With materials scarce and their country still under Nazi occupation, Marcel Carné, France’s most successful director of the era, and the famed poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert decided to make the biggest, most expensive film ever produced in France. From end to end Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1945) was a poke straight in the eye of the modern reality of France and the modern motion picture in general. French Resistance were hid by the production as extras and crew. The set designer and composer were Jews whom Carné helped hide from the Nazis as they worked on the film. The Germans wouldn’t allow movies to be longer than 90 min, so Carné simply split his three-hour film in two and claimed it was two movies — re-running the credits again in the middle. But what appears on screen also places Children of Paradise well outside the realm of the conventional. Set in 1820s Paris, the story follows the tangled lives of several men who are vying for the love of the streetwise Garance. This in itself is nothing unusual, but the film’s vision of a bygone era is wholly unique — diving into the theatrical past to question the limits of the cinema of the present. The principal wooers of the film are Baptiste, a mime who is the first to elevate his art beyond pure slapstick, and Frédérick, an impoverished lothario with dreams of playing Othello. As such, much of the film is based around scenes of performance on the 19th century stage, often in mime and generally with an over-the-top brio that strays wildly from naturalism. Children of Paradise is wholly about passion — pure, lustful, possessive, or destructive — which the film lays bare in its chaotic vision of old Paris, its romantic cinematography, and the fervent declarations and actions of its characters. (190 min.)
S. – Visually, Children of Paradise is outstanding. The Boulevard of Crime bustles with a raucous crowd encompassing the gamut of performance artists from street performer to stage actors all exuberantly competing for the attention of the passers-by. It seems as if an army of people were involved in the production and it is incredible that it was achieved during the Nazi occupation. The costuming is lush with careful attention to detail and the key players, even those claiming poverty, flit about dramatically without a hair out of place. Only upon the stage of the Funambules itself was a hint of amateurism allowed to appear, with the intentionally wobbly sets and low-tech effects. However, the performers’ view out into the audience and up into the cheap seats occupied by the “children of paradise” is one of my favourite images of the film.
In keeping with the heightened atmosphere the characters themselves are larger than life. Their story revolves around the enigmatic Garance (played by Carné regular Arletty), a good-time girl that is happy to make merry as opportunities arise but seems to be the only one who has a grasp on reality. Her smiling, yet weary, cynicism is a baffle to her many self-absorbed admirers who are all determined to keep their heads in the clouds while being vaguely bewildered by her inability to be swept off her feet. It is an interesting idea to have four different characters juxtaposed by their desire to claim Garance as their own, and while the comparisons between the men involved weren’t particularly flattering to any of them it did allow the emotional intelligence of the leading lady to emerge.
J. – I largely concur with what you’re saying, S., but I’m going to pull back for a moment to dive a bit into the plot here or we’re never going to make this thing intelligible to the reader (or perhaps even to ourselves). OK, so Garance is desired by Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur), as mentioned in the intro, but she also had caught the eye of François (Marcel Herrand), a thief and murderer who also happens to be an amateur playwright, and Édouard (Louis Salou), a brash nobleman with a penchant for dueling. Garance is initially in the company of François, but falls for Baptiste. When the naive Baptiste doesn’t seize the chance to take Garance for his own, Frédérick jumps in and the two live together as a couple, crushing Baptiste. Garance wants to be with Baptiste, but when François’ criminal doings nearly get her thrown in jail, she shacks up with Édouard. Years pass and Baptiste is married to Nathalie (María Casares) — a co-star who has been super obsessed with the mime for years, but things go to pieces when Garance returns to Paris and encounters all four of her admirers. Phew! Done! OK, now on with it:
I definitely agree that Les enfants du paradis (I just like the sound of the French!) is a beautiful movie. I was also struck by the endless bustle of the Boulevard du crime, but I think the film’s best glimpse into chaos was all of the backstage shenanigans at the Funambules theater, with the acrobats and clowns flailing across the frame as the camera moves in and out of the props and sets. And it’s hard to not enjoy a brawl that involves a man in a lion costume and a bevy of dwarf performers. Indeed, everything inside the theater was quite lovely, and that was no mean feat. Stage productions are worlds apart from movies; I’d say it is quite the slap down to call a film stagy. But Carné throws about a half dozen stage performances at the viewer and they all look rather marvelous and distinctly cinematic (the content is a bit more variable, but we’ll get to that). Still, I felt like the film saved its best visuals for the quieter scenes of conversation between two individuals — one usually being Garance. I loved the look of the rain-slicked streets as Garance and Baptiste walk home together from a night out at a rowdy dive, and the moonlit room as a bed-sheet garbed Garance tries to invite the foolishly innocent Baptiste to stay the night with her. But to my mind the most gorgeously shot — and probably the best acted — sequence in the film is when Frédérick and Garance meet again in a box in the Funabules theater after years of not having seen each other. The criss-cross shadows of the box and the blend of shining disks and dark mystery in Garance’s veil make for an incredibly atmospheric scene, and one of the few that slows down enough to let two people be real and human. The film could have benefited from more of that simple — but expertly shot — humanity.
