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According to Scandinavian legend, whosoever dies on the stroke of Midnight on the last day of the year (St. Sylvester's Night) must assume the duties of the "phantom charioteer," collecting souls for the next 365 days. Pierre Fresnay stars as a boorish lout who is forced to relive the events of the past year -- and to find spiritual salvation -- as the death chariot approaches. Louis Jouvet co-stars as Fresnay's best friend, the most recent candidate for the "honor" of driving the phantom cart.
Source : allmovie.com
It would be interesting to know what a contemporary audience made of this when it hit the salles in 1939; it was one of 94 French films released that year but it's debatable whether any other wove together so many elements from other movies. Consider: The leading lady is an officer in the Salvation Army (Major Barbara), she's dying of TB (Camille) and spends the bulk of her working life amidst dossers and no-hopers (The Lower Depths) and, oh yes, the dead are permitted to look at the living (Liliom) but in retrospect it's fascinating to note that in the year the war began we had a film blending fantasy with realism and in the year the war ended we had another, Les Portes de la nuit, so there's clearly a Term Paper lurking in there somewhere. Even Carne didn't produce as many fine films as Duvivier in the thirties and only Renoir tied him with a half dozen. This glides effortlessly from frames full of teeming life to lyrical scenes like an old woman trudging alone through a vast snowy landscape and, towards the end, bucolic scenes in pastoral meadowland. Only Michele Morgan had a pair of eyes like Micheline Francey's in French cinema and time and again Duvivier lets us see them in close up which serves as gorgeous punctuation to the more harrowing scenes. The plot has Francey determined to 'save' a lush, Pierre Fresnay, and return him to the bosom of his family whilst quietly and discreetly running out of breath herself. Louis Jouvet is reduced to a supporting role and dies around the fourth reel but not before a scenery-chewing episode in which he is burning with a fever which compels him to leave his bed and stumble over snow-filled roofs where he expires to reappear towards the end in the driving seat of the ghostly carriage for which Fresnay is booked as his relief. Apart from an isolated scene at the start where ghostly hands separate the old woman's soul from her body plus the odd creaking of the as yet unseen phantom carriage Duvivier saves most of his process shots for the end (and for 1939 they are excellent) and in some respects call to mind the last scene in Three Comrades. Again I am indebted to our Scandinavian friend who supplied the print of this very fine movie.
Source : IMDb