Children of Paradise is a classic. The most expensive, most star-studded film the French had ever made, it marked the summit of Marcel Carné’s career, glorifying the fatalism of his prewar poetic realism and exemplifying in its magnificent self-presentation the triumph of the imagination over loss, and of art over politics. After four years of sequestration in Hitler’s hothouse, French cinema could again be paraded on an international stage, for what is often taken to be the swan song of its “golden age.” National pride buoyed the film’s premiere in March 1945, just two months after the Nazis had been driven from the country. Exhibited briefly as two separate films, then consolidated into a single 190-minute experience, it played continuously for decades in Paris, the city where its intrigue takes place. It was both a commercial and an international art-house hit, and invariably comes out near the top in polls on the best French films. Even Cahiers du cinéma—historically hardly a supporter of Carné’s—recently ranked it the eighth greatest movie ever made (behind just two other French titles: The Rules of the Game and L’Atalante).
Two years in the making, this epic ode to the theater and to passion, following the insouciant yet mysterious courtesan Garance (Arletty), who gathers jealous lovers as she moves through the streets and classes of 1820s and 1830s Paris, was designed to be classic in the art-historical sense. For it forces one to admire the intricate balance of its oppositions (of women, suitors, social strata, high and low theater), the graceful proportions of its mise-en-scène (from the majestic sweep of its opening shots to the intimacy of its love scenes), the orchestration of the memorable voices of its powerful actors, and the effortless unrolling of its elegant, geometric plot. Motifs arising in Part One are answered, and often inverted, in Part Two, so that, for instance, the tragedian, Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), turns whimsical, while the comic, the mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), becomes tragic. All this is made possible by the architecture of the theater, with the curtain segregating action in the public sphere from action both onstage and backstage. Stepping from one side of the curtain to the other, taking off makeup or putting on a costume, characters visibly reverse their roles or find themselves exposed—as when, in a fatal gesture, the dark poet of crime Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) reveals the lovers Garance and Baptiste in the balcony after a performance of Othello. Nor can we ever forget our own role in a spectacle we are invited into and closed off from by a curtain.
Such artifice amounts to a mannerist exaggeration of the style Carné and poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert perfected in their earlier, more subdued films, like Port of Shadows (1938) and Le jour se lève (1939). Critic André Bazin took their 1930s poetic realism to be genuinely “classical,” in that a natural equilibrium of elements spoke directly to the anxieties of prewar society. Children of Paradise, made during the turmoil of the occupation and retreating to the nineteenth century, barters such immediacy for striking effects. Take the costumes by Mayo, which, authorized by the film’s theme of life as theater, display each character in sartorial self-expression. Or the sets by Alexandre Trauner, which come straight from etchings Carné found at the Musée Carnavelet. As for the dialogue, Prévert’s precious phrases are noticeably weighed, then often declaimed in a register more poetic than realist, and by such stage legends as Barrault, Herrand, Louis Salou, Pierre Renoir, and Maria Casarès (whereas Jean Gabin, the consummate film actor, had muttered most of his lines in Port of Shadows).
Minor characters, like the ragpicker and the comic proprietor of the Théâtre des Funambules, appear as if caricatured by Daumier. And why not, for Daumier had been inspired to create his famous Robert Macaire series after witnessing the real-life Lemaître play Macaire in 1834. As for the look of the major characters, Carné explicitly references as a source a masterpiece of late mannerist painting, La grande odalisque, when the ineffably beautiful Garance tells the police that she models nude for Monsieur Ingres. Other characters seem to have stepped out of illustrations for romantic novels of the time by Victor Hugo (The Last Day of a Condemned Man) or Stendhal (The Red and the Black), or even Balzac (Père Goriot). Altogether, then, Children of Paradise enthralls us not just with its subject and themes but also, and far more, with its exquisite manner of rendering them. Like grand opera, its melodrama is woven by lyrical voices expressing themselves floridly in duets, trios, and quartets, and in close-ups that amount to arias, whose effect is augmented because they are set against breathtaking choral scenes.
Grandiloquence like this belonged to a golden age just then coming to a close, as critic Serge Daney intimated when he compared Children of Paradise to Bresson’s Les dames du Bois de Boulogne, which a few months later announced, in its hushed tone, the arrival of a modern cinema aesthetic. Daney was echoing Bazin, who originated the idea of this opposition between classic and modern. For Bazin, Carné had been in tune with French society in the thirties, but Children of Paradise, as impressive as it was, appeared self-satisfied, removed from the struggle for a renewed cinema and culture. In what may have been the film’s very first review, the twenty-six-year-old critic, writing for the popular daily Le parisien in March 1945, begrudged his undeniable attraction to a film that didn’t seem to need him. “Its outline is precise, that’s certain, and of rare intelligence . . . but the film remains cool, as if spurning our readiness to yield to it. Its principal fault [lies] . . . in being merely admirable.” Children of Paradise may be an eloquent spectacle, yet it holds much in reserve, like the enigmatic Garance, who in the end recedes from all of her suitors, and especially Baptiste. Bazin wants to grasp something that is ultimately unavailable. “Paradoxically,” he wrote, “this huge fresco, on which four or five different destinies are interwoven, seems incomplete.” Whereas the tightly scripted Carné-Prévert classics of the thirties (especially Le jour se lève) succeed through dramatic simplification, Children of Paradise uses its uncommon length to layer psychological depth atop narrative complexity, whetting our appetites for additional episodes. “Did they run out of film or out of time?” Bazin asked—for we want to follow some of these characters into further adventures and learn the backstories we feel they possess (and that several of them in fact did possess, as historical figures).
