Actor, director, and playwright Sacha Guitry was a giant of French cinema as writer, director, and star of a series of witty and inventive movies from the 1930s through the 1950s. For his weirdly exuberant black comedy La Poison (1951) he gives the lead to the great Michel Simon, who plays a gruff bear of a gardener who has come to hate his wife of 30 years and plots her murder while she (Germaine Reuver) plots his. When he hears a radio interview with a lawyer (Jacques Varennes) celebrating his hundredth successful acquittal, he uses the lawyer to (unwittingly) guide him through the perfect murder. Perfection here is a matter of degree, of course. He doesn’t mind being caught. He just wants to remain free to enjoy his life as a merry widower.
Guitry’s cinematic invention is less visual than narrative. He has a flair of creative storytelling and verbal dexterity and most of his films are energized by his presence in the leading role. While Guitry is not the in film itself, he personally introduces the cast and crew like a master of ceremonies in the memorable credit sequence, then steps back and lets his witty dialogue and creative storytelling techniques speak for him. The radio broadcasts commentary and counterpoint to their wordless meals together, for instance, an effusively romantic song as their body language suggests suppressed violent impulses followed by a radio play of bickering spouses voicing their internalized feelings.
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.