“What was serious was when critics followed suit. But then they became afraid of appearing old-fashioned by defending the cinéma de papa, as we call it. And they made fun of its French quality, which is there. They didn’t do anything – nothing important, anyway. They never made a Carnival in Flanders, a Grand Illusion, or a Children of Paradise, forgive my saying so. They made ‘intimate’ films with some kind of elevator music – like Truffaut. I’m not criticizing Truffaut, but one day we inaugurated a movie theater in the suburbs where there were two theaters: a Truffaut Theater and a Carné Theater. And we went up on the stage together. Truffaut had dragged my name through the mud, mind you, but I was very honored to have my name together with Truffaut’s. I’m not sure he felt the same way. He said so many nasty things about me . . . Anyway, he had no comment, which was easy to do after ten years. He finished his speech by saying, ‘I’ve made twenty-three movies, and I’d give them all up to have done Children of Paradise.’ What could I say after that? Nothing. He said it in front of three or four hundred people, but it was never written down . . . I am not upset with him anymore. At that time, if I was in a studio . . . and Mr. Godard came in, he said nothing to me, not even hello. It’s almost as if he turned his back on me . . . When they said, ‘At least we can shoot on location, something the old filmmakers couldn’t do’ – they shot on location, fine, but they owe that to the talents of the photochemists and engineers, not to their own”. – Marcel Carné
That deep drum. That wonderfully bottomless sound that opens Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise – an invocation or a demand. The movie announces itself at once with that dum-dum-dum, almost like a rapping on a door, a door you’re perhaps too intimidated to open but deeply curious to see beyond. You want that door to open, if only in your mind (even as you stare at a screen). It’s the sound of being awoken from a dream, bolting up in bed wide-awake – what is that? Who is there? Were you roused from a pleasant reverie or are you still dreaming? Carné places your eyes, mind and ears in a nocturnal attentiveness with that beating, immediately setting you in bracing dream logic that, paired with a closed curtain, ingeniously positions you as audience member, your eyes gazing at the luminous draperies, still shut, your ears perked up by the processional music turned to lush score which promises something grand, something romantic, surely something beautiful. Open, curtain, we think. What on earth lies behind it? This is a movie, not a play, and these curtains don’t appear playful or Brechtian, they seem a portal to another world. Staring at the screen swathed in curtain, just a curtain, a lovely curtain – it’s a singular sensation – and one you don’t forget. If a movie could possibly make you feel both the disparate sensations of being purely in focus and partially off kilter, and right away, it is the masterpiece Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis). And then the curtain opens.
Right before it parts upward we read on screen, “Part 1: Boulevard of Crime,” and the opulent instrumentation turns to the music of the Paris street, the organ grinder, the noises of show people. Once it rises we observe a crowded Parisian district circa 1827 in the neighborhood of the “Boulevard du Temple” (called “Boulevard of Crime” not for actual theft and violence, but for the entertainments shown there, melodramas and crime stories). There’s a fellow traversing a tight rope, a strong man lifting barbells, a monkey walking on stilts, horse drawn carriages, dancing girls kicking up their legs, vendors selling wares, and a clown-faced barker beckoning men to a tent featuring a beautiful woman. She will be naked, for what other reason would we spy a gorgeous woman in a tent lest she sport a beard. No beard here, but a bath (“Totally unadorned, naked for all to see!”). After the camera pans through this elaborate, exquisitely crafted set with thousands of extras, and moves towards this tent where another, smaller curtain parts (“Our show is enticing. Audacious! Arousing! For those with eyes that see”) we’re finally presented to the woman who will center the story and who will motivate, inspire, instigate, love, break, reject, bewilder all four men around her – Arletty – as the lovely Garance. She soaks in a tub of water, nude, staring at herself in a mirror as the men stare at her shimmering nakedness, not too much revealed, while we, the viewers, look. Triple vision, not counting the camera, a fourth spectator. We see a vision looking at a vision, and one lit so beautifully we’re uncertain if Arletty is not a young woman, but then, she’s not an old woman either – she’s a woman, and a disarming insouciant woman at that.
Carné (and DOP’s Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert) exit the tent to the crammed street and get to the task of introducing the men of the story, as fluidly and as lyrically as the camera moves – these men are connected to Arletty in varied expressions of desire. Bon vivant womanizer Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur) is looking for acting work and after eying Garance, he’s so struck by her beauty that he hustles over to her for a flirtation, all wooing and kissy lips. She smiles back and handles his declarations like the seasoned beauty she is, so used to strangers coming on to her that she can give him her mysterious Mona Lisa smiles and say things like, “I love everyone,” with absolute charm. Another one of her most attractive traits, and one that even supersedes her beauty at times, is that she is just so casually cool about everything around her. And not cold, not even cynical, but bemused, charmed, taking life in with the kind of sophistication that makes her wonderfully unclassifiable, devoid of those stock terms writers and critics and people use towards women – the femme fatale, the hooker with the heart of gold – Garance (and Garance through that glorious creature Arletty specifically) does not fit neatly into any of these appellations, she’s instead, an intriguing person, her own artistic creation, and nobody’s fool.
