La Main du Diable
June 14, 2021
Guillaume de Sax
1 Hr., 18 Mins.
oland Brissot (Pierre Fresnay), the protagonist of Maurice Tourneur’s indelibly sinister La Main du Diable (1943), is a struggling painter. He attributes this struggle not to a lack of ideas or technical skill but focus. Early in the movie, Roland claims that he has too many ideas about what he wants to paint (most of them bad); resultantly, his works convey
an artist unable to concentrate long enough to make anything especially
meaningful or eye-catchingly idiosyncratic. Craving a success that seems increasingly elusive, Roland naturally makes a great victim for the story Tourneur, working off Gérard de Nerval’s 1832 short story La Main enchantée, spins. In this neo-Faustian tale, Roland, at a low point, is offered a talisman — grotesquely, a severed hand in a box — that will apparently bring him all the fame and fortune he could ever dream of. “Buy it and you’ll improve the Mona Lisa,” he’s told by the seller. Never mind the suspicious nervousness of the man — a struggling gourmet chef (Noël Roquevert) — offering him the item; never mind that this purportedly magic item oddly only costs a sou. Roland is so understandably desperate for a change in luck that he’d do anything for a reversal. What, really, does he have to lose?
The morning after Roland buys this macabre accessory, he already begins to see his circumstances changing. His on-off girlfriend, Irène (Josseline Gaël), who had earlier in the movie seemed more than ready to dump her disappointing boyfriend, appears at his door heart-eyed. Clients start clamoring for his work. When he tries painting — now he can, for some reason, only create with his left hand — he has an admirably distinctive style. He’s too excited about his good fortune to be that concerned about its suddenness. But there are signs that he should be. A palm reader recoils in fear after taking only a quick look at his hand; his beloved dog has begun acting like it’s living with a dangerous stranger.
Worldwide recognition comes for Roland in just a few months. On the first anniversary of his magical purchase, he’s hosting an exhibit hot enough to attract scores of global leaders. But this career apex also ushers in a darker reality Roland has been avoiding giving much thought to. Shortly after seeing a bouquet of flowers with his name on it, complete with a worrisome “in memoriam” sash on it, he’s told, by a mysterious, impish man in a bowler hat (Palau), that Roland has “the devil to pay” after a year of prosperity. With a mischievous grin, the man puts it to Roland plainly. He can either keep the hand — though incurring debt on it every day it’s kept past that one-year mark — or he can sell it back to the man day of, no strings attached. Roland goes the indebted route, thinking he can just keep paying as he goes. Plus, when he starts seeing signs of his unlucky past appear, he’s too freaked out to go back to how things once were. Inevitably, though, being beholden to a man who may or not be the devil incarnate does not beget anything particularly good.
La Main du Diable was made during an especially dark moment in France’s history — the country’s Nazi occupation — and while the movie on its surface is an escapist, spectacularly stylish morality tale, it can also, as noted by critic James Travers, be read as an allegory for its then-current moment. France, embodied by Roland, has accepted a dangerous bargain that superficially may seem to be a wise move, but in substance is actually profoundly damaging. (The film’s production company, Continental Films — the only one in France to be Germany-approved at the time — was in many ways quietly resistant: several of its creators were clandestinely part or supportive of the French resistance, which manifested subtly in their work; La Main du Diable’s screenwriter, Jean-Paul Le Chanois, was a Jewish communist.)
The movie has a real eeriness; it has no problem establishing a forbidding atmosphere where everyday life is susceptible to the caprices of a frightening higher power. Fresnay is sympathetic as a demoralized man tortured by his role as a plaything in a wicked game who knows he’s too far into this dilemma to improvise his way out. The seemingly cursed hand at the center of La Main du Diable is only seen a few times, but it nonetheless has unshakeable omniscience. (This isn’t a movie like, say, 1946’s The Beast with Five Fingers,
which also includes a creepy severed hand causing problems but where that hand was able to move by itself and would physically attack people.) Its authority can be felt everywhere; even at the end of the film, when Roland is inspired to take a trip to the Alps for reasons I won’t get into, its very presence is like one with the cold mountain air.
La Main du Diable's ominousness is steady — it’s kept at a low hum — but it reaches its pinnacle during what is without a doubt its centerpiece. Late in the film, the hand’s previous owners congregate at a costume party Roland is attending. Each one of them (dating all the way back to the 1400s) shares how they obtained the totem, what they used it for, and how they got rid of it. Their remembrances are not dramatized through conventional flashback but micro-reenactments that play out on soundstages with minimal sets and huge shadows. This montage suggests an unearthly puppet show. In the states, Tourneur’s son Jacques was making similarly stylish, allegorical, shadow-steeped horror movies like Cat People (1942), The Leopard Man (1943), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943, which coincidentally opened the same day as La Main du Diable). Bringing to the movies a visually and narratively inventive nightmarishness seldom seen at the time was, I guess, a gift the Tourneurs had innately — no talisman needed. A-