Mimes and circus clowns are sad personae who are loved by their audiences. Marcel Carné’s The Children of Paradise, if you have had the patience to view it for 3 hours and 10 minutes, will most likely endear you to its characters and remain a film of which you will have fond memories for the rest of your life. Chances are that you will consider it as one of the finest French films ever made, better than any that Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, or Malle ever made.
The title itself could mislead a casual viewer—the film is not about children, it is not about paradise or anything religious. The word “paradise” in the title refers to the poorer sections of society who occupied the top tier balconies (where the tickets cost the least). This garrulous section of the audience could make or unmake stage actors in the 1820s, 1830s, or 1840s France. The critical “children” in the film are adult theatre actors, whose careers are entwined somewhat with the disposition of those who occupy the “paradise.” However, the film’s depth can be captured when someone representing the poorer sections of society, among the hoi poloi sitting/standing in the “paradise” ironically screams “Quiet! I can’t hear the mime,” when the loud and enthusiastic audience is trying to appreciate the wordless physical movements of pantomime. That is an example of the depth and brilliance of the script/film.
There are good reasons why one would love this black and white masterpiece. At the lowest common dominator, it is another film about love between the opposite sexes. It is also a multi-layered tragedy. It is a film about the performing arts. But what makes it so different from other films is not the subject of the film but the multifarious home truths (the class conflicts, the duels, or a rag picker named Jericho—wailing about doom to the Parisians just as Jeremiah of the Old Testament cried about the walls of Jericho, a subtle parallelism which would only make sense when one realizes the film was made when France was occupied by Nazi invaders) this cinematic work offers an observant viewer in contrast to most other works of cinema.
Unlike most other films, the entire film The Children of Paradise is not about larger-than-life heroes and heroines—it is on the contrary about misfits, the dregs of society, the losers, the criminals, the murderers, the beggars, the homosexuals--insinuated by two characters in the film, the criminal Larcenaire and Avril--and the cheats. The tale might well be considered as fiction, but the characters were apparently built on real colourful personalities in France, who lived there less than a century before the film was made. The entire idea of the film was a creation and joint collaboration of three brilliant minds—director Marcel Carné, scriptwriter Jacques Prévert, and actor and mime Jean-Louis Barrault (who plays the mime, Baptiste, in the film). The film has proved to be the zenith of individual achievement of all three gifted gentlemen and of the lead actress in the movie, Arletty, in their respective areas of expertise. Even the two comparably better characters Garance and Baptiste, may be lovers but have their own flaws. Both prove to be losers and misfits in their own comparatively honest lives amongst the more despicable low life brought to our attention in the film.
|Baptiste (Barrault) courts Garance (Arletty)|
The tale is simple—an attractive, street-smart, enigmatic lady Garance (played by the delightful and magnetic Arletty) is wooed by four gentlemen. One is an erratically-employed theatre actor named Frédérick with an oversized ego and ambition, and who can charm ladies with sweet talk, but is floored by the poise of Garance. The second gentleman is Baptiste, an unmarried (at least “unmarried” for most part of the tale) mime actor with an honest and a simple predisposition. The third gentleman is the criminal Lacenaire, who is well educated and thus can write letter for the illiterate common folk, a profession that is a mere front for his more sinister criminal activities. These three who woo Garance have names linked to the real individuals whom the French viewers could apparently recall even a century later. The fourth gentleman is an aristocrat Édouard comte de Montray, a character again built around a real person Charles de Morny (Duke of Morny) who made a fortune in sugar beet industry and improved his social standing by marrying a Russian princess. In the movie, de Montray does win Garance’s approval due to circumstances and and the power of his wealth rather than true love amongst the four suitors. Édouard’s beautiful new spouse, Garance, improves his social standing even further.
|Baptiste (Barrault): Is he smiling or is he sad?|
While the tale appears simple, the film is not. The elliptical tale is split into two parts. The first is called Boulevard of Crime and the second The Man in White. The two parts are separated by a 6-year gap in the narrative. The fourth lover of Garance, comte de Montray, who has a minor role in the first part, gets a prominent role in the second. The second part’s title refers to Baptiste, one of the four lovers of Garance, the mime, who wears white costumes and paints his face white while performing, as clowns often do.
