Sunday, May 5, 2013

Children of Paradise 1945 Directed by Marcel Carné

Children of Paradise, that deservedly perennial entry in innumerable 10 Best Films of all time lists, takes place on the mean streets of Paris, 1828, at the tail end of the unpopular reign of Charles X, in a world of carnival, street performers, prostitutes, petty criminals and slumming aristocracy. As Part One, The Boulevard of Crime, opens, its justifiably famous, expansive and richly detailed opening shot introduces us to that turbulent setting; at its center, the geographical and spiritual heart of the film, the pantomime theater “Les Funambules”. The theater’s name means ‘The Tightrope’, and the film’s title refers to the cheap seats in its highest reaches: so far up in the balcony that they might as well be in heaven; and both are apt metaphors for a cast of characters constantly caught in a perilous balancing act between their desires and reality, and always seeming to fall just short of the respective “paradises” they seek.

Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a mime under the thumb of his hack father, is relegated to entertaining those outside the theater too poor to pay for a ticket. He sees Garance (Arletty), a radiantly beautiful courtesan who has just quit her job in a peep show, being falsely accused of picking Bourgeois pockets, and explains in mime to the police, (in the film’s most celebrated sequence), that the real culprit is Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a fiercely brilliant criminal sociopath and friend of Garance. The grateful Garance gives a rose to Baptiste, who is instantly transfixed. Fledgling actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), is applying for a job with Nathalie (Maria Casarès), daughter of the theater’s manager, who is hopelessly, against all reason, in love with Baptiste. All of their lives change forever that evening, as two warring families of performers bring the show to a halt in mid-play. Baptiste and Frederick are recruited to save the day, and are an overnight success. Baptiste gets Garance a job in the show, and a tangled series of mixed signals and missed
 opportunities ensnare all three men, Garance, and Nathalie in a passionate but unresolved minuet of frustrated passion. Part Two, The Man in White, opens as six years have passed. Baptiste and Frederick have become stars, Garance, deeply in love with Baptiste but unwilling to disrupt his ill-advised marriage to Nathalie, has become the mistress of the powerful Count de Montray, and this second half, despite everyone’s enviable successes, is suffused with a deep melancholy, as they face the consequences of the decisions they have made.

While a movie of such depth, sweeping majesty and scope as Children of Paradise would be a remarkable accomplishment in any time and place, the most extraordinary fact about this film is that it got made at all. Filmed over a period of two years during the French Occupation, Paradise was made with the Gestapo breathing down Carné’s neck, eager to find some excuse to shut the production down.
Marcel Carné leads one of the bravest crews in history, filming Les Enfants du Paradis in 1944

