My Hall Of Fame
Les Enfants du Paradis, more commonly known as Children Of Paradise (1945), is a French romance film directed by Marcel Carne. It was an instant success upon its release and is still considered to be one of the greatest French films of all time. Children Of Paradise was called, “The French answer to Gone With The Wind”. Although in America many would scoff at such a statement, when you watch this film there is an enormously grandiose feeling to the production, as well as an intense romantic story hiding beneath the surface that does seem quite reminiscent to other American epics, including Gone With The Wind. It became part of the Criterion Collection about ten years ago, but recently it was released again, this time on Blu-ray, from a newly restored restoration of the film. I am sure it hasn’t looked this good since it’s initial release 67 years ago. (And maybe not even then.)
Children Of Paradise is the story of a courtesan, Garance (Arletty), and the four men who love her and would give anything to receive her love in return. It is the 1820’s or 1830’s, set among the Parisian theater scene. A mime, Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), falls in love at first sight on the street. He saves her from being arrested after she is accused of stealing a watch. The watch was actually stolen by Garance’s “acquaintance” and admirer, Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), who survives through his life of crime as a thief and murderer. He loves Garance, as he loves any unobtainable object. This same morning, Garance meets an aspiring actor named Frederick (Pierre Brasseur). They flirt in the street, but soon after part ways.
Baptiste and Frederick begin working on the stage together with great success, and Baptiste even arranges for Frederick to rent a room in the same building that he lives in. Later that night Baptiste sees Garance in a tavern with Pierre-Francois and he takes her away from this life in order to include her in his. Garance goes with him, but is surprised that Baptiste is looking to help her and not just have sex with her. Baptiste gets her a room as well, and sitting on her bed in the moonlight he professes his love for her. She doesn’t return his love, but does offer her body to him. Embarrassed, Baptiste storms off to his room for the night. After he leaves, Frederick hears Garance singing and he engages her in a conversation. Frederick quickly admits the attraction and wanting that he feels for her, and she offers her body to him as well. Frederick accepts without hesitation.
Baptiste continues to love Garance from afar, and even gives her a part in his new pantomime, putting her on a pedestal, high above all others. When he discovers that she and Frederick are involved together he is distraught and is unable to perform on the stage. Another performer that Baptiste has known for years is a girl named Nathalie (Maria Casares). She has been in love with Baptiste for years and wants nothing more than to be with him forever. When Baptiste is distressed, Nathalie is the only one who seems to understand his pain.
While Garance has been on stage, Cornte Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou) sees her and also falls for her beauty. He goes to see her back stage and he offers her anything to come and be his mistress. She refuses, but the Cornte leaves her his card and says that if she ever needs any help he will always be available to her. Soon after she is once again accused of a crime committed by her old friend Pierre-Francois, and in order to stay out of trouble she calls upon the Cornte for help.
The second half of the movie takes place many years later, and all of our main characters have drifted apart. Due to timely circumstances, they will all be brought together and forced to confront their true feelings and desires for each other. Although everyone has moved on in their respective ways, when they come face to face again they have evolved and are now ready to fight for what the want.
When watching Children Of Paradise, one can’t help but marvel at the grandness of a movie of this magnitude, filmed during the Occupation. This film had everything working against it from the start. The Nazi’s wouldn’t allow any movie to run more than 90 minutes, so Carne filmed Children Of Paradise as two 90 minutes movies that go together. (At some point later an additional ten minutes was added as well.) The sets are absolutely enormous, reaching over a quarter of a mile in length. There were extensive repairs needed due to the weather, and at one point whole sections had to be transported to another location. The extras were an intriguing combination of French resistance fighters in need of “cover” work during the day, as well as Vichy sympathizers who were placed on the set. Set designer Alexander Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma were both Jewish, and were being hunted, but they still chose to work on this film in complete secrecy.
The story, although it may seem complex, is really a very basic love story. Everyone thinks they love Garance and they want her for themselves. Garance is unable to love anyone, and is therefore doomed to forever create pain and suffering for all those around her. She is a goddess that is unequal to the world, and just like the pedestal Baptiste puts her on in his pantomime, she looks down on everyone beneath her. She always seems to have a smile on her face, even when things seem darkest for her. She has resigned herself to living this way and since she sees no way out, she enjoys every moment the best that she can. The pain she produces for others doesn’t even seem to bother her. If they choose to leave that would be fine, and if everyone decides to share her that is all right with her as well. The only thing she can’t seem to do is bring herself to love someone in return. Arletty does a magnificent job as this sought after creation. Her performance stands out as one of the most memorable in French cinema history.
Her “men” all give wonderful performances as well. The Cornte and Pierre-Francois are smaller roles, but nonetheless important and well acted. Pierre Brasseur is both brilliant and hysterical as Frederick. He is by far the most comical character of the story, and he plays the part beautifully. He was the least in love with Garance of the men, and this makes him the only character that can afford to not be openly jealous of Garance and her confidant.
The character of Baptiste could be one of the greatest characters ever on the screen. He is a mime that performs night after night without saying a word, getting laughs from the audience even though a smile never appears on his face. He is filled with pain, but laughed at by all around him, and for the complex character, Jean-Louis gives a truly great performance. The pain he shows on the stage is heartbreaking and emotional. Many times, with no words at all, the face of this mime can convey the feelings of a man better than several pages of dialogue.
I have never been a pantomime fan, but the scenes of Baptiste on stage are poetically beautiful. It is truly an art, and luckily Barrault had a wonderful teacher to help him prepare. Etienne Decroux was a mime that taught Barrault for this role, as well as being the teacher of the great Marcel Marceau. He also took on the role of Baptisite’s father in the film.
I feel that I could continue to talk about this movie forever. It has quickly become one of my favorites, and I wish to continue spreading it to others who have not had the opportunity to see it yet. The Criterion Collection has done a magnificent job making it available for everyone to see, and I think to miss out on the film would not only be an injustice to yourself, but to the history of film as well.