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Vol. LXIV, No. 8
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
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DVD Review

“Children of Paradise”: Love, Art, and Evil On and Off the Boulevard of Crime

Stuart Mitchner

With the Oscar season upon us, the time seems right for a column about one of the greatest films ever made, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis, or Children of Paradise, which was released 65 years ago on March 9, 1945, six months after the liberation of Paris.

James Agee told readers of The Nation that if they had “a considerable weakness for romanticism,” Children of Paradise would make them “very happily drunk” — which gives you an idea of what it’s like to experience this film. You don’t even have to have “that lucky weakness” (as Agee terms it) to be intoxicated by what happens between Baptiste the mime (Jean Louis Barrault) and Garance the beauty (Arletty) in the first fresh glow of their romance. “Love is so simple” is what Garance says when they seem to be at the pinnacle, the moment of truth, and she’s both right and wrong. Afraid that taking the moment beyond a kiss will spoil his dream of love, Baptiste backs off, and it isn’t until late in the last half of the film that he possesses Garance, only to lose her. As the picture ends. he’s running after her carriage, calling her name, but it’s no use; he’s engulfed by the festive mob on the Boulevard of Crime while she’s living up to what she told a policeman (“the one thing I really love is my freedom”) who was arresting her as a pickpocket when Baptiste saved the day by miming an eyewitness account to the contrary. Their relationship was born when she smiled her gratitude and tossed the already smitten Baptiste a rose.

The Force of Art

“Cinema and poetry are almost the same thing,” according to Jacques Prévert in an April 1945 interview reprinted in the Classic Film Scripts edition of Children of Paradise. It’s odd that Prévert, the surrealist poet who wrote the screenplay, would rein himself in on a subject so dear to his heart; why qualify it? There’s no “almost” about the merging of cinema and poetry that happens with the dawning of love between Baptiste and Garance, surely one of the supreme examples on film of the chemistry of attraction. It helps that Arletty and Barrault both seem touched with an otherworldly beauty, really as if Prévert the dreamer had dreamed them to life. As elegantly lovely as Garance is, most of the poetry radiates from Baptiste, who has just risked his life for the sake of dancing with her at The Robin Redbreast, a dance hall so named because the previous owner’s throat had been slit by the same gang now looking to savage the gentle, frail-seeming mime in his long coat and Trilby hat. After one of the toughs grabs him and hurls him through a window, a calm, unfazed Baptiste reappears a heartbeat or two later dusting the dirt and broken glass off his coat, picks up the rose Garance had thrown him in the earlier scene and puts it back in his buttonhole (that gesture alone is a poem), and proceeds to deliver a sudden stunning kick to the assailant’s chest that leaves him gasping on the floor. Prévert’s message is clear: a man infused with the force of art and love has special powers.

Garance is under Baptiste’s spell by now and only too glad to walk out of the Robin Redbreast on his arm. It’s the nature of her response to his surreal passion that makes poetry and cinema one when this serenely amused, poised, worldly woman (Arletty was 45 at the time) finds herself overcome by love and awe as she begins to fully fathom Baptiste’s unique dreamlike beauty. What she’s feeling as they stand gazing out on the lights of Ménilmontant is a glorification of what the audience feels when the mime walks into the real world no longer encumbered by an unflattering costume or hidden behind the mask of his makeup. Seen here, transfixed by love, radiant with the power of his art, Barrault’s performance is true to what James Agee claims for it (“the only depiction of an artist, on the screen, which has fully convinced me of the genius he was supposed to have”).

Agee, again, says it best when he finds all the characters “a little larger and a good deal more wonderful than life — a mime of genius, a fine florid actor, an egomaniacal criminal, a cold great-great gentleman, and the hypnotic gutter-beauty they all pursue.” The four men hovering like moths around Garance’s flame are based on well-known real-life figures from the 1820s and 1830s. There actually was a much-acclaimed mime called Baptiste Debureau; a famous actor named Frédérick Lemaître (played with infectious energy by Pierre Brasseur); an infamous criminal, Pierre François Lacenaire (cunning and menace embodied in the person of Marcel Herrand);and the “great great gentleman,” Garance’s lover/protector Comte Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), who was inspired by the real-life Duc de Morny.

