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1995 was the centennial of the invention of movies. In Stockholm the event was celebrated, inter alia, by showing 'Les enfants du paradis' free of charge on the French National Day. It was presented as the best French movie ever made. Perhaps it was felt not to be polite toward other countries to talk of the best movie made in any countries. But many (not all) experts agree that it is indeed so. And so do I. I saw the film for the first time in 1954, and have never changed my mind about its paramount position. But whatever you may think in this respect, one of the most prominent features is that the movie is a 'GESAMTKUNSTWERK'. This word was invented by Richard Wagner to indicate a work in which music, text, and visual arts fuse or amalgamate into a unity. Concerning the movie at hand, the word is of course taken in a different sense. The movie contains all kinds of cinematic categories: mass scenes perhaps with 10'000 extras, chamber play with close-up photos of emotional faces, deep and genuine love, superficial sex, friendship, comic pantomime, tragic pantomime, comic theatre (that is, both the theatre scene and the public on the screen), tragic theatre, murder, hand-to-hand-fighting, pocket-picking, etc. And everything put together into one single film. Even more, whenever a section is comic, it rests so completely in the comic mood that the spectator cannot imagine that the entire movie was not comic from the first beginning, and will not remain so to the last end. Whenever it is tragic, it rests equally completely in the tragic mood, as if it had never been anything else than tragic and would never leave the tragic mood. Despite this heterogeneity, the movie does not split up in disparate fragments, but forms a genuine whole. The writer was the really great poet Jacques Prévert, and it tells much about his unusual competence that, on the one hand, each scene is superb when seen in isolation and, on the other hand, each scene does not therefore fit less perfectly in the film as a whole. - - - To some people it may be interesting to know that four of the roles are real historical persons: the actor Frederick Lemaître, the pantomimic performer Baptiste Debureau, the mediocre gangster Jean-François Lacenaire, and the latter's assistant Avril. Lacenaire was executed in 1836. His memoirs, which were written while he awaited execution, are published in English translation.
One day in 1966 I was walking along 8th Street in the Village. The
Village was where I went when I had no where else to go, when I
belonged no where, where I thought I could discover myself. It didn't
hurt that there were people to stare at, without being too obvious
It was a gray day and it started to rain. I stopped under the first protection I found, a movie marque - neither handsome nor attractive.
The photos promoting the film were behind glass at odd angles, held by tacks. I just wasn't in the mood. It wasn't what I was looking for. But the rain got worse, and I needed warmth. So I bought my ticket to join the twenty or so people who comprised the full audience.
From its first moment, the film pulled me in. After a frenetic start, it quieted to Jean-Louis Barrault sitting alone on a barrel. I'd seen Marceau before, but not until now had I seen the quiet poetry of true mime.
Barrault's character, Baptiste, had silently observed the theft of a watch. Baptiste pantomimed the theft but staged his pantomime as if people's perceptions were a mistake, as if the theft never took place. In the doing, he made everyone laugh. He did this for the love of Garance, played by Arletty, whom he had seen for the first time.
There follows in the film first love - unrequited, poetic, soulful. We see villainy, melodrama, danger, heroism, satire, plays within plays - a host of stories all integral to the whole of the play. And we believe completely.
It is the most complete film ever made. It changed my life.
CHILDREN OF PARADISE has a history almost as remarkable as the film
itself. Production was just beginning when Paris fell to the Nazis; the
work was subsequently filmed piecemeal over a period of several years,
much of it during the height of World War II. And yet astonishingly,
this elaborate portrait of 19th Century French theatre and the people
who swirl through it shows little evidence of the obvious challenges
faced by director Marcel Carne, his cast, and his production staff.
CHILDREN OF PARADISE seems to have been created inside a blessed bubble
of imagination, protected from outside forces by the sheer power of its
The story is at once simple and extremely complex. A mime named Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) falls in love with a street woman known as Garance (Arletty)--and through a series of coincidences and his own love for her finds the inspiration to become one of the most beloved stage artists of his era. But when shyness causes him to avoid consummation of the romance, Baptiste loses Garance to her own circle of admirers--a circle that includes a vicious member of the Paris underworld (Marcel Herrand), rising young actor (Pierre Brasseur), and an egotistical and jealous aristocrat (Louis Salou.) With the passage of time, Garance recognizes that she loves Baptiste as deeply as he does her... but now they must choose between each other and the separate lives they have created for themselves.