S. – While I did admire many elements of the the film, I did not find it very absorbing as a whole. Part of that may be due to the long run-time but I think the main reason is that it never really established what it was trying to be. The mood could switch from farce, to intrigue, to tragedy on a dime. Much like a stroll down the boulevard you are confronted with so many sensations one after the other that it becomes kind of meaningless. Among all the bustle the male characters are never really fleshed out. For three of them this may have been intentional, as the shallow characters provided fit neatly into the narrative, but for the writer / criminal / philosopher François screen time is spent hinting at deeper layers that are never explored. I suspected he was being introduced to be a joker in the pack who could serve to throw the story into a new direction later in the film, and he did show up in menacing fashion near the end but it kind of fizzled out. There are other loose threads among the supporting cast where Baptiste’s utter hatred of the ragman Jericho was never really explained and François’s ultra-camp henchman was just plain weird. It was frustrating to see some interesting subplots hinted at around the theme of unrequited love but, in the absence of a clear direction for the narrative, things got rather messy.
J. – I would say things got extremely messy, which is remarkable given how one-dimensional and overtly declarative most of the characters in the movie are. It is bizarre to have a series of characters loudly exclaim exactly what they are thinking and feeling but still not be confident that you know anything about them beyond their main defining traits. There are exceptions, of course, but as you stated, S., those characters are often not nuanced so much as inscrutable, and consequently the audience has no entry into their motivations. François absolutely is the perfect example of this, and I almost feel like his character was initially meant to accomplish something else when they started putting the story together but that they changed their minds somewhere in the middle. His motivations don’t string together, and when he kills near the denouement of the film it basically makes no sense whatsoever for what has generally been a rather savvy character throughout the film. And much the same can be said of Garance, who maintains a rictus grin through much of the movie that conceals her true thoughts — she remains largely inscrutable. But in her case, I’d actually say that is generally a good thing, because it gives her a measure of calm and assurance that fits with her being a free-loving, free-wheeling, free-thinker who also is a total cynic and realist. And this, thankfully, sets her at odds with the insufferable Nathalie. I have a hard time knowing exactly what we were to make of Nathalie — is she supposed to be a representative of purer, constant love, or is she simply an obsessive lunatic? Either way, I was not terribly impressed with the manner in which the character was written — she could probably be described as half-dimensional: one-quarter fire and one-quarter woe. And this lack of characterization profoundly diminishes the love triangle between the two women and Baptiste, knocking much of the power from the confrontation at the end of the film.
But the heart and soul of the film reside in Frédérick and Baptiste, respectively. I’d be curious to know what you thought of those characters, S.
S. – It is Frédérick and Baptiste that entrench this film in mediocrity for me, particularly the former. While Frédérick has all the airs and graces of a leading man he comes across as a one trick pony. His lines are delivered with a smirk of insincerity that frequently confused the tone of a scene. Despite whatever his mouth happened to be saying, Frédérick’s manner was always one of self-absorption making him completely unsympathetic as a rebuffed suitor. Still this may have worked if we had been given a moment of genuine feeling from the pompous actor, but that door was left closed. Baptiste, on the other hand, was all pathos who did little to recommend himself as a desirable partner. When in the presence of Garance he verged on hysterical and his pronouncements of love seemed more like a reprimand than an offer of shared happiness. In fact it seemed that Garance loved him best when he was on stage and did not know she was watching. I feel like my poor impression of Baptiste may be the result of the editing of the film as there were some glimpses of the character out of his mime guise (and not in the presence of the object of his desire) that hinted at a more nuanced, thoughtful character. However, it was the heightened, extreme face of the mime that dominated the screen time. The end result is that even though there was a lot of activity I didn’t really connect with the story.
