I do not know if it is possible for someone as warped as I am to overdose on Halloween. However, I came dangerously close this year. As a way of clearing my head, and particularly as a tonic to Saw 3D, I decided once again to get a little nostalgic on myself.
A movie can do a lot of things to an audience. It may move them, amuse them, disgust them, terrify them, or in all too many cases bore them. One thing only a handful of films can do is inspire wonder. Every once in a while, a winning combination of writer, director, designers, composers and cast meet in perfect harmony. Such, I feel, is the case of Marcel Carné’s 1945 epic romance, Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise).
- A Film Of Rare Beauty -
Penned by master French poet Jacques Prévert, the story fancifully interweaves the lives of thieves, courtesans, and actors in 19th-century Paris.
The heart of the city’s theatre district is the Boulevard du Temple (affectionately dubbed the Boulevard of Crime by those who frequent it). In this very street is a little theatre called the Funambules, where both of society’s crusts mingle to hear light music and watch pantomime. The paradis of the title (also known as “the gods”) refers to the cheap seats, way up high, where the poorest and rowdiest patrons hoot and jeer at the performances. However, besides being the roughest customers they are also the most faithful of audiences, filling the gallery night after night to feed their imaginations.
To revisit this film without marveling all over again at its scale and beauty is nearly impossible. That such a lavish production should have been made in the confines and under the restrictions of Nazi-occupied France seems almost miraculous. In Children of Paradise one finds a unique meeting of song, dance, pantomime, theatre, and of course film. It is a successful hybrid of all these, and in its three-hour run manages to explore both rousing comedy and deep tragedy.
Within the walls of the Funambules, the respective fates of many intertwine. Baptiste deBurau (Jean-Louis Barrault) is an up-and-coming master of pantomime, who finds himself suddenly and hopelessly in love with the enchanting but inconstant Garance (Arletty), a woman who, by her own admission, values her freedom above all other things. Enter a smooth-talking rogue named Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), who means to make a name for himself on the stage, and does. He too finds himself knocked flat by the charms of the enigmatic Garance. Through a series of chance meetings, these three find themselves sharing a stage and a very complicated love triangle.
Did I say triangle? Ha! Forget about it. Garance is clearly one of those women who has more men in love with her than she has fingers and toes to count with. By day her audiences and fellow actors adore her. By night men fight in bars over her. She is loved, and loves, but again, treasures her liberté above all.
She maintains a fitful romance with another more dangerous consort, the smartly-dressed criminal Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), who dabbles in playwriting and murder. Eventually, there also comes a lovestruck nobleman, whose influence could prove useful to Garance, given the shady company she sometimes keeps. It all becomes a bit of a mess. To quote the great poet warlord Bon Scott, “All in the name of liberty.”
Three of the main characters – deBurau, Lemaître, and Lacenaire – are borrowed from history, names and all. Prévert’s scenario drops them together into a speculative tale in which their individual fates remain tragically linked by their common origin in the Boulevard of Crime. Also, of course, by their desire for the lovely Garance. Baptiste, the tragic hero of the piece, is the one whose love is pure, and who deserves a happy ending. I will not tell you what kind of ending he gets. I will, however, tell you one important moral of the story. Life, for all its little comic twists, is not all that funny.
The dialogue is brilliantly clever. The story is complex and engaging. the design and presentation are absolutely beautiful. Children of Paradise is quite possibly the loveliest film ever made.
Perhaps its greatest quality is that there is no other film quite like it. To produce such a work in the best of conditions is a feat. To make it in secret is another feat entirely. The film’s titles even feature a special card for two Jewish crew members (composer Joseph Kosma and set designer Alexandre Trauner) who had to work on the film in total clandestinité. Now that’s an undertaking a person can look back upon with pride.
The Criterion DVD release of Children of Paradise features an affectionate introduction by Terry Gilliam, a director who truly values the possibilities of the mind and the eye. This movie is all about firing the imagination, and the power of beautiful artifice as an escape from the deceptions and betrayals of real life. We may never save ourselves from tragedy, but we should not fail for lack of trying.
Merci à Pierre Samson.