Never has a film been through so many disruptions or dealt with as many issues as Marcel Carne's French epic masterpiece Children of Paradise; and it actually getting completed was a miracle of its own. It was described in the American trailer as the French answer to 'Gone With the Wind' and was the most expensive French film ever made at its time. It was shot in Paris during the Nazi Occupation and somehow survived several power failures, damaging storms, audacious spending, curfews and a shortage of film stock. During the film-making process the sets had to be moved between two cities and because its designer and composer was Jewish he had to continually work from hiding. While Carne was harassed by the German Occupation he was forced to hire pro-Nazi collaborators as extras for the film, and interestingly throughout the whole production the Nazi collaborators had no idea they were working next to resistance fighters. Carne was also plagued with budgetary woes and was forced to make the film no longer than an hour and thirty minutes, so he simply made two separate films because he was confident he would eventually show them together as one 3 hour film after the war ended. When Paris was liberated in August 1944, the actor Robert le Vigan, who was, ironically, cast in the role of informer-thief Jericho, was sentenced to death by the Resistance for collaborating with the Nazis and had to be replaced at a moment’s notice by Pierre Renoir, older brother of the legendary French director Jean Renoir. After the liberation the film finally opened in Paris for 54 weeks in March of 1945 and it is said that the film plays somewhere in Paris every single day. Children of Paradise's three hour romantic epic swept its audience back to the 1820's, painting a detailed world obsessed with the world of both theater and crime, along with a vast sophisticated and cynical portrait of actors, swindlers, murderers, prostitutes, pickpockets, impresarios, and the decadent rich inhabiting a setting of nightclubs, theaters, dives and dens, and the hiding places of the unsavory. Legendary director François Truffaut once stated, "'I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise." The original screenplay by Jacques Prevert drew historical inspiration from such colorful personalities of its period as Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the innovative mime; Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, a murderer who went to the scaffold; and Frederick Lemaitre, a celebrated actor for whom both Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo wrote plays; As all four leading men who revolve around the arousal and envious beauty of the fictional and charismatic courtesan. Film critic Roger Ebert states, "That this film, wicked, worldly, flamboyant, set in Paris in 1828, could have been imagined under those circumstances is astonishing. That the production, with all of its costumes, carriages, theaters, mansions, crowded streets and rude rooming houses, could have been mounted at that time seems logistically impossible. (It is said, wrote Pauline Kael, that the starving extras made away with some of the banquets before they could be photographed). Carne was the leading French director of the decade 1935-1945, but to make this ambitious costume film during wartime required more than clout; it required reckless courage."
Part I: Boulevard of Crime
The film opens like the beginning of a play on stage as you see the rise of a curtain. The story begins with a young actor and womanizer, Frederick Lemaitre, who has big dreams of becoming a star and heads to the Funambules to talk to the manager for an acting gig. On his way there in town, Frederick is distracted when he sees a beautiful woman in the street and so decides to run up and flirt with her by saying, "You smiled! Don't deny it! You smiled! Marvelous! Life is beautiful!"
Her name is Garance, a beautiful woman who earns her living by exhibiting her physical charms in a carnival show, seated in a well of water, holding a mirror up to herself and looking beautiful for all the world to see. Her performance to the audience is like some Mona Lisa painting as men come to ogle her as the embodiment of 'Truth.' Garance backs away from Frederick's aggressive advances saying she has somewhere to go with him asking if she's going to see a lover. She says to him, "I love everyone." Before making her departure she says to Frederick, "Well, goodbye Frederick Lemaitre. Paris is small for those who share so great a passion as ours." After she leaves him Frederick turns and repeats his opening line to another woman in the street.
Garance goes to visit one of her acquaintances, Pierre-François Lacenaire, a rebel in revolt against society. Lacenaire is a proud, dangerous individual who works as a scrivener to cover his organized criminal enterprises. "Out of your well, my angel my sweet," says Lacenaire when Garance walks in his false legitimate business. Garance accuses Lecenaire of being a cruel man and he says, "I'm not cruel, I'm logical. I declared war on humanity a long time ago. True I love no one. Not even you, Garance. But you are the only woman for whom I have no contempt. I'd spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamonds'' Garance looks at him and replies, ''I'd settle for less.''
Shortly thereafter her visit, Garance is accused of stealing a man's gold watch while she is watching a pantomime featuring Baptiste Debureau and a barker who is Baptiste's father in front of the Funambules Theater. Lacenaire is in fact the guilty party but walks away unnoticed, and before she is taken away by a cop, the cop asks if anyone else was a witness to this crime. Baptiste, dressed up as the stock character Pierrot, saves her from the police by shouting out, "me. I'm a witness." He then silently acts out the theft, which he has just witnessed which makes the audience laugh and the officer lets Garance go. Garance thanks him by giving him a flower, and Baptiste falls irremediably in love with Garance.
Behind the stage at the Funambules, Frederick walks in and asks for the theater director and when meeting him Frederick tells him how he is looking to be an actor. The director says to him, "You have the wrong house. We're not allowed to act here. We walk on our hands. And you know why? They bully us. Why? They fear us. If we put on plays, they'd have to close their great, noble theaters! Their public is bored to death by museum pieces, dusty tragedies and declaiming mummies who never move. But the Funambules is full of life, movement! Extravaganzas! Appearances, disappearances...like in real life! And then boom...a kick in the pants! Sure, they're poor, but they're pure gold."
The daughter of the theater director, Nathalie, who is a mime also, is deeply in love with Baptiste and has always been for several years. Before the performance that evening, a used-clothes peddler named Jéricho reads in her palm that she will marry the man she loves, as he knew her father was worried about her mood affecting her performances. When a fight breaks out that evening between two rival clans of actors, the director believes it's all over yelling, "This is a fatal blow! A plot! A disaster! My dear audience!" The crowd all start yelling "refund!" so Baptiste and Frederick manage to calm the crowd down by improvising a mime act, thus saving the day's receipts.
