All the Men and Women Merely Players
Les Enfants du Paradis is better known by its untranslated name, than as Children of Paradise, a balancing reference to theater’s jostling upper galleries peopled by “children of ‘the Gods.’” It was made half-clandestinely in Paris and Nice under the noses of Nazis and not released in America until two years after V-E Day. Voted the greatest national film ever by the French Academy of Cinema Arts in 1979, still somewhere on most any ranking and “considered by many to be the greatest film ever made, certainly one of the most beautiful,” this most celebrated of Marcel Carné-Jacques Prévert collaborations has just been shown three consecutive weekdays at the Museum of Modern Art.
After years’ teamwork, the director and poet-pop lyricist (“Autumn Leaves”)-screenwriter soon parted ways, by which time Carné’s once mighty reputation was on the downswing, he and others in the film accused of collaborationism and the Nouvelle Vague dismissing his “poetic realism” and non-location studio-set technique as “artificial.”
It is difficult, or unfair, to judge by this particular print, apparently the only one usually available. Evading Vichy’s maximum film limit of 2,750 meters, the original ran near two hundred minutes, and, at about three-quarters-of-an-hour less, the current version has lacunae in continuity and musical score as well as numerous failures to subtitle tantalizing tête-a- têtes, with yet other lines unreadable against white backgrounds.
The triumph here is the art-direction realization of 1840 Paris, where the grand monde mingled with the demimonde and the flat-out criminal, two-dimensional streets, sideshows and theaters, mansions, pensions and cheap dives done at the Victorine Studios. The controlling conceit is that “as old as the world” one of life as performance -- no coincidence that MoMA offered Olivier’s Henry V the week before -- from the flat drawn curtains that begin and end the film to the raucous or rapt audiences to the proscenium-arch stage and wings that take up the whole movie screen.
Often, unaccountably, considered a picture of patriotism and the City of Light under the Germans, the melodrama is, rather, a romance, a fatalistically doomed one. Played out -- apropos term -- among actors who are either professionals or else assume a virtue if they have it not, it is a tale out of Carson McCullers in which A loves B who loves C who loves A.
Unfortunately, turgid wanderings dissipate the workings of love, jealousy, hatred, impotence and revenge, all revolving around Garance (Arletty), born Claire Reine to a laundress and making her way as “artiste,” model, actress, muse and mistress. She is stronger willed and more mature and independent than the men attracted to her flame. Chief among these moths is Jean-Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), for whom Garance develops an enduring feeling that is at once physical and wiser-maternal. They meet right after butterfly Lothario Frédérick Lamaître (Pierre Brasseur) tries to pick her up.
Berated as a dolt by his father Anselme (Etienne Decroux), Baptiste does a wonderful silent street portrayal as visual testimony to free Garance from arrest as a pickpocket. His character based on an actual pantomimist, Barrault is at his best here and later onstage as a crowd favorite, even to a pre-Michael Jackson moonwalk, but is too child-like to be convincing romancing the mature woman whom he subsequently rescues from moustache-twirling dandyish associate and villain Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) and his squeamish thug Avril (Fabien Loris). Beyond this, the screen develops no reason for the lasting but unfulfilled love he inspires in her and in his fellow Funambules troupe member and unhappy wronged wife-to-be Nathalie (María Casarès).
“Love,” to worldly-wise Garance,” is simple,” but turns out to be anything but. After the rebound liaison with persistent Lamaître, in which neither one is happy or unhappy, she allows herself to be rescued once again from the law and bought as mistress by Count Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), again a relationship where neither is happy.
Marcel Marceau assessed his wordless Bip and Chaplin’s Little Tramp as having “a degree of poetry. . . . Harlequin, Pierrot, the white clown, you know, Punch . . . mixed in the society. In the theater world he represented a type of man.” In Baptiste’s silent gestures as much as Lamaître’s words as gulled Othello, that masquerade that is la comédie humaine is the soul of Les Enfants du Paradis, which better realizes the illusion of the boards as truth than it does the truth of life as illusion.
(Released by Trocolore; not rated by MPAA.)