Garance then moves on to her other admirer (who proudly does not love her, and she does not love him, her “I love everyone” then, seems more, “I love no one,” and that makes life so much easier), Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). He’s a scrivener and a criminal, who writes letters for others, a dandy with his perfect moustache and curly-cued hair resting at his temples, but a dangerous and hard man with his good looking young accomplice Avril (Fabien Loris) who seems to love him, always at his side. (There’s a lot of sexual fluidity in this picture). After meeting this strangely attractive, debauched rogue, Garance and Lacenaire go back into the bustling streets and stop at mime act in front of the Funambules Theater. Once again, another man is entranced by Garance, this time the white-faced, long-wigged mime, Baptiste Deburau (a brilliant Jean-Louis Barrault) who saves Garance from a pickpocketing charge after she’s unfairly accused of lifting a man’s gold watch (of course Lacenaire actually stole it, and of course he walked away). In a brilliantly shot and acted scene, Baptiste, as Garance’s witness, acts out the crime as it happened to the police, impersonating the large man and the innocent lady to both the crowd and Garance’s delight. The art of mime is elevated here to dance, or a surrealistic depiction of life itself, it is so graceful and lovely and entrancing – a simultaneous emulating and bending of reality. Garance thanks him and throws the young man a flower. He is smitten. But as we’ll see through this first act, he’s so innocent that his feelings are almost too much to bear – that feeling of love, overwhelming love, the kind that makes one almost suffer a mental collapse – makes you worry for poor Baptiste.
The other two men – the womanizer and the cruel dandy – they know their way around women, but Baptiste encompasses all that one feels when one senses their heart losing control. It’s romantic but painful, immediately, that dum-dum-dum of the drum, and that Carné and his screenwriter, frequent collaborator, poet and surrealist, Jacques Prévert, knew how to write and script this sensation so quickly without cheap sentiment or spuriousness, is testament to how powerful their alliance was. Upon introduction, vision to word to wordless description connects us to these characters. There is not one wobbly moment here, not one scene that feels superfluous or dishonest. And the movie is three hours and ten minutes long. And I’m just discussing the opening.
The picture is indeed vastly epic, packed with scenery and extras and meticulous set decoration (by the genius Alexandre Trauner), and yet it’s so intimate and free… it never feels trapped on set, even with the theater backdrop (in fact, the theater feels like a releasing outlet for life, both mirroring it and expanding upon its truths and mysteries). The emotions here are both so fervent and even, at times, unconcernedly honest, and the characters so lived-in and of-the-world, we never doubt for a second they could exist as living breathing entities in this grand creation. There are choices characters make for self-preservation over love, but they aren’t presented as tragic with a capital T, not straight away, and yet there are tragic consequences because of these choices, consequences that sneak up on you and leaves you devastated.
Garance will eventually set up life (not marriage) with the Count Édouard de Montrayrich (Louis Salou), whom she likes least of any of these men, but who rescues her from yet more illegal shenanigans (attempted robbery and murder) via bad boy Lacenaire and his backup, Avril. She had nothing to do with it, but the world being the way it is, Garance is under scrutiny as a woman, and as the type of woman she is. The cynical Count represents another form of affection or attention lavished on a woman – she is bought, she is arm candy, she is the mistress – a free spirit and intelligent, this is not her favorite arrangement. Garance’s men are representative of options, but also the varied stages of love as well, or acting, how we may act with loved ones. Perhaps one could have a relationship (or marriage) with all of these types, presented in one person at various times: The reckless, though likable lady’s man, the cruel, sexy, scoundrel, the sensitive, wide-eyed lover/artist and the tedious sugar daddy.
The film presents archetypes without being obvious or hackneyed about it, with Garance both sexual object and mother figure. Where will her fate lie? Does this have anything to do with fate? Listening to rat, thief Jericho (Pierre Renoir, brother of Jean), who observes the actions around him and comments, disparagingly and threatening, we wonder if he, as unlikable as he is, represents a kind of fate. Norman Holland put this beautifully in his essential essay on the film, that Jericho, “the moralist himself is corrupt, a spy, an informer, a dealer in stolen goods, as the Vichy bourgeois often were – or as children can feel fathers are. Jéricho is a city of walls, the obstacles that our characters face in the world.”
The curtain closes on Act One with all of Garance’s choices, with the theater as life in all of its ambition and talent and crime and sex and sadness, blurring from artifice to actuality, and Act Two presents us with “The Man in White” (we hear that drum again, this time we’re wide awake). It’s seven years later and Garance doesn’t love the man keeping her, she loves the one she should love, the one who loves her, Baptiste. Will that work out? Since he’s married to the one who loves him, Nathalie (María Casarès) and has now birthed a child (the moment where the child introduces himself as a spy for his mother to Garance is captivatingly sweet)… no. It’s not going to work out. Garance shows up to watch him perform, in secret, veiled, and his immense talent and gentle soul is likely soothing the coarseness of her arrangement. It’s another act of artifice – the veiled lady, hiding behind a mask just as the mime or the actor or the criminal pens secret letters for pretenders. She is sad, but Garance never says she’s simply unhappy, she describes it poignantly, at one point as an artful mechanism, damaged: “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.”
