Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carné)

In production for two years, from occupation to post-WWII, with Jews in hiding, nazi collaborators and members of the French resistance all working together on the largest movie set in French history. Carne was known for his poetic realist dramas and had collaborated with writer Jacques Prevert before on Port of Shadows, Daybreak and Les Visiteurs du soir. The music stays in the background where it belongs (unlike many American 1940’s movies), quality editing and camerawork that rarely draw attention, and an amazing (especially for nazi-occupied France) art and production design team. A massive hit, and one of the most universally loved movies ever. More importantly, Katy liked it.

Girish’s Senses of Cinema entry on the film is short and excellent. Rough character sketches: “The film follows the Garbo-like Garance and the four men in her life: moonstruck mime Baptiste; philandering thespian Frederic Lemaitre; murderer-dandy Lacenaire and the wealthy, loveless count Edouard.”

Garance (Arletty, one side of the Daybreak love-triangle) is the center of the film, loved (in their own way) by four men. She meets the criminal off and on, begins to fall for the mime, ends up sleeping with the actor, then goes away to live with the count. It’s all less sordid than it sounds from stringing it into a single sentence like that.

Garance, first discovered as a sideshow beauty attraction:

Baptiste is the mime, played by actual mime Jean-Louis Barrault (the poet in La Ronde, later in some strange ones like Venom and Eternity and Chappaqua). He starts as a street performer doing free shows in front of the Funambules, berated by his more esteemed father, and ends as the people’s favorite entertainer, the Chaplin of his time.

Lemaitre is the actor (Pierre Brasseur, sinister psychologist of Head Against the Wall, below-right in his Othello blackface). He gets his break on stage in a lion costume at Baptiste’s Funambules, and works his way up to headlining Shakespeare plays at the “high” theater down the street. Lemaitre is a friendly fellow, though kind of insufferable about his own talent and ambition. Highlight is when he provokes a duel against the authors of a play which he self-reflexively destroyed onstage.

Lacenaire, thief and murderer, is Marcel Herrand, who specialized in playing “the high-class, scene-stealing villain,” played Fantomas in ’47 and the king in Fanfan la Tulipe.

The Count of Montray, who lures Garance away but never marries her (because she must remain free), is Louis Salou (uncredited in The Devil’s Hand), not a major presence, though he does have a duel scene with Lacenaire.

Pierre Renoir, Jean’s older brother and star of Night at the Crossroads, is Jericho, who moves between characters, a thief/fence/salesman/hobo. In the original draft, gentle Baptiste was to kill Jericho in the street, distraught at having lost Garance.

Natalie (Maria Casares, Death Herself in Cocteau’s Orpheus) marries Baptiste after Garance goes away with the count. In the second half they have a five-year-old son, though she knows that Baptiste would still leave her for Garance if he could.

Avril, Lacenaire’s henchman (Fabien Loris), is a threatening-looking presence, though Lacenaire himself performs the violence, which makes Avril squeamish.

Silk Thread, a fake blind guy (actually a gem appraiser with above-average sight) who befriends Baptiste – played by Gaston Modot, gamekeeper in Rules of the Game.

Baptiste’s landlady (at one point also Lemaitre and Garance’s landlady), along with Jericho, is one of the untrustworthy snitches in the film, a rare veiled reference to the current occupation of France.

Hyperactive director of the Funambules (and Natalie’s father) is Marcel Peres, who appeared in the sequel to Herrand’s Fantomas.

More from Senses:

The dreamlike passions and fragile sensitivity of Baptiste the mime form a strong contrast to the loud and blustery Frederic, who booms, “I will die from silence like others die from hunger and thirst”. Yet, while Frederic later achieves fame as an actor-star on the boulevard, the common folk are drawn to Baptiste and his delicate stories wrapped in the gauze of pantomime. … The amoral and dissolute Lacenaire writes farces which remain unperformed and unread. He ends up mounting a real-life assassination with the loving detail of a theatrical production. After the meticulous murder of the Count, the murderer waits calmly after the “performance” for the arrival of the police. The Count’s open contempt of theatre (“I don’t like this Monsieur Shakespeare: his debased violence, and his lack of decorum”) co-exists with a passionate bent for casual killing in the name of honor – thanks to that old tradition, the duel. Thus, theatre weaves its thread intimately into the fabric of every life we witness in the film.

