Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis)
Directed by Marcel Carné
Written by Jacques Prévert
Société Nouvelle Pathé Cinéma
Repeat viewing/Criterion Collection DVD
#189 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
This is one of those reviews that is very hard to write. I feel like saying this film is grandly beautiful and perfect in every way. Everyone should see it. The end.
The film was shown in two parts: “The Boulevard of Crime” and “The Man in White.”
The first begins on the titular boulevard in early 19th Century Paris, where the Funambles theater is located. We are in a decidedly working class quarter of town and the theater is forbidden to use dialogue or sound, meaning that all of its productions are pantomimes.
We are cleverly introduced to the characters of Garance (Arletty) and three of the men who love her in the opening sequence. Garance is portraying “Naked Truth” in a side show. After her stint sitting modestly in a bath, she meets Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur), a flirtatious would-be actor. Garance brushes him off and goes to visit her friend the dandy master criminal Lacenaire, who is also an amateur playwright and cynical philosopher. They go to watch the barker in front of the Funambles and Lacenaire takes the opportunity to pick the pocket of a wealthy man who is chatting up Garance. Garance is accused of the crime but is rescued by the mimed testimony of Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), who witnessed the whole thing. Garance gives Baptiste a rose in thanks and the young dreamer is immediately hopelessly in love with her.
Frédérick goes back stage to ask for a job. He gets nowhere until two of the actors have a fight and both he and Baptiste get their big breaks. Baptiste shows Frédérick his own rooming house and departs for his nightly wander through the streets to observe humanity. He runs into a “blind” beggar and an invitation for drinks at a local tavern leads him again to Garance, who is there with Lacenaire. He ends up taking her to get a room at his place and declaring his undying and passionate love. Although attracted, she cannot respond in kind and he foolishly rejects her advances. So she ends up sharing Frédérick’s bed instead.
The theater turns into a place where Baptiste’s heartbreak is reenacted on stage night after night. Another heart is being broken, that of Natalie who has long pledged herself to Baptiste. Natalie doggedly retains her faith that she and Baptiste were made for each other despite all evidence of his almost suicidal depression over Garance. Garance has obtained work at the Funambles as well and has captivated a haughty count. She spurns him but he asks her to remember him if she should need help or protection. Garance has not been able to get Baptiste out of her mind and the two are about to take things up where they left off when Natalie appears to claim her man and Garance departs.
As the curtain falls on the First Act, events lead Garance to take up the Count on his offer for protection.
Years pass. “The Man in White” shows the success of all our characters in their chosen professions. Frédérick is a celebrated actor on the legitimate stage; Baptiste is still at the Funambles but is an acknowledged genius of the pantomime; Lacenaire’s crimes make the headlines; and Garance returns to Paris a grand lady but an unhappy woman. Baptiste is now married to Nathalie and they have a six-year-old son.
The rest of the story follows the intricate interplay between Garance and the four men who have loved her. With Pierre Renoir as the sinister Rag Man.
The only criticism I have ever heard of this film is that Arletty, who was 45 at the time the film was made, was not as desirable as the film made her character out to be. I’m a straight woman so what do I know? I thought she was quite alluring both physically and for her magnetic personality.
Every element of this lavishly staged film is beautiful – sets, costumes, music. The writing itself is touchingly poetic and I mean that in a good way. I never thought I liked mimes until I saw Barrault do it. What a genius. He’s also quite good with the greasepaint off. The story of the filming of this big-budget extravaganza in Occupied France is almost as interesting as the film.
I always leave this film pondering how the insistence on a certain kind of love dooms real love. But primarily, I think, this is a love letter to the theater. Most highly recommended. The three hours simply fly by.
Jacques Prévért was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.
Criterion Collection: Three Reasons