A thirteen-year-old François Truffaut, who had surely read Bazin’s review, raced to see the film as soon as he could. Evidently, he, too, emerged hungry for more, since he went back for eight additional helpings in the next couple of years. Some might expect him to have denigrated it, for he would make a name for himself by slashing away at the self-satisfied cinéma de qualité that developed during and just after the war. But Children of Paradise doesn’t sport the cynicism and trendy liberal values he abhorred; instead, it boldly stands by the romantic view of life in the period of Hugo, Delacroix, and Théophile Gautier, the period that Baudelaire hailed in his famous Salon de 1846. A fanatic for novels from that time, Truffaut could only admire Carné’s courage in reaching for such unabashed romanticism. So that, although he relentlessly skewered him in the years to come, Truffaut ultimately admitted to Carné that he would have traded his entire oeuvre to have made Children of Paradise.
No film sets out more directly to recall the strategies and atmosphere of romantic melodrama, Children of Paradise’s primary referent. Its action opens on the very “boulevard du Crime” where melodrama flourished in its heyday, and where we follow Garance as she encounters, one after the other, the three larger-than-life men who anchor the film both in theater and in history: the celebrated actors Lemaître and Jean-Gaspard Deburau (stage name, Baptiste) and the criminal Lacenaire. The historical Lemaître, who actually did get his start playing a lion at the Funambules, was so renowned on the Paris stage that melodramas were rewritten to make use of his voice. Like Prévert, the brash Lemaître had no qualms about playing Shakespeare in repertory alongside sentimental crowd-pleasers.
The muteness of the mime—and Deburau is known as the greatest of them all—sets interiority against the extroversion of Lemaître, one of the key oppositions of the genre that Peter Brooks identified in his seminal 1976 study The Melodramatic Imagination. In 1836, an actual melodrama took over Deburau’s private life when he found himself charged in one of the most sensational murder cases of the era. The courtroom became a packed theater, where a thirsty public finally heard the voice of the darling of the mime shows. Baudelaire wrote of this incident. He wrote more floridly, though, of Lacenaire, the sexually ambiguous dandy who, modeling himself after Lemaître’s portrayals of outsize characters, proclaimed himself above all laws in a spellbinding oration at his own murder trial (held nearly simultaneously with Deburau’s). He expressed with relish the anarchy of his criminal deeds in romantic lyrics written in prison. And he didn’t disappoint the crowd that flocked to see him greet the guillotine.
Children of Paradise evokes this romantic milieu without condescension. “The greatest creators of cinema—and Carné is certainly among these—don’t hesitate to make melodramas, since that’s where the real popular essence of their art lies,” wrote French film historian Marcel Oms. Every register of expression is mobilized to inflate the sentiments of the characters, whose lives are woven together by threads crisscrossed in a fatal pattern. Each character, prop, and speech seems portentous. Jéricho, the ragpicker, for instance, wanders the streets crying out doom, reciting his lines in a litany. Primordial objects are sanctified by their recurrence and by the way their names (lune, miroir, fleur) are so deliciously pronounced. In Brooks’s vocabulary, the “simplicity and exaggeration” of such objects and words express a morally and aesthetically superior world, where everything turns on a phrase, on the color of a gown, on the presence or absence of the moon.
Through its multiple plots, predestined meetings, class conflicts, duels, and absolute choices, Children of Paradise aims at Brooks’s “total articulation of the grandiose moral terms of [melo]drama,” where ordinary life, bracketed by curtains and divided into acts, is transmuted into the consequential world of theater. Carné is out to “prove to the spectator that this other world is within him, prove it to him by making him experience it,” Oms writes, just as Baptiste casts a silent spell over the crowd at the Funambules, over us in the movie theater, and over Garance, who represents everything that art desires. Garance, introduced in her carnival act as the spectacle of “truth itself,” naked except for her beauty, holds a mirror that keeps her to herself even while leering males ogle. Everyone dreams of possessing not so much her beauty as her diffident self-possession. But this she offers only to Baptiste, who, like her, is an unassuming silent voice of the people. The purity of his attraction, however, forecloses the realization of their union. Baptiste stages an allegory of unfulfilled love in a skit that features all the characters in his life. Dreaming beside a statue of Phoebe (Garance), for whom he pines, Baptiste doesn’t notice Harlequin (Frédérick) entering to steal her away. As the laundress (Nathalie, Baptiste’s future wife) comes in, we catch with her a glimpse, in close-up, of his real, rather than his represented, despair. Baptiste/Pierrot looks not at Nathalie but offstage, where in the wings Frédérick whispers flirtatiously into the delighted ear of Garance.
