CHILDREN OF PARADISE – Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert: French Cinema’s Unabashed Malcontents

Children of Paradise – dir. Marcel Carné – 1945 – Original Theatrical Trailer

By: Jennie DiBartolomeo

What contemporary American audiences don’t know is that before Godard and Truffaut were shaking things up in the early 60’s by breaking cinematic conventions with their jump cuts and non-linear plots, there was Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert. The fact of the matter is that as early as the 30’s and 40’s they were creating new and subversive cinematic experiences that drove crowds mad. They were the pioneers of “poetic realism”, a movement that produced such films as Le Quai des Brumes, 1938 and Le Jour se Lève, 1939. These films forced the audience to examine the circumstances (both real and surreal) that surrounded them while creating awareness of current political, social and cultural issues-but in the most lovingly poetic way possible. Prévert creates a kind of romantic fatalism with his verse, setting the stage for Carné’s unique vision of these tragic love stories. But they were more than tragic love stories; they were stories of regular people that were taking place while their country was at war and they were rich in a subtext that could not be ignored. And moreover, this was the medium in which they fought back.

Their films caused nothing short of riots in the process. Le Jour se Lève was banned under the Vichy rule, accused of having contributed to the debacle of 1940. To which Carné responded, “One cannot blame the barometer for the storm it foretells”. And storm it does, raging and constant in Les Enfants des Paradis or Children of Paradise (a better translation is Children of the Gods). An idea born from an anecdote told in 1942 by French actor Jean-Louis Barrault to Carné and Prévert about a 19th-century French mime, Charles Debureau, this film has since become known as a masterpiece of French cinema. Made at the pinnacle of the Occupation and faced with every possible political obstacle Carné and Prévert still prevail. The result is nothing short of brilliant. They were the “outcasts”, the “freaks”, what better a medium to express their distaste with it all than through the very people affected, the working class. The theater, its audience and performers, and the very title itself a reference to the cheapest seats in the house, filled by the poorest of the poor. These were referred to as “the Gods” and Carné never lets us forget who is most important to him as that massive shot of the house seats spilling over with people takes up the entire frame.

It’s such a wonderful gift for audiences to have the opportunity to see this picture at such a prevalent time in American politics. An allegory for occupied France; A country at war, and the players silenced, (one cannot begin to unravel the irony, so I shall allow the masters to do so within their work). The performers are not allowed to utter a word on stage (or pay the penalty). At a particular point in the film the actor Frédérick Lemaitre screams “I will die from silence like others die from hunger and thirst!” In Les Enfants des Paradis we are treated to the ultimate subversive message: Melodrama within cultural circumstances that are all concerned with historical truth. Here we see film used as spectacle, comedy and tragedy intertwined and a slight obsession with the macabre (aren’t we all just a wee bit masochistic after all?). At the heart of it all is a tragic love story of Shakespearian proportions. The tragedy of love lost gives the film an irreducible core that keeps us coming back for more- no matter how much it hurts.

“Love is simple,” states Garance (played by the stunning Arletty) to the love struck Baptiste early on in the film. A coquette she is not, after all she delivers this line as she is undressing much to his shy and horrified dismay. Arletty brings as much grace and innocence to this tragic character as she does sexuality. The combination cannot be ignored. Her portrayal of Garance is nothing short of anachronistic as we are presented with a female character as comfortable with her own sexuality and presence as any female in contemporary film. To her, love is as perennial as the grass, when she is bored with a man or situation or both, she simply removes herself, moving on to something else that may amuse her. And it is a rare occasion where one can find a line in a film that consists of only three words and yet can manage to encompass the entire emotional spectrum of a story, but here it is and what can I say? It’s a complete lie. It rather serves to contrast what Garance (and all the characters) want to believe about love, about life, about their world. What is worth noting is that all the while, (aside from the various love triangles that take place within the film) Garance and all the players are thrown into a warped theatrical world that is in constant tension with itself.

The tension occurs through a double process where actors are performing roles that which are opposite from their off-screen situations. As this happens we see lines between the world of the stage and that of the player’s real-life situations shaken up. Baptiste the mime argues with another player, Nathalie (who is madly in love with him) and during the course of the exchange he admits to loving another (Garance). She is visibly hurt and at the moment that Baptiste confesses his love for another, the theater manager barges in and gives them their roles for the evening (he points at Baptist) “You are a fool and are madly in love with her!” (He points at Nathalie), “You! Pretend you want nothing to do with him!” the camera holds on their shocked faces as the screen fades to black, thus the theater weaves its thread intimately into the fabric of every life and situation we witness in the film.

Even further down the subversive rabbit hole we find the conventions of the stage shaken to the extent that it becomes commonplace to abandon a role in full view of the audience (both theatrical and cinematic). Nathalie cries “Baptiste” in the midst of mime, breaking the rule of silence as well as character. And then there is Frédérick, who removes himself from the stage mid performance and goes to sit in an audience box. The other actor still onstage continues with the scene “Since you deny being Robert Macaire escaped from Toulon prison…Who are you?” To which Frédérick answers, “I am Frédérick Lemaitre” and the crowd goes wild. Within the film we see characters utilizing two personas, one that defines their cinematic personas and the other assumed by the cinematic characters on the theatrical stage. Sounds complicated, but Carné and Prévert execute it without missing a beat. Take that, Godard.

Each of the films two parts begins with the rolling of the credits over a mock curtain (replacing that of a program) indicating that it is the start of the performance and the start of cinema imposed upon the theater in the most literal sense. Interestingly enough, this film is in two parts because it had to be; Carné was prevented from making a film longer than 90 minutes by law during this time, so he split it in two (defiantly delicious). Make no mistake dear theater-goers this film is not long or drawn out, everything that is in here needs to be. What makes the film flow so well and three hours blow by with the bat of an eye is the performances, sets and costume designs. Arletty is dead on as Garance, (the love interest of count em’ four men) and her grace alone could shame the great Garbo. Then there is Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste the mime. Barrault (a real mime), manages to evoke a pathos more powerful than any spoken word performance. Upon viewing this film just once it is as if he could revive the lost art single-handedly. The wonderful score by Joseph Kosma and original music by Maurice Thiriet cannot be ignored and are definitely something to stay conscious of during this cinematic journey.

Breathtaking is a word that comes to mind when one experiences the final result. So when that mock curtain goes up, allow Carné and Prévert to take you on that surreal theatrical experience only you, the children of paradise, can appreciate.


Andrea O Written by: