CINEMA DREAMS of its ancestors in Children of Paradise. Resurrecting the Paris theater world just before the birth of photography, the film finds a society already ruled by the gaze. There are no screens, yet everyone is watching and being watched, moving through a labyrinth of masks and mirrors. At once a magnificent spectacle and a complex study of glances, gestures, and confrontations, Children of Paradise reveals theater as the underlying pattern of life.
At the heart of the film lie enchanting reproductions of stage pantomimes, depicting an ideal communion between performers and spectators: the artist speaking in silence and the audience hearing every word. Off-stage, this reciprocal bliss gives way to frustrated relationships between people absorbed in their own performances to the point of solipsism or consumed by desire and envy as they watch others perform. For all the romantic yearning between men and women, intimacy is fleeting; in the end there are only isolated individuals, and the crowd.
The film’s title refers to the raucous poor who crowd into “paradis” (what in English is known as “the gods”), the cheap nosebleed theater seats. The term has an obvious irony, but the film suggests not only that the unself-conscious, noisily enthusiastic proletarians enjoy themselves more than the bored rich in private box seats, but that spectatorship is an earthly heaven. This idyllic vision remains potent and exhilarating even though the film persistently undermines the kind of satisfying dramatic experience for which people go to the theater.
Promotional still for the original release of the film.
Among the most ambitious and perfectly realized of all films, Children of Paradise is known as the quintessential example of classical, “Golden Age” French filmmaking, the tradition that was assailed as stodgy and artificial by the rebels of the New Wave. With its monumental scope, artful construction, burnished craft, and richly detailed period setting, the film leads you to expect conventional storytelling: a coherent dramatic arc leading to a definite resolution. Instead, the comforting, curtain-goes-up credits lure the viewer into a world that is haunted by incompleteness and lack of fulfillment. André Bazin praised the film’s “elliptical elegance,” but the dissolves and lacunae create a strange unease: as if life were really structured like a play or a film, as a series of discontinuous scenes fading out before reaching a conclusion. It’s a film that gives abundant pleasure, but also a sense of grasping for something that’s just out of reach.
Long seen in scratched and blurry prints, Children of Paradise has undergone painstaking digital restoration and reemerged in ravishing DCP, every image sharp and glistening as a knife (playing at Film Forum, March 9-27). The opening scene plunges us into the thick of a seemingly infinite crowd, an overwhelming riot of visual delight. Masses throng the streets, fill the tiers of the theaters, mill in lobbies, jostle on dance floors. The camera tunnels through busy, cluttered spaces, and the foreground of many shots is occupied by large, slightly blurred objects or people, so it’s as if you’re peering over the shoulders of fellow audience members to see the action. But the lavish fullness of the film’s surface disguises the sense of loss at its heart. The intricate plot pivots on something that fails to happen: the night that a man does not spend with the woman he loves, a source of inconsolable regret. Francois Truffaut, who despite his youthful criticism of director Marcel Carné eventually admitted that he would trade all of his own films to have made Children of Paradise, identified its true theme with Proust’s: the search for lost time.