Afterwards backstage Baptiste appears happy holding the flower giving by Garance earlier that day. Nathalie sees this and says to Baptiste, "Oh, Baptiste, if only you wanted to, we could be so happy together. But you don't love me. You like me. I don't want to be liked. I want your love! Or you're in love with someone else? And what's that flower for? Someone gave it to you? What's her name?" Baptiste says, "I don't know. I was gazing into a well. Others were looking too. But I only saw her."
That evening Frederick and Baptiste have a drink together. "It's my destiny to revive the giants of this Earth. They played their parts. It's my turn now," Frederick says on his dream of becoming a big actor. Frederick doesn't have a place to stay so Baptiste takes him to a board-house that he sleeps at for free and when arriving Baptiste decides to go out on the town by himself. The landlady takes Frederick to his room with a double sized bed and Frederick says to leave the door open because a pretty girl might wander in. The landlady says that young people are so demanding and he then stops her from leaving and seductively says, "did I say you were homely, Madame."
Baptiste is out on the town and slowly tries to tip toe past a blind man with a bird asking people for change. The blind man hears Baptiste walking by anyways and asks him what he's doing out on the street so late. Baptiste says he's just curious of the town and so the blind man decides to take him to get drunk since the Baptiste is so curious.
The blind man takes him to a seedy restaurant/dance hall called The Red Throat and when they sit down at a table a man walks up to see if the blind man can see if the gold he has is real or imitation. When realizing the blind man was never blind to begin Baptiste is astonished that it was all an act. The blind man tells Baptiste, "It's quite simple. Out there I'm blind. A hopeless case, blind as a bat. In here, I'm healed. A miracle."
Jericho walks in and when seeing Baptiste tells him that he is surprised to see him at a place like this. The two of them have a small quarrel because Baptiste doesn't like Jericho and never has. Suddenly Garance walks in with Lacenaire and his thugs and Baptiste is again entranced by Garance's beauty; but the blind man tells him to stay away from Lacenaire and his men because they are a dangerous group. Jericho walks over to Lacenaire's table to read Garance's palm but Lacenaire accuses Jericho of being a snitch so Jericho leaves the restaurant afraid. When Baptiste bravely walks over and invites Garance to dance, he is thrown out of the restaurant by Avril, one of Lacenaire's right hand men. He turns the situation around when walking back in and kicking Avril down and then leaving with Garance.
Lacenaire decides to ignore what Baptiste has done telling his friends that he isn't worried because he doesn't complicate his life over a woman. While Garance and Baptiste are walking down the street and talking, Garance tells Baptiste that she's surprised by his actions earlier because he doesn't look very strong. Baptiste tells her, "I had a rough childhood. I learned to defend myself. I dreamed, but people don't like that. So they beat me to wake me up a little. Luckily, my sleep was heavier than their blows, and I fled them in my sleep. Yes, I dreamed. Hoped, waited...for you maybe. By throwing me that flower you may have awakened me for good. I love you...Garance, do you love me?" Garance is unsure of the question and says to him, "you talk like a child. People love that way in books, in dreams...Not in real life." Baptiste says, "Dreams, life...they're the same. Or else lifes not worth living. But it's not life I love...It's you."
The two of them passionately kiss and it suddenly starts to storm and when Garance tells Baptiste she just lost her job and doesn't have a place to stay, Baptiste takes her to the boarding house he earlier took Frederick. While upstairs in her new bedroom Garance starts to undress with Baptiste feeling a little embarrassed. After declaring his love to her again, Baptiste flees Garance's room when she says she doesn't return his love in the same way, despite her clear invitation for him to stay and spend the night.
While Frederick is in his room practicing lines from the play of Othello he hears Garance singing in her room, which is next to his, and he goes out to the balcony to chat with her. He then repeats what she said during their first encounter. "Paris is small for those who share so great a passion as ours." When he asks her if her doors locked she says, "I'm not afraid of thieves. What's there to steal?" Frederick smiles as he leaves his room and then enters hers and the two spend the night together.
Baptiste gets Garance a acting job at Funambules and over some time Baptiste becomes the star of the Funambules. He is although fueled by his passion and writes several very popular pantomimes, performing with Garance and Frederick, who have now become lovers. Baptiste is tormented by their affair, while Nathalie, who is convinced that she and Baptiste are made for each other, suffers from his lack of love for her and how much he has changed. Nathalie knows how tormented Baptiste is because of the love between Frederick and Garance but he assures Nathalie that the two of them might be together but they are not truly happy.
Which is true when backstage together, Garance says to Frederick, "I was thinking that all over the world, there are lovers who make love silently, or else they use simple words, ordinary words. How beautiful." Garance and Frederick then both admit they are not happy with each other and are not in love and Frederick then informs Garance that he hears her talk in her sleep saying the word Baptiste.
Suddenly there arrives a large amount of flowers for Garance from a man in the audience. The man then walks in says how he thought he seen everything until he then saw Garance's beauty that night on stage. His name is Count Edouard de Montray a wealthy and cynical man and he offers Garance to be his mistress and in return she will receive money and shelter. Before he leaves he gives her his card and says, "one never knows. Misfortune strikes at random. Someday you may need help or protection. I remain your servant, body and soul."
Baptiste comes backstage and when seeing the flowers he gets furiously jealous and starts destroying them yelling, "I hate these flowers! I hate everyone! The man who was just here! I hate Frederick! I hate myself!" Garance tries to calm him down and says, "who says I don't love you, Baptiste." Nathalie cuts in and says, "I do. Its your fault he's like this. It's not just jealousy. But I'm absolutely certain Baptiste and I were made to be together."
When heading back to the board-house Garance is later unjustly suspected of complicity in an abortive robbery and murder attempt by Lacenaire and Avril. Since she was seen with Lacenaire several times by people in the past she is now a suspect in the crime. She calmly gives the business card of Count Edouard to the authorities and say, "Kindly inform this person there's been a judicial error." To avoid arrest Garance is forced to appeal to Count Edouard for protection because of his wealth and stature.
