Once considered among the masters of French film, René Clair took it in the knees from the original Cahiers du Cinema crowd, and his reputation plummeted into a critical darkness. Truffaut & Co. tsk-tsked at exactly what makes this forgotten 1950 fantasy fascinating: Clair’s lavish studio-bound artifice (using the cavernous Cinecittà spaces in this Italian coproduction), narrative hyperconstruction and quintessentially French effervescence. A full-frontal version of the Faust legend, the film has scenery-munching stars Michel Simon and Gérard Philipe playing both Dr. Faust and Mephistopheles, young and old, swapping identities right and left until the demon takes earthly form in a New Testament twist and finds himself on the hook for alchemical scandal.
A masterful sequence foretelling Faust’s powerful future—he betrays, kills and even invents atomic warfare—is shot by Clair with breathtaking through-the-mirror subterfuge. But for all of the movie’s visual gorgeousness, it stands as perhaps the most philosophical and most modern of all Faust films. Moral issues of desire and happiness are twisted into knots. Typically for Clair, the hero’s ultimate salvation lies not with the angels or with Simone Valère’s princess, but in a gypsy caravan with a loving brunet, a sweet echo of the director’s own À Nous la Liberté. Essential movieness.
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