Children of Paradise
Directed by Marcel Carne (1945, France)
“Jealousy belongs to all when a woman belongs to none.”
Children of Paradise ranks with Beauty and the Beast (1946) and The Rules of the Game (1939) as a contender for the finest French film from the first half of the Twentieth Century. As good as the film is, the story of its production is more compelling that the film itself. Shot in France for 18 months between 1944 and 1945, the production had to deal with moving the entire set between Paris and Nice, collaborators and spies imbedded by the Nazis, a Jewish set designer and a Jewish composer working in secret, and the logistics of acting as a cover for French Resistance fighters. Overall it is remarkable that this film exists at all. Since its premiere in Paris shortly after the liberation of France by Allied forces, it is said that it is playing somewhere in Paris every day of the year.
Children of Paradise, at its base, is a story about four men who are obsessed with one woman. The backdrop is the Paris theater and carnival scene circa 1820-1830. The four men, the idealistic yet selfish mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), the dangerous yet honorable criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the flamboyant yet kind actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), and the staid yet remorseless Count de Montray (Louis Salou) are based on historical figures from that era. However, the actors who play them use the historical template to create enduring archetypes that one can still see in films today.
The object of their pursuit, Garance, played by French screen legend Arletty, drives all of these men into borderline madness, and each of the men has a different reaction to those feelings. Frederick at least uses his jealously to take his acting to new heights, while the other three men are driven to murder and betrayal. While the melodrama may be a bit of a hurdle to modern viewers, the story is still alluring and bizarrely beautiful.
As one of the pinnacles of the pre-New Wave French style of filmmaking known as Poetic Realism, one can see how Children of Paradise could have inspired the men like Godard and Truffaut to take French film in a new and groundbreaking direction. Children of Paradise, despite its penchant for melodrama and its staged, theatrical scenes, is one of the pinnacles of Poetic Realism. Add to this the fact that it was created under seemingly impossible circumstances, and it stands astride pre-New Wave French cinema as a colossus. Where else could French cinema go after Children of Paradise, if not to someplace entirely different?
(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe