Few epics, not even Cleopatra or Titanic, have endured such disruption as Children of Paradise, made in France during World War II. Shooting commenced in August 1943, and post-production continued until January 1945. Somehow the enterprise survived power failures, a shortage of film stock, storms, curfews, and the audacious spending of its director, Marcel Carné. Hampered if not harassed by the German Occupation, and plagued with budgetary woes, Carné’s triumphant masterpiece was finally released in two parts, shown on the big screen, in March of 1945.
A fresco conceived on a majestic scale, Children of Paradise sweeps its audience back to the 1820s, painting the detail of a world obsessed with both theater and crime. The original screenplay by Jacques Prévert drew its inspiration from such colorful personalities of the period as Jean-Gaspard Deburau, the innovative mime; Pierre-François Lacenaire, a murderer who went to the scaffold; and Frédérick Lemaître, a celebrated actor for whom both Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo wrote plays. Jean-Louis Barrault, fascinated by the character of Deburau (Baptiste in the film), urged Prévert to develop a story around him. The result was a tightly plotted narrative dominated by the fictional figure of Garance (played by the inimitable Arletty), a woman who arouses the passion and envy of the film’s four leading men.
Garance refuses to compromise with a world of decadence and deception. Just when each of her suitors appears to have ensnared her, she glides away like some tantalizing ideal, eventually disappearing into the symbolic crowds along the Boulevard of Crime. During the several years covered by the film, she moves from poverty to affluence, never sacrificing her principles or her open-minded vision of love. If “love is so simple,” according to Garance’s refrain, its ramifications prove infinitely more allusive and subtle the further the film advances. Children of Paradise may be described as one long aching ode to melancholy, but it never descends into mawkish sentimentality. It runs the gamut of emotions, from the anguish of infidelity to the rivalry of unrequited lovers, from solitude and rancor to the backstage enthusiasm and commotion of the theatre. Carné and Prévert know exactly when to leaven their narrative with witty interludes, and much of the verbal sparring inspired Bergman in films like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Magician.
Nothing is quite what it seems. The borderline between stage drama and real life dissolves in sequence after sequence. Each of the principals shows a “mask” to the world, exemplified in one of the very first tableaus—Garance as a fairground attraction, seated in a barrel of water, holding a mirror up to herself and looking for all the world like some Mona Lisa as men come to ogle her as the embodiment of “Truth.” For Baptiste, his disguise is the whey-faced makeup of the mime. For Lemaître, it’s the black-painted image of Othello one moment, or an eye-patched villain the next; even under threat, this vain yet lovable actor dissolves the tension with his sardonic wit. For the count who seduces Garance with his wealth and elegance, it’s the immaculate grooming of hair and beard. For Lacenaire, it’s the dandified coiffure and the frilly shirt that give a perverse elegance to his assassin’s features. Even the blind beggar is but a charlatan, up to his eyes in petty larceny.
Although the film works perfectly well at a surface level, every character, every gesture, springs from a coded approach to contemporary history. Garance, with her stalwart commitment to liberty and the simple things of life, represents Occupied France. The count serves as a chilling paradigm for the Nazi regime, believing that his opulence can purchase anything in sight. Jéricho is the archetypal informer, flourishing in the atmosphere of confusion and mistrust of the Boulevard of Crime. The art of Baptiste, and to some extent Frédérick, seems to encapsulate a folkloric tradition that touches the people at a profound level. Lacenaire awaits what will certainly be a visit to the guillotine with a smile of malevolent gratification on his lips, after dispatching the count in a Turkish bath. At once anarchist and career criminal, he exists to undermine the established order.
Just as the historical and political overtones of the film enable Carné and Prévert to pass oblique judgment on France under the Nazi yoke, so the erotic mood of the film is unusually ambiguous. Carné’s own homosexuality, at a time when diversity was not exactly welcomed in the movie industry, finds its metaphor in Baptiste and his androgynous appeal. Baptiste is attracted to Garance not just for her physical beauty, but for her statuesque strength in the face of condescension from the men surrounding her. When they do finally make love, one has the impression that Baptiste is succumbing to the embrace of Garance, and not vice versa.
The character of Lacenaire, by contrast, exudes an animal cunning, a sexual challenge that makes the fastidious count quail before him, to the point of accepting Lacenaire’s dagger as an almost welcome instrument of release.
Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement lies in its evocation of a vanished epoch, a “lost paradise” of Proustian proportions. The costumes and sets by Alexandre Trauner and the music of Joseph Kosma contribute to a vivid, teeming environment that enables Children of Paradise to transcend the theatrical circles in which it moves. (Both men, incidentally, had to work anonymously to conceal their Jewish origins from the authorities.)
One of the richest embodiments of romantic agony in 20th-century art, Children of Paradise still rules the seas of French cinema like some proud galleon, the ultimate exemplar of classical filmmaking, great acting, and a perfectly constructed screenplay. For many critics, it remains the finest French film ever made.
Peter Cowie has written numerous books on the European cinema, and also critical biographies of Ingmar Bergman and Francis Ford Coppola. He is Senior International Advisor to Variety, and founding editor of the annual International Film Guide.