While the film is sometimes described as dreamy in tone, it would be more appropriately described as dreamy in tone but extremely earthy in content. Instead of giving us a glamorous portrait of life in theatre, it presents 19th Century theatre as it actually was: dominated by noisy audiences perfectly capable of riot, the actors usually poor and hungry and mixing freely with criminal elements, the desperate struggle to rise above the chaos to create something magical on stage. And while the film is not sexually explicit by any stretch of the imagination, by 1940s standards CHILDREN OF PARADISE was amazingly frank in its portrayal of Garance's often casual liaisons; American cinema would not achieve anything similar for another twenty years.
Everything about the film seems to swirl in a riot of people, costumes, and overlapping relationships, a sort of mad confusion of life lived in a very elemental manner. And the cast carries the director's vision to perfection. Jean-Louis Barrault is both a brilliant actor and brilliant mime, perfectly capturing the strange innocence his role requires; the famous Arletty offers a divine mixture of exhaustion, sensuality, and self-awareness that makes Garance and her fatal attraction uniquely believable. And these performances do not stand in isolation: there is not a false note in the entire cast, the roles of which cover virtually every level of society imaginable.
With its complex story, vivid performances, and stunning set pieces, the film has a longer running time than one might expect, and some may feel it is slow; I myself, however, did not read it as slow so much as precise. It takes the time to allow the characters and their various stories to develop fully in the viewer's mind. I must also note that while a knowledge of theatre history isn't required to fall under the spell of this truly fascinating film, those who do have that background will find it particularly appealing. CHILDREN OF PARADISE is one of the few films that can be viewed repeatedly, one of the truly great masterpieces of cinema. Strongly, strongly recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
"Les Enfants du Paradis" is my favorite movie of all time, and if you don't agree with me, you must admit it's surely one of the most beautiful. The film is about one woman, Garance (Arletty), who is loved by many men in early Paris. It is definitely Marcel Carne's crowning achievement, and to think this movie was even made is a miracle. Sadly, this movie is unseen by many, and isn't even on IMDb's Top 250 list. It's really too bad that such a stunning film would be so underrated. Please take my word, overlook the running time, and check out "Children of Paradise." (****/****)
Film Review by Jim Richardson
First published in "Der Stump" 7/16/75
GREATEST FILM EVER MADE
The greatest film ever made is director Marcel Carne's "Children of Paradise" with script by Jacques Prevert. It's hard to say more.
In Paris of the 1840's on Le Boulevard du Crime, Carne's camera soars through sideshow entertainments of every description. The motion picture has just begun. No characters introduced. Already the audience is gasping, dizzy, lost in a swirl of romantic imagery. We are inside a theatre sharing the cheapest seats in the last row of the top balcony near the ceiling with the "children of paradise." We forget ourselves and any notion that a film has to be "realistic" as we float along catching Carne's glimpse of this lost, fantastic era. The movie moves. It overflows with art and intelligence; we are totally under its spell of romance and beauty.
As the story unfolds, we watch it in a daze. There is suffering and sudden death. But no leaden hand is telling us this is a stylized allegory dealing with the paralysis of an occupied France. This is the kind of film people make when they may die tomorrow: we are compelled to receive it on the edge of our seat, every nerve tingling with desperate anticipation. We don't need to know that it was made between 1943-45 when some of the filmmakers were being hunted by the Gestapo, that starving extras stole banquets before they could be photographed.
Every movement the performers make is studied, made perfect as though this would be the last time any of them were to act. Garbo interests you? Meet Arletty. The ideal twentieth century woman. Witty. Controlled. Passionate. When she comes to her lover she glides toward the camera, walking without the use of her feet. Impossible? Not this time.
Jean-Louis Barrault playing Baptiste Debureau, the greatest French mime who created Pierrot (a pale, love-sick, ever-hopeful seeker after happiness) -- Barrault transcends the man's legend with elegant pathos. And the way he moves. Like a feather. How did he learn that?
The man who taught him plays his father in the film. As a matter of fact, Etienne Decroux taught Marcel Marceau as well. What does Decroux think of Marceau's popular mime? Snarls, "Walt Disney!"
