Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Children of Paradise (1945)

by on March 7, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri March 9 thru Thurs March 27 at 1:30, 4:30, 8:00 daily at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Another invaluable restoration from Janus Films, Carne’s French classic – oft-cited as one of the greatest films ever made – gets a three-week standing ovation at Film Forum.
Even François Truffaut conceded, “I have made twenty-three films. Well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made Les enfants du paradis.”

Most reviews of the 4K restoration come from across the pond, where it screened at the BFI last fall. Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

This restoration of Marcel Carné’s 1945 classic reignites a glorious flame: a rich Balzacian drama that bulges with life, with incident, with romantic idealism, while the screenplay by Jacques Prévert has a superb and surreally turned bon mot every few minutes. The scene is the early 19th-century Boulevard du Crime in Paris, thronged with popular theatres and showfolk. French star Arletty plays Garance, a woman who entrances four different men: suave stage actor Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur), chilly aristocrat Count Edouard (Louis Salou), mime artist Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and Lacenaire, a criminal adventurer played by Marcel Herrand. The fascination with Garance keeps the narrative carousel turning, and it’s as addictive as the most gripping soap opera. The writing is utterly involving; with lines like tiny, imagist poems. A rich and delicious movie treat.



David Jenkins for Time Out (London):

In this crisp restoration of Marcel Carné’s rich, literary romance from 1945 (‘France’s answer to “Gone with the Wind’!”), four men tussle for the affections of one woman, the conflicted, sphinx-like Garence (Carné regular Arletty), an ice maiden in the league of Marlene Dietrich who, in nearly every shot, has her eyes masked by a beam of light. Such ethereal, delicately cinematic touches are in otherwise short supply in a film which is content to let a dazzling, witty script (by Jacques Prévert), sumptuous set design and exceptional performers lend the fiction its lifeblood.
The year is 1840, the location Paris, and a world-class mime (Jean-Louis Barrault’s Baptiste) and a Shakespearean virtuoso (Pierre Brasseur’s Lamaître) find art imitating life and vice versa as they discover that no onstage drama can contend with the pain of reality. Prévert’s busily sculpted screenplay overflows with glorious bons mots, wry references and saucy allusions, and there’s a mad genius to the way it switches from madcap flippancy to yearning sincerity. A segment concerning Lamaître in the film’s second half has him clowning on stage, tearing up a staid stage mystery with his improvisations. Then, soon after, he’s seen watching Baptiste on stage: ‘He’s marvellous,’ he says, his honesty cutting straight to the bone. But Carné’s camera records rather than amplifies the emotions: you can’t help but wonder what magic a René Clair, a Max Ophüls or a Jean Renoir would have found in this material. Its clamorous closing shot – which suggests, but doesn’t show, tragedy – is one of the greatest in all cinema.



Philip French for the Observer:

This long, romantic recreation of life – high, low and theatrical – in 1830s Paris, newly restored, has an outstanding cast headed by Pierre Brasseur and Jean-Louis Barrault as rival actors, one a Shakespearean star, the other a brilliant mime, and Arletty a much sought-after courtesan. It was made in two parts because films produced during the German occupation had to last under 90 minutes, and the film set out to celebrate the indomitable French spirit and assert cultural pride at a point when the humiliating defeat of 1940 was being replaced by a new if dubious self-respect created by the resistance.

The film was shot at the Victorine Studio in Nice on opulent sets designed by the great Alexandre Trauner, who as a Jew was in hiding in the nearby hills from which he emerged at night to inspect his work after slipping past German troops and pro-German militia. By contrast, the glamorous Arletty had a senior German officer as her lover and lacked for nothing during the occupation. The movie’s final parting sequence, where Arletty rides away in a coach and Barrault is inexorably swept in the opposite direction by a swirling crowd, is among the peaks of romantic cinema.


Film Forum Repertory Programmmer Bruce Goldstein talks about their recent string of digital restoration screenings with Lou Lumenick for the New York Post.

