I ‘d think it was in the early sixties that I first saw Les Enfants du Paradis. It must have made an enormous impression on me, because when I watched it the other night, scene after scene was familiar. It was as if I’d seen it only last year.
I’d forgotten how long it is: virtually two movies in one, with a first and a second half. (In the DVD I watched, the entire credits are repeated at the beginning of the second half.) But it never suffers from a feeling of being too long. The story, on the surface, is fairly simple. A man (Baptiste) loves a woman (Garance) who loves him in return, but initially no more than she loves others; another woman (Nathalie) loves Baptiste, but is unrequited. The famous actor (Frederick) has a casual but unsustainable love for Garance; Pierre, the strange interfering thief and murderer may or may not love Garance, and perhaps loves himself a good deal more; and then there’s the Count who doesn’t really love anyone, but still manages to add Garance to his trophy collection for several years.
If that helps you understand the story, well done. What seems simple is made wonderfully complex by a literate script and subtle performances from every member of the cast. We’re never completely in the know as to what’s going on with these people, because we’re party only to some aspects of what they’re thinking. Why they do what they do would fill volumes, and yet watching them is immensely satisfying. The actors bring such underlying depths to their roles that you could speculate on all sorts of motivations.
Marcel Carné directs without effects: everything is given over to the actors, and often scenes are played out at length with few cuts. There’s a heap of dialogue, but it’s rich and full of detail. Two wonderfully luminous women play the main female roles: Arletty and Maria Casares, the former exemplifying how to be in love with life and with the moment, and the latter perpetually torn by loving someone who doesn’t love her.
Jean-Louis Barrault (pictured at right) is endlessly expressive, whether he’s playing the young man who makes one mistake in his life (leaving Garance behind when he has the chance to stay with her) or in his extended mime scenes, which comment in their own way on the rest of the story.
Pierre Brasseur is Frederick Lemaître, the over-the-top actor who can pick up a woman with a few charming words, who can turn a awful tragic script into a high comedy, and who’s never sick of the sound of his own voice. Marcel Herrand is the strange criminal character who dresses as a dandy and has no apparent scruples. The world is under his thumb, so he imagines, and in the end he is the one to release Garance from the Count – by murder.
Louis Salou plays the Count, the only main character to appear late in the proceedings. He is seen to be increasingly sour, grim and selfish. It doesn’t help, of course, that no one, particularly Garance, loves him.
The film begins and ends with a huge crowd scene: the streets of Paris are packed with people. It must have cost a fortune to have had so many extras on board. The ‘trivia’ section on imdb.com notes: The production ‘involved building the largest studio set in the then history of French cinema - the quarter mile of street frontage, reproduced in scrupulous detail, representing the Boulevard du Crime, the theater district of Paris in the 1830s and 40s. This would have been a daunting prospect at the best of times but in Vichy France, when all artisans, transport, materials, costumes and film stock were all in short supply, it was a miraculous achievement.’
Because I know these actors only from this movie, though many of them were well-known in their time, it’s as if they inhabit the characters completely. And the remainder of the cast as just as good as the principals: Fabien Loris as Avril, Pierre’s simple accomplice, somehow dressed like a perpetual youth; Jane Marken as the landlady; Pierre Renoir as Jericho, the ragman, a kind of prophet, mover of fates, jack-of-all-trades; the various stage managers and theatre directors, and the three authors – two of whom invariably talk at exactly the same time and bring some light relief.
Here’s some more background on it, from Roger Ebert: ‘All discussions of Marcel Carne's ''Children of Paradise'' begin with the miracle of its making. Named at Cannes as the greatest French film of all time, costing more than any French film before it, ''Les Enfants du Paradis'' was shot in Paris and Nice during the Nazi occupation and released in 1945. Its sets sometimes had to be moved between the two cities. Its designer and composer, Jews sought by the Nazis, worked from hiding. Carne was forced to hire pro-Nazi collaborators as extras; they did not suspect they were working next to resistance fighters. The Nazis banned all films over about 90 minutes in length, so Carne simply made two films, confident he could show them together after the war was over. The film opened in Paris right after the liberation, and ran for 54 weeks. It is said to play somewhere in Paris every day.’
Wonderful, wonderful movie. Need to see it again!