A common theme running through the Blind Spots at Film Misery (and elsewhere) is that of a film’s length. The three-plus-hour running time of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is why the Blu-Ray sat unwatched upon my shelf for so long and Gone With the Wind’s 238 minutes prevented Duncan from seeing it earlier than September of this very year. The thought of tackling a film already regarded as a “classic!” or “masterpiece!” or “one of the best ever made!” can be daunting in and of itself; add a bulbous runtime and the attractiveness of getting the film under your belt dwindles.
Children of Paradise comes with such a pedigree: It sits atop They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s list of the 1,000 greatest films of all-time—as of this writing, it is snuggled in right between The 400 Blows at #35 and Chinatown at #37. It even made the top 100 of this year’s Sight & Sound critic’s poll, tying with Reed’s The Third Man and Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. It was actually billed as France’s answer to Gone With the Wind and on top of all that, it has a healthy runtime of nearly 200 minutes!
The length at which Marcel Carné’s story unfolds is not entirely his fault, however. The production’s background has entered cinema legend. Children of Paradise was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France. Some of the crew, like Carné’s set designer, were on the run from the Gestapo, and some, including many of the extras, were collaborators the Nazis provided to Carné as a condition for letting him film. Since the rules governing cinema at the time forbade any films to be over 90 minutes, Carné and his scenarist, Jacques Prévert, crafted Children of Paradise as two separate films to be shown in one evening. Indeed, prints of a single, unified film have been lost to time, and now exhibitions of it include a brief synopsis and a second opening credits sequence after the interval.
On the surface, the raw materials of the plot seem to drip with banal soap-opera mundanity: Four different men at once find themselves taken by the charms of the same woman. Cinema has a rich history of taking soap-operatic narrative threads and using them to guide the audience through a complex, opulent spectacle—hell, that’s practically a Hollywood staple, in films from Gone with the Wind and The Greatest Show on Earth to The English Patient and Titanic. The difference in Children of Paradise is that the film is steeped in the traditions and conventions of the theatre, and uses its seemingly shopworn narrative as a further comment upon theatre’s artifice and mimicry of life.
The woman at the center of Carné’s film is Garance. We first meet her as a member of a streetside carnival show. Her “talent” is the display of her nude body—though, as she sits in a very tiny pool of water submerged from the neck down, it is a fairly modest endeavor. She still thinks of herself as a performer, delivering truth to her audience as does an actor: “Truth from the neck up.” This is the first in a long line of oblique and explicit references to the theatre; after all, what the audience sees on stage is only the face of a particular production, and just as much if not far more goes on backstage and behind the scenes to deliver the experience. “Truth from the neck up” is as good a description as any.
If Garance seems a bit too old to play the traditional seducer of men, it is worth noting that the four men vying for her favor don’t seem to need any seduction to become enamored. Anyway, Garance is not an untouched ingénue, but radiates a considered sophistication to which the men respond. The first of these men to meet her acquaintance is Frédérick Lemaître, a playful Jack the Lad who seems intent on beguiling every woman on the Boulevard du Crime, where the film is set. (Indeed, after flirting with Garance, we see him drift toward another lovely woman, using the same pick up lines on her.) Frédérick longs to be an actor upon the stage, reveling in an audience’s affections and famous for renowned and difficult parts. His first big break comes during a performance at the pantomime Théâtre des Funambules: there has been a tragic(ally funny) accident with the actor playing a lion, and Frédérick steps in to save the evening. “I’ve done the whole lion repertoire! Gulf of Lion, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Pygma-lion!” The theatre owner is not sold on utilizing so green and untested an actor, but the shouting from the auditorium is fierce: the show must go on quickly, or they’ll begin asking for refunds! “The voice of the people!” Frédérick shouts triumphantly. “The Christians demand a lion!” Beautiful wit and wordplay like this is threaded throughout Jacques Prévert’s delightful screenplay.
The second man is Baptiste, a mime at the Théâtre des Funambules specializing in a portrayal of Pierrot. In contrast to Frédérick’s ultra-high ambition, Baptiste seems pleased with his work as a mime, content simply to make the audience laugh, in his unglamorous role. Baptiste is young and almost aggressively idealistic, holding his notion of romantic love on a pedestal so high, even poets and artists would have to strain their eyes to see it properly. He immediately idolizes Garance, declaring his love to her in lengthy screeds much to the chagrin of Nathalie, the theatre manager’s daughter in love with him. But Baptiste’s unworkably quixotic near-deification of Garance keeps her at an aesthetic distance; indeed, when Garance agrees to be in a pantomime written by Baptiste, he casts her as a statue of Phoebe, an unmoving, eternal symbol of love.
The third man involved with Garance is Pierre-François Lacenaire; he fancies himself some sort of peerless Übermensch and uses his position as a scrivener to hide his extensive criminal activities. His interest in Garance seems little more than intellectual—hypothetical even. The last is Count Édouard de Montray, a wealthy aristocrat who desires her simply as a mistress. He seems to echo Baptiste’s idealistic view of her, albeit in the opposite direction: “You are much too lovely to be truly loved.”
Considering the age and background of Children of Paradise, one might expect that Garance gets flung about by the varying impulses and desires of these men. But she always seems to be in complete self-possession—the most stable of all the characters. We learn that she was on her own in the world quite early, and therefore infer that she survived by recognizing her, uh, “talents” and using them expertly to her advantage. There is a weary wisdom in her eyes that reflects more experience than her years should carry. (This was probably also due to the fact that the actress portraying Garance, Arletty, was conducting an affair with a Gestapo officer during filming, causing choler among much of the crew. When later reflecting upon the experience, Arletty remarked, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”) I couldn’t help but think that Baz Luhrman lifted heartily from this film when crafting Moulin Rouge!, though Satine in that film is more of a wilting pushover. (Of course, dying of consumption may sap one’s will after a certain point.)
Though the romance of Baptise and Garance is the centerpiece of the film, perhaps the most important relationship is between Garance and Count de Montray. De Monray desires verbal confirmations of Garance’s love for him, but can only get them to a point:
de Montray: Please understand how much I want your love. I love you as no man…
Garance: I do love you, my friend. You’re charming, rich, witty. Friends admire you, other fear you. …Everyone loves you. How could I not do the same? …Not only are you rich, but you want to be loved as if you were poor. …I’ll continue to do the best to please you. But don’t ask the impossible. If you like… tomorrow, all Paris will know I’m mad about you. Yes, mad. I’ll shout it from the rooftops. But to you, privately, my friend, I say this: I loved a man, and I still love him. I came back to Paris to see him.
Isn’t acting the continuing public declaration of things you wouldn’t mean in a private context? Perhaps no other scene so clearly defines the film’s central theme, or illustrates the actor’s relationships between his role and his own life.
Children of Paradise manages an epic, spectacular sweep while keeping the central human relationships intimate and emotional. It’s a type of filmmaking seldom attempted anymore, not least of all due to the vanishing patience of a modern audience. Funding for films like this was readily available in 1943—there was a war on, and large-scale escapism sold remarkably well. Carné manages to give his audience the escapism of great theatre and great cinema. He shows us how magical and enveloping theatre can be, immersing us in the gems and joys of its rhythms and quirks. In doing so, he simultaneously shows us how magical and enveloping cinema can be. His soft, radiant magical realism echoes that of Jean Vigo, whose L’Atalante clearly influenced Carné’s mise-en-scène. Fans of Jean Cocteau, Carné’s contemporary, will also feel right at home.
The movie ends with Baptiste in an ocean of Parisians dressed as his creation: Pierrot. As he, devoid of his pancake makeup and fancy dress, costumed only as himself, drowns in a swarm of imitations, the words of Count de Montray rang in my head: “Actors aren’t people. They are every man and no man.” What a thought.