Sight & Sound also pronounces:

The ‘poetic realism’ movement in French cinema hit its heights with the films director Marcel Carne made in the late 1930s and early 1940s – titles such as ‘Le Jour se lève’ and ‘Le Quai des brumes’. But it was never more sublime than in his 1945 masterpiece ‘Les Enfants du paradis’, shot during the Nazi occupation of France, but only premiered triumphantly after the Liberation. A dazzling recreation of the teeming Parisian theatre world of the 1830s and 40s, Carné’s film has never really gone away, but now, thanks to a 4K digital restoration by Pathé, its full achievements can once again be properly appreciated.

Richard Brody for The New Yorker:

Poetry with a capital “P,” sprinkled with fairy dust. Marcel Carné’s hyperdramatic romantic fresco, from 1945, of the lives and loves of actors in the populist and rowdy Paris of the early nineteenth century unleashes a crew of declaiming performers among massive and magnificent sets teeming with extras. The story, loosely based on historical characters, concerns the aging, flighty urban waif Garance (Arletty), who loves the brilliant mime Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), settles for the gifted actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), encounters the master criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), and marries the wealthy Count de Montray (Louis Salou)—all impeccable as types, like engravings come to life. The swarming city scenes, showing exultant carnival throngs and cheering theatre audiences (the title refers to the denizens of the upper balconies), have more presence than the stars’ snappy or snarled or plaintive delivery of the script’s arch, hollow aphorisms. Early plein-air sequences of stealth and seduction among terrifying crowds have an impressive energy, but the swoony paean to the theatre (which comes to life only in Lemaître’s improvised burlesque of a stuffy melodrama) yokes the cinema’s mighty mechanisms to a frilly and sentimental craftsmanship of vast diligence and slight inspiration. The show is stolen by Pierre Renoir, as the ragman Jericho, who goes by many other names, and Gaston Modot, as a wily beggar.



Scott Tobias for The Onion AV Club:

Children Of Paradise is the ultimate theater-as-life movie, rich in historical allusions past and present, a landmark production that overcame constant harassment by the Germans and stands as a key testament to the spirit of the French Resistance. But apart from mere dissertation fodder, the film remains an exemplary piece of popular entertainment, full of vibrancy and wit, with unforgettable characters and a delicate, bittersweet tone that considers their emotions in balance. Divided into two subtly differentiated parts, “The Boulevard Of Crime” and “The Man In White,” Children Of Paradise refers to the poor people sitting in the cheap seats at the Theatre des Funambules, which literally plays to the rafters with little people, acrobats, jugglers, and other lowbrow hijinks. As the film opens, two future stars are clamoring for the footlights: Jean-Louis Barrault, a gifted mime for a street sideshow, and Pierre Brasseur, a charming actor who boldly predicts that Funambules will stage serious dramas like Shakespeare with his name on the marquee. In short order, they both fall in love with the ravishing Arletty, a woman who openly accepts their passions, but not exclusively, setting off powerful tremors of jealousy and heartache. An untouchable object of desire, Arletty invites the attention of two other hapless men, one a murderous crook who would “spill torrents of blood to give [her] rivers of diamonds” (“I’d settle for less,” she retorts), and the other a mirthless count whom she marries for money. Over the course of the film, especially in its more sobering second half, these familiar smiles become a touching front for deeper feelings, either inexpressible or expressed at the wrong time. So, too, Children Of Paradise, which moves briskly and gracefully on the strength of its witty dialogue and sumptuous visuals, but has a greater emotional pull than it ever openly suggests.



Derek Davis at first proved allergic to those French mimes, but has since drastically re-evaluated this masterpiece. For The Chiseler:

The first time I saw Children of Paradise I hated it. I sat bored for two hours in the auditorium of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology watching a disconnected bunch of declamatory larruping about actors and mimes in 1830s Paris. So why on earth did I go back to see the uncut version, running over three hours? It defies justification, but I thank my peculiar instinct, because I’m a better person for it. The original version runs 190 minutes, and it builds emotionally during every minute. Despite the lavish setting, it is wholly a movie of character, detailing every form of human interaction imaginable. As a wracking document of love and obsession, it has no equal I know of.

