CHILDREN OF PARADISE (Marcel Carné, 1945)

Intricately penned by Jacques Prévert, Marcel Carné’s shimmering Les enfants du Paradis came out of Occupied France. Clandestinely shot, populist, subversive, it is still revered by the French people as testament to their national survival. Perhaps the only U.S. film of similar consequence is The Wizard of Oz, which (correctly) struck 1939 audiences as artificial and top-heavy but which, over time, came to suggest American survival of the Depression.
     A nineteenth-century “mime of the people,” Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault, marvelous), along with his audiences whose spirit he harnesses and projects back to them, are the “children of Paradise.” For Carné’s own time, the title also refers to those who won entrance into heaven by dying for the cause of the Resistance. Insofar as he is an actor who realizes his dream of playing Shakespeare, Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur, brilliant) suggests one such soul: Harry Baur. Captured, tortured and betraying nothing, Baur had died for his beloved France in 1943. The artifice of the film’s period evocation only assists the film’s capacity to reflect on the present.
     Both Baptiste and Frédérick, and two unsavory others, fall for Garance (Arletty, silently conversing with sophisticated angels). With a plot double-crossed by various romantic and political intrigues, the blatant theatrical artifice of the film’s style helps underscore the ephemeral nature of human lives. A curtain descends as Baptiste, now married, nonetheless tries pushing through a Carnival crowd to reunite with Garance, who is leaving by carriage. Countless folks in the crowd are costumed as Pierrot; the scene is the same public square where Baptiste had first spotted Garance while performing. The two are thus lost to each other as well as to time, distilling France’s one hundred years-later burden of sadness over its long ordeal at German hands.

One thought on “CHILDREN OF PARADISE (Marcel Carné, 1945)

  1. A coda here might be the irony of Arletty’s collaboration. Although it seems it was a short affair of the heart rather than anything which actually aided the Germans.

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