There are just some topics that have been dramatized with such frequency, I beg never to see another interpretation. For example, I could live out my remaining years content not to see another spin on "A Christmas Carol" which has been done hundreds of times in TV and film. Although nothing could be as omnipresent as the Dickens' classic, the tale of Faust can't be too far behind. Making the ultimate "deal with the devil," the Faustian legend dates back to the late 1500's and has been the basis for innumerable artistic works. But when the 1950 René Clair film "The Beauty of the Devil" surfaced on the DVD/Blu-ray market, I simply had to check it out. If anyone could put a fresh twist on a classic tale, it was Clair. And indeed, this adaptation is loaded with whimsy and lightheartedness even as it explores the darkness of a man's soul. Most of the tale's traditional elements are present, but here we're treated to a spectacularly ironic ending that might have you wondering who the true victim of the story is!
We meet an elder Faust (Michel Simon) as an academician in his waning years. An alchemist who has yet to achieve his career ambition, he is seduced by Mephistopheles to reclaim his youth and live a different sort of life. But the young Faust (Gérard Philipe) is a shrewd negotiator and thinks he can outwit the Devil's agent. Most of "The Beauty of the Devil" plays out as a battle of wills as Mephistopheles tries to seal the deal (he has taken over Faust's elderly identity) by alternately fulfilling his young charge's wishes and threatening to take them away. It's a frothy sport as the two actors (and characters) play off one another, and their comic rivalry also starts to show them as friends of a sort. Young Faust rises in station and riches, but ultimately must face the necessary internal debate configuring him as either good or evil. But once a bargain is struck, it's not that easy to evade. Attempting a simpler existence of true love brings his lovely paramour into harm's way and the tale races to a conclusion when he wants to undo everything he entreated the devil to do in his name.
Unlike other versions of Faust, "The Beauty of the Devil" is livelier and more amusing. Michel Simon is absolutely terrific in both roles, but his Mephistopheles is painted as a rather inept henchman of Lucifer. This gives him a certain underdog humanity that serves the tone of the piece well. Gérard Philipe is also quite appealing, I especially like his nimble performance when he is rediscovering his youthful body near the start of the picture. As the movie approaches its conclusion, the twist is ironic and even tragic in a way you might not expect. Overall, I really loved this movie and it is an easy recommendation. There aren't much in the way of extras, though, with a couple of trailers and a featurette from 2010. That was OK by me, the real selling point is the movie and it is delightful. KGHarris, 10/13.