|Pick of the Week:|
Reviewed by Ivana Redwine
I rarely use the word "sublime," but that's the word I think best describes the 1945 French-language classic drama "Les Enfants du paradis," which is called "Children of Paradise" in English. This is a big-budget movie that uses a poetic, lyrical style to tell a story that is immediately accessible to almost any first-time viewer, yet has great resonance for the cinephile who watches the film repeatedly. When I saw this great movie recently on the Criterion Collection two-disc DVD set, I was amazed at the high quality of the picture, and the sound quality is reasonably good as well. Also, the DVD set comes with an impressive collection of special features.
"Children of Paradise" is set in 19th century Paris, centering around a street nicknamed the "Boulevard of Crime" because of the crime melodramas that are presented on the stages of the theaters there. Street entertainers along the Boulevard of Crime attract thronging crowds, and barkers try to entice passers-by to pay to see sideshows. The first hour or so of the movie chronicles one fateful day on the bustling street when the paths of the story's four major characters cross. Three of the four characters are men based loosely on historical figures: Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a struggling mime; Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur), an aspiring actor; and Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a petty criminal who is also a writer. The lives of these three male characters are linked through their respective relationships with the film's fourth major character--who is completely fictional--a free-spirited woman named Garance (Arletty) who lives off her good looks and skills as a courtesan.
At three hours and ten minutes, "Children of Paradise" is a long movie, and in its theatrical release it was divided into two parts. This division is maintained on the DVD set with Part One on Disc One and Part Two on Disc Two. Part One takes place in about 1828 and shows Lemaitre, Baptiste, and Garance all getting jobs on the stage at a small theater. Garance offers herself to Baptiste, but his shyness prevents him from accepting, and she soon begins living with Lemaitre. Meanwhile, Lacenaire decides it's time to go beyond petty crime, and he attempts to murder a bill collector and steal the cash he has collected. When the police falsely accuse Garance of being an accessory to Lacenaire's attempted murder, her only way out of trouble is to become the mistress of the wealthy Count de Montray.
Part One of "Children of Paradise" is entertaining, but it's Part Two of the movie that really stirs my emotions. Several years elapse between the end of Part One and the beginning of Part Two, and over that period of years the lives of the four major characters have changed considerably. Garance lives in luxury with the count; Baptiste has become a renowned mime and has married and has a son; Lemaitre has become a well-paid stage actor who is something of a womanizer; and Lacenaire resurfaces after having spent time in the provinces and in prison. When the paths of these four characters again cross, the result is a volatile mix of love, jealousy, and heartbreak that leads to murder and bittersweet love-making.
One of the things I like best about "Children of Paradise" is that it shows parts of several theatrical performances. Most of these are comic and/or touching, but at least one is downright disturbing: During a mime show, Baptiste's immortal character Pierrot murders a ragman just to get a suit of clothes. All of the theatrical performances are carefully designed to reinforce the overarching theme of the movie, which seems to me to be romantic love, although this theme is not treated in a simpleminded Hollywood way--"Children of Paradise" is a complex work that is open to more than one interpretation. The best brief description of this richly textured movie I've seen is the one written by the late Pauline Kael where she called it "a film poem on the nature and varieties of love--sacred and profane, selfless and possessive."
"Children of Paradise" was made in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, and this aspect of the movie is addressed on the DVDs in the commentaries and in the booklet that comes packaged with the DVDs. Director Marcel Carne chose to use Jews for some of the work on the film, but this had to be done clandestinely. Carne also relates a heartrending story about an incident where someone working on the movie who was a member of the Resistance wound up being turned over to the Gestapo. Another interesting tale involves the Nazi collaborator who was playing the ragman--he disappeared when it became clear the Germans were losing the war and giving up the Occupation. The scenes involving the ragman were reshot with Pierre Renoir, son of the impressionist painter and brother of filmmaker Jean Renoir, in the role. And finally, there's the intriguing information that Arletty, the top-billed star in the movie, had an affair with a German military officer during the Occupation.
I found both audio essays by film scholars on the DVDs to be well worth my time, and I also enjoyed seeing the production design sketches by Alexandre Trauner. I also recommend reading the essay by film historian Peter Cowie in the booklet that comes packaged with the DVDs, as well as the excerpts from an interview with Carne. There are some other good special features on the DVDs, and I've listed them below.
Special Features on the DVDs:
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