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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Children of Paradise

CHILDREN OF PARADISE (“Les Enfants du Paradis“) (Four Stars)

France: Marcel Carne, 1945


There has never been a movie valentine to the art of the stage quite as intoxicating and wonderful as the French film masterpiece Children of Paradise — director Marcel Carne and screenwriter Jacques Prevert’s beautiful 1945 recreation of the world of Parisian theatre in the 1820s. It’s one of those special movies that opens up a whole world before our astonished gaze: bringing back a time when the regulars of Paris’ stage universe included writers like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas — as well as many of the characters Prevert and Carne portray for us in their film, like the classical Shakespearean actor Fredrick Lemaitre and the legendary mime Baptiste Deburau.


Like Shakespeare in Love (another great movie celebration of the stage), Carne and Prevert‘s film — despite being shot under incredibly difficult circumstances in the last years of World War 2 — summons up a whole magical theatrical kingdom: in this case, a world of Shakespeare and pantomine, of street dances and sideshows, of crime and romance, of comedy and tragedy. It sweeps us into the land of real-life and the land of make-believe, ascending from the bustling chaos of backstage before the curtain rises, to the broad stage framed by the proscenium arch, a world of wonders where the actors dance and declaim, speechify, make pantomines, dress up in lion suits or as Othello, and even stage wild feuds and melees (not all of them in the script) — then swoops us past the arch to the expensive, comfortable orchestra seats, and up to the boxes where the aristocrats sit and spy at beautiful actresses through their binoculars… And then past the packed main floor and the crowded mezzanine, high, high up to the the balcony, to the place called “Paradise,” and to the cheap seats, and the boisterous crowd there, called the “Children of Paradise,” the working class aficionadoes who bought the seats and occupy them, applauding or yelling at the stage, raining down insults on their pet stage-hates and loud cheers and torrents of applause on their favorites. These are the rowdy, vocal, theater-loving “enfants du paradis,“ to whom the film gives its heart, again and again, as it steals ours.

A bewitchingly lovely, witty, poetic and heart-breaking picture, brilliantly made on every level, Children of Paradise has long been hailed as one of the great French cinema classics. Indeed Carne and Prevert’s movie regularly places at the top of most French critics’ polls on the best French films, against the formidable opposition of classics like Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De, Jacques Tati‘s Playtime, Robert Bresson‘s Diary of a Country Priest, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou. Francois Truffaut once said that he would have given every movie he ever directed to have made Children of Paradise.

Certainly Prevert’s script has never been surpassed, as sheer literature for the screen. The cast is a great one too, from that ultimate femme fatale Arletty as the irresistible beauty Garance, to the four superb actors who play the four men who adore her unto death: lively, cheerfully seductive Pierre Brasseur as the commanding virtuoso classical actor Frederick LeMaitre; cold Louis Salou as the reptilian Count Edouard de Montray; Marcel Herrand with his evil smile, as the nihilist/dandy/playwright/thief/murderer Lacenaire; and melancholy-looking genius Jean-Louis Barrault as the great sad-eyed mime Deburau, or Baptiste.

The auteurs Carne and Prevert became world famous in the late 30s, with their classic films of French “poetic realism” (cousins to the film noirs), Port of Shadows and Le Jour Se Leve, starring Jean Gabin as the perfect outsider hero or anti-hero, and Michele Morgan, Jacqueline Laurent and Arletty as his perfect loves or femme fatale, set in a moody, dreamy Paris between-the-wars of dark streets, deadly passion and violent crime. And, in 1942, they had a huge WW2 era hit with their lavish romantic period fantasy Les Visiteurs du Soir (or The Devil‘s Envoys), which also starred Arletty and Herrand. Those commercial and critical triumphs secured an even larger budget for Children of Paradise, which was conceived from the beginning as an epic on a grand scale — and was, at the time, the most expensive French movie ever made. Since it was in production from late 1943 to January 1945, Carne’s movie also reflected, despite its 19th century setting, the divided France of the mid-’40s, and the European war raging outside the studio walls.