Ah, Lacenaire is one of the most remarkable characters ever put on film. A boundless cynic with no moral base, he treats crime as a commodity, openly boasting that no one outside himself matters, no one influences his actions or limits his reach. All of humanity is open to his grasp, and he refuses pointblank to deal on any terms but his own. Challenged to a duel by Montray, he answers, “Absolutement pas!” for only he will choose the time and place to administer justice. He could easily be branded a sociopath, and yet… while perhaps fully believing his denial, he loves Garance as tormentedly as the others, and he it is who gives his life for her, stabbing Montray in a Turkish bath, then calmly waiting for arrest and the guillotine.
Is this my favorite movie of all time? Yes. Close second in the “epic” realm: Seven Samurai. I’m sure it’s hard to imagine how a three-hour movie can be the epitome of tight, cut-to-the-bone editing, but I think that’s the case with Children of Paradise.



Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Throughout this woozy 1945 masterwork, Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert seem the chart the full gamut of love’s emotional spectrum. From the beginning, Children of Paradise so thoroughly blurs the line between real life and stage drama that they become indistinguishable from one another. It’s telling that in the film’s opening glide through the Boulevard, Carné seduces the spectator with the allure of the “Naked Truth” circus act, opening its outer curtain only to reveal a bathing woman listlessly staring at her own mirrored reflection.
Prévert pays just the right amount of attention to the film’s theater-as-life paradigm, wringing complex emotions from the demands placed on the stage actor. In a film where love becomes the poetry of smiles and motion (witness the spectacular scene where Baptiste’s stage clown must glide around stage in patient pursuit of Garance’s stone statue), Baptiste’s tortured expression is all Nathalie needs to understand what transpires backstage.
Baptiste’s relationship to Garance remains achingly and breathlessly felt. She disappears like a ghostly freedom fighter only to return (“embellished by memory”) to recapture Baptiste’s heart and disappear into the symbolic masses (Prévert calls them the Gods) that populate the Boulevard of Crime. Carné’s France, unlike the fiddle-dee-dee of Victor Fleming’s cotton pickin’ South, is a poetic realist’s wonderland, a gateway to a dreamworld where human laws are mere judicial errors and love is so painful to hold onto it can only be savored in the moment.



Agnès Poirier reiterates for The Guardian:

Is Les Enfants du Paradis the greatest film ever? What had drawn me so intensely to a film made 30 years before I was born, and set in 1828? The theatre, the mimes, the puppets, the Guignol, universal emotions expressed with children’s words. The film is set on Paris’s Boulevard du Crime, today Boulevard du Temple, that fat artery linking Bastille to République, which at the time was filled with popular theatres. Every kind of performance could be found there: pantomime, puppets, acrobatics, circus, melodrama, comedy, tragedy and crime. Bourgeois filled the stalls and boxes while the penniless Gavroches sat in the gods.
This combination of a great poet’s script, a mesmerising star with a magnetic voice, true love expressed with children’s words, and its creation at such a moment in France’s history ensures Les Enfants du Paradis place in film’s greats. And Prévert shared Victor Hugo’s talent for inventing powerful-sounding names that have remained with us. Think of Quasimodo, Gavroche, Jean Valjean. Shakespeare did the same. Remember Juliet drunk on Romeo’s name: “So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.” Before the film, Garance was just the name of a flower and of a colour – rouge Garance. It is now a French woman’s name.This combination of a great poet’s script, a mesmerising star with a magnetic voice, true love expressed with children’s words, and its creation at such a moment in France’s history ensures Les Enfants du Paradis place in film’s greats. And Prévert shared Victor Hugo’s talent for inventing powerful-sounding names that have remained with us. Think of Quasimodo, Gavroche, Jean Valjean. Shakespeare did the same. Remember Juliet drunk on Romeo’s name: “So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.” Before the film, Garance was just the name of a flower and of a colour – rouge Garance. It is now a French woman’s name.


