WHAT MORE TO SAY about this, one of film’s most complete pictures? Much, but little that has not been said before. ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ is justly one of cinema’s most feted works, almost invariably appearing in the single digits of any French ‘Best-of’ list and surely competing with Renoir’s ‘La Règle du Jeu’ as one of the country’s most influential films. A three-hour epic set in 19th century Paris, ‘Children of Paradise’ establishes its foundation in actual historical personages of the theater district, ‘The Boulevard of Crime’, and there erects a monument to the stage itself and those unique souls who occupy it.
Vested with such rich characters, ‘Children of Paradise’ can absorb the glamor and sprawl of an American epic like ‘Gone With the Wind’ and inject it with political nuance, personal subtexts, and farsighted observations on human life that exceed all its contemporary Hollywood blockbusters. It is the segue between Romantic opera and the French Nouvelle Vague. The dire clashes of its archetypes take place on extraordinarily crafted sets, beneath precisely positioned spotlights, and with a budget unmatched to that time in French cinema. Too, the script abounds with intertwining metaphors—both spoken and visual— and a stable of self-referential catchphrases recur with extreme precision. But the film also bleeds brightly for the aspiring artiste, slips slyly through crowded city streets, and deploys a trenchant cynicism that belies its exaggerated staging. It breathes with liveliness and naked honesty, captured never so well as on the painted face of Baptiste the mime. His outcast suffering is not far different from that endured by the starry-eyed Michel in Godard’s ‘Breathless’, despite that director’s attempt to reject this film and its era as too mannered.
Although all performers here turn in iconic performances, Jean-Louis Barrault is the genius linchpin upon which everything turns. His face is uniquely proportioned and deeply expressive, matching a willowy frame that he contorts on stage like a ballet-dancing jester. His comedy always seems tinged with melancholy, as if he is too delicate to survive in this world, ground down between the ramrod nobility of the Comte Édouard and the nihilist subversion of the crook Lacenaire.
‘Children of Paradise’ also contains outward-looking subtexts that perhaps later eras of French cinema have tended to overlook in favor of passionate but self-absorbed character studies. Yes, the romance and sentimentality of relationships are at the heart of ‘Children of Paradise’, but not to the utter exclusion of other themes. Under the yoke of Nazi occupation, director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert were obliged to couch their social commentary in the ‘simpler’ terms of historical costume drama and love triangles. To make a film of this stature in boom times would be achievement enough; to do it at a time of political censure, widespread hunger, and the omnipresent shadow of war makes ‘Children of Paradise’ all the more astonishing. Carné ‘s recollection of the production—prop food disappearing from tables, extras belonging to the Resistance being duped and abducted by Gestapo officers from the set—puts into perspective all modern directors’ complaints of pushy producers or tetchy stars. And so ‘Children of Paradise’, appropriately enough, is a testament to creation both upon the screen and outside of it. Woe that such enormity would frame its genesis, but joy that such passion saw it through.