18 April 2005 | gftbiloxi
A True Masterpiece
CHILDREN OF PARADISE has a history almost as remarkable as the film itself. Production was just beginning when Paris fell to the Nazis; the work was subsequently filmed piecemeal over a period of several years, much of it during the height of World War II. And yet astonishingly, this elaborate portrait of 19th Century French theatre and the people who swirl through it shows little evidence of the obvious challenges faced by director Marcel Carne, his cast, and his production staff. CHILDREN OF PARADISE seems to have been created inside a blessed bubble of imagination, protected from outside forces by the sheer power of its own being.
The story is at once simple and extremely complex. A mime named Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) falls in love with a street woman known as Garance (Arletty)--and through a series of coincidences and his own love for her finds the inspiration to become one of the most beloved stage artists of his era. But when shyness causes him to avoid consummation of the romance, Baptiste loses Garance to her own circle of admirers--a circle that includes a vicious member of the Paris underworld (Marcel Herrand), rising young actor (Pierre Brasseur), and an egotistical and jealous aristocrat (Louis Salou.) With the passage of time, Garance recognizes that she loves Baptiste as deeply as he does her... but now they must choose between each other and the separate lives they have created for themselves.
While the film is sometimes described as dreamy in tone, it would be more appropriately described as dreamy in tone but extremely earthy in content. Instead of giving us a glamorous portrait of life in theatre, it presents 19th Century theatre as it actually was: dominated by noisy audiences perfectly capable of riot, the actors usually poor and hungry and mixing freely with criminal elements, the desperate struggle to rise above the chaos to create something magical on stage. And while the film is not sexually explicit by any stretch of the imagination, by 1940s standards CHILDREN OF PARADISE was amazingly frank in its portrayal of Garance's often casual liaisons; American cinema would not achieve anything similar for another twenty years.
Everything about the film seems to swirl in a riot of people, costumes, and overlapping relationships, a sort of mad confusion of life lived in a very elemental manner. And the cast carries the director's vision to perfection. Jean-Louis Barrault is both a brilliant actor and brilliant mime, perfectly capturing the strange innocence his role requires; the famous Arletty offers a divine mixture of exhaustion, sensuality, and self-awareness that makes Garance and her fatal attraction uniquely believable. And these performances do not stand in isolation: there is not a false note in the entire cast, the roles of which cover virtually every level of society imaginable.
With its complex story, vivid performances, and stunning set pieces, the film has a longer running time than one might expect, and some may feel it is slow; I myself, however, did not read it as slow so much as precise. It takes the time to allow the characters and their various stories to develop fully in the viewer's mind. I must also note that while a knowledge of theatre history isn't required to fall under the spell of this truly fascinating film, those who do have that background will find it particularly appealing. CHILDREN OF PARADISE is one of the few films that can be viewed repeatedly, one of the truly great masterpieces of cinema. Strongly, strongly recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer