Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Once again, Criterion has made 'one of those movies you're supposed to see but you avoided half your
life', into an experience better than what can be gotten in an art theater. Savant did indeed avoid
Les Enfants du paradis for several years, with the feeble excuse that it was widely quoted
as Henry Kissinger's favorite film. In Los Angeles, it played every Christmas day at Sherman Torgan's New Beverly Theater, not
a day I normally attend a show. I finally caught up with it by buying a used copy of Criterion's great
laserdisc about six years ago ... which this DVD far outclasses in image quality.
As sweeping as Gone With the Wind and as literate as a great novel, Children of Paradise
is the intellectual's epic, a vast saga that for many represents the screen's most sophisticated
depiction of the mystery of romance. In an impressive reconstruction of a lost age, four men seek
the same elusive woman, whose love means something completely different to each of them. For the
beautiful 'free soul' Garance (Arletty), love is something simple, to be given to those who please
her. The mime Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault) is consumed with an ideal he sees within Garance,
and is tortured because she can't love him back in the same way. Actor Frédérick
Brasseur) amuses Garance, and doesn't complicate matters as does Baptiste, but he can't hold her
either. The megalomanic criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) boasts contemptously to Garance that he loves
no-one, and that their pairing would represent two superior intellects above the filthy mob. Finally,
the nobleman Edouard of Montray (Louis Salou) offers his property and protection, but sets himself
up to be despised. Garance eventually has need of his help when she's falsely implicated in Lacenaire's
skullduggery. Finally, to the side of this four-way tug of war is Nathalie (María Casares),
who adores Baptiste as deeply as he loves Garance, a cruel trick of fate that spells
guilt and pain for all.
This all plays out in an incredibly dense and alive Parisienne Boulevard of actors, beggars and criminals. The
backstage atmosphere is intoxicating, a whirlwind of tempers and egos in a setting that constantly
threatens to become a fantasy itself. The entertainments are the dreams of the citizenry brought to
life; Baptiste empathizes with the Children of Paradise (the audience in the cheapest seats high in the
theater) and is himself is trying to live out his dreams through pantomime. Garance has no morals
to guide her passions, but believes in beauty. Early on she quits her sideshow job as a nude maiden in
a barrel of water, because the spectacle of her
beauty brought out an ugliness in her patrons. 2
LeMaitre, fed up with playing pantomime in a lion
costume, cries out to be able to act with his voice. His dream is to be a medium through which the
greats of the past can be brought back to life. He wants to speak the words Shakespeare, even though
few on the Boulevard's seem aware of The Bard. "Even Joan of Arc heard voices", rails Frédérick.
When the stage performances we see appear to comment on the romantic entanglements, the effect is
mesmerising. Baptiste writes his own serio-comic mimetic plays; in one he casts his Pierrot-ish clown
character as despondent over love for a statue played by Garance. She's wooed away by a troubadour -
played by LeMaitre, of course. The stageplays echo the emotions of the lovers, and vice versa: the
lovelost Nathalie refuses to be forlorn, as if replenishing herself with the faith and virtue of her
simplistic stage characters.
The casting is nothing short of amazing. Jean-Louis Barrault is a great mime, and in costume looks lifted
from a period painting. Pierre Brasseur (Dr. Genessier in the essential Eyes Without a Face) is
amazing as the initially unlikeable Frédérick. A phony's phony, his passion for theater
is more real than his own personality, if he has one, but out of all the cast members, he's the least likely
to hurt another. María Casares is pure adoration and selflessness as Nathalie, and Marcel Herrand
makes a wholly original villain, a master criminal stuck in the squalor and baseness of the 17th century.
Arletty is one of the beauties of the cinema; a libertine whose Mona Lisa smile hides a sincerity of
purpose that even Greta Garbo couldn't better. All of these bigger-than-life theatrical
characters are played by actors who elicit bigger-than-life emotional reactions.
The show is over three hours long, but broken up into two separate movies. The Boulevard of
Crime sets up the amazing world and deftly juggles the love stories. The miracle here is the
optimism and hope that mixes with the passions of the characters. We feel that anything is
possible, and that these charming people might actually work out their problems. The first half ends
on a cliffhanger that might spell a prison sentence for Garance, simply because her name was dropped
by the nefarious Lacenaire.
Part Two, The Man in White, leaps several years forward, ignoring the immediate solution
to Part One's cliffhanger. Both Baptiste and LeMaitre are successful stars. Frédérick
torments his writers and creditors as usual, but inside has matured somewhat. He wisely allows Lacenaire,
now practically a common cutthroat, to extort money from him. Baptiste is married to a beaming
Nathalie, has a fine young boy, and seemingly has everything going for him.
