The French Work Of Art, “Devil in the Flesh”

I was able to rent on Amazon Prime the magnificent 1947 French film, Devil in the Flesh, from a novel by Raymond Radignet. Claude Autant-Lara directed it superbly, with a strong concern for composition, without strict conventionality. Starring Micheline Presle and Gerard Philipe, both outstanding, it presents the disturbing affair, during World War I, of a French boy, Francois, and Marthe, a woman married to a soldier.

The shots of wounded French servicemen confirm that behind every war there is a devil in the world. What Francois and Marthe manifest is le diable au corps: the devil in the flesh. In fact, to the sometimes impudent Francois the world war doesn’t matter, and it begins not to matter to Marthe. Both are self-seeking. But “devil in the flesh” may also refer to the fatal sickness Marthe contracts—contracted in the early 20th century when death patently abounded. War may not kill you, but something else will; will kill even the self-seeking.

The screenplay by Jean Auvenche and Pierre Bost is smartly written, and Autant-Lara seems to have insisted on pictorial vividness, with much help from film editor Madeleine Gug. There is, indeed, often a rough visual poetry in this absorbing film which leaves the impression that it needed to be made.

(In French with English subtitles)

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