The curtains close as the first act ends.
Part II: The Man in White
The curtains rise again as the story now presents itself as several years later, and Frederick has become famous as the star of the Grand Theater. While riding in town inside a carriage with two beautiful women he talks about his last hit and says, "The worst play ever seen on the Boulevard. The absolute worst!" One of the women ask him why he did it then and he says because he needed the money. When both of the women tell him he already has a fortune Frederick says, "I end up with nothing, since I spend more than I earn." Frederick is a man about town and a spendthrift and is also covered with large amouts of debt, which doesn't prevent him from always arriving at rehearsals late and devastating the mediocre play in which he currently has the main role by playing it for laughs, rather than straight melodrama, on opening night.
Despite achieving a smashing success, the play's three fussy authors are still outraged and challenge him to a duel. He accepts and when he returns to his dressing room, Frederick is confronted by Lacenaire, who apparently intends to rob and kill him with his partner Avril who is embarrassingly a huge fan of Frederick's work. However, Frederick instead happily gives up some of his money without a fight and Lacenaire and Avril are invited to stay and have some champagne.
The next morning Frederick is scheduled to appear for a duel with one of the authors of his last performance and instead arrives with Lacenaire and Avril completely drunk.
Baptiste is enjoying even greater success as a mime at the Funambules. When Frederick goes to a performance the day after surviving the duel (where he probably lost since he was shot in the arm), he is surprised to find himself in the same box as his ex lover Garance who tries to hide her identity from everyone by wearing a veil. Garance has returned to Paris after having traveled throughout the world with the Count de Montray, who has kept her these several years and Garance now seems much more wealthy, classy and distinguished; and yet very unhappy. Garance asks Frederick what brings him here and he again says to her what she first said to him years ago, "Paris is small for those who share so great a passion as ours."
Garance tells Frederick that she has attended the Funambules every night incognito to watch Baptiste perform. Frederick asks her if she truly loves Baptiste and she says, "Not a day goes by that I don't think of him." Frederick for the first time finds himself getting jealous and says, "Othello! My hearts desire!" While the feeling is highly unpleasant, he remarks that his jealousy will help him as an actor. He will finally be able to play the role of Othello in which he wanted to do for so many years, having now experienced the emotions which motivate the character.
Garance asks Frederick to tell Baptiste that she is in town. Before Frederick leaves the box she then says to him, "And if he seems to care, say I'm passing though Paris, that I'm leaving soon, and that I'd be happy, so very happy, if he came to say hello..." When Baptiste sees Frederick backstage after the show Baptiste tells him that he goes to see Frederick's performances as well, now that Frederick is a big star.
Baptiste is now married to Nathalie and the two of them have a small son together. Before Frederick can tell Baptiste of Garance's presence, Nathalie is informed of it by the spiteful rag-man Jericho. Jericho tells Nathalie, "Garance is back. She's here...in box 7, and she's waiting for Baptiste." Nathalie decides to take care of this problem herself and send their small son to Garance's box to mortify her with their family's happiness. When the boy comes to Garance's box the boy says to her, "Hello Madame...I have a message for you. I came to say we're happy together, Mama, Papa and me." When Garance asks the boy if his father sent him he says no it was Mama. Then he says, "Mama was right...You're beautiful." When Baptiste's boy asks if Garance is married or has any kids Garance says no. The boy then asks, "Then you're all alone?" Garance sadly and tenderly says, "Yes...I'm all alone."
By the time Frederick alerts Baptiste about Garance he rushes out to find her during his performance, but when arriving to her box he finds it now empty.
When Garance returns to the Count's luxurious mansion, she finds Lacenaire waiting for her. "Good evening my angel," he says to her. Garance says she's glad to see Lecenaire because it reminds her of the early years. Lacenaire then asks her, "And the man in white? Do you think your friend, the mime, is happy? To think I had the absurd notion of killing him. Comical, no? One might as well stab at a breeze or a moon beam. And the other one: Frederick. I considered him too, my angel. I even called on him on an amusing pretext. To ask this complete stranger for money.." When he told her that Frederick did give him a large sum of money without threatening, Garance says to Lecenaire that unselfish people still exist.
Lacenaire satisfies himself that Garance has no love for him and, on his way out, encounters the Count, who is irritated to see such an individual in his home. Lacenaire reacts to the Count's challenge with threats, revealing the knife at his belt. Later, that evening the Count asks Garance who Lacenaire is and Garance says, "Oh, him. An old acquaintance. He came to say hello." When the count asks what he does she says, "He writes. To be honest, when I knew him, he was also a thief, and a bit of a murderer."
When the Count tries to insult Lacenaire's integrity Garance brings up that the Count is not much different since he once dueled and killed someone over him smiling at her. Garance then declares to the Count that she will never love him since she is already in love with another man, but declares she will continue to try to please him, and offers to spread the word on the streets that she is mad about him, if he would like. Garance says, "But to you privately my friend I say this: I loved a man, and I still love him. I came back to Paris to see him. He let me know he'd forgotten me." When the Count begs her for unwilling love she says, "You're incredible, Edouard. Not only are you rich, but you want to be loved as if you were poor."
Some short time later Frederick has finally achieved his dream of playing the role of Othello. The Count, who insists on attending the performance with Garance, is convinced that Frederick is the man she loves. During the play Baptiste sends up Garance a large batch of flowers and the Count starts laughing. Garance asks him why he is laughing and he says, "Because if we duel in the morning he won't be here to talk of death in the morning."
At a break in the play, the Count coolly mocks Frederick, trying to provoke him into a duel. Elsewhere Baptiste, who is also in the audience, encounters Garance at last and pulls her away to talk to her on the balcony. He then says to her, "I'd thought I 'd lost you forever. I still love you. I Always have. And you love me? No...no, don't answer. You're here. That's all that matters. Here, alive in my arms like the first time. No, I ask for nothing. Only...the warmth of your body against my body, this mouth of yours, these eyes of yours..."