The return of Garance puts events into
a spin. Garance is now Edouard's consort, but returns nightly to the theater to secretly watch
Baptiste perform. Frédérick, seeing her devotion to Baptiste, confesses
that he's learned the meaning of jealousy. Edouard becomes wrongly jealous of Frédérick.
Learning that Garance is back, Baptiste rushes to throw his new life away for just one night with
her. And Lacenaire plans to use the scandal to stage his murderous, final work of 'art'.
Part Two is amazingly good, but its tone is not the giddy euphoria of the first half. The Man in
White takes place when the characters' futures are no longer unlimited, and their spirits no longer
unrestrained. Even the villain senses that his grandiose personal plans will soon end on the guillotine.
Instead of amusing coincidences and chance meetings, here we have tragic misunderstandings and
personal vendettas. Baptiste and Garance get their chance to replay the lost past, and it only leads to
more pain. The stage triumphs of both stars (Othello, The Ragman) are now more sophisticated, but
they center on negative issues of loss, jealousy, and murder. Even the crowds in the street have changed -
at the end they wear masks and seem to hinder and mock the separated lovers.
The fatalistic conclusion is all the more powerful after the magic worked in the first half. When
the final curtain falls, we've experienced a full spectrum of emotions. 3
Criterion's DVD of Children of Paradise does the film a great service. The picture quality is so
good that the slight imperfections are easily overlooked - I thought the laserdisc was
just fine until I saw this. There are still a few short passages where original elements haven't survived
and the quality drops momentarily. As demonstrated in the digital restoration
extra, thousands of instances of frame damage, hair, dirt, and various other kind of crud have
been removed, resulting in the show being the cleanest it's looked since it was new.
Those looking for expert analysis are provided with the very incisive commentary from the laser
version; between that and the essay and interview in the printed booklet, a good overview of the
production story comes together.
The notes do a good job of
placing the production in the context of the Nazi occupation of Paris. The tendency of late is to
tar the entire Parisian entertainment establishment because it kept operating during the occupation, and
thus contributed to the Nazi cause. I think that's just too harsh. It's unreasonable
to expect filmmakers and celebrities to have had the political judgement to know what they were
doing inside such morally confusing events. Anybody claiming moral superiority should ask
how often they make choices that might jeopardize their standard of living or personal comfort
The screen credit for Alexandre Trauner and Joseph
Kosma reads, 'With the Clandestine Involvement of ..", encouraging the public to view the film as some
kind of resistance production. As the filming must have been scrutinized by German authorities, this
is of course not so. 1
Everything in France was so badly compromised by the occupation (see
The Sorrow and the Pity) that
even singling out Arletty for being the mistress of a German officer doesn't seem right ...
opportunists find their angles to exploit in every human endeavor. The DVD notes offer several chilling
anecdotes about filming the movie under the Nazis. The most telling story
is surely about the dire shortage of food and the starving extras - when the show required a real feast for
a scene, it would all disappear from the tables before the cameras could roll.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Children of Paradise rates:
Supplements: Commentary by film scholars Brian Stonehill & Charles Affron, introduction by Terry Gilliam, restoration
demonstration, Jacques Prévert's film treatment, production designs, stills gallery, filmographies,
US theatrical trailer, 26 page booklet with interview by Brian Stonehill & essay by Peter Cowie
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: January 28, 2002
1. Or was it? Paris was liberated late in 1944, and Jacques Prévert's
film treament was dated around the same time. Treatments usually precede filming; if the film was physically shot after liberation, what are all these
stories about Gestapo agents tricking the director into turning over wanted fugitives? The likely answer
is that the Prévert document is a treatment-for-publication, written after or during production. Savant sampled the
commentaries, but the parts he heard seemed to be concentrating on cinematic issues instead of this historical
2. Her decision to quit gets the story going. Even Baptiste had
seen Garance's 'performance' in the barrel and moved on. She is like the mythical mermaid who decided
to live among people on land, and her magical spell can't help but act as a catalyst on the men around her.
3. (Spoiler). What are we to make of the ending? With de Montray murdered,
and Lacenaire waiting to boastfully confess all to the gendarmes, we can expect that the crook's
'masterpiece of crime' is to drag everyone else down with him - Garance, who after being protected by
Edouard de Montray from being implicated in assault and battery, will surely be suspected of having
a hand in his death; Frédérick, who argued with him the night before; Baptiste, publicly
seen kissing his mistress. Lacenaire's trump hand may be to take all his 'friends' with him to the
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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