Mime is serious to Decroux. At some of his performances if the audience interrupts with applause, he is insulted and immediately retires from the stage!
In the film, we see Barrault do many of Decroux's mime exercises during moments of Debureau's performances. Does Decroux think this is a good film? It is said that when he views it, tears run down his cheeks as he mouths all the lines.
But the film is not just about mime. Pierre Brasseur plays the most renowned romantic actor in France, Frederick LeMaitre. Decroux doesn't want him in his mime company at first because it's so obvious that "he's an actor." Frederick gets his break when he mocks a playwright by turning the man's melodrama into a farce. Years pass and both actor and mime become successful. But the actor cannot play "Othello" because he is so vain nothing can make him feel jealousy. That's right: Arletty cures him!
And there are aristocrats, and murderers, and thieves. And the film is over three hours long without a break. And you will be surprised how fast those three hours disappear!
You will be overcome with a feeling of ecstasy; you will sign, you will cry. And as your breath is taken away you will be left with so much you never knew before, that you always thought existed; something will have happened to you for the first time, and forever. Now is the time to fall in love with the best there is!
*Enfants* is a work of genius. I won't say it's the greatest film of all
time, because its scope is very narrow: the mystery of the heart, the
wayward course of love, the bittersweet joy and sorrow of lovers. Maybe that
isn't so narrow after all, but it doesn't cover quite as wide a spectrum as
other great films (seven samurai, casablanca, mahabharata, key largo etc).
Nonetheless, this film belongs in that same company, for an unsurpassed
portrayal of loves lost and won, and also the passion of art, a form of love
expressing itself in public creativity, enriching the lives of many. Love
between lovers enriches them alone; art enriches the world.
The woman Garance is loved by 4 men in this film. Two of them, at least, are superb renditions of genius-in-creation: the mime Baptiste, and the actor Frederick. Both are geniuses, but while Baptiste is silent, weak, and sad, Frederick is loud, powerful, irrepressively optimistic, courageous and generous. He is one of the greatest characters ever to grace the screen. He has one flaw: his genius is so pure, he has a blind spot regarding the weaknesses of others. He cannot conceive of an emotion such as jealousy, and so can never play Iago - until Garance, the fallen woman, finally teaches him.
The other character who may be a genius is Lacenaire, but he is a criminal genius. Evil, twisted, burning with hatred, he has only one true and honest anchor in society - his love for Garance. It doesn't save him, but it keeps him from being as bad as he could be.
Without going into the whole plot (it's long and convoluted) the primary paradox relates to intersecting and disconnected paths of love between the characters. Garance is loved by 4 men, but she really only loves Baptiste. So does Nathalie, a sweet and simple girl, who has the courage to do what Baptiste can not: she declares her love, and so they marry and have a child. Baptiste lacks the strength to take Garance when he has the chance, and so no one is happy - except maybe Frederick, he lives as life should be lived, and even the pain of losing Garance turns to gold in the alchemy of his art.
But despite the pain, and the unhappiness, loss and death, the world of *enfants* is beautiful. It's a world where love and art mean more than success or failure, a world where money is irrelevant and the passion for life burns away the curtain between fantasy and reality. It's three hours of *paradis*!
10/10, with a bullet through the heart.
