Criterion // 1945 // 190 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 10th, 2012
"Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to no one."
The question of the relation between art and politics has been central to Western culture since at least Plato's Republic. For Plato, poets should be exiled from the perfect city of laws because their job is to lie, and the better a poet they are the more they can lead young men astray. For some today, that is still the fundamental guiding principle behind art; if it doesn't venerate truth and/or a deity it's not the art at all, or at least not the right kind of art. For certain militant critics in different eras, art had the responsibility of reflecting politic truths using realist tools. In that light, it's not hard to see why Marcel Carné's 1945 opus Children of Paradise was not initially greeted with the near-universal praise it now receives. Crafted in the shadow of the occupation of France by German forces during World War II, the film tells a story about as far from contemporary reality that a serious film could get in 1945. Time, however, has been kind to Children of Paradise, and today it looks less like a retreat from the grim realities of World War II and more like an emphatic thumbing of the nose at fascism through a deep investment in humanity and our capacity to love and play. The Criterion Collection recognizes that deep affection for everyday people with its Children of Paradise (Blu-ray) release that couples an excellent restoration of the film with a host of informative extras.
The setting is the theatrical demi-monde of the Funambules theater in the 1830s, situated on the "Boulevard of Crime." A courtesan (Arletty, The Longest Day) is loved by four men, a mime (Jean-Louis Berrault), an actor (Pierre Brasseur), an aristocrat (Louis Salou), and a thief (Marcel Herrand). Despite their apparently undying affections, the courtesan rebukes them all, offering viewers a tragic tale of love and life in bygone Paris.
The "children" of The Children of Paradise refer to a common nickname for the second balcony of French theaters, with the balcony as a kind of heaven, or paradise. The equivalent of Shakespeare's groundlings, the "children of paradise" were the common theatergoers, those exuberant viewers who would catcall and loudly respond to the film. Their praise or blame could make or break a production or a star. It is telling that Carné's epic of Parisian life is named for these common people.
That is perhaps the most striking thing about Children of Paradise six-plus decades from its release: it is a three-hour epic aimed at both ends of the cultural spectrum, from the "children" of the movie theater to its most well-read aristocrats. That doesn't happen today. Titanic, for all it does well, has very little to engage with on an intellectual level. Though the love story is well done and the historical bits accurate, there are no serious allusions to literature or philosophy. Not so with Children of Paradise. What that means to today's audience is that the film still works, almost seven decades on. Though few will be familiar with the environment of Occupied Paris, and even fewer with the Boulevard du Crime, contemporary viewers can still appreciate romance, love, and the spirit of an independent woman.
Criterion has lavished Children of Paradise with a two-disc Blu-ray set, a rarity for the company. Disc One includes the film, and Disc Two the supplements. The heart of the first disc is the 2011 restoration of the film by Pathé. As the restoration demonstration on the second disc shows, it's a beautiful attempt that including everything from ultrasonic cleaning to combining both the original negative and a number of existing prints to achieve the closest thing we're likely to get to the original presentation of the film. I can say with total certainty this is the best Children of Paradise has ever looked on home video. That said, it's still far from perfect. The main problem is determining what "problems" are caused by the nature of the film/restoration and what might have been improved with a "better" transfer. Without seeing the original negative or the 4K scan I can't make any definitive judgments. I can say that there are a number of scenes that are very soft, and there are several shots that appear to be less sharp because of digital filtering. I can't say if a different transfer might have improved these shots, but I can say that for most viewers this Blu-ray will be the final word until we have the power to show native 4K scans at home. Otherwise, blacks are as consistent as I would expect, grain is well-handled, and compression artifacts aren't a problem.
The audio track is an LPCM 1.0 mono affair in the original French, with a new English subtitle translation. Though severely limited by the recording techniques of the day, this track keeps dialogue audible with no serious hiss or distortion distracting from the presentation.
Extras kick off with a pair of historical commentaries (one from 1991, the other from 2000) by film historians Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron. Since the film was long enough to be released as two parts, Stonehill tackles the first half and Affron the second (a holdover, one assumes, from the fact that the film is often presented in two parts on two different discs). Both take the format of discussing production details, historical background and legacy. The second half drags a bit, but these tracks are worth a listen. The second disc starts out with a short introduction from Terry Gilliam, then moves on to two big documentaries The first, "The Birth of Children of Paradise" is from 1967 and looks back on the film using interviews with the filmmakers. "Once Upon a Time: Children of Paradise" is from 2009 and looks more closely at the film's production and history. Both demonstrate the film's lasting impact and historical importance/influence. A new "visual essay" on the film's design also demonstrates the film's impact. A restoration demonstration is also included, and the film's U.S. trailer shows how it was marketed to audiences. Finally, the usual Criterion booklet includes a wonderful history/appreciation from film scholar Dudley Andrew, and an interview with Carne discussing the making of the film.
I'm sure there will be digital purists out there who aren't pleased by some of the "flaws" in the transfer. They didn't bother me, but I understand from some googling that not everyone is happy with the softness in various scenes. If you're especially sensitive to those kinds of flaws, it might be worth renting this disc first to make sure it doesn't annoy you.
Children of Paradise is a classic of French cinema and has influenced countless filmmakers and other artists. The 2011 restoration is a thing of beauty, and Criterion has wisely decided to upgrade their previous DVD edition to hi-def (a separate DVD edition of this restoration is also available). Fans of the film will have no trouble upgrading, as the new restoration is a thing of beauty, and the 2009 documentary is a worthy addition to the set. Fans can buy Children of Paradise (Blu-ray) with complete confidence, even if it is a double-dip.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 190 Minutes
Release Year: 1945
MPAA Rating: Not Rated