A complex and tragic character, Garance’s easy devotion to the fleeting passions of love is innocent yet destructive; her flighty nature brings her a succession of moments filled with pleasure, yet the comfort of love eludes her. At the end of the film, when Baptiste runs into the carnival crowd, attempting unsuccessfully to catch up with the departing Garance, he is swallowed up by the “audience”, he is one with them, unable to be anything other than what they are. We have grown accustomed to seeing him in the privileged space of the stage, gazed upon by the admiring audience, straining forward silently in their seats. We are not ready for this fall from the rarefied spotlight of the stage to the bustling anarchy of the oppressively celebratory carnival crowd. It is a descent from artifice to reality.

Tidbits from B. Stonehill’s commentary on the first half:

Carne used Murnau tricks on the exteriors, constructing sets with diminishing size to give a feeling of greater depth, using small coaches filled with dwarfs in the background.

All four of the male leads were based on real historical figures – Lacenaire and Baptiste were actually on trial for murder at the same time. The actor who played Baptise suggested the film to Prevert and Carne.

From the beginning, when Garance is falsely accused for stealing a watch (in fact Lacenaire took it): “Now Baptiste surprises everybody by saying that he saw what happened, and he will now use his art to explain what he saw. In addition to being on its own a great work of art, Baptiste’s performance offers an allegory of his art can liberate a captive from tyranny. As Children of Paradise was being made under the watchful eye of the nazi authorities, Prevert and Carne could not risk any overt allusions to the political situation of the day, which is why so many of the films of this period are costume dramas and period pieces. But skillful allegory could keep the truth hidden, yet hint at its shape.”

Prevert was friends with cubist-innovators Picasso and Georges Braque. “Braque’s influence can be found in the presence of cubism in this movie’s asthetic. A cubist collage contains multiple perspectives on a central subject. In a sense, then, Children of Paradise is a cubist portrait of Garance, including as it does, how the public sees her in a circus tent, how Lacenaire sees her as his guardian angel, how Baptiste is smitten by her as a poetic ideal, how Frederique has seen her as a potential conquest…”

“But why should there be a difference between my dreams and my life?,” demands Baptiste. The film, which after all acts out some of its makers more cinematic dreams, would seem to confirm Baptiste’s demand. But not really, when you look more closely at this scene. Baptiste says, “je vous aime, Garance.” Yes, technically that means “I love you,” but he is using the formal form of address, “vous” instead of “tu,” the intimate form, as in the more natural “Je t’aime.” It’s not that Baptise is ungrammatical, it’s that Prevert, the poet who created him, is showing us that Baptiste has put Garance on a pedestal, and the very grammar of his “I love you” dramatizes that distance he’s put between them.

Baptiste surely has Garance all to himself, but he flees her bedroom. “Until now, Baptise’s idealism has seemed noble and indeed beautiful to us. Now we see that it is something he had better grow out of. Like Shakespeare’s heroes, the clearly-drawn characters of this film are great and likeable, but they are also deeply flawed. What kind of love story is it where the hero runs away from the embrace of the heroine? A love story where the obstacles are psychological and spiritual, not material, and that’s exactly what this clever poet and this artful filmmaker have in mind.”

Funny, I watched Foolish Wives and Children of Paradise the same week, each at the time the most expensive film ever made in its country.

C. Affron commentates the second half. “Frederique, whose ambition is to be a great tragic actor, is often involved in comic action. Baptiste, the mime who is supposed to make his audience laugh, is the serious one, on-stage and off.”

Terry Gilliam: “Watching it, I’m amazed at how much I’ve stolen from it.”

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