Film: Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
Some movies demand to be seen because of the direction, the plot, or the actors. There are plenty of truly great movies out there worth watching because of the story they tell and the quality of what is on the screen. Others demand to be seen because of the history behind them. Les Enfants du Paradis is such a film. While the story is beautiful and the acting excellent, in any other circumstances this would be simply a great epic romance, a French Gone with the Wind. It is the story of two star-crossed lovers who try their entire lives to be together only to be kept apart by the wiles and absurdities of others. It would still be great, but it wouldn’t be the incredible testament to the art of film that it is.
Garance (Arletty, [one name, like Cher or Madonna]) is a woman with a little too much time on her hands (she also bears a remarkable resemblance to my daughter’s ballet teacher). She is accosted by a pretentious actor named Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur) who decides to pursue her on a whim. She brushes him off, but it’s a guarantee that the two will come together again at some point. Garance also spends time with Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a scribe, thief, and fence with the heart of a murderer. He claims that Garance is the only woman for whom he has no contempt, and she claims to visit his scribe’s shop only from boredom.
Her true love, however, is Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a mime who is despised by his father in the Funambules Theater. She encounters him when she is accused of stealing a watch from a man standing next to her—Baptiste saw the whole crime, and acts it out in mime to an appreciative crowd. She gives him a flower in thanks, and the two are quite obviously smitten with each other.
Into this, we add several other important players. First is Nathalie (Maria Casares), a player at the Funambules who is madly in unrequited love with Baptiste. A constant player roving through the lives of all off these people is Jericho (Pierre Renoir), a thief and criminal as well as a scrounge. He gives himself a variety of nicknames, claiming this is what others call him: Medusa for his gaze, Woe-is-me for his hard lot in life, Rat for his scrounging, and so on. Everyone comes together when Frederick is also hired at Funambules.
And so we follow the lives of these people in their life in and around the theater and Paris in the 19th Century. Baptiste is captured by Nathalie; Garance is taken in by Edouard Count de Montry (Louis Salou), and both are trapped in loveless marriages, separated from each other. The more than three hour running time is the story of how they try to find happiness and each other throughout their lives.
So, it’s certainly a sweet story, but it’s really nothing special. This sort of romance isn’t that hard to find in the annals of film and literature. It’s a classic tearjerker of a tale, the sort of thing that you watch with a box of tissues, or you do if you’re a middle-aged spinster.
What makes this film noteworthy is the situation surrounding its filming. This is a huge, three-hour epic with a cast of thousands of extras filmed during the Nazi occupation of Paris directly under the noses of the German occupiers. Filming took place over 18 months. The production designer and composer of the musical score were both Jewish, and had to contribute their materials through intermediaries while in hiding. One actor was pulled away from the project because he was accused of collaboration after the occupation end. Several producers were either investigated by the Nazis or pulled out when Italy fell. Many of the cast members and workers on the film were involved in the Resistance. In short, this grand film, this beautiful statement of love, joy, art, and theater, was created under the most brutal, terrible circumstances imaginable. In many ways, the creation of this film was the inspiration for another great film, Le Dernier Metro.
This is what makes this film so special. There is no greater testament to the power of art or the desire to create than this film. While it may be only a good, possibly great film on its own, the circumstances of its creation make it one of the most powerful and beautiful things ever placed on celluloid. You owe it to all involved in its creation to watch it. They deserve it.
Why to watch Les Infants du Paradis: It demands to be seen.
Why not to watch: Three hours of French romance.