SETTING THE SCENE
Children of Paradise sprang from a seed fertilized by theater and cinema, history and memory. Its conception was a chance encounter between Carné and the actor/mime Jean-Louis Barrault, who spoke of his fascination with the legendary 19th-century mime Jean-Gaspard Deburau. He recounted how one day on the streets of Paris Deburau was insulted by a drunkard, and in a rage struck the man with his cane, killing him. When he was put on trial (he was ultimately acquitted) the courtroom was mobbed by people eager to hear the famous mime speak. This anecdote reminded Barrault of how he himself had rushed to the cinema to hear Chaplin’s voice in his first sound film, and he suggested that a film about Deburau and his contemporary, the actor Frédérick Lemaître, could explore the relationship between silent and verbal performance. Carné’s collaborator, the screenwriter Jacques Prévert, took the idea in a different direction and added a third historical figure, Pierre-François Lacenaire, an intellectual, dandy, and murderer. Prévert’s script drew on but freely altered history, interweaving the story of the three men and the fictional woman they all love, Garance (Arletty), with the stock characters of Commedia del’Arte pantomimes and the plot of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Another historical strand is woven invisibly into the film. It was made in 1944 during the Nazi occupation of France, which added complications of all kinds to the production. Two of the main creators — Alexandre Trauner, who designed the stupendous sets, and Joseph Kosma, who wrote the full-blooded music — were Jewish and had to work clandestinely with other artists fronting for them. It took three months to build the massive, elaborate set depicting the Boulevard du Temple at the Victorine Studios in Nice, and after three days of filming there the Nazis, shaken by the American landing in Sicily, ordered the company to return to Paris. For months the production appeared doomed, and while it was eventually allowed to continue, obstacles and difficulties abounded. Night filming was not allowed on the outdoor sets; building materials had to be bought on the black market; film stock was scarce; electricity was intermittent.
The Boulevard du Temple.
Carné struggled against the Nazis’ insistence that he hire extras from collaborationist unions. A production manager who was a leader in the Resistance fled from the Gestapo in the middle of filming. Robert Le Vigan, the actor originally cast as Jericho, the ragman and informer, was an ardent Nazi sympathizer and fled the country when German defeat appeared imminent. (He was replaced by Pierre Renoir, brother of Jean.) Carné, who pushed the production through and resisted compromise on any front, was described by all who worked with him as a tyrant and a spendthrift. His casting agent, Margot Capelier, said succinctly, “Talent is a sickness; Carné suffered from a massive case of it.”
Carné also slowed up the production and release of the film in the hopes that it could be released after France’s liberation — as it was, on March 9, 1945, with the two “clandestine” contributors, Trauner and Kosma, receiving special credits. Children of Paradise never alludes obviously to the Occupation, though many writers have pointed to the freedom-loving Garance, who preserves her private integrity even as a kept woman, as a symbol of France. The film’s re-creation of a lost Paris and an era of French cultural glory had unmistakable significance following the nation’s defeat. It is, in this sense, a masterpiece of time regained, evoking the 19th century not only through sets and costumes but through poetically resonant images and diffuse yet atmospheric lighting that summon early photographs and theatrical prints. The film has an engraved quality, but also seethes with restless life.
The Boulevard du Temple (nicknamed the “boulevard of crime”) is the spine of the film: a street of theaters and also a street that is a theater. The crowd is a moving audience that flows around the sidewalk performers. A strong-man hefts a barbell, a monkey walks on stilts, girls in short skirts throw their legs up in a cancan. A man balanced on a slack rope wittily advertises the Theatre des Funambules (a “funambulist” is a tightrope walker; the real theater was so called because it presented acrobats as well as pantomimes). Inside, the Funambules is as lively as the street; the backstage is crowded with jugglers and tumblers and dwarfs, actors dressed as Indian braves, African tribesmen and birds; a fat bearded lady doing the splits. There is no border between on and off-stage; disguise, performance and personal display suffuse all of life.
Garance, who knows that audiences are “not very complicated,” makes her living simply by allowing men to look at her. When we first see her, she is working in a carnival attraction, enticingly described by the barker as “Naked Truth.” The men who enter the tent are disappointed to find her seated in a round bath with water covering her breasts, revolving as she holds a frozen pose, looking at herself impassively in a hand mirror. Wearing a headdress of flowers, she is an allegorical figure of Beauty, and each man responds in his own way to her power: idealizing her (Baptiste, the Deburau character), lusting after her (Frédérick), weaving her into his personal mythology (Lacenaire), or viewing her as a prize possession (the Count). In the film’s brilliantly crafted, overture-like opening sequence, she encounters the first three in turn, touching off a different trajectory with each one.
