One of the most critically and commercially successful films for France at the time has the misfortune of losing its lustre over the years. While a sufficiently entertaining sprawling melodrama telling the story of a half-dozen characters revolving around a vaudevillian-like theatre group in Paris, it fails to match the contemporary resonance like the films of Jean Vigo or Jean Renoir.
Children of Paradise (1945) dir. Marcel Carne
Starring: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Renoir,
By Alan Bacchus
The film’s lengthy 190-minute running time is split into two very digestible halves. The first half sets up the situations and conflict of the main characters, five wandering souls surrounding the Funambules theatre district situated on the ‘Boulevard du Temple’ or the ‘Boulevard of Crime’ as it's called by the characters for its attraction of undesirables. Central to everyone’s attention is Garance (Arletty), a mysterious courtesan who exerts a magnetic attraction to everyone she meets. This attraction is especially strong with four men - Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), an up-and-coming actor; Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), an aristocrat; Pierre François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a charming but nefarious thief; and Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), a soulful but shy mime.
Carne moves between the courtship and connection of each of these men with Garance while they endeavour to make a living either in the business of the theatre or in the case of Pierre Francois conspiring to steal from it.
Paradise is described extensively in the liner notes of the Criterion Blu-ray as poetic realism. This is certainly a new term for me. I’ve heard of magic realism, and even that moniker is nebulous. Poetic realism is even more confusing. Perhaps the term references the filmmaker’s desires of purely populist acceptance. It exists purely for its own sake, and for the audience to soak up and be entertained by. Like the characters in the film who perform in the staunchly working class genre of the pantomime, Children of Paradise seems to consciously separate itself from the politically conscious works of say, Jean Renoir at the time.
The film was a great success, billed in North America as the Gone with the Wind in France. Its running time surely invites comparison, but the languid and under-dramatic methods of storytelling leave much to be desired. Although there are four men in the mix, Carne divides our allegiance between two of them, Frederick the actor and Baptiste the mime. Frederick is characterized as an ambitious distrustful egomaniac, muscling his way into the Funambules, usurping Baptiste’s title as star of the show and womanizing Garance to sleep with him. All the while we see a deep, more emotional connection between the humble Baptiste and the enigmatic Garance. And yet, as the best melodramas show, it’s Frédérick who succeeds and Baptiste who fails. The forlorn romance buoys most of the second half of the film, which takes place seven years after the first half.
Unfortunately, we never feel the stress and anguish of unconsummated desire as dramatically as we should for this type of film. Maybe it’s the French who traditionally understate their feelings compared to the engrossed emotions of America’s Hollywood. But with praise from modern critics and cinema masters such as Terry Gilliam, who provide reverent words to the film in the Special Features, Children of Paradise is certainly not a film to dismiss, but rather a film one should approach with a different set of expectations.
Children of Paradise is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.