More than a minor allegory about jealousy, this skit stages the defeat of the silent mime, who loses the only audience he cares for to the loquacious actor. When next we see Frédérick, his bravura and sophistication, and the reassuring sonority of his voice, have won not just Garance but the heart of Paris. In a tour de force, he whimsically toys with his assigned role in a new play, outraging the authors, who are forced to accept his victory over their drama since the audience applauds. In Friedrich Schiller’s terms, current at the time in which the film is set, Baptiste stands for the “naive,” nearly religious function that melodrama assumed just after the French Revolution, while Frédérick represents the “sentimental” sophistication of theater; updating this by a century, we might see Baptiste as the pure spirit of the silent cinema, which loses its audience to the urbane, promiscuous talkie. (The initial inspiration for the entire project, according to Carné’s biographer Edward Baron Turk, came after Barrault saw Charlie Chaplin, cinema’s most famous mime, in his first speaking role, in 1940’s The Great Dictator.)
Children of Paradise invites such allegorical applications. Garance, for instance, has been read as the purity of the French soul during the occupation. But before standing for anything else, she incarnates the idea of the perfect audience, whose transfixed gaze at a mime’s hypnotic performance is returned by him, until together they look out at the moon, that pure and distant screen on which they project their dreams . . . and we ours. Now, such enthrallment would have remained a mere idea except for the astounding skill of the film’s major performers. Played poorly, or just adequately, Children of Paradise would have been stiff and quaint, nothing but an allegory of enthrallment. But miraculously, it delivers what it represents, especially in making us experience the sublimity of which pantomime is capable. James Agee claimed that never before Jean-Louis Barrault had a film actor been able to truly portray artistic genius. José Ferrer is just a factotum standing in for Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (Huston, 1952); Harry Baur is a ludicrous shadow of Beethoven in Gance’s 1936 biopic; but Barrault stuns us in exactly the way that Deburau stunned audiences at the Funambules—until we are led to wonder if those audiences wouldn’t have preferred Barrault.
Barrault’s performance alone lifts Children of Paradise to the heights where masterpieces outlive the eras from which they come, taking on an otherworldly aura that keeps us at a respectful distance. Perhaps this is why Bazin found it “merely admirable.” He must have wanted a major production like this, that speaks so ethereally of the moon, to come closer to us on earth. But shouldn’t he have sensed its historical pertinence when he exited the theater that first night? After all, he stepped out into the city represented in the movie, still crawling with collaborators, black marketeers, and the maquis. Instead, he found the film to be carrying a poetic realist heritage—magnificently—into a postwar cultural moment where that style was no longer natural. Rather than holding a mirror up to its epoch, as had Carné’s prewar films, Children of Paradise, like its entrancing star, holds a mirror up to itself, admiring the naked truth of its own style.
Children of Paradise is one “quality” film whose greatness has never been questioned, not even at the crest of the New Wave, when a youth movement aimed to wash away fastidious masters like Carné. Then, in the seventies and eighties, came a return to prestige of professionalism in French scriptwriting and production design. The cinéma du look signaled another round of mannerism, and in films like Jean-Jacques Beineix’s The Moon in the Gutter and Luc Besson’s Subway (with sets by Trauner) and in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen and Amélie, it directly summoned the Carné-Prévert sensibility.
More than its ostentatious style renews Children of Paradise for the twenty-first century. Its length, once considered daunting, accords with changing norms. Already by the time of the New Wave, Hollywood epics such as Ben-Hur and Doctor Zhivago had pressed the advantage cinema had over television in terms of length as well as visual scale. Then came The Godfather, a vast novel in two—and eventually three—installments, each lasting approximately three hours. TV struck back with a spate of brilliantly scripted miniseries, starting with Roots. Many viewers today choose to experience an entire season of, say, The Wire during a single weekend, and indeed this is just how cinephiles must view any reprise of Feuillade’s serials on the big screen, Les vampires, for example, topping nine hours. Children of Paradise appeals to our appetite for tales too ample to be easily digested. Carné and Prévert, let us note, adored Feuillade, as did Bazin, who believed that cinema’s narrative capability could revive the medieval conte, or romance. And so, when he yearned for additional episodes to follow the earlier or later exploits of the marvelous characters of Children of Paradise, Bazin was essentially yearning for the novelistic. Children of Paradise may not derive from an identifiable literary source, but watching it is like losing oneself in an immense novel, whose characters inhabit an occult world of moral absolutes, measured against which ordinary life feels pallid. No wonder Truffaut went back to it again and again. No wonder it remains, in every sense, a perennial classic.
This essay stems from chapter 11 of his Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film. It benefits from Edward Baron Turk’s indispensable Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema and from the British Film Institute's classic monograph on this film by the late, and regretted, Jill Forbes.