Though she is introduced as the object of men’s gazes and fantasies, Garance has a mind of her own. Her independence and frank pursuit of her own pleasures torment all of her lovers. Realistic, down-to-earth, she is by far the most likable character in the film, deliciously undercutting the men’s flowery, long-winded protestations with her dry, deflating wit. When Lacenaire announces, “I’d spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamonds,” she shrugs, “I’d settle for less.” While the ambitious men dream of great destinies or vocations, she is content to be as she is, and do as she pleases. At 46, Arletty was no dewy maiden; her appeal lies instead in her air of infinite experience. Her statuesque bearing, enigmatic deadpan, and unexpectedly open smile make her irresistible fascination credible. The illegitimate daughter of a laundress who makes her way as a model, actress and courtesan, Garance has the clear-eyed sense of humor and world-weary pragmatism instilled by a tough life.
Pierre Brasseur as Frederick and Maria Casares as Nathalie.
Like her, Baptiste (Barrault) is first seen as an immobile object. Dressed in the floppy white costume of a Pierrot, he is slumped like an abandoned puppet on the stage outside the Funambules, lifeless except for the melancholy, watchful eyes looking out of his painted face. He comes to life when Garance, in the crowd of spectators, is accused of stealing a man’s watch, and he vindicates her by acting out in pantomime the crime that he witnessed. It is a marvelously embellished comic performance, as he impersonates the fat, self-satisfied victim and the sneaky, sticky-fingered thief. He also becomes Garance, a first instance of the androgyny and role-reversal that color their relationship, Baptiste’s feminine delicacy and sensitivity contrasting with Garance’s more masculine boldness. He begins his pantomime by outlining her gaze: throughout the film, it is Garance who watches Baptiste, another inversion of the expected.
There is a lot of Chaplin in Barrault’s performance, not only in the staged pantomimes where he blends broad humor with plaintive lyricism and streaks of cruelty. The spirit of Chaplin is also present in a moment of triumph, when Baptiste is thrown through the window of a rough dance hall and strolls back in a perfectly timed moment later, casually brushing himself off, stopping to daintily return the flower to his buttonhole before stunning the crowd by felling his attacker with a surprise karate-kick. The slight, graceful Barrault, with his fine-drawn features and look of adolescent yearning, is enchanting in these early scenes. Baptiste takes long walks through back streets at night, “to look,” as he tells Fil de Soie (Gaston Modot), a petty criminal who poses as a blind beggar. A guide into the underworld, Fil de Soie takes him to the Rouge-Gorge (“The Red-Breast”), a tavern and dancehall named for a former proprietor who had his throat slit behind the bar. Baptiste’s encounter with the bully there summarizes his life as an outcast, disowned by a father who says he fell from the moon. Dreams are his escape and the source of his strength. Even when people tried to jolt him awake, he says, “my sleep was heavier than their blows.”
Garance is touched by Baptiste’s naïve adoration, but his idealism sabotages their budding romance. When he gets a room for her after they’re caught in a rainstorm, he turns away in virginal embarrassment as she calmly undoes her bodice. Wearing a blanket like a sari, she is frank in her carnal invitation, but he wants her to share his pure, poetic love, and draws back in confusion. Her expression as he flees the room is priceless: a tiny, startled yet bemused shrug. When she discovers that Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur), who flirted with her earlier in the street, is staying in the next room (such chance encounters are the structuring mechanism of the plot, part of the film’s unabashed artifice), she promptly takes him into her bed instead.
Baptiste turns this romantic failure into his first artistic success, a pantomime called “The Palace of Illusions.” Making literal his misguided idealization of Garance, he casts her as a statue on a pedestal. Like the real Deburau, Baptiste develops the stock character of Pierrot from a rustic buffoon to the poetic, lovesick and moonstruck dreamer beloved of the Romantics and the Symbolists. Here he is smitten with the statue, not realizing that it is inanimate; and while he sleeps, Harlequin brings her to life and elopes with her. The cocky, playful, invulnerable Harlequin is Frédérick Lemaître’s role on-stage and off. Brash, self-aggrandizing, quicksilver, Frédérick has no core to his identity. As Lacenaire says of him, “Actors aren’t people. They’re every man and no man.” When he is on stage, Frédérick admits, he is “madly in love,” and gives his love to the audience, feeling their hearts beat as one with his. Off-stage he is shallow, his ceaseless torrent of words forming a smokescreen rather than a window into his feelings. Joking and punning, he turns drama into farce, his own hamming into spoof. He’s incapable of deep feeling, so that when he finally experiences jealousy, both of Baptiste’s artistic genius and of Garance’s love for him, Frédérick is pleased, because for the first time he feels ready to play Othello.