The first part, Boulevard of Crime, does deal with criminals as the title suggests. Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), one of the four lovers of Garance, is a criminal, who passes off as a letter writer. The character of the Lacenaire was developed by director Carné and scriptwriter Prévert based on the life and times of a real criminal, who was guillotined in France earlier. Jericho, a rag picker, one of the first faces you see in the film, is a common thief with no morals. Blind beggars collecting alms on the street prove to be petty criminals who can see quite well when indoors. Even Garance, a relatively honest character frustrates men who pay to see a nude beauty, only to see her nude body from neck upwards, sitting in a barrel of water. The film subtly suggests the bisexuality of Baptiste and the homosexuality of Lacenaire but nothing is explicit in sexual terms. This was probably because of the constant scrutiny of the Nazis on what the filmmakers were up to and what they could be allowed to do. As the original Baptiste, the famous mime/actor Jean-Gaspard Deburau, who was also popularly called Baptiste, was appreciated by the Germans, any film with a character named and resembling the original mime had no problem getting the approval of the occupying army. But any film exceeding 90 minutes could not get their approval. Hence, the filmmakers made it in two parts. One can possibly blame the Nazis today for the length of the film but for some every bit of the film is a delight, especially if you are aware of the history of the making of the film.
|Barrault as Baptiste, the Man in White, |
the toast of those who occupy the Paradise
Unlike the first part, the second, The Man in White, involves duels and killings. The dramatic words of Lacenaire “I will spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamond,” as he woos Garance in Part I of the film becomes chillingly real in Part II. Part II focuses more on the attraction and love between Garance and Baptiste. While in Part I, Baptiste was struggling for recognition from his audiences, in Part II the mime is the toast of theatre-goers. Similarly, Frédérick Lemaître (based on a real actor called Lemaître) who was an unemployed actor in the early part of Part I evolves into a well-established and a spendthrift actor in Part II.
There are many aspects of filming that one admires in The Children of Paradise. However, the most prominent one relates to the clever and loaded dialogues. To Lacenaire’s dramatic words “I will spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamond,” Garance coolly replies “I would settle for less.” Later when Édouard comte de Montray woos her with the words “You are much to lovely to be truly loved,” Garance’s loaded riposte is “Not only are you rich, but you want to be loved as if you are poor.” That is Prévert at his best.
One loves the film as one watches it but that pleasure is enhanced when you know the conditions under which the film was made. The filming of this classic can be admired on various counts. The opening shot with crowds (extras) thronging the “Boulevard of Crime” involved a set that gives the viewer an illusion of depth when special effects had not come into vogue in cinema. Then that elaborate set was destroyed halfway by an accidental fire and had to be rebuilt.
The unusual conditions included the fact that resistance fighters, pro-Nazis, and Jews contributed to the filmmaking under the watchful eyes of the Nazis. Materials required for the filming were in short supply. Lacenaire’s negative character could only be included in the film as the film as the film was sold as one revolving around Baptiste, since the Nazis were admirers of Deburau, the original real Baptiste. If that was not all, during the filming the actor who originally played Jericho was exposed as a Nazi-collaborator and executed. Another actor replaced him and the scenes were reshot. Ironically, the enigmatic Arletty who played Garance was herself imprisoned after the filming concluded for having a relationship with a Nazi officer and thus could not attend the premiere of the film.
While it is true that the film is a great testament for the individual capabilities of Carné, Prévert, and Barrault, one cannot forget The Children of Paradise today mainly because of the charm exuded by Arletty on screen, an actress who was once a model for Ingres, the famous neoclassical painter.
Ingres chose well.
P.S. The Children of Paradise is one of the author’s top 100 films.