Meanwhile, Frédérick and Baptiste have become famous in their professions, Baptiste as a mime and Frédérick in the Grand Theater, even as he mocks a play and its authors by turning a melodrama into comedy. Another act that bleeds into life – Frédérick even joins the audience in a seat from the stage, enraging the writers enough to challenge him to a duel. Frédérick knows his audience and he knows himself so much that living and breathing acting inspires him to use his newfound jealousy over Garance and Baptiste to motivate his performance of Othello, a sensible solution to pain. Lacenaire creates his own life as well, fulfilling his earlier statement that his head will wind up in a basket – he murders Garance’s Count. And Baptiste, now an acknowledged artist, resumes his love with Garance, but it’s too late and too complicated. Baptiste chases after her but is famously swallowed up in a crowd, literally engulfed by real life – art, mime, the theater, cannot save him at this moment. It’s a gorgeously shot scene in a movie so beautifully filmed and lit (the silver of the black and white, the swooping observational tracking shots, the loving detail of a staircase or a circus or the streets or a blind man who really isn’t blind, another deception), that the time Carné takes showing Baptiste’s aggrieved face, one that is no longer an innocent, (he’s now hurt others) makes his pain so palpable, both for love and for finally growing up and absorbing the end of love in all of its excruciating and layered heartbreak is potently expressive. And no one is to simply be blamed; no one is simply demonized. Even Lacenaire sits down and awaits his punishment. This is not a movie made by immature, mawkish people. These are makers who have lived life, lived art, and lived through war.
And one cannot discuss how real life and theater, artifice and authenticity intersect in Children of Paradise without mentioning its historic, tumultuous making, during the middle of German-occupied France in WWII. Carné cleverly set the film in two parts due to the Vichy authorities requiring a film be no more than 90 minutes long, production was often halted, actor Robert Le Vigan was sentenced to death by the resistance and replaced by Pierre Renoir, set designer Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, both Jewish, worked secretly during production, and by the time of the premiere, when Paris was liberated, the picture’s star, Arletty, was in prison. Infamously, Arletty had fallen in love with a German Luftwaffe officer and for that she was jailed (in a chateau) for her morally treasonous affair. In response to her controversy, Arletty famously stated these words: “My heart is French but my ass is international.” Spoken like a true Garance.
Carné discussed much of this in a 1990 interview with Brian Stonehill (read it all here) for the Criterion Collection. His thoughts on Arletty, whom he worked with in Hôtel du Nord, Le Jour Se Lève and Les Visiteurs du Soir before this (“She was wonderful.”) and the scandal are intriguing:
“During that period, there were snipers on the roofs of Montmartre, and they went into homes and searched apartments. Anyway, he left, and two days later, I got a phone call from him saying that Arletty had been arrested in his house. A bunch of partisans knocked at his door. My friend, like an idiot, opened the door, and one of the partisans suddenly said, ‘Oh, look at the whore over there! Do you see Arletty over there?’ So they arrested her, took her away; they came close to shaving her head at the station. They never hit her, but they were very lewd toward her, called her all kinds of nasty names and put her under house arrest outside Paris. There, she had to go see some kind of judge on a daily basis. The judge began to fancy her. Every day she went, and he joked around with her. One morning he said, ‘How do you feel this morning, Ms. Arletty?’ She answered, ‘Not very ‘resistant.’”
The picture was an enormous hit, and one of those classics that had become so famous, that some younger filmmakers and critics of the early 1960’s turned against it (particularly André Bazin, Francois Truffaut and others at Cahiers du cinéma), for various reasons. Other poetic realists were still embraced, as they should be, like Jean Renoir or Jean Vigo but Carné was treated by some critics (then, not so much now) as old fashioned, or not an auteur, relying too much on collaboration and, specifically, with his screenwriter, Prévert. (Bazin called him “disincarnated”). The accusation of Carné being set bound to his detriment and/or fussy or not innovative seems unduly unfair, as if his type of artifice and collaboration are a bad thing – absurd. (I’m sure there were other reasons and Truffaut changed his mind) The art and life that stimulated movies like Children of Paradise (and the photography of André Kertész and Brassaï, all part of this rich artistic movement), feel as magnificently authentic and as emotionally honest as Arletty’s beguiling smile, or those Children of Paradise, the poor unwashed up in the cheap seats, laughing and even screaming for their entertainment as they nearly fall into the orchestra pit, or that beating drum introducing the picture’s two parts, calling us to attention, thumping right into our very soul. Time to wake up to live and to dream.