Pierre Brasseur as Frédérick, as Othello.
Children of Paradise was made in two parts (“The Boulevard of Crime” and “The Man in White”) because of wartime restrictions on the lengths of films, though it was always conceived as one work. But the parts are quite different in tone, as the gaiety, quick pace and overflowing mise-en-scène of the first half transitions to a more somber, static and emptied-out second half. After the pivotal night when Baptiste fails to claim Garance, the sense of innocence and possibility in the opening section gives way to a darker mood. Baptiste changes most drastically, his ethereal charm vanishing as he wallows in bitterness. His morose self-pity is adolescent, yet true to the hypersensitive, disappointed idealist for whom suffering is an artistic inspiration. In a savage tantrum, he slashes at flowers Garance has received from a rich admirer, and paints an X over his face in a mirror to annihilate himself. On-stage, meanwhile, his art grows ever more sophisticated.
By the second half of the film, the characters have achieved fame, success and wealth, but have become fixed in stifling positions. Baptiste is trapped by domestic life in his marriage to Nathalie (Maria Casarès), an actress who has aggressively pursued him from the start. She accepts his profound self-absorption, comparing him to a sleepwalker whom it is dangerous to wake. Frédérick’s boredom with his great celebrity is revealed in his mockery of the bad play he has to appear in and his jaded pawing of two theatrical groupies. Garance, threatened by another false accusation of crime, takes refuge with the haughty, effete Count de Montray (Louis Salou), becoming an art object entombed in his vast, silent house. She loses the laughter that was her lifeline, and discovers that she truly loves Baptiste only once they are separated.
Despite their interwoven relationships, all of the main characters are isolated, incapable of sustained intimacy, and all of the men seek a definitive performance of the self. Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), who stands aloof from erotic entanglements, voices the radical alienation that lurks in the others. A self-proclaimed outcast with a superiority complex, he desires total self-sufficiency (“To love no one. To be alone. To be loved by no one. To be free”), and makes crime his art. The real Lacenaire was an inspiration for Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but the dandified figure in the movie, with his curls, ruffled shirt and pencil mustache, is an amoral aesthete who commits a motiveless murder as an act of pure self-will.
In their first scene together, Garance tells Lacenaire that visiting him is like going to the theater. When Lacenaire drops in on Frédérick to demand money, the actor laughs, “It’s like a scene from a play!” In Lacenaire’s mind, all of the others are characters in a drama of his own devising: “A comedy, a farce. Or a tragedy, if you prefer. There’s no difference.” When Garance and Baptiste are finally reunited, alone on a balcony outside a crowded theater lobby, they share a transcendent romantic moment, but then the camera turns aside to reveal Lacenaire watching them with a look of calculating satisfaction. With a theatrical flourish, he draws aside a curtain to reveal them to the Count and Frédérick, who discover that they each have cause to be jealous, and calmly decide to duel, an absurdity that plays into Lacenaire’s farce.
His final scene is staged in the elegant setting of the Moorish baths, where men in robes and caftans lounge in picturesque poses amid the arches and tiled pools. A play is nothing without an audience, so he brings along a witness — his sidekick, the doltish and mostly mute Avril, who wears a rosebud behind his ear. We see the murder Lacenaire commits only through Avril’s queasy, fascinated reaction. Calmly prepared for his arrest and execution, Lacenaire announces, “The play is over.”
Garance and Laenaire (Marcel Herrand).
