Marcel Carné, “The Children of Paradise / Les Enfants du Paradis” (1945)
Made under difficult conditions in Vichy France, this sumptuous film is rich in character study and encompasses pantomime, melodrama, comedy, crime-and-passion thriller and tragedy. It purports to be a snapshot of Parisian urban working-class culture set in the mid-nineteenth century, in the days before the industrialisation that transformed Paris into the metropolis of La Belle Epoque, of electricity, department stores and the Eiffel Tower, and ultimately of the birth of the film industry itself. Amazingly this whole cinematic edifice that embraces so much hinges around a deceptively simple plot narrative of a courtesan and the four men who vie for her love, the jealousies that develop among them and the consequences of those jealousies and rivalries.
The narrative is straightforward enough and breaks into two periods that are seven years apart. In the first period we are introduced to the courtesan Garance (Arletty) and the men who are her lovers: the mime artist Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) who is obsessed by her and whose obsession inspires him to write and perform highly passionate pantomimes that become popular with audiences and which turn him into a star; actor Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur) whose affair with Garance infuriates Baptiste; the criminal Pierre François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) whose pride and violent temper combined with his passion for Garance leads him to commit murder; and the Comte Édouard de Montray who offers Garance protection when she is accused of a crime committed by Lacenaire and his minions. All of these men represent a major theme and an aspect of romantic love in the film: Baptiste in particular embodies the idea that, no matter what your origins in life may have been, be they privileged or paltry, you can always dream large and try to reach where your dreams stretch. His love for Garance is deep and sincere but through passivity and cowardice on his part is frustrated. The two lovers’ paths diverge, they accumulate other attachments and these attachments and the responsibilities they incur end up keeping the lovers apart. In addition, Baptiste is loved by a fellow mime artist Nathalie who symbolises a different aspect of love: love as simple, faithful and pure.
Lemaitre learns that to be a great actor, he must accept sorrow, pain, jealousy and setbacks as necessary parts of human experience. His love for Garance is playful but superficial, and he gains more out of it than does Garance; indeed none of the four lovers loves Garance unconditionally but each imposes his demands, however different they are, on the courtesan. Philanderer Lemaitre may be but he is intelligent and capable, a quick learner and ready to recognise that he can never love Garance as deeply as she loves Baptiste and he (Baptiste) her, so Lemaitre yields graciously. Lacenaire exemplifies love as passion, the human genius when it is turned into criminal directions, and the resentment that the lower classes harbour towards the wealthy. His love for Garance makes him a better man than he would be otherwise and of all Garance’s lovers he turns out to be the most honest about his strengths and failings. The count thinks he can buy the love of Garance with his wealth and privileges, but the tragedy that befalls him is almost Biblical in its lesson that pride goeth before destruction.
The film’s second half, corresponding to the second period coming seven years after the first, deals with the consequences of actions begun in the first: Garance finds her relationship with the count sterile and unfulfilling and returns to Paris to find Baptiste and Lemaitre succeeding in their respective careers. Garance’s reunion with Baptiste reignites their love which strains his fidelity to Nathalie. Lacenaire intends to rob and kill Lemaitre but the two strike up a friendship instead and later Lacenaire intercedes on Lemaitre’s behalf when the count, believing Lemaitre to be Garance’s secret amour, mocks the actor – by killing the aristocrat. The film ends inconclusively with the respective futures of Garance, Baptiste and his wife and child being uncertain, Lacenaire waiting to be arrested, tried and sent to the gallows, and Lemaitre continuing as an actor enjoying flings with different women.
The film is well structured, juggling a number of sub-plots at the same time and moving inexorably to a melodramatic climax that leaves (or will leave) various characters shell-shocked with their lives in ruin. The action takes place in a rich and immersive universe of mid-19th century France, encompassing all social levels and activities, and is as much theatre as the actual theatres featured in the film. References to Shakespeare are deeply threaded throughout the film in its characters, themes and plot, and not only in Lemaitre’s attempts to play Othello. While much of the acting may seem overly florid to contemporary Western audiences, it is quite typical of epic film dramas of its time and not all of it is excessive – Arletty’s performance as Garance is often very minimal. Brasseur’s Baptiste is the stand-out performance but all the actors do excellent work.
As a highly absorbing visual spectacle on a grand scale and as instruction on the complexities and paradoxes of human nature and love, this is a film that defies expectations and which can’t be reduced to banal romantic melodrama. It is a great example of what cinema can achieve.