Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise [Criterion] — or more properly "Les Enfants du Paradis" — was something of a triumph of will over the Nazis. Filmed during the Occupation, this three-hour-plus epic swept into Paris just two months after the German retreat in 1945, demonstrating that the French film industry — and, more importantly, the French spirit — was able to create a major work of art despite the pressures of war. Said pressures included making this most-expensive French film in history — it has been called the French "Gone with the Wind" — under severe rationing, with whatever materials could be found; under the supervision of an unfriendly and suspicious government; and with the production team including an art designer and composer who were both Jews in hiding. Plus other assorted travails, including the co-star who turned out to be a collaborationist and fled before the completion of filming, forcing them to reshoot his scenes with a replacement. And yet "Children of Paradise" was an acclaimed masterpiece, both in France and abroad, and remains high on the list of the greatest films of the world cinema.
The backstory makes it a revered classic, yes; but that sort of thing means little to an audience watching a film in their living rooms 70 years later. What does matter is that "Children of Paradise" is — regardless of history — captivating and enthralling. It is not a story of the war; Carné and his screenwriter Jacques Prévert, under close watch due to political innuendo in their prior films, purposely chose a period piece. (While the events take place 120 years earlier, Garance — the central character who lives and survives by her own code — can be seen as a contemporary Parisian struggling to live under the Occupation.)
This is a historical romance of sorts, featuring not a love triangle but what we might call a love pentagon. The aforementioned Garance is the woman in the case, something of a courtesan — or, rather, a woman living by her wit and charm. She is simultaneously drawn into the lives of a soon-to-be famous actor, a soon-to-be legendary mime, a soon-to-be infamous criminal and an already famous Count. These four are not fictional, as it turns out; all were celebrated in their day although the Count is given a different name, and the mime (Baptiste Deburau) and actor (Frederick LeMaître) retained their fame into the 20th century.
The project originated, in fact, when actor Jean-Louis Barrault suggested to Carné that they make a film about Deburau. While the director soon decided against making a biography, he was fascinated by the milieu of the so-called "Boulevard of Crime" — actually the Boulevard du Temple — which was the Broadway of its time, circa 1827. Let it be added that Barrault's idea about a mime forced to speak for himself was sparked as he watched the silent clown Charlie Chaplin "speak" in his 1940 classic, "The Great Dictator."
Mention of Chaplin's genius focuses our attention on Barrault, a famous French stage actor/director who at the time was a member of the Comédie Française. The performance here is astounding; from his first scene, as a wispy scarecrow of a mime with a forlorn face to his several traditional mime scenes, as Pierrot — to his non-whiteface scenes as a hypersensitive romantic — Barrault is truly mesmerizing. He is almost matched by Arletty, as his impossibly-idolized Garance. Pierre Brasseur plays the actor Lemaître with an overlay of jambon masking his inner-emptiness; as the intermingled affairs play out, he discovers jealousy and thus undertakes Othello, resulting in a masterful full-company scene where Baptiste and Garance are unmasked, as it were. Marcel Herrand is the villain, Louis Salou is the Count, and Maria Casarès is the other woman in this complicated tale. Add to this Pierre Renoir — elder son of the painter Auguste, brother to director Jean — as the mysterious ragman Jéricho, who stepped in late in the filming to replace the fleeing rat.
Speaking of rats, there is a wickedly funny portrait of a playwright — three playwrights, in fact, who sit around in their starched shirts like stuffed dindons. But the whole thing is a delicious backstage story, with many scenes overstuffed with actors, acrobats, dancers, stagehands, and more. But for all the splendors, visual, musical and more, I keep coming back to that astounding performance by Barrault as Baptiste. Magic.
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