While the Count is still insulting Frederick's performance, Lacenaire takes Frederick's side in the verbal jousting and takes revenge by calling the Count a cuckold and dramatically pulling back a curtain, revealing Garance and Baptiste embracing on the balcony. The two lovers quickly slip away to spend the night together while Lacenaire laughs at the Count as the Count's men throw him out of the building. The Count then tells Frederick that all that's going on between him and Garance doesn't involve him and Frederick says, "how do you know? Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to none," and finally accepts the duel that the Count originally tried offering.
After being thrown out Lacenaire tells his partner Avril, "the mere thought of them killing one another over a woman, because of me, comforts me." That night at the boarding house Baptiste finally makes love with Garance and says to her, "You were right Garance...love is so simple."
During the next morning at a Turkish bath, Lacenaire walks in and assassinates the Count for having had him thrown out of the theater the night before. He then calmly sits to wait for the police and meet his 'destiny', which is to die on the scaffold. Back at the rooming house, Nathalie walks in to find Baptiste and Garance in bed together and is extremely hurt. Nathalie pleads for Baptiste to come back to her and their son and when Garance tries to leave Nathalie says, "How easy it must be. Easy to go, then come back. You go...you're missed. Time works for you. Then you come back. Embellished by memory...But to stay and live with someone...share his everyday life...that's something else."
Garance declares to Nathalie that she has emotionally 'been with' Baptiste for the past six years as much as Nathalie has. She then flees, pursued by the equally desperate Baptiste, who is soon lost in the frantic Carnival crowd amid a sea of bobbing masks and unheeding, white Pierrots. The film ends as Baptiste is swept away in the crowd looking for Garance as she makes her escape in her carriage, still unaware that her protector, the Count, is now dead, and she will again find herself alone and without love.
Few epics, not even Cleopatra or Titanic, have endured such disruption as Children of Paradise, made in France during World War II. Shooting commenced in August 1943, and post-production continued until January 1945. Somehow the enterprise survived power failures, a shortage of film stock, storms, curfews, and the audacious spending of its director, Marcel Carné. Hampered if not harassed by the German Occupation, and plagued with budgetary woes, Carné’s triumphant masterpiece was finally released in two parts, shown on the big screen, in March of 1945.
A fresco conceived on a majestic scale, Children of Paradise sweeps its audience back to the 1820s, painting the detail of a world obsessed with both theater and crime. The original screenplay by Jacques Prévert drew its inspiration from such colorful personalities of the period as Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the innovative mime; Pierre-François Lacenaire, a murderer who went to the scaffold; and Frédérick Lemaître, a celebrated actor for whom both Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo wrote plays. Jean-Louis Barrault, fascinated by the character of Deburau (Baptiste in the film), urged Prévert to develop a story around him. The result was a tightly plotted narrative dominated by the fictional figure of Garance (played by the inimitable Arletty), a woman who arouses the passion and envy of the film’s four leading men.
Garance refuses to compromise with a world of decadence and deception. Just when each of her suitors appears to have ensnared her, she glides away like some tantalizing ideal, eventually disappearing into the symbolic crowds along the Boulevard of Crime. During the several years covered by the film, she moves from poverty to affluence, never sacrificing her principles or her open-minded vision of love. If “love is so simple,” according to Garance’s refrain, its ramifications prove infinitely more allusive and subtle the further the film advances. Children of Paradise may be described as one long aching ode to melancholy, but it never descends into mawkish sentimentality. It runs the gamut of emotions, from the anguish of infidelity to the rivalry of unrequited lovers, from solitude and rancor to the backstage enthusiasm and commotion of the theatre. Carné and Prévert know exactly when to leaven their narrative with witty interludes, and much of the verbal sparring inspired Bergman in films like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magician.
Nothing is quite what it seems. The borderline between stage drama and real life dissolves in sequence after sequence. Each of the principals shows a “mask” to the world, exemplified in one of the very first tableaus—Garance as a fairground attraction, seated in a barrel of water, holding a mirror up to herself and looking for all the world like some Mona Lisa as men come to ogle her as the embodiment of “Truth.” For Baptiste, his disguise is the whey-faced makeup of the mime. For Lemaître, it’s the black-painted image of Othello one moment, or an eye-patched villain the next; even under threat, this vain yet lovable actor dissolves the tension with his sardonic wit. For the count who seduces Garance with his wealth and elegance, it’s the immaculate grooming of hair and beard. For Lacenaire, it’s the dandified coiffure and the frilly shirt that give a perverse elegance to his assassin’s features. Even the blind beggar is but a charlatan, up to his eyes in petty larceny.
Although the film works perfectly well at a surface level, every character, every gesture, springs from a coded approach to contemporary history. Garance, with her stalwart commitment to liberty and the simple things of life, represents Occupied France. The count serves as a chilling paradigm for the Nazi regime, believing that his opulence can purchase anything in sight. Jéricho is the archetypal informer, flourishing in the atmosphere of confusion and mistrust of the Boulevard of Crime. The art of Baptiste, and to some extent Frédérick, seems to encapsulate a folkloric tradition that touches the people at a profound level. Lacenaire awaits what will certainly be a visit to the guillotine with a smile of malevolent gratification on his lips, after dispatching the count in a Turkish bath. At once anarchist and career criminal, he exists to undermine the established order.
Just as the historical and political overtones of the film enable Carné and Prévert to pass oblique judgment on France under the Nazi yoke, so the erotic mood of the film is unusually ambiguous. Carné’s own homosexuality, at a time when diversity was not exactly welcomed in the movie industry, finds its metaphor in Baptiste and his androgynous appeal. Baptiste is attracted to Garance not just for her physical beauty, but for her statuesque strength in the face of condescension from the men surrounding her. When they do finally make love, one has the impression that Baptiste is succumbing to the embrace of Garance, and not vice versa.
The character of Lacenaire, by contrast, exudes an animal cunning, a sexual challenge that makes the fastidious count quail before him, to the point of accepting Lacenaire’s dagger as an almost welcome instrument of release.
Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement lies in its evocation of a vanished epoch, a “lost paradise” of Proustian proportions. The costumes and sets by Alexandre Trauner and the music of Joseph Kosma contribute to a vivid, teeming environment that enables Children of Paradise to transcend the theatrical circles in which it moves. (Both men, incidentally, had to work anonymously to conceal their Jewish origins from the authorities.)
One of the richest embodiments of romantic agony in 20th-century art, Children of Paradise still rules the seas of French cinema like some proud galleon, the ultimate exemplar of classical filmmaking, great acting, and a perfectly constructed screenplay. For many critics, it remains the finest French film ever made.
Children of Paradise is a classic. The most expensive, most star-studded film the French had ever made, it marked the summit of Marcel Carné’s career, glorifying the fatalism of his prewar poetic realism and exemplifying in its magnificent self-presentation the triumph of the imagination over loss, and of art over politics. After four years of sequestration in Hitler’s hothouse, French cinema could again be paraded on an international stage, for what is often taken to be the swan song of its “golden age.” National pride buoyed the film’s premiere in March 1945, just two months after the Nazis had been driven from the country. Exhibited briefly as two separate films, then consolidated into a single 190-minute experience, it played continuously for decades in Paris, the city where its intrigue takes place. It was both a commercial and an international art-house hit, and invariably comes out near the top in polls on the best French films. Even Cahiers du cinéma—historically hardly a supporter of Carné’s—recently ranked it the eighth greatest movie ever made (behind just two other French titles: The Rules of the Game and L’Atalante).
Two years in the making, this epic ode to the theater and to passion, following the insouciant yet mysterious courtesan Garance (Arletty), who gathers jealous lovers as she moves through the streets and classes of 1820s and 1830s Paris, was designed to be classic in the art-historical sense. For it forces one to admire the intricate balance of its oppositions (of women, suitors, social strata, high and low theater), the graceful proportions of its mise-en-scène (from the majestic sweep of its opening shots to the intimacy of its love scenes), the orchestration of the memorable voices of its powerful actors, and the effortless unrolling of its elegant, geometric plot. Motifs arising in Part One are answered, and often inverted, in Part Two, so that, for instance, the tragedian, Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), turns whimsical, while the comic, the mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), becomes tragic. All this is made possible by the architecture of the theater, with the curtain segregating action in the public sphere from action both onstage and backstage. Stepping from one side of the curtain to the other, taking off makeup or putting on a costume, characters visibly reverse their roles or find themselves exposed—as when, in a fatal gesture, the dark poet of crime Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) reveals the lovers Garance and Baptiste in the balcony after a performance of Othello. Nor can we ever forget our own role in a spectacle we are invited into and closed off from by a curtain.
Such artifice amounts to a mannerist exaggeration of the style Carné and poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert perfected in their earlier, more subdued films, like Port of Shadows (1938) and Le jour se lève (1939). Critic André Bazin took their 1930s poetic realism to be genuinely “classical,” in that a natural equilibrium of elements spoke directly to the anxieties of prewar society. Children of Paradise, made during the turmoil of the occupation and retreating to the nineteenth century, barters such immediacy for striking effects. Take the costumes by Mayo, which, authorized by the film’s theme of life as theater, display each character in sartorial self-expression. Or the sets by Alexandre Trauner, which come straight from etchings Carné found at the Musée Carnavelet. As for the dialogue, Prévert’s precious phrases are noticeably weighed, then often declaimed in a register more poetic than realist, and by such stage legends as Barrault, Herrand, Louis Salou, Pierre Renoir, and Maria Casarès (whereas Jean Gabin, the consummate film actor, had muttered most of his lines in Port of Shadows).
Minor characters, like the ragpicker and the comic proprietor of the Théâtre des Funambules, appear as if caricatured by Daumier. And why not, for Daumier had been inspired to create his famous Robert Macaire series after witnessing the real-life Lemaître play Macaire in 1834. As for the look of the major characters, Carné explicitly references as a source a masterpiece of late mannerist painting, La grande odalisque, when the ineffably beautiful Garance tells the police that she models nude for Monsieur Ingres. Other characters seem to have stepped out of illustrations for romantic novels of the time by Victor Hugo (The Last Day of a Condemned Man) or Stendhal (The Red and the Black), or even Balzac (Père Goriot). Altogether, then, Children of Paradise enthralls us not just with its subject and themes but also, and far more, with its exquisite manner of rendering them. Like grand opera, its melodrama is woven by lyrical voices expressing themselves floridly in duets, trios, and quartets, and in close-ups that amount to arias, whose effect is augmented because they are set against breathtaking choral scenes.
Grandiloquence like this belonged to a golden age just then coming to a close, as critic Serge Daney intimated when he compared Children of Paradise to Bresson’s Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, which a few months later announced, in its hushed tone, the arrival of a modern cinema aesthetic. Daney was echoing Bazin, who originated the idea of this opposition between classic and modern. For Bazin, Carné had been in tune with French society in the thirties, but Children of Paradise, as impressive as it was, appeared self-satisfied, removed from the struggle for a renewed cinema and culture. In what may have been the film’s very first review, the twenty-six-year-old critic, writing for the popular daily Le parisien in March 1945, begrudged his undeniable attraction to a film that didn’t seem to need him. “Its outline is precise, that’s certain, and of rare intelligence . . . but the film remains cool, as if spurning our readiness to yield to it. Its principal fault [lies] . . . in being merely admirable.” Children of Paradise may be an eloquent spectacle, yet it holds much in reserve, like the enigmatic Garance, who in the end recedes from all of her suitors, and especially Baptiste. Bazin wants to grasp something that is ultimately unavailable. “Paradoxically,” he wrote, “this huge fresco, on which four or five different destinies are interwoven, seems incomplete.” Whereas the tightly scripted Carné-Prévert classics of the thirties (especially Le jour se lève) succeed through dramatic simplification, Children of Paradise uses its uncommon length to layer psychological depth atop narrative complexity, whetting our appetites for additional episodes. “Did they run out of film or out of time?” Bazin asked—for we want to follow some of these characters into further adventures and learn the backstories we feel they possess (and that several of them in fact did possess, as historical figures).