The huge, diverse “Les Enfants du Paradis” company reflected those wartime passions as well. The film’s great art director Alexandre Trauner, and its superb composer Joseph Kosma, were both Jewish and they had to do their work in secret, in hiding, under the guise of a “front.” (Since shooting lasted from 1943 all the way to 1945, Carne held up the film‘s release until Liberation, so that he could give Trauner and Kosma their proper credits.) Arletty, meanwhile, was the mistress of a German Gestapo officer (something for which she paid dearly after the war), and Robert le Vigan, the excellent weaselly-looking film actor originally cast as Jericho, was a Gestapo informant, whom Carne replaced. (Le Vigan, who played the alcoholic suicidal actor in Jean Renoir‘s 1936 classic The Lower Depths, later became novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s traveling companion and a character in his late books.) The technicians and crew included several important members of the Resistance — who sometimes had to leave the studio during work hours, maybe to go blow up a train. And the big crowds of extras included both collaborators (forced on Carne by the Vichyite studio bosses) and more partisans and Resistance fighters. So the production of Children of Paradise was virtually a microcosm of wartime France — with a clearly anti-fascist subtext and a gallery of filmmakers, actors, extras and crewpeople from all over the ideological map.


Children of Paradise begins with a view of a large stage curtain and the pounding of the staff on the floor that signals the commencement of a play. Then the curtain rises, magically, on blazing sunlight and an outdoor scene, with the camera craning and soaring past the packed, jostling throngs on the Boulevard of Crime — which was a real Parisian street of the 1820s, so called not because of the violations committed there (and we see a few), but because of the violent stage melodramas, full of crimes and punishments, that played so constantly in its theaters.

Quickly we meet Garance, the lovely star attraction in a small sideshow deceptively promising nudity and billing her erroneously as “The Naked Truth.” We meet Frederick, who tries to pick Garance up later in the street with his signature line (“You smiled at me! Now don’t deny it!”), prompting a real smile and a very nice Garance rejection (“Paris is small for those who love as we do.“) We meet Baptiste, face sad and milky-white, in his white outfit with huge sleeves, being comically abused by his own father, a star pantominist of the nearby Funambules Theatre. And we meet Lacenaire the poet-criminal, working as a scribe (and burglar), writing a love letter of contrition for an abusive husband. The fourth man, the Count de Montray, as aristocrats will, takes his time, before appearing and asserting his birthright to get what he wants. (Garance.) But we meet the sixth of the major characters of Children of Paradise in the street and at the scribe’s and backstage at the Funambules: the sinister ragman/street vendor/police informer Jericho,  a man of a hundred names and a thousand schemes, le Vigan’s original role played perfectly by Pierre Renoir, the son of painter Pierre-Auguste, and the older brother of filmmaker Jean.

All these men in the drama are poets of a kind — even Jericho has his doggerel cries and advertisements — except the count, whose stiff sentences mirror his starchy, selfish, dead soul. They were created and written by one of the great poets among screenwriters, Jacques Prevert, in this, his greatest film poem — a ballad of love, art, death, and of the theater that can embrace them all.

     Children of Paradise, a touch over three hours long, was initially shown on two separate evenings as two films (to help recoup costs). Nowadays, it’s usually shown on one night with an intermission. But there’s a natural divide in the story. The first section portrays the young manhood of three soon-to-be-legendary artists — Lemaitre, Lacenaire and Baptiste — before they became famous, at a time when they could all mix on the sidewalks and in the rooming houses and the taverns of the Boulevard of Crime, and when they could all fall madly in love with Garance. Frederick is flirtatious and bold, a buoyant charmer who reads Shaespeare in his room as he plots his conquest of the Parisian stage. Lacenaire is a sociopath dandy who takes pleasure in flouting convention and taunting the mighty (like the Count) — a smirking killer in Beau Brummel fashion with his hair in black coiled, black, sticky-looking ringlets. The Count is a rich pompous, elegantly appointed bastard who thinks he can buy anything.