This is the only strand of the plot that reaches any definite conclusion. Frédérick disappears from the film without any climactic development, presumably to continue his life as before. Baptiste and Garance finally share one perfect night together, returning to the same room as the first night and savoring the fantasy of recovering lost time. “Everything is the same, nothing has changed,” Garance says wonderingly, looking around the room flooded with moonlight. (The lighting here remarkably captures the bleaching pallor of moonlight, its unreal radiance.) Baptiste, taking the initiative this time, echoes her motto, “Love is so simple,” but this is the falsest illusion of all.
Their intimacy again becomes a public display the next morning, when Nathalie walks in on them. It’s a stock set-up, but the exchange that follows is piercing and unforgettable. Nathalie clings to the fact that she has lived with Baptiste for six years, sharing his everyday life, but Garance responds that she, too, was with him every day: “All the nights I spent at another’s side, I was with him.” Presence and absence, physical nearness and emotional separation, the body’s confinement and the mind’s freedom to travel, all are evoked in these simple yet staggering words. Nathalie has been denied sympathy throughout the film, because her love seems hectoring and monomaniacal. When she sends her chubby, curly-headed son to tell Garance that their family is happy, it’s a grossly manipulative, tacky move. But it’s impossible not to feel for Nathalie when she begs Baptiste to tell her whether he was really thinking of another all the time they were together. Leaving her flat and ignoring his child to run after Garance, Baptiste reveals the cruelty inherent in his total absorption in his own desires.
These final scenes are set amid a carnival day: a sea of people froths through the streets in the bright winter sun, feathered and painted and costumed, bouncing along under confetti that swirls in the air like glittering snow. A symphony in black and white, the spectacle is also oddly chilling; the carnival crowds are oblivious to the suffering of the lovers. The crowd is filled with Pierrots, rows of them holding hands and dancing, a mocking multiplication of Baptiste as he struggles through the crowd to catch Garance. She sits alone in her carriage, still as a statue. Baptiste flounders as he is crushed and submerged by the revelers, like Orpheus by the Maenads. This final shot of a man flailing as he is swallowed up by the crowd, drowning in his fellow men, echoes the opening shot of the tightrope walker floating above the heads of the crowd, and reveals the pessimistic arc of this buoyant and gorgeous film. Prévert’s screenplay originally ended with Baptiste killing Jericho, the ragman, who collars him in the crowd and condemns him for his betrayal of Nathalie. The writer envisioned a third part of the film, which would focus on the trials of Baptiste and Lacenaire. Instead, the end comes with no resolution, in a storm of uncertainty. The play is not over.
Jericho is the first character to emerge from the crowd in the opening scene. With his trumpet and his patter, his endless recital of his many aliases, he is another performer of himself, but one universally reviled by his audience. He is a scavenger, a collector and disseminator of goods and information: he takes stolen silverware from Lacenaire and provides props for the theater; he tells fortunes, interprets dreams, and informs on criminals, we are told. Jericho weaves in and out of the movie, connecting different scenes and characters like the “silk thread” for which Fil de Soie is named. Grimy and physically repulsive, Jericho mawkishly complains that no one has ever loved him, and he embodies the loneliness of a man who exists only in relation to the crowd, never in relation to other individuals. In this film, people are almost never physically alone, yet everyone is giving a solitary performance, like an actor on an empty stage.
The Palace of Illusions.
THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS: THEATER AND MODERN LIFE
Five stage performances are woven into the film, and all are fragmentary, cut off before they reach the end. All revelations are partial, like our first view of Garance. Most strikingly, the curtain falls on Frédérick as Othello strangling Desdemona, without her exoneration, or Othello’s remorse and suicide. Ironically, the Count, who is obsessively jealous of Garance and has killed at least one man who flirted with her, finds the play’s raw passion crude and sneers that Shakespeare was an uncouth working-class upstart whose plays are fit only for the lower orders. This not only accentuates the film’s populist undercurrent (“Not only are you rich, you want to be loved as if you were poor,” Garance tells the Count) but points up the passionless nature of the Count’s jealousy; he really cares only for his image and reputation.