Girish Shambu for Senses of Cinema:

The sad, elusive, and sublime presence of Garance is at the very heart of this film. Richard Roud praised Arletty’s towering performance and called it “one of the greatest portraits of a woman in all of cinema (.) a performance for the ages.” Garance casually invites Frederic into her bed minutes after Baptiste professes his deep love for her. To her, love is simple, as simple as the tune of a music box (“When I want to say yes, I can’t say no”). After several years away, drawn back to the theatre by her desire to see Baptiste, the one man she truly loves, she confesses in a speech of quietly moving dignity: “I’m not sad, but not cheerful either. A little spring has broken in the music box. The music is the same but the tone is different.” A complex and tragic character, Garance’s easy devotion to the fleeting passions of love is innocent yet destructive; her flighty nature brings her a succession of moments filled with pleasure, yet the comfort of love eludes her. At the end of the film, when Baptiste runs into the carnival crowd, attempting unsuccessfully to catch up with the departing Garance, he is swallowed up by the “audience”, he is one with them, unable to be anything other than what they are. We have grown accustomed to seeing him in the privileged space of the stage, gazed upon by the admiring audience, straining forward silently in their seats. We are not ready for this fall from the rarefied spotlight of the stage to the bustling anarchy of the oppressively celebratory carnival crowd. It is a descent from artifice to reality.
The invisible membrane between theatre and life is repeatedly ruptured in the film. When Frederic mocks the melodrama he plays in (“Brigands Inn”), he throws away his lines and turns the play into an acerbic farce, improvising lines that luxuriate reflexively in condemning the solemn pretensions of the play he is mocking. He then bounds off stage and appears in one of the audience boxes, and upon pleading, returns to the stage. When Baptiste runs into a blind beggar and befriends him, he discovers when they arrive at a tavern that the man has been “acting” blind. He is assuming the character of a sightless person to improve the quality of his performance on the street of life (and improve the state of his alms!). Lacenaire the murderer is also a public scribe. He assumes the character of his client and writes a love letter from the client’s point of view. In these explorations, the film looks presciently forward to the mid-1950s theatre-as-life-as-theatre period of Renoir (Golden Coach and French Can-Can) and Ophuls’ piercing Lola Montes. Perhaps the most crushing lesson to emerge from the theatre-life dialectic by film’s end is probably this: Love and happiness are much more easily achieved in the indoor make-believe space of unreality than on the wide-open boulevard of life.



Peter Cowie in his essay for The Criterion Collection:

Although the film works perfectly well at a surface level, every character, every gesture, springs from a coded approach to contemporary history. Garance, with her stalwart commitment to liberty and the simple things of life, represents Occupied France. The count serves as a chilling paradigm for the Nazi regime, believing that his opulence can purchase anything in sight. Jéricho is the archetypal informer, flourishing in the atmosphere of confusion and mistrust of the Boulevard of Crime. The art of Baptiste, and to some extent Frédérick, seems to encapsulate a folkloric tradition that touches the people at a profound level. Lacenaire awaits what will certainly be a visit to the guillotine with a smile of malevolent gratification on his lips, after dispatching the count in a Turkish bath. At once anarchist and career criminal, he exists to undermine the established order.
Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement lies in its evocation of a vanished epoch, a “lost paradise” of Proustian proportions. The costumes and sets by Alexandre Trauner and the music of Joseph Kosma contribute to a vivid, teeming environment that enables Children of Paradise to transcend the theatrical circles in which it moves. (Both men, incidentally, had to work anonymously to conceal their Jewish origins from the authorities.)
One of the richest embodiments of romantic agony in 20th-century art, Children of Paradise still rules the seas of French cinema like some proud galleon, the ultimate exemplar of classical filmmaking, great acting, and a perfectly constructed screenplay. For many critics, it remains the finest French film ever made.


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