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Children of Paradise is the undisputed grande dame of French cinema: majestic, imperious, and undiminished in its seductive allure. Epic yet intimate, earthy yet refined, exuberant yet restrained, this film clasps to its rapturous breast the tumultuous variety of emotions and contradictions that beat within the elusive human heart.

Set in the Parisian theatrical world of the 1820’s, Children of Paradise and its knowing, mature embrace of the vagaries of love are perfumed with a sweet, intoxicating blend of passion, melancholy and regret.

Directed by Marcel Carné with a screenplay by the poet Jacques Prévert, Children of Paradise began shooting under the watchful eye of the Nazis in 1943, but did not see the light of day until it was released and exhibited in two parts after the liberation of France in 1945. In the intervening years, Children of Paradise has gone on to become one of the most adored films in French history, and is considered by many to be that country’s greatest contribution to the medium.

Cinematic Confection

The man in white on the Boulevard of Crime
The man in white on the Boulevard of Crime

Once the opening credits have unfurled, an actual theater curtain rises to reveal the world of Part One: “The Boulevard of Crime.” Despite the drama’s theatrical milieu, the first act does not take place on a stage. The spectacle here is a confection of pure cinema, and the astonished viewer is immediately swept away by a torrent of sensations as the camera sails over a roiling street fair and its hustle of bustled skirts, unruffled flirts, and natty pickpockets.

Amidst the multitude of attractions, a carnival barker exhorts passersby to part with their change and catch a peek of Truth and Beauty in the flesh, who’s hiding with enticing prudence behind a sideshow tent. The embodiment of these eternal absolutes turns out to be Garance (underplayed with abandon by Arletty), a modest theatrical performer who sits naked in a rotating tub, oblivious to everything but her own reflection in a hand-held mirror. The spinning motion is apt, as Garance is the axis around which all amorous activity will turn, drawing into her orbit the lives, loves, and jealous passions of the film’s four male leads.

Four Play

The first character to be smitten by the errant affection of Garance is Frederick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), a street-wise boulevardier and aspiring actor who comes on to her with impudent, offensive charm. A ham in wolf’s clothing, his true love is the theatre. When Garance coyly retreats from his advance, Lemaître shrugs his shoulders and quickly moves on to a series of inconsequential, casual conquests.

Then there’s Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), whose name has a decidedly felonious ring: he’s a petty thief, preening dandy, and self-styled poet. Leering from beneath a forehead entwined with polished spit curls like a clinging vine, he’s a renaissance criminal who fancies Garance as a loving accomplice in his nefarious pursuits. He’s not so much cruel as “logical,” and his calculating nature prevents him from equating love with fulfillment if it subtracts from his freedom.

The wealthy Count of Montray (Louis Salou), who doesn’t come into until the picture until the second half, offers protection to Garance in exchange for her love. Heavily starched and stiff with jealousy, the Count appears to adore his actress with insane devotion. Lamentably, he’s incapable of inspiring her affection in return. Bored by her role as a showpiece and bejeweled plaything, Garance is unwilling to be a bird on a glided stage, be it public or private.

The one love unmotivated by selfish interest comes from the mime Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), a moon-faced Pierrot Lunaire who first witnesses Garance while performing his street act. When Garance is falsely charged with stealing a fellow onlooker’s watch, Baptiste clears her name with silent testimony by re-enacting the alleged crime to the uproarious delight of everyone but the ridiculed accuser. Art, evidently, implicates life. It is the impossible love between Baptist and Garance that dominates the film, and gives it its delectable, unsavory flavor of irretrievable loss.

Fast Forward

Part Two, “The Man in White,” glides over a gap of several years and provides an enhanced parallel to the first segment. When the film resumes, each of the men is preeminent in his own way. Lemaitre has risen above his lowly beginnings in melodrama and is now “Frederick The Great,” an esteemed actor and unbridled ego who declaims Shakespeare to near universal acclaim. Baptiste is at the height of his own fame, which threatens to eclipse the noisy renown of Lemaître. Lacenaire’s reputation as a criminal of note is in the full flower of its notoriety. Even the Count, whose achievements beyond an elevated birth are relatively unclear, is nevertheless at the pinnacle of social standing.

Yet despite everyone’s so-called triumphs, love remains as unobtainable as ever. The film thus draws to an inconclusive close as the curtain falls on Baptiste, engulfed by a crowd of Mardi Gras revelers as he chases after Garance in a futile attempt to reach her as her carriage trails away in the anonymous crush of the celebration.

Sculpting the Invisible

In its screen time of over three hours,Children of Paradise magically encapsulates a bygone era, a vanished world, and a lifetime of experience, to say nothing of the timeless virtues of Truth and Beauty. Similar to the mute eloquence of Baptiste, Carné’s film has sculpted the invisible with light, shadow, and gesture. The contrast of scale and tone is bereft of irony; the vast scope of the film gives amplitude and breadth to the emotions it depicts rather than overpowering them. Intimacy and passion are projected and deflected with prismatic comprehensives against an epic backdrop: the spectrum ranges from indifference, infatuation and rapture to jealousy, betrayal, and loss. The film even goes so far as to flirt with the sophisticated, quaintly decadent notion that infidelity might be the highest testament to love.

