The Joy of Visiting ‘Children of Paradise’ for the First Time


Children of Paradise

Last night I finally finished watching Marcel Carné‘s 1945 film Children of Paradise. At just over three hours long it took me a couple sittings, though last night I watched the bulk of it (a little over two hours) and it’s one hell of a piece of cinema.

Roger Ebert describes the production saying it “was shot in Paris and Nice during the Nazi occupation and released in 1945. Its sets sometimes had to be moved between the two cities. Its designer and composer, Jews sought by the Nazis, worked from hiding. Carne was forced to hire pro-Nazi collaborators as extras; they did not suspect they were working next to resistance fighters. The Nazis banned all films over about 90 minutes in length, so Carne simply made two films, confident he could show them together after the war was over.”

The film largely focuses on an actor — Frédérick Lemaître played by a most inviting Pierre Brasseur — and a mime — Jean-Baptiste Debureau played by Jean-Louis Barrault. Their entanglements with a woman known as Garance (Arletty) and their work on the stage drives the narrative while a couple of nefarious characters of varying levels of “villainy” — Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) and Édouard comte de Montray (Louis Salou) — bend the story where necessary.

Frédérick is a jovial man of passion, though not one to settle down, while Baptiste is an accomplished pantomime and the wide gap between Brasseur and Barrault’s performances allows the film to play a perfect balancing act. One is loud, suave and debonair. The other is quiet and shy. Both are moving performers, but in grand and different ways.

Arletty as Garance is a steely and strong woman who uses her womanly virtues to make her way through life. She does so with a hardened glare that would suggest she is fine with the woman she is, but I couldn’t help but see sadness in her character early and regret later on. This is all largely implied and the character can be read a myriad of ways, but to deny Garance a heart would be to lose touch with her character.

Heart, in fact, is at the core of Children of Paradise and it can be found in all the characters, even when those hearts are hardened and cold. Such as Lacenaire, who at one point approaches Frédérick with the intent on shaking the now-famous actor down for money, and anticipating a fight. Instead Frédérick openly invites him to his table for drink and food while also giving him half his lottery winnings. Lacenaire doesn’t change his ways, but you can almost see the shame he feels for himself, hardening him even further.

I was particularly moved by the relationship between Frédérick and Baptiste. One an actor, the other a mime. Baptiste loves Garance, but his timidity drives her into Frédérick’s arms. It isn’t an attempt on Frédérick’s part to hurt Baptiste. In fact, he knows nothing of Baptiste’s feelings. It’s simply a matter of “that’s life”, though the human aspect of the feelings attached are not forgotten.

Later in the film neither Frédérick or Baptiste have Garance on their arm and yet the two still share feelings for her, one more than the other, which I will not ruin here, but Frédérick says something I felt was the line of the film:

Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to none”

Children of Paradise is loaded with fantastic dialogue and each actor delivers his/her lines with the utmost of precision making for a tremendously moving picture that, at three hours, flies by.

The screenplay is credited to Jacques Prévert, though Carné was involved in its evolution, which brings me to the following passage from an interview with the director from 1990 (via Criterion) where he discusses the origins of the story.

[Jacques Prévert and I] were living near Nice then, and one day, walking along the promenade des Anglais, scouring for ideas, we ran into Jean-Louis Barrault. I hadn’t seen him since the war began, and we went for a drink. Naturally, we talked nonstop about the theater, and he started to tell us about what had happened to the mime [Jean-Gaspard] Deburau. The artist was at the height of his fame–not that he was world-renowned, because at the time news didn’t travel so fast, but he was very famous in Paris and even in the French provinces. He was walking arm in arm with his mistress–he was wealthy then–when a drunkard called out to him and insulted the woman profusely, calling her a whore and all sorts of names. Seeing that the man was drunk, Deburau pushed him aside. The man, with that insistence peculiar to drunkards, came back at him. Finally, Deburau, exasperated, hit the man with his cane and, by some fluke, killed him. So he was tried, and it was a very public trial. But the reason we were so taken by the story, and why we would have liked to do it, was that the whole of Paris attended the trial only to hear the mime speak, to know what his voice sounded like. We thought it was a fantastic idea. We went back to our country retreat, near Nice, and started thinking. We soon realized that it wasn’t a good idea for a movie, that if we chose Barrault to play the part of Deburau, the audience would already be familiar with his voice. There was no suspense. And on the other hand, if we chose some unknown actor, people would have mocked his voice. So we gave up the idea . . . Well, actually, Prévert wanted to give up, but I said no, because I felt that the period in question–the boulevard du Crime, the theater–and a film paying tribute to it sounded good to me.

I couldn’t help but read that story and think how great it would be if someone made a short film out of it. The story would play out as described and we’d come to the trial, Parisians waiting with bated breath for Deburau to finally speak. A lawyer would ask, “Would you please state your name for the court…” Deburau would look at the faces in the jury and beyond, all wide-eyed with anticipation. The actor playing Deburau would pause, swallow and the film would go black… “Jean-Gaspard Deburau,” would be heard and the credits would begin to roll.

For those with a Hulu Plus account, you can watch the film in its restored entirety right here and if you don’t yet have a Hulu account, you can get two weeks free right here.