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Children of Paradise: The Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection

Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Renoir

Written by Jacques Prevért
Directed by Marcel Carné

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

It's unclear when in the history of modern culture the mime became a figure of sheer, unadulterated loathing. In Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995) Samuel L. Jackson asks Bruce Willis, as they are racing through Central Park, if he is actually aiming at the pedestrians fleeing the bike paths, and Willis says, "No," then adds, "Maybe that mime."

In Shakes the Clown (1981), the alcoholic title character reaches his absolute nadir when he is reduced to taking mime classes from an effete teacher (played by Robin Williams, naturally).

But perhaps the premiere moment signaling the cultural shift occurs during the credit sequence in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. As Gene Hackman's grim Harry Caul walks through San Francisco's most popular park, he is trailed by a mime who mimics his motions, his posture, and his blank visage, before moving on to another innocent passerby. Coppola couldn't have come up with a better figure with which to contrast the anonymity of Caul and the emptily festive spirit of 'Frisco at the tail end of the Aquarian age.

Indeed, Coppola may have even created the sea change, alerting viewers to the arch, cloying hostility barely hidden behind the mime's gentle put-upon demeanor, and as the '60s made the transition to the '70s, the airy ideas of the hippies gave way to impatience with imprecision and forced, false "gentleness."

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The fact that the central character in Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert's Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise) is a mime may work against the film for new, contemporary audiences. But that's not the only thing that might keep them away. The film is from France. And it's subtitled. Serious viewers who are used to the hoi polloi at multiplexes groaning whenever they have to unexpectedly "read a movie," even if only for a few minutes, will understand how much a completely subtitled black-and-white film can seem alien to most modern American mall viewers, if it crosses their radar at all.

This is unfortunate, because Children of Paradise provides one of the cinema's most complete experiences. Forged in a tradition of quality by artisans versed in a lore and technology of moviemaking we see little of today, Children of Paradise is a film in which narrative, visual motifs, and perfect casting all work together to create a masterpiece that seems richer and deeper upon each repeated viewing.

Imagine if you will a tale of an exotic Parisian woman whom many men fall in love with but who, after a course of clandestine meetings out of the eyeshot of her "official" aristocratic lover, her true object of desire must part with her in the most tragic terms. No, not Moulin Rouge! This is Children of Paradise, the source of all subsequent high-flown historical romances. Or perhaps it's the tail end of the genre. In any case, anyone who enjoyed Moulin Rouge and other similarly unrestrained films such as The Red Shoes will probably also love this timeless, theater-obsessed love story.

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Children of Paradise is set in the theater world of Paris in (presumably) 1830, along the Boulevard du Temple (now the Place de la Républic), nicknamed the "Boulevard du crime" for the sensational plays performed there. In this complex tale, there is no true central character, but rather four men who revolve around the light cast by Garance (Arletty), a performer who drifts from one carnivalesque gig that she doesn't really care about to another.

The first of the four men we meet is Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur). An aspiring actor, he sees and flirts with Garance on the street and spends the rest of the movie running into her at various high and low points of their lives. The second man we meet is Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), Garance's ostensible boyfriend. At first presented as a dandified professional letter-writer for illiterate citizens, he is soon revealed to be an aspiring master criminal with high, Mabuse-style plans. Finally, there is Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault). A gentle street company mime with unexpected resources of strength, he falls in love with Garance at first sight. He is in turn loved by Nathalie (Maria Casarës), the daughter of the fine-issuing director where Baptiste and his father work. Baptiste is a romantic soul who longs to give his heart to Garance. Through this mix of men drifts the malignant Jérico (Pierre Renoir, brother of director Jean), a ragman and spy who usually sets the plot's more dire turns in motion. Later, yet another figure enters the scene: Count Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou), who, as so many men in the movie (and so many characters in movies in general) is struck by Garance as he watches her from his box seat, and approaches her after the play. The lives of these five intertwine until the conclusion of Part One (called "The Boulevard of Crime"), when a cornered Garance, accused of a crime, must proclaim a connection with the Count, even though she spurned him when he first approached her backstage.

In the second part, called "The Man in White," we resume the story six years later. As in the novel by Marcel Proust, to which this film bears some affinity, the sense of time having passed is remarkably communicated. The second half of the movie begins with Frédérick, now the most successful actor in Paris, creating chaos over a mediocre play he is trapped in. He encounters Lacenaire for the first time and then ends up in a duel with someone else. Wounded and unable to perform, he opts to see Baptiste in his wildly successful mime show. There, Frédérick runs into Garance for the first time since she mysteriously ran out on him in Part One. Baptiste sees her too, and though he is presumably now happily married to and has a son with Nathalie, he breaks down over Garance, and flees the stage, like a 19th Century Stephen Fry or Daniel Day Lewis.

A performance of Frédérick in Othello gives everyone a chance to get together again under heated circumstances, and Lacenaire, that hater of humanity and performance artist of malice, manipulates those around him, like a villain in a Neil LaBute movie, into sudden moments of revelation that destroy the lives of everyone around him. The film ends on a note of great tragedy and sadness, as Baptiste, awash in a carnival in which many of the revelers are dressed in his own Pierrot costume, is carried by the tide of humanity away from his beloved Garance, as she steps into a carriage to abandon her life and loves.

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All of the characters in Children of Paradise were modeled on historical figures. Lacenaire, for example, was an actual criminal who was executed on the guillotine, but who also captivated the minds of writers as diverse as Dostoevsky and Baudelaire. The real life Lacenaire, like his cinematic counterpart, approached manner of dress with the precision of a Beau Brummel and committed crime with the craft and cleverness of an aesthetician. Upon reflection, his motivation and life are very mysterious within the context of the film, but part of the movie's charm is its over all elliptical quality.

However, contemporary viewers who are free of the illusions of romance might find off-putting the core story of Baptiste's obsession with Garance, particularly in the film's second half when he has married Nathalie. In this instance, Casarës has one cinema's most thankless roles. Made up to appear more like Mrs. Danvers than Miss Congeniality, Casarës has a hard, sharp pinched face and narrow slits for eyes. And at film's end she is left in a rather pathetic state. Clearly, the movie doesn't take her side on things. But the viewer might, and could see Baptiste's obsession with Garance as irresponsible and based on an absurd fantasy.

But part of the reason for the ultimate unattractiveness of the Garance-Baptiste subplot is that the viewer doesn't really feel like they're getting the straight deal. If the motivation doesn't make sense in a movie, look for a subtext. In this case, as happens so often in movies, it's homosexuality. Lacenaire is presented as a barely coded gay crook. Meanwhile, Baptiste is a version of the straight man who is secretly gay and then falls for a mercurial party boy which leads to the wreckage of his family. As is often the case in gay-themed movies, Frédérick, the most aggressively heterosexual character in the film, is presented as ultimately the mostly isolated and the most hollow, heterosexuality unable to hold a candle to homosexuality in terms of passion and authenticity.

But that aside, Children of Paradise is a rare masterpiece. Though on the surface a great film in the impersonal tradition of quality like Gone with the Wind, in fact it bears many radical narrative tricks. Though Carné, because of his personal orientation and his inclination towards big-budget movies with an emphasis on decor and performance, might seem on the surface the French version of George Cukor, he was actually a modernist, with several direct links to and influences on the French New Wave.

The acting is brilliant all around. Carné took care with his thespians and they had brilliant, precise dialogue to recite. However, perhaps one of the best scenes in the film is one of the quietest. In the second part, Frédérick stumbles upon Garance in her exclusive box at the theater, which she visits nightly to watch Baptiste. In contrast to his more extroverted and extravagant persona in the rest of the film, here Brasseur is calm, cool, and deeply moving as he acknowledges that Garance was the only person to whom he had felt attached. It is one of the best-acted moments in all of world cinema.

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Criterion's two-disc Children of Paradise offers a clean black-and-white full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from the restored print released in the late '80s, and further cleaned up digitally. Audio is in Dolby Digital 1.0 (which doesn't help much with Joseph Kosma's delighful score), but also from restored elements, with newly translated optional (though still not complete) English subtitles.

The set features two highly informative audio commentaries. Disc One's is by the late Brian Stonehill, who pronounces the French names and titles with a beautiful accent. His track was recorded in 1991 for the Criterion Laserdisc. Disc Two's equally informative track is by Charles Affron, recorded in 2000. Between these two tracks, the viewer gleans almost everything they need to know to enjoy the film in its historical context, and are models of what solid commentary tracks can be. Disc One also features a "video introduction" by Terry Gilliam, in which the Brazil director enthuses over the film he first saw in childhood, and sympathizes with Carné's troubles with studios. The first disc also contains a brief restoration demonstration.

For supplements, Disc Two contains a reproduction of Jacques Pérvert's original film treatment, which basically summarizes the story in a lively style; production designs by Alexander Trauner, who had to work clandestinely during the Nazi occupation, and later went on to do great work with Wilder and Hawks; a production stills gallery, which features an image of the actor who was originally to play Jérico, but who fled when the Allies invaded (and was later arrested as a collaborator); extensive Carné and Prévert filmographies; and the contemporaneous U.S. theatrical trailer.

Bundled into the case is a 26-page booklet containing an interview with director Carné conducted by Stonehill and derived from the Laserdisc (which Stonehill produced), cast bios and DVD credits, and an essay about the film and its production history by Peter Cowie.

— D. K. Holm

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