Our review of Children of Paradise (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published October 10th, 2012, is also available.
"Artists don't laugh here. The audience does."—Jericho (Pierre Renoir)
Ladies and gentlemen, step right up. Welcome to Paris, home of music and magic. Come see Garance, the beautiful woman who makes all Paris quiver at the loins. See the men who pursue her, clever Frédérick and sad Baptiste, dastardly Count de Montray and ambitious Lacenaire. But Garance, like the soul of France, belongs to no one.
You may not be able to keep her, but you can certainly enjoy her charms for a night. So what do you say? Come right this way. Up here, into the cheap seats, my children of paradise.
When Children of Paradise made its way to American shores, its distributor billed it as "the French Gone with the Wind." While both films share a common romantic premise (one woman deciding among many men), the comparison is shaky. Gone with the Wind's reactionary politics render magical a time before urbanization and New Deal liberalism. It is a story of war written in peacetime. Children of Paradise grew out of war: the Nazi occupation of France, which stifled culture and forced the population to hide their urge to resist behind the mask of classicism. Art became a crime to the Nazis, and crime became an art.
The first part of Marcel Carné's masterpiece is called "The Boulevard of Crime," not because crime takes place in the open (which it does), but because so many crimes are depicted on the theater stages lining it. In Paris of 1828, every character on the boulevard wears masks, often so many that identity becomes a blur. When we first meet Garance (Arletty, a stage name, of course), she is billed as "Naked Truth" by the carnival barker. But her nakedness is obscured by bathwater, and she stares into a mirror only at her own reflection. Who is Garance? She might be an actress; she might be a prostitute. The film only makes clear that she is pursued by men, but that she does not really love any of them. One pursuer is Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), a flirtatious dandy to whom Garance teases, "Paris is small for those who share so great a passion as ours."
There is Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), whose specialty is pantomime. As the clown Pierrot, he embodies unrequited love. Behind the curtain—well, for Baptiste, there really is nothing behind the curtain. He lives for the audience: he is pure performance. As he remarks, "Dreams, life—they're the same. Else life's not worth living." He is haunted by his desire for Garance, and in a long, balletic mime near the climax of Part 1 (and this may be the only film in history that makes mime exciting), the doomed Pierrot and the performer fuse irrevocably.
There are other men in Garance's life as well. There is the imperious Count de Montray (Louis Salou), who ultimately owns Garance's body, if not her heart. And floating through the lives of all: the would-be villain Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). This sardonic scribe writes love letters for hire and dreams of heroic crime, like Nietzsche or Genet might come knocking. "I declared war on humanity," he snaps, still hoping Garance will be his "guardian angel" (and consider what sort of angels might exist in this sort of "paradise"). For him, freedom is to never love or be loved. Garance loves to tease him—"All this talk; it's like a play"—but secretly, her heart belongs to no one.
Indeed, it is all like a play, "a slightly ribald farce," we are told. Perhaps it is a play about the romantic failings of ordinary angels—and a message about life under the Nazi regime. Life in a boulevard of crime, in a world saturated by evil, can only be treated as farce, lest we go mad. Early in the film, Garance is accused of the theft of a watch (really stolen by Lacenaire). Baptiste sees the crime and performs it for the policeman, and the assembled carnival crowd, as pantomime. Crime is transmuted into comedy.
But as Jericho, the ragman and arbiter of the cruelest tricks of fate, instructs, "Artists don't laugh here. The audience does." The crowds of 1828, just as every audience before and since, want their bread and circuses, bigger spectacles to distract them from the pain of everyday life. They buy the cheap seats, known as "gods" in English parlance, "paradise" in French. These are the "children of paradise," their humors, good and bad, mirroring the action of the harlequinade on stage. Their whims dictate what show must go on, as they favor Frédérick, with a career in high drama (his ultimate goal is to bring Shakespeare to the people), and Baptiste, with a career in comic mime.
The second half of the film, entitled "The Man in White," takes place six years later and moves forward with the grace and momentum of a great ship carried by the tide. Every moment is crucial, but the timing always seems inevitable rather than contrived. The cast dances on the decks, trading partners while the ship slides towards the rocks along the shore. In only this way, Children of Paradise might be said to lack suspense. The sweeping tragedy of Shakespeare, to whom Frédérick owes allegiance, generates its suspense from dramatic extremes. But Carné's film is mannered, measured, a well-rehearsed performance, if not an outburst of improvisation. This explains why the New Wave generation of filmmakers like Truffaut and Godard had such problems with Carné's masterpiece. Children of Paradise remains fresh, charged with magic, but its myth of the theatre is pure Apollo and little Dionysus. And very, very French.
