Debucourt, in a small role as François's father. His other work included Mayerling (1936) and The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953).
- metalluk, Epinions
ABOUT CLAUDE AUTANT-LARA
Claude Autant-Lara, whose talent was revealed during the war by Douce[Love Story, 1943] and Le Mariage de Chiffon [The Marriage of Chiffon, 1942], is an uneven filmmaker whose critical or analytical faculty is uncertain (witness Le Bon Dieu sans confession [God without Confession, 1953] and Marguerite de la nuit [Marguerite of the Night, 1956]), but whose dour and biting personality affirms itself brilliantly when his subject is well chosen (as in La Traversée de Paris[Four Bags Full, 1956]). We also owe to Autant-Lara the first and most exemplary psychologically realistic film, Le Diable au corps [Devil in the Flesh, 1947], which was adapted from the famous novel by Raymond Radiguet.
- Andre Bazin, from "Fifteen Years of French Cinema" republished in Bright Lights Film Journal
A director's highest duty is to reveal the actors to themselves; and to do that, he must know himself very well. Cinematographic failure generally occurs because there is too wide a disparity between a filmmaker's temperament and his ambitions.
From Diable au Corps (Devil in the Flesh in the United States) to Marguerite de la Nuit, and in between - in L'Auberge Rouge, Le Ble en Herbe, and Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) - I have consistently attacked Claude Autant-Lara and I have always deplored his tendency to simplify everything, make it bland. I disliked the coarseness with which he "condensed" Stendhal, Radiguet, Colette. It seemed to me he deformed and watered down the spirit of any work he adapted. Autant-Lara seemed to be like a butcher who insists on trying to make lace.
But I admire, without any real reservations, La Traversee de Paris. I think it's a complete success because Autant-Lara has finally found the subject he's waiting for - a plot tha tis made in his own image, a story that his truculence, tendency toward exaggeration, roughness, vulgarity, and outrage, far from serving badly, elevates to an epic.
- Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life. Da Capo Press, 1978. Page 171
Claude Autant-Lara, the director who made his name with films like ''Devil in the Flesh'' and ''The Red and the Black'' and who made an infamous foray into far-right politics late in his life, died on Saturday in a clinic in Antibes in the south of France. He was 98.
One of France's most prolific directors, Mr. Autant-Lara made more than 30 films, many of which are classics of 1940's and 50's French cinema. His work, characterized by emphasis on plotting and dialogue and often based on literary adaptations, frequently attacked or ridiculed social institutions and made provocative jabs at bourgeois society. But in his lifetime, his politics veered 180 degrees. As a young man he was an avant-garde left-wing atheist. By the time he left politics in 1989 he was a member of France's far-right National Front party.
Mr. Autant-Lara's career as a filmmaker reached its height in the 1950's with films like ''Le Diable au Corps'' (''Devil in the Flesh''), which scandalized France with its steamy account of an adolescent's affair with a young woman whose husband was away at war. The sensation of its day, the film condemned those who glorified adultery and tacitly criticized the war. The British banned it for six years, finally releasing it with an X rating. But the movie, starring Micheline Presle and Gerard Philipe, was also seen as capturing the cynical mood of the post-war generation and won several awards.
By the 1960's, Mr. Autant-Lara and his contemporaries in the French ''tradition of quality'' films came under sharp attack, notably from Francois Truffaut, who argued that their films were ''stale'' and relied too much on adaptation of old material. Though Mr. Autant-Lara continued making films into the 1970's, he was effectively eclipsed by the more vital French New Wave filmmakers. His last film, ''Gloria'' in 1977, was largely ignored by critics.
Active in the 1950's as a spokesman for the film industry and later as the head of several film trade unions, he emerged on the national political scene in the late 80's. He was elected to the European Parliament in 1989 as a member of the National Front, though he soon resigned after the monthly magazine Globe quoted him as saying that a French politician who survived a concentration camp had been ''missed'' by the Nazis. He also cast doubt on the existence of Auschwitz and said he was glad the Israelis had a home and that he wished they would stay put there.
- Suzanne Daley, The New York Times, February 9 2000
The so-called qualite francaise may sound abstract and overly comprehensive, but in fact it included mostly prestige productions (classic literary adaptations, costume dramas, and historical reconstitutions), whose actors, principally from dramatic schools, were adorned with elaborate attires and surrounded by magnificent studio sets. The works of the directors who emerged from the dark hours of the Occupations had become, by the middle of the next decade, quite imposing in the number of their achievements and the prestige of this so-called quality. They contributed significantly to the reputation of the French film industry throughout the world. As the years went by, however, most of these experienced filmmakers progressively lost their own idiosyncratic artistic creativity and cinematographic originality, which had been their determining trademark fifteen years before. They had simply fallen prey to their own triumph due to the constant demand from film producers for bigger budgets and an invariable need to satisfy the expectation of new spectatorship. French cinema focused less on its spiritual and moral correlation to viewers and more on its own methodology to engage a subject matter. Although the works they performed were ingenious and academically stimulating, there was little change in the concept of cinema itself. This was a scenarist cinema, the genre and rules of stagecraft seemingly fixed within an agreed perception of what constituted literature, history, or vaudeville. The films of Claude Autant Lara epitomized the literary adaptation trend of the late 1940s and mid 1950s, Many of the literary adaptations of the postwar era were inspired from realist or contemporary literature, such as Raymond Radiguet's novel Devil in the Flesh (Le diable au corps), Andre Gide's The Pastoral Symphony (La symphonie pastorale), and Jean-Paul Sartre's The Chips Are Down (Les jeux sont faits). The ringleader of the qualite francaise was Autant-Lara, with adaptations of Colette's The Game of Love (Le ble en herbe), Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Georges Simenon's Love Is My Profession (En case de mahleur), and Marcel Ayme's short novel Le vin de Paris. Honorable attempts to transfer the involvements and density or classic French novels to film were sporadically made but logically remained incapable of capturing, entirely and in depth, the full dramatic fortune of the novel. French cinema was focused too much on an imaginary past (adaptations of literary classics) and remained clearly disconnected from France's current events and its preoccupations. For film historian Roy Armes, the constant dilemma for directors was between realist venture and quality impulse:
French cinema has always been at its richest when it has direct contact with the world of the arts in general, but the major currents of thought and literature hardly find their reflection in the cinema of the 1950s, whose concerns remain, essentially, professionalism, attention to detail in setting and acting, and commercial viability. In this sense it was a cinema without risks, which could hardly attract the young aspirants who were nurtured by the growth of the cine-club movement in France after 1945, by the activities of the Cinematheque francaise, which maintained a lively and eclectic approach under Henri Langlois, and by the new generation of film critics.
The cinema des scenaraistes reached its heyday with productions such as Children of Paradise (premiered in 1945), thanks to the team of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert, clearly experiencing its slow decline by the beginning of the 1950s. A new team of scenarists, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, marked the soaring postwar era. Their specialty was the adaptation of literary oeuvres labled de qualite. Unfortunately, although many of the works produced reached a high level of quality (such as The Pastoral Symphony and Devil in the Flesh), they generated an overly academic approach, the rigidity of which hampered the creative process that indirectly opened the door for the future New Wave of 1958-59. Representative directors Autant-Lara and Christian-Jaque removed themselves from France's current preoccupations by their impersonal works and their rejection of the ecumenical character in their films. Although assisted by expert technicians - Jacques Natteau, Robert Juillard, Oswald Morris, and Louis Page, to name a few - they were unable to capture any sense of rejuvenation within their visual style. In 1954, a young journalist named Francois Truffaut wrote what remains today a landmark in cinematographic history, an article entitled "Une certaine tendance du cinema francais" in Les cahiers du cinema, which vehemently reevaluated the cinema de qualite and all other concepts of film studies of the 1950s. Truffaut accused directors and scenarists of the qualite francaise of conforming to established standards so closely that they eventually destroyed the spirit of their original work. This devastating position would essentially give the world the New Wave. The evolution toward a new concept of filmmaking had become a necessity.
- Remi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. Pages 159-161
ABOUT GERARD PHILLIPE
In a brilliant but sadly brief career, Gérard Philipe was celebrated as the most talented and most loved screen and stage actor of his generation. An enormously gifted, intelligent, and committed professional, he possessed a fine voice, a handsome, youthful appearance, and a charming freshness which suggested both residual innocence and emotional intensity. Encouraged by Marc Allégret, he trained under Jean Huret and later Jean Wall before making a promising stage debut at Cannes.
Philipe's film career was launched by Marc and Yves Allégret in their romantic comedies La Boîte aux rêves and Les Petites du Quai aux Fleurs , but his first leading role came in Le Pays sans étoiles as a dreaming clerk uncannily acting out a crime of passion. A more demanding part, executed with discerning subtlety, followed as the reforming, idealistic, and deranged Prince Myshkin in L'Idiot . However, in Le Diable au corps , as the adolescent passionately and perhaps irresponsibly involved with a nurse who, although engaged to a soldier, bears his child, he triumphed with a public deeply conscious of the personal moral dilemmas posed by wartime separations. The successful partnership with Micheline Presle led to a laborious romantic farce, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome and a later lesser variation on the adulterous couple relationship in Les Amants de la Villa Borghese .
In a remarkable career, Gérard Philipe worked with the leading directors and actresses of his day and was never less than accomplished. With his handsome looks, seductive voice, and engaging personality he endeared himself to audiences as the noble but often humble romantic hero. Through his dedicated craftmanship, he won the respect of his fellow professionals to become one of the legendary figures of French cinema.
- R. F. Cousins, Film Reference.com
Among a myriad of new talented actors, it is worth considering several heroes of the 1950s generation. One of the best known illustrations is, of course, Gerard Philipe (1922-59), who died at the age of thirty-seven (a fate similar to American actor James Dean) but whose few roles made him one of the most identifiable icons of postwar French cinema. Although many have argued that his celebrity status came from the simple fact that his image of rebel youth remained untarnished by age and universally appealing for future generations, Philipe proved on many occasions the extent of his repertoire and the depth of his acting potential. He is described by film historians Olivier Barrot and Raymond Chirat as a "hero to whom the gods o fhte arts as well as the public, have bestowed... a legendary providence." Autant-Lara's Devil in the Flesh led Philipe to become the most celebrated of all French actors following his first success, which garnered the Grand Prix for Best Actor at the Brussels International Festival in 1947. Philipe concomitantly pursued a second career in theatrical drama and was consecrated with national glory at Jean Vilar's TNP in 1951. During the 1950s, thanks to his seductive talent and panache in popular cape-and-sword productions (reminiscent of Errol Flynn's performances), he became the enchanting emblem of the cinema de qualite as well as the favorite male actor among the French female public. His most memorable roles include Roger Vadim's Dangerous Liaisons (Les liaisons dangereuses, 1959), Autant-Lara's The Red and the Black, Christian-Jaque's Fan-Fan the Tulip, and The Charterhouse of Parma (La chartreuse de Parme, 1948).
- Remi Fournier Lanzoni, French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. Page 161