The film, which takes place in 1840s Paris, is divided into two parts. In the first, Garance (Arletty) is unhappy in her relationship with Lacenaire (Herrand), a dandified thief. She attracts the attention of Baptiste (Barrault), a mime artist at the Funambules Theatre. Baptiste has a rival for his affections in aspiring actor Frédérick Lemaître (Brasseur). The wealthy Count de Montray (Salou) declares his love for Garance. She initially displays no interest, but when the police accuse her of being implicated in an attempted murder carried out by Lacenaire, she turns to the Count for protection. The second part starts a few years later. Baptiste is married and has a son. Garance, who has been travelling abroad with the Count, has returned to Paris. She visits the Funambules and realises she has only ever loved Baptiste; but she leaves him and flees into the mass of carnival-goers on the Boulevard du Crime. Baptiste, pursuing her, is swallowed up by the crowd.
Les enfants du paradis remains Marcel Carné’s most accomplished film; a French super-production that is as ambitious as anything von Stroheim, Ophuls or Lean ever attempted. Clocking in at over three hours, it remains a canonical work in world cinema. Carné received a special César award in 1979 to honour ‘the best French film in the history of talking pictures’, and few would disagree.
From the moment a stage curtain rises to show the full extent of the clutter, chaos, and confusion of nineteenth-century Paris, the reciprocity between art and life for Carné is clear. Its enduring appeal resides less in individual talents and personalities (although Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault and Pierre Brasseur were never better) than in the intense ethos of invention, Carné’s poised compositional sense, and, above all, the film’s recurring register of warmth and kindness. Essentially a film about actors acting, Carné’s theatricalised melodramatic world combines different performance modes – tragedy, Shakespeare, pantomime – inflected with pessimism and romanticism. This is, as Pauline Kael recognised, a film poem ‘on the nature and varieties of love – sacred and profane, selfless and possessive.’ 1
By 1939, Marcel Carné had become the leading standard bearer of French ‘Poetic Realism’, a film style that combined romantic-fatalist narratives with claustrophobic milieus and an accentuated mise en scène.2 The German Occupation of France in 1940, however, meant the imposition of a different kind of cinema. Realism – poetic, social, magical or otherwise – was out. Carné’s two wartime films thus opted for historical recreation. The Devil’s Envoys (1942) was a fairy-tale romance set in the Middle Ages, while Les enfants du paradis took place in an 1840s Paris populated by real characters of the time.
When Carné first heard the news of the Allied landings in Normandy in spring 1944, he deliberately slowed down the post-production process. He instinctively realised that rather than being the last film of the Occupation, Les Enfants du paradis could be the first film of the Liberation. For a film that expressed the freedom of the individual faced with social restrictions, such a strategy was apposite: when the film was released in March 1945, it became a huge commercial success, screening in Paris for over a year and grossing 41 million francs. If Les enfants du paradis was an explicit attempt to revitalise the post-Liberation film industry, it was also a veiled attempt to use film as a means of facing up to the realities of the Occupation. It exemplifies a form of ‘symbolic resistance’; the recuperation of the self-respect of an occupied population through uplifting displays of national narcissism and self-esteem (Forbes 1997). Indeed, what is especially fascinating is how Carné and Prévert were able to pull off a thinly disguised allegory of French resistance under German rule.
This is a film about seeing and being seen in a world where the differences between street life and the theatre, audience and actor, reality and illusion intertwine as each is appropriated, inverted or compounded by the other. Certainly, the film has provided the template for many recent historical recreations, literary adaptations and big-budget melodramas in French cinema – films like Cyrano de Bergerac (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 1990), The Lovers of Pont-Neuf (Léos Carax, 1991) and Queen Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994) share numerous thematic and visual sensibilities with Les enfants du paradis. However, there is something deeply old-fashioned about the film. It accomplishes its beauty and power through an austere compositional formalism and a striving for stylistic perfection within existing conventions. Carné’s editing is generally unobtrusive, with his camera often holding on faces or incidents before cutting or wiping, and apart from the remarkable opening scene the camera is rarely mobile. His self-effacing directorial style is exemplified in the scene when Lacenaire murders the Count: the act is presented through Avril’s voyeuristic reactions rather than focusing on the crime.
Les enfants du paradis is concerned above all with the theatre. At the beginning and end of both parts a curtain rises and falls, situating the narrative as a theatrical spectacle. Throughout, opposing theatrical forms are at play – mime, pantomime, melodrama and tragedy – which highlight the redeeming power of the theatrical mode. Carné also pays homage to ‘backstage’ activity, where performers at the Funambules are fined for making noise in the wings, and rival theatre companies fight on and off stage. The fragile sensitivity of Baptiste forms a strong counterpoint to the blustery Frédérick. For the latter, not being able to speak is ‘agony when I have an entire orchestra inside me’. He admires Baptiste as he ‘speaks with his legs, replies with his hands, with a look, with a shrug’. It is this set-up between the loquaciousness of Frédérick and the silent dignity of Baptiste that suggests the film is profoundly nostalgic for the freedom of silent cinema, extolling the aesthetics of mime, gesture and dance.