The Elegant Criminal

The original idea for Les Enfants came from Jean-Louis Barrault, who suggested to Carné the possibility of making a movie based on Debureau and Lemaître. Prévert had doubts about the project at first but warmed to it once he realized what could be done with the character of Lacenaire, the cut-throat in dandy’s clothing. With the Germans then occupying France, Prévert knew they would never let him do a movie about the lawless Lacenaire, so he “put Lacenaire in a film about Debureau.” (In 1990, Lacenaire was the subject of The Elegant Criminal, with Daniel Auteuil in the title role.)

It’s Lacenaire who presides over the dark side of Les Enfants and gives the romantic excitement provided by Baptiste and Garance and Lemaître its counterforce. However crucial to the ambience of the film the Boulevard of Crime may be, with its sweeping sideshow of Parisian life, the street (actually the Boulevard du Temple) took its name from the lurid dramas staged in its theaters. But Lacenaire is crime. Whenever he appears, you know there’s a knife in his vest and you know he would have slit Lemaître’s throat had not the gregarious actor willingly and good-humoredly given him some money.

According to numerous sources, including Brian Stonehill in his commentary for the Criterion DVD of Children of Paradise, the real-life Lacenaire apparently influenced the conception of Raskolnikov when Dostoevsky was planning Crime and Punishment. The double murder of a pawn broker and his wife for which Lacenaire was eventually guillotined at the age of 36 is more or less reprised in Raskolnikov’s murder of the pawnbroker. Before he was executed, Lacenaire turned his prison cell into a salon, wrote a memoir and poems, and at his trial delivered an hour-long soliloquy. He was “one of the heroes of modern life” to Baudelaire, who also wrote about Lemaître, praising him for building up a role “with the breadth and fullness of genius.” And Baudelaire’s word-picture of Baptiste Debureau — ”pale as the moon, mysterious as silence, supple and mute as the serpent” — most likely influenced Prévert’s treatment of the character.

My favorite among the many extraordinary supporting players is Lacenaire’s boyish henchman Avril, the same tough who threw Baptiste through the window. Looking like a Gavrani etching of an Apache come to life, Fabien Loris gives a truly charming performance, at once menacing and vulnerable, with his awestruck, admiring cries of “Oh, M’sieur Lacenaire!” as he watches his boss do his dirty work.

The Occupation

The conditions under which this masterpiece was filmed (it was the most expensive production in French film history) made me think of François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), which explores the impact of the German occupation on a Jewish director forced to hide out from the Nazis in the theater cellar. Then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s latest, the explosive Best Picture nominee Inglourious Basterds, which pits a Resistance-minded Jewish cinema owner against the Gestapo. But consider the story behind Les Enfants. Not only was it filmed under the watchful eye of the Nazis during the German Occupation, the production was being used as a cover by the French Resistance, which had numerous active members in the cast and crew working alongside Nazi sympathizers. The Jewish production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma had to work in hiding and submit their ideas via intermediaries. As if things weren’t interesting enough, Arletty was the mistress of an officer in the Luftwaffe, which made her persona non grata (to put it mildly) when the Germans left. And yet, as Garance, the beauty desired by all the four main male characters and dominated by no one, she eventually came to be seen as the symbol of a liberated France. Another ironic touch: a Nazi collaborator played the part of Jericho, the despised ragman and habitual informer. When the Liberation came in 1944, the actor, Robert Le Vigan, took flight and had to be replaced by Pierre Renoir, director Jean Renoir’s older brother.

The Best Ever

In 1995 Children of Paradise was voted “Best French Film Ever” in a poll of 600 French critics and professionals. It also usually turns up on lists of the Ten Best Films of All Time. The brilliant print on the Criteron DVD is accompanied by an introduction from Terry Gilliam and commentaries from Brian Stonehill on Part One (“The Boulevard of Crime”) and Charles Affron on Part Two (“The Man in White”). The booklet that comes with the DVD contains a long interview with Marcel Carné.

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