Atypical Archetypes

Each character is so vividly drawn that the detailed accumulation of characteristics nearly oversteps their boundaries as mere individuals. The surfeit of traits, mannerisms, and poetic dialogue, while assuring the richest of all possible characterizations, has the depth and unspoken qualities of archetypal absolutes. Jean Louis-Barrault’s portrayal of Baptiste is sublime. He is radiant in his glumness, even beaming while mooning over his character’s hopeless, impossible love.

Conversely, Arletty is supremely artful in her utter lack of expression. Like Greta Garbo at the prow of the ship in the finale of “Queen Christina,” Arletty’s face is a blank canvas upon which everyone who beholds it can project his or her own meaning and desire. Resolute and immutable, she is the calm epicenter of an emotional vortex. With her look of impassive grace, she inspires passion and emotional devastation to the very degree that she suppresses it in herself. Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile has been supplanted with the bemused smirk of a coquette.

It seems a miracle today that this film, with its expansiveness of sentiment and imposing physical scale, was shot within the confines of a film studio at the height of the German Occupation. Blessed with the sort of convincing realism that can only result from a profusion of detail, atmosphere, and artifice, Children of Paradise succeeds in creating a self-contained, grandiose universe in miniature with deceptive ease.

The film survives today not as a dusty museum piece, but as a shining, vibrant embodiment of the creative spirit under duress. In this instance, make-believe is hardly simple fantasy or fabrication, but a distillation of actuality and the world which exists in front of the movie screen (and not just the one that sparkles across its surface).

DVD Extras

Like the side-show carnival that opens the film, the bonus material included in this Criterion DVD release offers a dizzying array of competing attractions, from the box itself to the copious selection of menu-access features on the discs (see “Edition Details” below).

Most notable are the two audio-track commentaries provided by film scholars Brian Stonehill (Part One) and Charles Affron (Part Two). Although this dual approach seems curious at first in that it eschews the unity of voice inherent in a single, full-feature commentary, the resulting effect is both informative and complementary. The first half puts the film in historical context by offering a mix of political and social detail. In addition to making thematic and aesthetic observations, the commentary is helpful in pointing out cultural references that would probably be second nature to a French viewer, but elusive to a foreign or American one. The second half continues in similar fashion, without seeming redundant. Ideas and motifs touched upon in the first commentary are developed further, while also providing contrast.

Fascinating as well is the segment which showcases the film’s restoration. The Pathe Company began restoration work in 1991, followed by a full-scale effort by Criterion in 1996. Examples of severe deterioration, damage, and debris are contrasted with excerpts from the film as it now appears on DVD. Improvement to the soundtrack is also demonstrated.

It should be mentioned, however, that there is at least one glaring error in the “new and improved” English subtitle translation. The error in question occurs in the written prologue of Part Two, in which the subtitles state that Garance has been accused of a robbery attempt, when in fact the text clearly indicates a murder attempt (“une tentative d’assassinat”). A minor mistake perhaps, but the implication as far as Garance and the plot are concerned are of some consequence indeed.

Picture and Sound

Thanks to the Herculean efforts lavished upon the restoration of this film, the Criterion DVD release of Children of Paradise is positively luminous. The entire production is suffused with a heavenly aura, and a sharper, brighter image could hardly be hoped for. Whatever evidence of visual damage that persists is barely perceptible. Any remaining flaws, such as the intermittent sprinkling of surface specks or minor jump cuts, are inherent in the film as it survives, and are unavoidable.

As demonstrated in the restoration segment, the monaural sound quality is clear, full, and resonant. Surface noise has been removed, and weakness of sound and lack of aural spaciousness have been brought back to life with amazing fidelity.

  • Stuart: It was hard to find anything else on the Web that does
    justice to this great film the way Breck Patty's piece does. Two thoughts.
    It may be that it is is more of a political film than is usually noticed,
    and something beyond Garance's standing there in the pose and costume of la
    Liberte. Seocnd, there is the ubiquitous character named Jericho, whose
    presence might have made the Nazis less suspicicious of the project. It is
    complicated: on the one hand, you say to them, look, guys, we've put in
    this obvious Jew who's so repulsive it makes you look good; and they say
    cool; but there are other things going on, things with the archetypal
    Jericho and things with the other characters and multiple meanings. Way
    more than one Jew in this woodpile, if you ask me. Indeed, with this film,
    there is always more. And more. As for the title, I tell people that
    "Paradise" is the cheap balcony seats, called "Heaven" in the film,
    where the poor sit, as you and I
    sit at this moment, waiting for the magic and the power of theater to shine
    respite and meaning into our little lives. Les Enfants du Paradis is us.
    Stuart July 3, 2006 reply