J. – I would generally have to agree with your assessment, S. Though Garance could be said to be the main player in the story (and certainly Arletty is the top billed performer), the movie hinges on the characters of Baptiste and Frédérick, and just as you say, they are a bit of a let down. But for very different reasons in my mind. Frédérick is an obnoxious lout of a character, overblown and bombastic in a manner that could probably be very effective in small doses, but it gets awfully tedious over the course of three hours. I disagree, however, that the character does not get a moment of genuine feeling, because I think the character gets just such a moment in the scene I mentioned above with Garance in the theater box, and when things get quiet and serious actor Pierre Brasseur really rises to the occasion [S. – Sorry, but I didn’t find that scene to be genuine]. I just wish I found the the more garish flouncing of the character to be as funny as the film apparently thinks it is.
Baptiste, on the other hand, I found to be a marvelous character, but with a debilitating caveat. He was far less unidimensional than the other suitors for Garance and was a genuinely deep, soulful force in a movie made almost exclusively of veneers. Like you, I liked the character more when he was out of his Pierrot costume. Jean-Louis Barrault gives a very expressive performance, lighting up in his more triumphant scenes with Garance but also almost managing to collapse his slight frame into himself when laid low by love and circumstances. His mime persona was not as successful for me, but I don’t think that this is the fault of the character, or even of the mime performances. I can’t say I’m drawn in any way to the art of mime, but I was actually rather impressed by Baptiste’s act on stage, particularly the sequence where the distraught clown keeps getting interrupted while trying to hang himself — that was very funny and dark. No, my problem is with the script and the reactions it makes everyone else have to Baptiste. There is one thing I loathe in movies and it when a film declares for itself that something is hilarious or genius. I did not find Baptiste’s act to be anywhere near as brilliant or funny as the crowds and characters in the film — I mean not even close — so all this acclaim had the effect on me of diminishing Baptiste as a credible artistic presence, and thereby undermined his “tortured genius” character. The same goes for Garance, who is declared over and over again as a beauty beyond beauties. If I don’t exactly concur, then it undermines the motivations of the characters who are supposed to be so desperately (and one-sidedly) in love with her. Personal taste aside, I give props to Carné for casting the 46-year-old Arletty in that role instead of some 22-year-old starlet devoid of life experience.
Which brings me to the big question about Children of Paradise, S. This film has a lot to say about love and passion, but do you think any of its declarations exhibit profundity or artistic merit?
S. – I found Garance to be far and away the most interesting character of the film and I enjoyed the way her enigmatic air was the catalyst for a quadruplet of love affairs. So I feel somewhat disappointed that instead of exploring why these four men thought they loved a woman they did not truly know I was expected to believe that their respective declarations of love were sufficient. At the end I remain unconvinced that any of them saw her as more than a trinket they desired for their own. Not particularly profound. Children of Paradise is a wonderful spectacle and I am glad to have seen it, but it did not really resonate with me in the way that a great film does. There were many points where the film seemed like it was about to take off, and it just never quite managed to do so.
J. – I’m not wholly sure what the film was trying to say about love despite its constant focus on the subject, save perhaps that selfish love is bound to lead to disaster. But even the more selfless love between Garance and Baptiste comes across as crazed and doomed to produce little but regret and heartbreak. And all of that uncertainty would be fine if all of the dialogue on the matter wasn’t so brazenly straightforward. Here’s a sample exchange between Baptiste and Garance, joined by Nathalie:
Baptiste: “Baptiste? Who is this Baptiste? His beloved doesn’t love him. He’s a nothing, a will-o’-the-wisp, an automaton, a bogeyman. No more Baptiste. [crosses his face out in a mirror] Here lies Baptiste. Life gave him a red flower, a good beating, a pinewood overcoat.”
Garance: “Who says I don’t love you?”
Nathalie: “I say so.”
Garance: “How would you know?”
Nathalie: “When it comes to Baptiste, I know, see, understand, feel.
Baptiste: [To Nathalie] “I forbid you!”
Nathalie: [To Baptiste] “It’s true. You have nothing to say.” [To Garance] “Of course, I don’t mean you’re lying. But I know. All the love in the world for Baptiste is mine, mine. There’s no room for others. It’s fate. It’s written. I have it all. That’s how it is.”
OK, that’s some seriously melodramatic stuff, but I have a feeling that this all sounds much better in the original French than it comes across in English. Prévert, the screenwriter, was a well-regarded poet, and even in these subtitles you get a hint of the verse-like quality of the dialogue. I think us non-French speakers lost a lot of the poetry and were left with something too simple, too trite. And that’s a pity, because there was no shortage of potential in this film. Like you, S., I am glad to have seen it, but until we learn ourselves some French I can’t see myself going back to the Boulevard of Crime.