The opening scene is an effective mirror of the film’s theme. Just as the theatre companies lining the Boulevard offer brief outdoor shows before beginning the main attraction inside, so too does Carné’s expository panorama display, in visual shorthand, the substance of the plot to come. After the curtain rises, Carné’s tracking camera functions as an omniscient third-person narrator, drawing the audience’s attention to a tightrope walker, Jéricho, horse-drawn carriages, a weightlifter, a monkey on stilts, a merry-go-round, the booth advertising truth in the well and the stage door to the Funambules. The initial impact of these images may be wholly pictorial, but as the film advances, it transforms these compact figures of meaning into extended narrative functions. Immediately, the film’s ongoing dialogue with theatre, performance, and truth has been introduced.
Throughout the film, this indiscernible membrane between theatre and life is successively ruptured. When Frédérick ridicules the melodrama he acts in, he discards his lines, begins improvising and turns the play into a farce. When Baptiste runs into the blind beggar and befriends him, he discovers when they arrive at a tavern that the man has been ‘acting’ blind. In all of these explorations, Carné and Prévert anticipate the mid-1950s theatre-as-life-as-theatre of Jean Renoir, as exemplified in The Golden Coach (1953) and French Can-Can (1955) and Max Ophuls’s The Fall of Lola Montès (1955).
The primacy of theatre in Les enfants du paradis elevates the narrative to the level of allegory. The theatre audience (periodically captured in a wide-angle reverse shot) may be regarded as a metaphor for the suffering French who sought relief throughout the Occupation by going to theatre and cinema. In this respect, the film proposes a dynamic agenda for retaining dignity in the face of defeat; the collective spirit produced by the theatre seemed to reflect France’s unassailable confidence in her own historical and artistic status, which in turn served as a wider metaphor for her indomitability. Indeed, the theatrical mode is not just a means of exploring the lives and loves of the main characters, but the political dimension of Les Enfants du paradis resides in Carné’s view of the theatre as a privileged site of collective redemption.
Commentators have sought to compare the film to Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming and George Cukor, 1939); both films were national projects, both had epic status, and both were set at time of civil upheaval. As a character notes in Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969), France will not be free until its inhabitants can watch Gone With The Wind. Children of Paradise can be compared to its Hollywood counterpart, but that would fit too easily into the melodrama genre that the latter conforms to. Gone With The Wind is a ‘woman’s film’ of the kind David O. Selznick excelled at, but Les enfants du paradis is arguably a ‘man’s film’. It is Baptiste whom we feel sorry for at the end, and throughout the film, it is a melodrama about men. For Forbes, what we might expect of Hollywood melodrama has been turned on its head. However, the ‘male melodrama’ is inextricably bound up in the character of Garance, in many ways the cornerstone of the film. As played by Arletty – the closest the French ever got to creating their own Marlene Dietrich – Garance seems less like a real character than an icon or symbol. She provides the film with a basic structure – four men fall in love with her and then lose her – and in her first incarnation, as ‘truth’ in the well, she sets the tone for the rest of the film. According to Turk, Carné had a tendency ‘to reduce [women] to banal sweethearts or mythologise them into awesome sorceresses’ (Turk 1989: 51). The latter is undeniably true of Garance. Her ambiguity is one of the most beguiling elements of the film; she invites Frédérick into her bed moments after Baptiste professes deep love for her, and grows perceptibly colder as the film develops, unable to say ‘I love you’ to the Count. Perhaps the film’s most poignant line belongs to her: ‘I’m not sad, but not cheerful either. A little spring has broken in the music box. The music is the same but the tone is different’. Her capricious nature may bring her a succession of moments filled with pleasure, yet the comfort of love evades her.
Truffaut said of this film: ‘I have made twentythree films. Well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made Les enfants du paradis’. 3 The film cast a shadow over the careers of all those involved in it – like Carné, few of its personnel ever reached such pinnacles again. Yet its bold exploration of sexuality, its radical cultural strategy and its proto-postmodernist fusion of high and low art merits its place in cinema’s pantheon. If Dickens, Tolstoy or Balzac ever made a film, it would probably look, sound and feel like this one.
1. Pauline Kael, ‘Children of Paradise’, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York and London, Marion Boyars, 1993, p. 133.
2. For more on the French Poetic Realist tradition and Carné’s contribution to it, see Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1995.
3. Truffaut had earlier denounced Carné’s work from the 1950s as exemplifying the conservative, so-called retrograde cinéma de papa that had emerged in post-war France. This recuperation at the hands of one of his chief tormenters was greeted with a certain degree of irony by Carné. See Carné’s autobiography, La vie à belles dents, Paris, Belfond, 1989.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Pathé. Director: Marcel Carné. Screenwriter: Jacques Prévert. Producer: Raymond Borderie. Music: Maurice Thiriet. Cinematography: Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert. Production Designer: Alexandre Trauner. Editors: Henri Rust and Madeleine Bonin. Cast: Garance (Arletty), Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), Louis Salou (Édouard, Count de Montray)].
Jill Forbes, Les Enfants du paradis, London, BFI, 1997.
Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, ‘Beneath the Despair, the Show goes on: Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du paradis (1943–5)’, in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds), French Film: Texts and Contexts, London and New York, Routledge, 2000, pp. 78–88.
Ben McCann, ‘Marcel Carné’, Senses of Cinema, Vol. 58, 2011.
Available at www.sensesofcinema.com/2011/great-directors/marcel-carne (accessed 29 November 2012).
Edward Baron Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema, Cambridge, MA, and London, Harvard University Press, 1989.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.