Children of Paradise is a film about contrasts and how opposing forces came to define the first half of the 20th century. Set in the theater district of Paris during the 19th century, the film circles around Garance (Arletty), a beautiful courtesan, and the four men obsessed with her (all inspired by real life people); Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault) a famous mime working in the Funambules theater, actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), criminal Pierre Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) and the wealthy Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou). The four men represent distinct branches of the arts and social classes, all attempting to conquer the figure of beauty represented by Garance.
It seems that originally Children of Paradise was supposed to be seen and digested as an epic—“the French response to Gone with the Wind” reads a quote from the original theatrical trailer—but in reality the film transcends entertainment to explore profounder themes. All of its major plot twists and character arcs work towards displaying richly layered dichotomies and can be divided into three major “battles”, so to speak.
The first is an essay about the differences between theater and film. Children of Paradise is obviously a movie and director Marcel Carné makes the most out of using very cinematic devices. His use of ellipsis—even if the biggest one is announced by a falling theater curtain—consciously helps his characters achieve things that would be impossible to do if they were performing on a theatrical stage. Equally, the camera allows us to become both time travelers and voyeurs as we explore a world that seems almost fantastical by modern standards and it also gives us the chance to spy on the characters. The moment for example, when Frédérick discovers Garance is his new neighbor after she has sent Baptiste home, is highlighted by an expressive use of the camera which wanders around to point to us how Garance calls out to him in an almost siren-esque way. The scene obviously fades to black before the two consummate their love.
Carné doesn’t take sides when it comes to the benefits of one art form over the other. How could he when he displays such passion for theatricality? All of the actors deliver their lines with passion too exaggerated for cinema; however, Carné’s use of editing subjugates them and turns them into more cinematic performances (Kuleshov effect much?) which could mean that Carné was aiming for some sort of compromise and suggest that movies were an evolution of theater.
Simultaneously, Carné shows us a similar relation between the use of sound and silence which lead us to think he was trying to grasp how connotations became affected once silent cinema gave way to talkies. This battle is best represented by the main rivalry between Baptiste and Frédérick. They constantly engage in a sort of frenemy relationship in which we can see the pros and cons in each of them. “I perform but he’s an actor” says the mime as many characters praise him for his ability to convey emotion and praise Frédérick for his fame. Doesn’t this perpetuate the sort of behavior suggested in films like Sunset Blvd.?
The last main juxtaposition of contrasts in the film happened behind the scenes but still managed to seep into the cracks of what we see onscreen. Carné shot Children of Paradise during the German occupation of France and fought harshly against the Vichy administration to be able to make exactly the movie he wanted. This is felt by the way in which the tone often seems to shift and the slight changes in the sets which were ravaged by a natural disaster. Carné’s crew was filled with members of the Resistance and Jews, his film serving as both a humanitarian and artistic enterprise.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s “let’s put on a show” mood is similarly defiant, which each character trying hard to win his or her chance under the spotlight, all of them in a constant search for liberation through beauty. When one character tells Garance how beautiful she looks, she replies “it’s not beauty, I’m just alive” encompassing all of the ideas behind this outstanding film.
Criterion has done a splendid job in bringing this movie to home media. This edition features the restoration of Children of Paradise done by Pathé in 2011. The film looks gorgeous and in one of the bonus features we can see how they rescued the film which was severely damaged.
The DVD set has the movie divided in two discs (reminiscent of how Carné had to release the movie in two parts according to Vichy law) and includes featurettes like an introduction by Terry Gilliam, a 2009 documentary on the making of the film and a superb visual essay by, the unfortunately named, film writer Paul Ryan. A vintage documentary featuring interviews with Arletty and Carné rounds up this magnificent edition.