Carné hired Nazi sympathizers as extras to keep them off his back, and it is interesting to speculate what the fate of this film might have been had they known that their fellow extras were composed largely of moonlighting (daylighting?) French Resistance fighters. After the war, Arletty herself was accused of “horizontal collaboration” with her lover, a German officer, and with the self-assurance only the grandest French actress of her era could muster, she replied simply that her private parts had no political affiliation.
She of the politically unaffiliated private parts, the iconic, mesmerizing Arletty, as the immortal courtesan Garance
Jacques Prévert
Directed by Marcel Carné, and written by poet/screenwriter/lyricist Jacques Prévert, whose fame and reputation gave him a Mamet-like equal billing with his directors, CoP takes place in the late 1820’s, a time of great upheaval, discontent, and re-evaluation, with France still reeling from its  dashed expectations in the wake of the rise and fall of Napoleon, and the discontent of a failed return to monarchy under King Charles, (who is about to be overthrown as the film opens). This setting of turmoil and dissatisfaction has a very meaningful connection to the spiritual mood and artistic inclinations of the Europe of 1943, ravaged by two World Wars and still swept up in the artistic, sexual, social and political liberations of the early 1900’s, and it is not a stretch to see these undercurrents playing out in the actions and impassioned words of CoP’s colourful cast of characters, with the safe historical setting serving as cover from Nazi censorship. We read in Garance’s honest values and defiant insistence on her own personal freedom a tribute to French culture and resistance (ironic, given Arletty’s own reckless “collaboration”), and Lacenaire’s  acidly wise observations on the hypocrisies and strictures of society as a reflection of the cynicism and disillusionment of Europe, and particularly France, with the emptiness and failure of its leaders and social structures. The character of the informant  ragpicker Jericho might well have been a very real admonishment to the film crew’s  volatile mixture of partisans and collaborators, as  production designer Alexander Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, both Jews, worked in stealth and at their peril, under pseudonyms. Adding to the strength and resonance of these characters is the fact that three of them are based on actual historical personalities, and CoP is surprisingly faithful to what we know about them: The mime Baptiste is based on Jean-Gaspard DeBurau, who transformed Pantomime into the sophisticated art form of Mime we know today.
Marcel Herrand as one of the greatest (and most complex)
villains in movie history, the brilliant, tormented Lacenaire
Frederick, the womanizing charmer who only feels truly ‘real’ when he is on stage, was Frederick Lemaitre, the most celebrated actor of his time, who triumphed in vehicles tailored  by Hugo and Dumas especially for him; and Lacenaire, the thief whose brilliant intellect both tempers and fuels his hatred and deep contempt for the world and for himself, was Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, one of history’s first celebrity criminals, whose elegance and eloquence at trial provoked floods of mail from female admirers and inspired Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Despite its many factual and historical allusions however, it is Prevert’s timeless characters, his poetic and perceptive dialogue, and Carnés flawless direction of his peerless cast that ultimately bring a Shakespearean universality and power to CoP. whose very structure is Shakespearean: part vibrant melodrama, part wise and witty musings on enduring human truths, part flushed, breathless romance. But there is an unabashed inspiration by, and quite literal connection to, Shakespeare also at work in CoP: The plot not only goes into its final operatic high gear at a performance of Othello, but, as Russell Gamin points out in his excellent Prevert Reads Shakespeare, all of the male leads in in the film can be read as variants on Othello.
Baptiste is romantically obsessed in a way that denies him the very love he seeks (he wastes 6 years because Garance’s frank and tender desire for him doesn’t jibe with his hifalutin notion of idealized love). The count is a quietly seething stew of barely suppressed jealousy and rage. Lacenaire, roused out of his misanthropic cocoon as he violates his own code of icy disconnection with humanity by, despite his best efforts to the contrary, falling for Garance, is the only one of them who is easily disposed to, and comfortable with, violent resolutions. And Frederick finally realizes his ambition of doing Shakespeare only when he allows himself to acknowledge his jealousy for having lost Garance, and his riveting stare directly at her, (as she sits in the audience) as he prepares to kill Desdemona, frees him from his own pain, but also propels the other “Othellos” into overdrive. There is even a Desdemona-like innocence about Garance, who, with her ingenuous character and simple integrity, is the direct opposite of her male admirers’ objectification of her, rendering her the only character not overwhelmed by obsession and unfulfillable expectation.

CoP is also, like another Janus Film favourite, Kwaidan) a meditation on the creative act itself, but here, it is an open celebration, the happiest side of CoP. Everyone in the film comes into their own on stage, and reveals the best of themselves when they speak of their art. The selfish, self-centered Baptiste, who survived a cruel childhood by retreating into dreams, identifies with the ‘children of paradise’ and wants to bring them understanding and beauty: “their lives are small”, he says, “but their dreams are vast”, and he shines (Barrault is luminous in the film’s mime sequences) in the expression of a love that he is woefully unable to make work in real life.
Nathalie (Maria Casarès) hopelessly in love with Baptiste, a romantic dreamer/fool who has no idea what a gift he already has in his wife —

The bluff and facile Frederick rhapsodizes about the thrill of “feeling your heart, and the heart of the audience, beat at the same time” and takes pride in elevating humanity by portraying nobility and greatness on stage. Even Lacenaire, a frustrated writer at heart, has determined to turn his life (and the lives of the unwilling ‘actors’ around him) into a play of his own devising. In fact, a great deal of CoP’s running time is made up of performances of one sort or another, but it never feels like the movie is grinding to a halt in these passages; rather the way the film so effortlessly slides back and forth from the stage to reality and back again is part of its point. “Dreams, Life, what’s the difference?” moons Baptiste to Garance, and CoP is, above all else, about dreams; their power over us, and their potential to uplift or destroy us. Despite their skepticism about the ability of the human race to achieve happiness, or even a real understanding of itself, Carné and Prevert’s obvious love and sympathy for their characters give enormous heart and depth to this tale of yearning, loss, and the survival of the human spirit.

Children of Paradise was referred to by its original promoters as the French Gone with the Wind, and, with its epic story, which follows a group of colorful, deeply flawed characters through many years in an impeccably drawn historical setting, the comparison was certainly tempting and commercially canny. Unlike Gone With the Wind, however, a vastly entertaining film whose artistic integrity was severely compromised by a shifting parade of directors, writers, and stars, Children of Paradise was the crowning achievement of a single obsessive artistic vision, made by a director whose dogged determination saw the completion of the most expensive French film yet made, under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Named in 1976 by the Cannes Film Festival as the ‘greatest French film of all time’, Children of Paradise was released shortly after the Liberation of Paris to universal and lasting acclaim, and remains, indisputably, one of the very greatest movies, of any period or national origin, ever committed to film.

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