Though Frédérick performs in grander theaters, his art is middlebrow compared with that of Baptiste, who takes the lowly form of pantomime (seen in its primitive silliness in the first stage performance we see, “Dangers of the Virgin Forest”) and elevates it to a mature art — much as Keaton and Chaplin did with slapstick comedy (Prévert adored Keaton). We see two of Baptiste’s pantomimes, and they recreate authentic 19th-century theatrical works while also summoning early silent films with their naïve yet bewitching special effects.
In the first pantomime, “The Palace of Illusions,” Baptiste’s Pierrot enters with a butterfly net, capering airily, but after he has lost his beloved to Harlequin he plunges into melancholy and decides to hang himself. The black, self-lacerating humor of this sequence is unexpected, as Pierrot’s suicide is interrupted by a little girl who takes his cord to skip rope with, and by a washerwoman who uses it as a clothesline.
In “The Old Clothes Man,” Baptiste’s second pantomime, his art reaches its zenith, with an elegant use of set design, lighting and shadows, while pushing his Pierrot to the most disturbing extreme of malice and selfishness. He longs to attend a ball and dance with an aristocratic lady, but is barred because he’s not properly dressed. With no money to buy clothes, he murders a ragman — obviously modeled on Jericho — and steals a suit. As Garance, who watches the show night after night, wonders, “He is gentleness itself, how can he look so cruel?”
It is the fierceness within the slender, soulful figure; the blend of broad clowning and delicate poetry, that makes Baptiste a riveting performer. His mime is oversized, to be seen from “paradise,” and enhanced by his voluminous, flowing blouse, chalk-white face and severe black skull-cap. But it is also subtle, especially the gestures of his expressively beautiful hands, which in a recurrent motif reach out in balletic yearning, then drift down in the softest of dying falls. The images from these pantomimes, at once formal and vivacious, drawing on the familiar, stylized iconography of the Commedia del’Arte, imprint themselves with uncommon power on the eye and mind.
These stage performances are filmed in frontal wide shots that convey the viewpoint of a theater audience, but also with camera movements and angles that create a fluid connection between stage space, backstage, and audience. Baptiste looks over Nathalie’s shoulder in the middle of a scene and sees Garance and Frédérick flirting in the wings. His face, under the mask of dead white powder, painted brows and lips, hardens into a look of such bitter, desperate hate that Nathalie panics and cries out his name. Speaking onstage is taboo, and she is fined three francs by the stage manager; the uncontrollable eruption of feeling jars the carefully contained artifice of the performance. Later, Baptiste similarly breaks the illusion, albeit mutely, when he runs offstage in the midst of a scene, having just been told that Garance is in the theater.
Barrault’s original inspiration, the story of the crowds who came to hear Deburau’s voice at his trial, never became part of Children of Paradise, but the relationship between speech and silence remains embedded in the movie. Frédérick yearns to escape the enforced muteness of pantomime, crying out that he is “dying of silence, as others die of hunger and thirst.” He has an insatiable need to hear his own voice, to pour out words into listening ears. Garance is wearied by his loquacity, and wistfully imagines people who make love without speaking. But she can’t control her own voice any more than Nathalie: she says Baptiste’s name in her sleep, Frédérick tells her. His jealousy isn’t roused by this, but it is by Baptiste’s silent artistry. Despite his own fame as an actor, Frédérick is baffled and envious of how much the mime can express without saying a word.
Speech and silence, motion and stillness, watching and acting create the tension at the film’s heart. Everyone is caught between the two, in a state of incompleteness and unrequited longing. Children of Paradise is one of the essential statements of modernity as a condition of separation — the disconnection and isolation that make spectatorship such a central part of modern life. Lost time can’t be recovered, but its intangible glimmer on a screen holds our eyes fast.
Imogen Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.
Children of Paradise is playing at Film Forum, Mar 9-Mar 27.