Les enfants du paradis is the masterpiece of the duet Carré-Prévert. Although I did not enjoy it as much as Renoir' s work, it must be said of course that it is one of the biggest and most ambitious and most elaborate films ever made in France. Technically I was amazed by the huge sets of the beginning representing the city of Paris in the XIX century (le boulevard du Temple) and set in Nice, and the camera movements within the crowd. We have indeed to take into account the awful conditions in which the film was shot: under occupied France and in co-production with an Italian company that retired when Sicily was occupied, in the mid-shooting. (Colin Crisp) Les enfants du paradise is for me a magnificent, huge story; it is for the cinema what Balzac and Victor Hugo were for literature in the XIX century; not only French, but the world's. A colossal masterpiece with a desperately long, elaborate plot and well-defined powerful characters that confront each other trying to find out in their intercourse the answer to metaphysical questions about love and life between fantasy and reality, just as Armes suggests. Les enfants du paradis boasts an entire collection of characters that make up a twisted action as a result of the confrontation of their personal characteristics. Baptiste Deburau, a real-life mime of the XIX century is the main character. As pointed out in class, many Freudian interpretations have been made about this character: he is weak, he is unable to reach his desires (Garance), he does not want to accept the love he already has (the girl who desperately loves him), he is not a hero, but the very opposite: someone who deserves the pity of the spectator; but also that of Garance and that of his public: when he acts as a mime, the character (as usual) is always chased by fatality and sadness. He even wanted to commit sucide! Garance is a simple woman, as she says in the film. She is ambiguous. Some (the Cinemania magazine in Spain, for example) see her as a prostitute (remember the place where she used to work, her flair, or the strange character she was with and who accused her of stealing his watch -a client, a pimp?). Whatever she may be, she is a lonely woman looking for a lonely love. The four main characters of the film are in love with her, but in a different way each. Each one takes her in the way they want her to be -we see her in the arms of Lemaitre or the Count as though she was two different persons-, except for Baptiste, who at the end of the film will realize and chase his true love -although we do not know what happens at the end. Lemaitre is the man, the Don Juan, the witty, attractive and winning beloved artist. He is proud of himself and his public is proud of him. He provides some talented moments of witty puns or funny, twisted scenes -like the one in the theatre. But there are two things that he cannot obtain: absolute art, in his own opinion only Baptiste has the genius; and absolute love, Garance, who she will love but only one night. However, he can manage it all, he is a scrounger and he will still enjoy his life as it comes. Lacenaire is an ominous, dark mixture of Lemaitre and Baptiste. He is proud as Lemaitre but triumph has cheated him -he is completely awkward as a writer. And he is resentful and sad as Baptiste. These two lead him into violence against his love, Garance and against the Count -I really enjoyed the scene of the murder: the close-up and the grimace of Avril- which can also. The murder can also be taken as a rebellion of the resentful lower classes against the upper classes: the image of the fallen, dead hand with the valuable ring is significant. The count is a symbol for the upper classes: childish (his hairstyle, his expression are those of a young boy), whimsical, materialist, stuck-up, posh, he thinks he can achieve the love of Garance thanks to his influences (he saves her from the police) and wealth (notice the rich veil Garance wears at the beginning of L'homme blanc. But he will lose everything by hands of Lacenaire. Finally, I liked the character of the girl who is in love with Baptiste. She really reminds me of Éponine form Les Misérables by Hugo, the unrequited young girl in love with Marius, the main character. She wanders alone through the film, seeking the love of Baptiste, without success. And she plays the lead in one of the most bitter scenes in the film, about which we will talk later.
The main topics in the film are love on one side and life between fantasy and reality on the other. Love is always present in various forms. A passionate love by Lemaitre, a platonic love by Baptiste, an unrequited love by the girl who loves him, a love bought with money, by the Count, a violent love, by Lacenaire. But Carné and Prévert really want to show that only a true, pure and simple love will prevail. That is the love Garance seeks and that only Baptiste will be able to give her at some point. 'Love is so simple' is one of the climax phrases, containing the key of love in the movie will first pronounced by Garance and later by Baptiste. However, there are some other bitter moments on the dark side of love: at the end of the film, when Garance flees and Baptiste chases her, his wife will stand alone, in the middle of the room, still. The camera will stay with her, and we can see her reaction, that of a little child so suddenly and badly struck by betrayal. 'What about me?' So simple words that however struck me. There is in the movie a constant game between life and theatre. This has a lead role throughout both parts of the movie. We can see gorgeous and funny sketches by Baptiste (right at the beginning, when he meets Garance, and later on his performances), and burlesque or sublime representations by Lemaitre. And in general a whole bunch of characters form the theater life will show off in the movie, and theater life itself can be seen in a close-up: the owner of the theater des Funambuls, the three authors (victims of a bitter criticism and humor), the side characters. However, the climax of this close relationship between theater and life arrives in the scene where Lemaitre, who knows he can do whatever he wants on a stage, as he is a superstar, strays from the script and begins fooling around. He goes out to the stalls and then action bends over itself, and does not depend on the authors any longer: the double game actor-spectator, fiction-reality reflexes itself in a witty dance. And Lemaitre leads us in the confusion, what is real and what is not?. And that confusion is so funny for the public; and is also illicit, but Lemaitre is allowed to do anything within a theater. There is another moment where the characters of life (Garance, Lameitre and co.) long for being public again. At the beginning of the second part, Garance tells Lemaitre about the 'children of paradise', that is 'les enfants du paradis'. They are so poor, so happy, so irresponsible, up there in the cheapest seats! Just like children, as the title of the movie says. And Garance misses that, she misses that time of her life when she did not have anything to do with the Count or with the rich veil that covers her face. And the drawing from the cover of the film is meaningful too: the children of paradise sitting and watching the rest of characters, as if they were real characters in a play. And all the characters are just watching the center around which all action spins: their either beloved or hated Garance.
