LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS — CLASSIC FILM PICK
“Children of Paradise” is at once one of the dreamiest and yet most theatrically fixed, films ever made. Marcel Carne’s opulent period melodrama became infamously emblematic of a French cinema that Nouvelle Vague filmmakers rejected with impunity in the late 1950s because they thought the picture the epitome of establishment cinema. Perhaps more to the point, the upstart New Wave hotshots didn’t possess the skillsets necessary to create richly layered cinema like “Les Enfants Du Paradis.” You’d be hard pressed to find any French New Wave film that compares with “Children of Paradise” for the elegance with which the film achieves its dramatic goals.
Even to call “Les Enfants du Paradis” a mere masterpiece seems a slight. Made during the Nazi occupation of World War II, the picture feels like a longing goodbye to vanishing emblems of French culture. Under Nazi rules, no film could be more than 90 minutes long. Carne addressed the issue by making two 90-minute films, each one set during a different epoch. It was fitting that “Children of Paradise” was the first film shown in France after Liberation in 1945. Because its composer (Maurice Thiriet) and two of the film’s production designers (Alexandre Trauner and Leon Barsacq) and were Jews, living under threat of arrest and deportation to concentration camps, the film’s production was forced to move between Nice and in Paris.
Jacques Prevert’s multi-plotline script lovingly celebrates French romanticism in its many archetypal forms in a Parisian 1830s-set narrative that takes place on The Boulevard of Crime, an appropriately named bustling theatre district whose ardent lovers follow their messy fates. Marcel Carne called his film, “a tribute to the theatre.” He has an insightful passion for the old theatres of Paris, which is palpable in every frame. You can smell the greasepaint.
The nearly dozen French archetypes, whose lives we follow, are Parisians who make up the local residents of promoters, prostitutes, thieves, conmen, actors, and mimes. We experience these expressively dressed inhabitants squeezed together on crowded streets where the presentational and the representational meet, switch places, and sometimes make love.
Carne frequently uses semi-private backstage spaces in order to frame personal dramas. Music halls packed with volatile French audience members hanging from the rafter; actors, waiting on the other side of the curtain or wall to perform their part in the nightly ceremony of a shared public theatre.
Considered France’s “Gone With the Wind,” “Children of Paradise” has its own equal to Scarlett. Arletty, a popular French model and actress, plays Garance, a sideshow performer turned actress. This stunning figure of nature represents a mature feminist ideal whose Cheshire cat smile seems to signal a wealth of erotic experience. The storyline revolves around Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a gifted mime who performs with his father’s theatrical troop. Although Baptiste is beloved by the theatre manager’s daughter Nathalie (Maria Casares), the sensitive Baptist only has eyes for Garance. Baptiste isn’t the only man to be manically obsessed with Garance. Pierre Brasseur’s Frederick Lemaitre also has the hots for her, as does her former partner-in-crime Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). Add to this crowded lovefest yet another suitor, this one a wealthy count, and you have a recipe for a sex-filled melodrama of epic proportions.
Not rated. 170 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)