But its influence is undeniable. In his introduction to the film, Terry Gilliam praises the time when "poetry and big budgets went hand in hand" (one can sense his own cinematic ambitions simmering). Children of Paradise tells its story of lost love and the power of theatricality on a grand scale, and Criterion tries to match the film's ambition with a thorough DVD package. The film has undergone a painstaking repair job (following up on Criterion's earlier restoration for the laserdisc release). A brief and nontechnical restoration demonstration compares older prints of the film, including Criterion's last restoration in 1991, to the current version. I recall seeing Children of Paradise in college in the 1980s, and I can attest that this print, while still flawed, is a vast improvement over earlier releases. This is the best the film has looked in decades.
There are plenty of behind-the-scenes stills showing Marcel Carné hard at work, as well as a gallery of beautiful set designs by Alexandre Trauner, who worked on the film in secret to avoid arrest as a Jew. But the real miracle of Children of Paradise is the script by Jacques Prévert and its meticulous translation to the screen by director Marcel Carné. Carné avoids melodrama by playing close to the cuff, with Frédérick's acid attacks on his own melodramas (the tragic actor turns to comedy, as Baptiste's comedies turn tragic) and the constant awareness that the lovers are performing even when off the stage. Jacques Prévert's screenplay is perhaps the finest ever written about the blurry line between theater and life. You can even read his marvelous story treatment included on Disc Two. His tale is witty and poetic about "life, which has neither start nor finish: love and death, yesterday as today." The script for the film itself continues to amaze, always refreshing our interest even when it should be losing momentum, providing new combinations and intersections among its cast of characters. Passion is transmuted into clowning, as Baptiste channels the heartbreak of Pierrot; jealousy is transmuted into drama, as Frédérick becomes Shakespeare's Othello and purges his desire. And all the while, Lacenaire prepares to draw the curtain on his grand performance as master criminal, like Mephistopheles or Iago, manipulating everyone around him as he aims for his great gesture.
As if the film does not offer enough commentary on itself (and a film about disguise can never be entirely honest, after all), Criterion offers two commentary tracks, one accompanying each half of the film. Brian Stonehill (who also offers an illuminating interview with Carné in the accompanying booklet) gives a strong background on the film's production history, the visual trickery used to give it a grand scope, the real historical characters behind the story (the real Baptiste Deburau is credited with inventing modern pantomime), and Carné's technique of "poetic realism." There is a lot of information crammed into this first 100 minutes, and you may have to listen twice to catch it all.
Stonehill's densely packed commentary was recorded in 1991 for the Criterion laserdisc release of Children of Paradise, and you might think there was nothing more to say about the film after that. Nevertheless, Charles Affron takes up the challenge in a newly recorded track for Part 2, and remarkably offers 90 minutes of fresh information. He emphasizes the theme of "echoing," pointing out the repeating motifs that give the film a distinct mise-en-abyme more characteristic of postmodernism. Although Affron never slips into full postmodernist mode, his focus on parody, self-reflection, and irony all play well into the film's self-aware borderline farce. There is nothing in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge that Carné did not do first, only more sublime—and more covertly political.
Children of Paradise is a film about disguise: the homosexuality of Marcel Carné, the Jewish identities of Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, and indeed all of France under the Nazi heel. Nazi collaborators (like the original actor who played the villainous Jericho, whose part was reshot with Pierre Renoir, and Arletty, notorious for her affair with a Nazi officer) hid themselves among equally veiled members of the French Resistance (especially among the production crew, according to Carné). Disguise became a matter of life and death, but for many, disguise also became a part of their art. At the end of the war, the fates of many felt indefinite, and as the curtain falls on Children of Paradise, our characters are left hanging, as if waiting for a sequel. After all, even after the performance is over, after the audience has stopped its applause, we must always dress for the next show. Up there in the cheap seats, in paradise, the gods always hunger for more.
Marcel Carné and his troupe are released with the blessings of the court. Court is adjourned so we can all take in a show.
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