It is an epic. One of the best films ever made. The script and the dialogues show that the genius of Jacques Prévert wasn't made only for written poetry but for poetry in motion as well.Carné's camera is precise and makes one feel like a real witness of the plot. All in all a lesson of how to make a film yesterday, today and tomorrow.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
People sometimes wonder how this great movie could be made in occupied
France in the midst of WWII. But perhaps this was a most appropriate time
for it to be created, and added to its conception and execution. Because
fortunes of war are a reflection of the fortunes of life, which above all
this film explores. All the cliches so familiar in everyday life - what
up comes down; the fickleness of love; beauty in the midst of ugliness; the
lonely sad sensitive soul; the unthinking happy-go-lucky mob; generosity;
avariciousness - are here portrayed in breathtaking poetry of words,
settings, camera angles, music that has never been equalled. The huge
movements over and through the crowd at the start and end of the film make
an indelible impression.
And the performances! Barrault and Arletty create characters who are uniquely individual and yet represent ideals of physical and spiritual beauty. Of the other memorable performances, Pierre Renoir as Jericho, the rag and bone collector, is someone who once seen will never be forgotten.
As in life, there is no easy happy ending. Having emerged from the crowd, Garance once more melts into it. But there is every chance that the wheel of fortune will turn again; Baptiste will find Garance; Nathalie will find new love; the show will go on!
It's one of the best films ever made and one of my favourite films,
although the first time I attempted to see it at 14 years old in 1973 I
didn't understand it at all. I tried again four years older and it won
me over. Personal tastes vary not only between people but within people
over time. Nowadays I can't understand why some people can't understand
it and get nothing from this timeless world classic - at the very least
they could look upon it as the closest the French cinema ever got to
Meandering tale set in 1840's France has whimsically smiling Garance played by Arletty in love with mime artist Baptiste played perfectly by Jean-Louis Barrault but with three other men in love with her too. These are the Dramatic Actor Lemaitre played by Pierre Brasseur (Lucien from Le Quai Des Brumes), the cynically corrupt Lacenaire by Marcel Herrond (Renaud from Les Visiteurs Du Soir) and stiffly possessive Montray by Louis Salou. With Maria Casares as the faithful Nathalie the trouper in love with Baptiste and you have the main cast for your delectation. Just as the characters in the plays at the Funambules depended upon the pleasure of the audience up in "the Gods" so do the actors on the screen although now thanks to TV and DVD us people up in the Gods are a lot more distant! The main thread is how and why all the tangled love affairs unravel. The film is littered with eccentric characters and heavy poetic observations, backed up with a logical plot, incredible sets and unforgettable acting all made under the Nazi occupation. Adversity often heightens the senses, but Carne and Prevert excelled themselves with this production. Favourite bits: Baptiste proving Garrance's innocence of stealing a watch in mime to the assembled crowd; the touchy scenes inside the aptly-named Robin Redbreast pub; Garance and Lemaitre in the deeply shaded box at the Funambules watching Baptiste perform; his calling her beautiful and her response of "No, just alive, that's all"; Lemaitre revising the play in which he was acting on the stage; his opinion of mulled wine "Like God slipping down your throat in red velvet breeches"; Lacenaire's lacerated opinion of everything especially of Montray; the bookend bustling street scenes at the start and finish; the astounding ending; and on and on so much richness to see and hear in three hours!
It's a world portrayed in great detail and lovingly, done in the best French tradition: dreamy, full of poetry, a frisson of sex and a little violence. As with me, it may need a little patience to cultivate this particular flower, but if you allow it into your heart it will never leave you again. Definitely High Art!
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