Children of Paradise, Marcel Carné’s 1945 film classic, joins his earlier Les visiteurs du soir on the roster of new restorations from The Criterion Collection. Almost universally acclaimed as perhaps the masterpiece of “poetic realism,” the cinematic style most often associated with the work of Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert prior to the second World War and the occupation of France. The success of Les visiteurs du soir which came out in 1942 and offered French audiences an opportunity to escape from the horrors of war and the humiliation of occupation, even managing to suggest to many viewers a symbolic avowal of the indomitability of the French spirit, gave Carné the clout to pursue an even more ambitious project.
Children of Paradise, a two-part, three hour and ten minute romantic costume melodrama set in the Paris of 1827 or 1828, was the result. Using several historical figures as characters, the film tells the story of a beautiful courtesan, Garance played by Prévert favorite Arletty and four of the men in her life: an actor and notorious womanizer, Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur); a writer and murderer, Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand); Comte de Montray a lovesick nobleman (Louis Salou), and in what is likely the most celebrated performance in the film, Jean-Louis Barrault as the mime, Jean-Baptiste Debureau. Although the film is associated with “poetic realism,” in the acting at least, the emphasis has to be on the “poetic,” rather than the “realism.” If your association with realism is an actor like Jean Gabin, this is not Gabin realism.
The film, in two parts, famously opens with a spectacular crowd scene as we meet most of these major figures on the “Boulevard du Crime” in the midst of huge joyful carnival complete with tightrope walker, a monkey on stilts and a strongman. It is a setting which will be repeated at the end of the movie like a bookend but with a quite different feeling. Garance is introduced as a kind of midway attraction, supposedly naked within, she poses as truth, but when we follow inside we find her in a tub hiding all but her head and shoulders. Minutes later, she has joined the crowd where Lemaître tries without success to pick her up, and then Baptiste manages to save her when her friend Lacenaire steals a watch and she is mistakenly accused. For Baptiste, it is love at first sight, but as with much romance, his love is too idealistic for the real world and to his chagrin nothing comes of it.
The second part of the film picks up six or seven years later. Garance who has become involved with the Count has been traveling the world and returns to Paris where Baptiste and Lemaître have become great stars, and Lacenaire has descended into deeper villanies. Baptiste has become involved with Nathalie an actress who has always loved him faithfully and they have a child, but when Garance reappears he can’t resist the attraction. Tragedy, or at the least melodrama, is inevitable. This is a fine old story of love and betrayal told with stylish spectacle in a film produced under terrible conditions.
The Criterion Collection edition is on two discs and includes some truly fascinating bonus material. Each of the two parts has audio commentary by film scholars. The disc with Part 1 of the film also has the film’s U. S. trailer, a video introduction by director Terry Gilliam, and a 2009 documentary Once Upon a Time: “Children of Paradise” on the making of the film. The second disc has a 1967 German documentary: The Birth of “Children of Paradise.” Of the two documentaries, this second one features a lot more material with filmmakers actually involved in the film’s creation. It also has interviews with some of the great young French filmmakers talking about Carné and the film. There is also a video essay on the film’s design by Paul Ryan. The English subtitles are newly translated for this edition. Finally there is the usual booklet with an informative essay by Dudley Andrew and excerpts from a 1990 interview with Carné. As usual, Criterion gives customers their money’s worth.