A thirteen-year-old François Truffaut, who had surely read Bazin’s review, raced to see the film as soon as he could. Evidently, he, too, emerged hungry for more, since he went back for eight additional helpings in the next couple of years. Some might expect him to have denigrated it, for he would make a name for himself by slashing away at the self-satisfied cinéma de qualité that developed during and just after the war. But Children of Paradise doesn’t sport the cynicism and trendy liberal values he abhorred; instead, it boldly stands by the romantic view of life in the period of Hugo, Delacroix, and Théophile Gautier, the period that Baudelaire hailed in his famous Salon de 1846. A fanatic for novels from that time, Truffaut could only admire Carné’s courage in reaching for such unabashed romanticism. So that, although he relentlessly skewered him in the years to come, Truffaut ultimately admitted to Carné that he would have traded his entire oeuvre to have made Children of Paradise.
No film sets out more directly to recall the strategies and atmosphere of romantic melodrama, Children of Paradise’s primary referent. Its action opens on the very “boulevard du Crime” where melodrama flourished in its heyday, and where we follow Garance as she encounters, one after the other, the three larger-than-life men who anchor the film both in theater and in history: the celebrated actors Lemaître and Jean-Gaspard Deburau (stage name, Baptiste) and the criminal Lacenaire. The historical Lemaître, who actually did get his start playing a lion at the Funambules, was so renowned on the Paris stage that melodramas were rewritten to make use of his voice. Like Prévert, the brash Lemaître had no qualms about playing Shakespeare in repertory alongside sentimental crowd-pleasers.
The muteness of the mime—and Deburau is known as the greatest of them all—sets interiority against the extroversion of Lemaître, one of the key oppositions of the genre that Peter Brooks identified in his seminal 1976 study The Melodramatic Imagination. In 1836, an actual melodrama took over Deburau’s private life when he found himself charged in one of the most sensational murder cases of the era. The courtroom became a packed theater, where a thirsty public finally heard the voice of the darling of the mime shows. Baudelaire wrote of this incident. He wrote more floridly, though, of Lacenaire, the sexually ambiguous dandy who, modeling himself after Lemaître’s portrayals of outsize characters, proclaimed himself above all laws in a spellbinding oration at his own murder trial (held nearly simultaneously with Deburau’s). He expressed with relish the anarchy of his criminal deeds in romantic lyrics written in prison. And he didn’t disappoint the crowd that flocked to see him greet the guillotine.
Children of Paradise evokes this romantic milieu without condescension. “The greatest creators of cinema—and Carné is certainly among these—don’t hesitate to make melodramas, since that’s where the real popular essence of their art lies,” wrote French film historian Marcel Oms. Every register of expression is mobilized to inflate the sentiments of the characters, whose lives are woven together by threads crisscrossed in a fatal pattern. Each character, prop, and speech seems portentous. Jéricho, the ragpicker, for instance, wanders the streets crying out doom, reciting his lines in a litany. Primordial objects are sanctified by their recurrence and by the way their names (lune, miroir, fleur) are so deliciously pronounced. In Brooks’s vocabulary, the “simplicity and exaggeration” of such objects and words express a morally and aesthetically superior world, where everything turns on a phrase, on the color of a gown, on the presence or absence of the moon.
Through its multiple plots, predestined meetings, class conflicts, duels, and absolute choices, Children of Paradise aims at Brooks’s “total articulation of the grandiose moral terms of [melo]drama,” where ordinary life, bracketed by curtains and divided into acts, is transmuted into the consequential world of theater. Carné is out to “prove to the spectator that this other world is within him, prove it to him by making him experience it,” Oms writes, just as Baptiste casts a silent spell over the crowd at the Funambules, over us in the movie theater, and over Garance, who represents everything that art desires. Garance, introduced in her carnival act as the spectacle of “truth itself,” naked except for her beauty, holds a mirror that keeps her to herself even while leering males ogle. Everyone dreams of possessing not so much her beauty as her diffident self-possession. But this she offers only to Baptiste, who, like her, is an unassuming silent voice of the people. The purity of his attraction, however, forecloses the realization of their union. Baptiste stages an allegory of unfulfilled love in a skit that features all the characters in his life. Dreaming beside a statue of Phoebe (Garance), for whom he pines, Baptiste doesn’t notice Harlequin (Frédérick) entering to steal her away. As the laundress (Nathalie, Baptiste’s future wife) comes in, we catch with her a glimpse, in close-up, of his real, rather than his represented, despair. Baptiste/Pierrot looks not at Nathalie but offstage, where in the wings Frédérick whispers flirtatiously into the delighted ear of Garance.
More than a minor allegory about jealousy, this skit stages the defeat of the silent mime, who loses the only audience he cares for to the loquacious actor. When next we see Frédérick, his bravura and sophistication, and the reassuring sonority of his voice, have won not just Garance but the heart of Paris. In a tour de force, he whimsically toys with his assigned role in a new play, outraging the authors, who are forced to accept his victory over their drama since the audience applauds. In Friedrich Schiller’s terms, current at the time in which the film is set, Baptiste stands for the “naive,” nearly religious function that melodrama assumed just after the French Revolution, while Frédérick represents the “sentimental” sophistication of theater; updating this by a century, we might see Baptiste as the pure spirit of the silent cinema, which loses its audience to the urbane, promiscuous talkie. (The initial inspiration for the entire project, according to Carné’s biographer Edward Baron Turk, came after Barrault saw Charlie Chaplin, cinema’s most famous mime, in his first speaking role, in 1940’s The Great Dictator.)
