Friday, October 14, 2011

Children of Paradise (1945)

Les enfants du paradis, France, 163 minutes
Director: Marcel Carne
Writer: Jacque Prevert
Photography: Roger Hubert
Music: Maurice Thiriet
Editors: Henri Rust, Madeleine Bonin
Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, Maria Casares, Louis Salon, Pierre Renoir, Gaston Modot, Jane Marken

Children of Paradise is regarded as being nearly as famous for the circumstances of its production as for anything else about it so I will start there. Filmed under Vichy France, during the German occupation of World War II, there's an undeniable scrappiness to all the extras and the vigor of many of the exterior shots, a sense of making do and a kind of spiritedness to it that I think may be genuinely unique. Vichy authorities, for example, had imposed a maximum film length of 90 minutes, and so the 163-minute Children of Paradise is presented as a kind of double feature, two back-to-back films each with their own elaborate (and parallel) opening titles. In so doing, they found even more ways to make their production a self-consciously "theatrical" work, with its seams showing and some of the stuffing hanging out.

They weren't, of course, so daring as to try to compress some anti-authoritarian allegory into it—they probably never would have got away with it, for one thing, if they had even been inclined that way—so this tale of Parisian culture of the 1840s wild and free on the streets does not have much to do with Parisian culture under German rule a century later, except for generalities such as the immutable human spirit. The title refers to the players and backstage crew, the participants actively involved in the exciting life of theater and drama, as well as the working-class people who attended the shows and could afford only the cheapest seats. What we would now call "nosebleed" seats were then referred to as "paradise" or "the Gods" and the best players were said to be playing explicitly to "the Gods," whose patrons gave the most immediate and unfiltered reactions to performances. "Up in the Gods," says one character, "their lives are small, but their dreams are vast." It's a heartening view of culture and theater and democracy.

I liked Children of Paradise quite a bit more the first time I saw it, perhaps because many of its surprises were still so unexpected and lustrous. The second time through it was harder to concentrate on the various subtleties of the narrative, a slightly curdled melodrama that swirls around the character Garance (played by Arletty), with whom four or five of the male leads are in love or at least have some involvement. Instead, I spent my time waiting for the handful of showy theatrical sequences that had so impressed me the first time and halfway through found myself lost in the narrative thickets. Oops.

Those theatrical sequences are still impressive, by the way, but familiarity took away a good deal of their impact too. The great and beloved mime, Baptiste (played by Jean-Louis Barrault), who is luminous and even more than Arletty the real star of this show, is virtually worth the nearly three-hour commitment by himself. He scrambled my mind about mimes, to tell you the truth; after a lifetime of rejecting them as second-rate entertainment and an easy cynical joke, Barrault's uncanny fluid expressiveness sent me back to rethink.

In fact, one of the more interesting narrative tensions here is between the theatrical art forms of mime, represented by Baptiste, and of drama, represented by "the actor" Frederick Lemaitre (played by Pierre Brasseur), who struts about declaiming constantly, usually Shakespeare. He will never shut up. He scoffs constantly at the overbearing "silence" of mime work. In that way Children of Paradise found a way to stuff in a somewhat random allegorical theme on the relationship between the original silent films and the later "talkies." Lemaitre triumphs in just about every way that it's possible to triumph, even casually winning over Garance at one point, but he clearly loses on the all-important Q Score of likeability and comes off in the end as something of an unredeemable buffoon. Drama wins and mime loses, except not really, in the way that this film so often manages to have things both ways.

Barrault, for his part, resembles a kind of Buster Keaton or Stan Laurel figure, slender and slight, shy and private, until he lets loose his powers in performance, which remain a delight from his first appearance as a player used to draw people in off the street to the main show and all the way to his ascent, complete in the second half, to becoming a much loved and prodigiously talented star. The bigger the shows the more impressive he becomes—and the less interesting, alas, becomes the overarching narrative.

As with another French film that has already appeared on this list, L'Atalante, I can't help but think that Children of Paradise is here for reasons somewhat extraneous to what the viewer actually sees. It represents a kind of triumph in the face of adversity that is always admirable of itself—getting to the moon by the end of a decade simply because someone who later died thought it would be a good idea if we did. It's a juicy drama to while away a rainy afternoon, a great big "movie movie," with passions and jealousies and other exciting human emotions on display. And when it decides to make itself beautiful, it becomes very, very beautiful.

What sticks, however, for me anyway, are the images of Barrault in his loose-fitting all-white costume flitting about a stage masterfully creating illusions and magic. I'm not sure that's enough to support a painstaking three-hour production more than a few times altogether. I like what the Halliwell guide has to say about Children of Paradise, its usual enviable pith full on display: "A magnificent evocation of a place and a period, this thoroughly enjoyable epic melodrama is flawed only by its lack of human warmth and of a real theme."

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