Baptiste, in contrast to them all, is a gentle soul and a peerless artist, the soul of the streets and of “Paradise.” Just as Chaplin was a greater movie artist than John Barrymore, Baptiste is more of a true creator than Frederick, who nevertheless has the good heart to recognize and appreciate his friend Baptiste’s genius. Baptiste is also a family man, married to the scarily intense Maria Casares as Nathalie, the loving daughter of his Funambules employer and Baptiste‘s worshipper. An irony: The sad, white-clad mime, a good husband and father, also longs for the erotic freedom that Garance represents. (“Love is so simple,“ are the word she spoke on the night they should have slept together, the speech that haunts him.) He loves her, but can’t have her (unlike Frederick) — as much due to his own reticence and gentleness as to destiny or the fact that she became the count’s mistress at the end of the first act to rescue herself from possible arrest.



The second part, and second act, of Children of Paradise shows what happens after the two consummate actors Baptiste and Frederick, have become gods of their profession, and Lacenaire has become a devil of the Boulevard of Crime — and Garance and the count return for a visit.SPOILER ALERT

The ending — no French film except The Rules of the Game ends more beautifully and sadly than Children of Paradise — is set once again on the bustling street, in the blazing sunlight, with the crowd whirling and dancing, a sea of drunkenly happy humanity that entraps Baptiste as he tries to reach Garance in her carriage. It’s one of the great scenes of romantic anguish in any film — and much of its power comes from the sense we have of Baptiste, Garance and all the others, trapped in a poem, in a ballad, in the rhymes of a song (like the “Autumn Leaves“ of another song from another Carne film, music by Kosma, words by Prevert.) It still moves me, but I react to it differently now than I did when I first saw Children of Paradise in college. Now I see Nathalie‘s point of view more. Now the fate that twines around the five seems more inevitable.


It has to end like this. Characters suffer; Othello and Desdemona suffer, die. The poem, the play, remains.


     Children of Paradise is perhaps most remembered for Barrault’s mime scenes — his sad delicate white-painted face under a big, swoopy hat, his all-white outfit and his huge white, flopping white sleeves as he mimes for the gendarme the pick-pocket theft of which Garance is falsely accused, or as he plays his patomines of a moonchild in love with the beautiful statue that comes alive (Garance) at the Funambules. I sometimes wish there were even more stage scenes — more Baptiste pantomines, more of Frederick mocking on stage his more inept authors, or playing Shakespeare, or Hugo, or Dumas. But still, few films capture so well, the magic of theater as it is experienced everywhere, backstage, on stage, in the orchestra and boxes, and in the balcony, with the cries of les Enfants. I will always love the theatre and always miss it.   And Carne and Prevert’s great movie is one of the reasons why.

If I were magically made French, and handed a ballot for one of those French critics’ polls on the greatest French films, those polls that Children of Paradise is always winning, I would almost certainly vote for The Rules of the Game ahead of it (but only slightly). Still, I understand why the French movie citics love their Les Enfants du Paradis, as the British critics love The Third Man, and as we Americans will always love (I hope) Citizen Kane. These three great film classics of the 1940s all represent grand fusions of cinema and literature, of theatre and music and art. They are all shining examples of what the movies can be, of what they are occasionally, but mostly today are not.

Ah, Children of Paradise! How we loved it in our youth. (Love is so simple.) How we loved Arletty, Brasseur and Barrault and their nonpareil film: ambitious, extravagant, and stunningly executed, inspired really, full of life and its joys and sorrows, full of art and its triumphs. Full of the stage: the knocks on the floor, the curtain about to rise, the darkness, the hush, the first words. We watch and listen, and we are once again children of paradise ourselves, in the balcony, in the cheap seats, clapping our hands and yelling out our lungs and hearts and souls as the gods  play their games so far, far below. (In French, with English subtitles.)



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