Children of Paradise invites such allegorical applications. Garance, for instance, has been read as the purity of the French soul during the occupation. But before standing for anything else, she incarnates the idea of the perfect audience, whose transfixed gaze at a mime’s hypnotic performance is returned by him, until together they look out at the moon, that pure and distant screen on which they project their dreams . . . and we ours. Now, such enthrallment would have remained a mere idea except for the astounding skill of the film’s major performers. Played poorly, or just adequately, Children of Paradise would have been stiff and quaint, nothing but an allegory of enthrallment. But miraculously, it delivers what it represents, especially in making us experience the sublimity of which pantomime is capable. James Agee claimed that never before Jean-Louis Barrault had a film actor been able to truly portray artistic genius. José Ferrer is just a factotum standing in for Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (Huston, 1952); Harry Baur is a ludicrous shadow of Beethoven in Gance’s 1936 biopic; but Barrault stuns us in exactly the way that Deburau stunned audiences at the Funambules—until we are led to wonder if those audiences wouldn’t have preferred Barrault.
Barrault’s performance alone lifts Children of Paradise to the heights where masterpieces outlive the eras from which they come, taking on an otherworldly aura that keeps us at a respectful distance. Perhaps this is why Bazin found it “merely admirable.” He must have wanted a major production like this, that speaks so ethereally of the moon, to come closer to us on earth. But shouldn’t he have sensed its historical pertinence when he exited the theater that first night? After all, he stepped out into the city represented in the movie, still crawling with collaborators, black marketeers, and the maquis. Instead, he found the film to be carrying a poetic realist heritage—magnificently—into a postwar cultural moment where that style was no longer natural. Rather than holding a mirror up to its epoch, as had Carné’s prewar films, Children of Paradise, like its entrancing star, holds a mirror up to itself, admiring the naked truth of its own style.
Children of Paradise is one “quality” film whose greatness has never been questioned, not even at the crest of the New Wave, when a youth movement aimed to wash away fastidious masters like Carné. Then, in the seventies and eighties, came a return to prestige of professionalism in French scriptwriting and production design. The cinéma du look signaled another round of mannerism, and in films like Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter and Luc Besson’s Subway (with sets by Trauner) and in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and Amélie, it directly summoned the Carné-Prévert sensibility.
More than its ostentatious style renews Children of Paradise for the twenty-first century. Its length, once considered daunting, accords with changing norms. Already by the time of the New Wave, Hollywood epics such as Ben-Hur and Doctor Zhivago had pressed the advantage cinema had over television in terms of length as well as visual scale. Then came The Godfather, a vast novel in two—and eventually three—installments, each lasting approximately three hours. TV struck back with a spate of brilliantly scripted miniseries, starting with Roots. Many viewers today choose to experience an entire season of, say, The Wire during a single weekend, and indeed this is just how cinephiles must view any reprise of Feuillade’s serials on the big screen, Les vampires, for example, topping nine hours. Children of Paradise appeals to our appetite for tales too ample to be easily digested. Carné and Prévert, let us note, adored Feuillade, as did Bazin, who believed that cinema’s narrative capability could revive the medieval conte, or romance. And so, when he yearned for additional episodes to follow the earlier or later exploits of the marvelous characters of Children of Paradise, Bazin was essentially yearning for the novelistic. Children of Paradise may not derive from an identifiable literary source, but watching it is like losing oneself in an immense novel, whose characters inhabit an occult world of moral absolutes, measured against which ordinary life feels pallid. No wonder Truffaut went back to it again and again. No wonder it remains, in every sense, a perennial classic.
Children of Paradise is one of the most romantically enchanting films of all time but it's film-making process was anything but. The film was made under extremely difficult conditions where external sets in Nice were badly damaged by natural causes, and exacerbated and compounded by the theatrical constraints during the German occupation of France during World War II. The film was split into two parts because the Vichy administration had imposed a maximum time limit of 90 minutes for feature films. Critic Pauline Kael wrote that, allegedly, "the starving extras made away with some of the banquets before they could be photographed".
Many of the 1,800 extras were Resistance agents using the film as daytime cover, who, until the Liberation, had to mingle with some collaborators or Vichy sympathisers who were imposed on the production by the authorities. Alexandre Trauner, who designed the sets, and Joseph Kosma, who composed the music, were Jewish and had to work in complete secrecy throughout the production; in which several times go into hiding. The set builders were short of supplies and the camera crew's film stock was rationed. The financing, originally a French-Italian production, collapsed a few weeks after production began in Nice, due to the Allied conquest of Sicily in August 1943. Trauner lived (under an assumed name) with Carné and Prévert during the six months it took them to prepare the script. Kosma's orchestrator acted as his front.
Around this time, the Nazis forbade the producer, André Paulvé, from working on the film because of his remote Jewish ancestry, and the production had to be suspended for three months. The famed French film company Pathé took over production, whose cost was escalating wildly. The quarter-mile long main set, the 'Boulevard du Temple', was severely damaged by a storm and had to be rebuilt. By the time shooting resumed in Paris in early spring of 1944, the Director of Photography, Roger Hubert, had been assigned to another production and Philippe Agostini who replaced him, had to analyze all the reels in order to match the lighting of the non-sequential shot list; all the while, electricity in the Paris Studios was intermittent. Production was delayed again after the Allies landed in Normandy, perhaps intentionally stalled so that it would only be completed after the French Liberation.
When Paris was liberated in August 1944, the actor Robert le Vigan, who was sentenced to death by the Resistance for collaborating with the Nazis, and had to flee, along with the author Céline, to Sigmaringen. He was replaced at a moment’s notice by Pierre Renoir, older brother of French filmmaker Jean Renoir and son of the famous painter, and most of the scenes had to be redone. Vigan was tried and convicted as a Nazi collaborator in 1946 and was executed. One scene featuring Vigan survives in the middle of the second part, when Jericho snitches to Nathalie. Carné and Prévert hid some of the key reels of film from the occupying forces, hoping that Paris would be liberated by the time the film was completed.
