René Clair’s playful take on the Faust legend stirs whimsy into the classic tragedy of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. As the film opens, the great Michel Simon is the frumpy old Professor Henri Faust, a sheepdog of a scholar disappointed in himself as he prepares to retire without making his mark on the world, and the young and handsome Gérard Philipe is the seductive devil Mephistopheles. But fear not: To prove his power, the devil gives Faust youth and the actors swap roles, with Philipe’s young Faust the rejuvenated romantic discovering everything he’s missed in a life of scholarship and Simon playing the devilish clown as Mephistopheles, scheming to compromise and corrupt Faust at every turn.
You might say that Simon is the whole film. He was a giant of French cinema, and not just because of his big, bearish screen presence. After opening the film as the hangdog Faust, he fires to life as Mephistopheles, tempting the newly youthful Faust with a twisted grin and a gleam in his eye. Simon makes Mephistopheles into a black-hearted trickster behind the manner of a clown, taking pleasure in corrupting what was once a soul dedicated to truth and discovery. As played by Simon, he appears more mischievous than evil, even as he delights in destruction of things and people alike, but in key moments he channels the devil himself, as when he pleads with Satan to grant him power to corrupt Faust once for all. When Clair brings the camera close in for a one-sided conversation with Satan, Simon’s shifting expressions and intensity play across his face like multiple personalities phasing in and out of his body. His performance drives the drama.