Baptiste's father is played by mime and mime theorist Etienne Decroux, who was Jean-Louis Barrault's teacher (as well as Marcel Marceau's) and many of his character's lines about theatre can be interpreted as ironic statements on his own work in corporeal mime. It was an interesting choice for the actress Leonie Bathiat who was cast as Garance to play the beautiful romantic temptress since she was clearly too old for the part. And yet she was often compared to the great Marlene Dietrich because of her strong sophistication and sexuality. What she brings to the character is a fiesty and wise woman who has seen it all and done it all and yet can still make the men fall under her spell.
Marcel Carne's masterpiece Children of Paradise seems like a romantic melodrama but when looking deeper into it each character is either immoral or unpure. Every character in the story is either corrupt or dishonest with others or themselves and critic David Thomson writes, "His characters live artificially in the demimonde, actors who are always on stage; if we meet a street beggar, like the blind man we are not much surprised to find he can see well enough indoors." Marcel Carne's world that he creates is a bleak 18th century painting that mixes crime, romance and the theatre. When summarizing this story its really about a woman whose beauty arouses the passion and envy of the films four leading men and how it destroys almost all of them; including her.
Nothing is really quite what it seems with its characters and the line between the melodrama they play on stage and the melodrama they play in reality collide into one sad tragedy. The characters in the film talk fancy words on love, romance and beauty and Frederick is one of the few to admit that the words he uses is complete nonsense and only part of his act. Frederick is a man with such high ambitions of becoming a great actor and loves to seduce and enthrall the women in his life, and yet has never loved and might never find love because of his cockiness and ego. Lacenaire is a lonely, bitter and violent man who seems symbolic of the rebellion against the social order and yet at the same time knows his life will sadly meet tragic ends and yet is OK with that. The Count who seduces Garance with his wealth and stature serves as a chilling paradigm of the Nazi regime, believing he can purchase, own and control anything he sees fit. Nathalie is a women who keeps hoping that the man she loves will one day return that love; and foolishly accepts marriage to him at a time he is vulnerable; deeply knowing he will never truly love her. And so you can't feel too bad when she later is rejected by her husband when Garance returns in Baptiste's life.
Garance, I believe is one of the strongest and honest characters in the film; and one who looks at life most logically and realistically. She knows love is not the stories from fairy tales and theatre and that life is harsh, cruel, unrelenting and brutal. She knows using her sexuality and the theme of love through men will help her get through life and survive much easier. I believe she in time comes to love Baptiste like she believes but not necessarily because it's love. I believe she in some ways looks at him like an innocent child because he still looks at the world unrealistically and false; and because of that she pity's him. Baptiste I believe is the weakest and the least pure of them all. Baptiste is a man who looks at life deluded as a fictional world of purity and perfection similar to the roles he plays on stage, and yet life is nothing close to that. There is no such thing as the perfect woman or the perfect love and yet when seeing Garance's beauty he takes his infatuation and twists it into what he believes is perfect, pure and true. I don't believe he really loves Garance but instead loves the image of her beauty and perfected it which he himself believes is love. He's also not as moral as he thinks he is, because even though he decided against sleeping with Garance the first night together because of him believing it was disrespectful, he was perfectly OK with sleeping with her while he was married and had a family with Nathalie. Baptiste is not only a deluded man but a very selfish one. He is a man who will gladly sacrifice his wife and son to be with a woman who he barely knows and because of that destroys the people in his life that truly care for him.
I can somewhat relate to the purity of Baptiste's thinking on the simple logic of life and love; because when I was a young boy I looked at life and the love of a woman through similar eyes. There was a girl I grew up with all throughout my early life and I was blindly in love with her as much as Baptiste was with Garance. She was the symbol of everything perfect in a woman and for a long time I always had this belief of me and her ending up together like the classic fairytale romances you see in books and movies. (In some ways it was Guido's idea of Claudia in Fellini's masterpiece 8 ½.) Of course nothing came of it and when going to college and getting involved in other relationships, some more successful then others and some I really loved and others not so much; I then looked back at this perfection of love that I used to believe in and it makes me laugh. This false idea of love and romance that we as humans are brought up to believe eventually hits us hard when the reality of life finally comes crashing down. There is no such thing as a 'true love' or a 'perfect relationship' and growing up to expect that will only end in either failure or complete and utter disappointment. Now don't think I am saying that I don't believe in the tradition of either love or marriage because I am not. I'm merely addressing the idea on the way society sells you the fictional ideas of romance and love which is anything but that in the real world. There are more complex emotions and feelings involved when it comes to the coming together of two human beings and maybe that's why the amount of divorces are so high; because people expect love to be this magical blissful experience; similar to some of the characters in this film. Before his masterpiece Children of Paradise, Carne directed Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Leve which are also considered some of the great French films of the late 30's and yet those and the films he made to the end of his career never matched the greatness of Children of Paradise. Surprisingly as famous as Children of Paradise is around the world, over the years most of the available prints have been murky and not in very good shape. Suddenly in March 2012, Pathé produced a restored version of the film which involved scanning the badly damaged original camera negative and other early sources using a high-resolution 4K digital process to produce a new master print; and the restored picture now glows off the screen. The release of a new Criterion blu ray looks absolutely phenomenal and like the recent restored blu ray of Jean Renoir's masterpiece The Rules of the Game; (Which also is about the illusions of love) this is a extraordinary moment in film history worth celebrating. When watching Children of Paradise you can look at Garance at the end of the film as a simple home wrecker who tore apart a happy marriage and yet for Baptiste and Nathalie this situation really shouldn't have come as such a surprise. What Nathalie says to Garance is very true because it's one thing to announce your love for someone but it's another thing to live with them and stay devoted to them for several years. If they were any wiser on the themes of life they would never have gotten married and have children to begin with. The film ends as Baptiste is swept away in the crowd looking for a fictional love of a fictional woman in a fictional world who doesn't and never did exist and as Garance makes her escape in her carriage, she is still unaware that her protector, the Count, is now dead, and she will again...find herself alone.