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It’s my birthday, and I’ll invite whom I want … September 16, 2006

Posted by Jeff in 1929 through WWII, Children of Paradise, Movies, Theater.
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And my invitation goes to Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), the masterpiece of French cinema, Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s poem to theater and love.

An anecdote about the makers of Les Enfants du Paradis might serve as an illuminating prologue. After the writer-director team of Jacques Prévert and Marcel Carné made the ominously fatalistic Quai des Brumes in 1938, the collaborationist Vichy government pointed to the film as a cause of the subsequent war. The barometer, Carné replied, shouldn’t be blamed for the storm.

The rich and ambitious Les Enfants du Paradis has a dangerous history. During the grim days of the early 1940s Occupation, Carné and Prévert made the film at Victorine studios in Nice. To get around the Vichy edict that a film could not exceed 90 minutes, Les Enfants du Paradis was constructed in two parts totaling three hours. Starting out as a Franco-Italian co-production, it was abandoned by the Italians when Allied forces invaded Sicily. Pathé stepped in, and the film was completed after two years of on-and-off work. Alexandre Trauner designed the awe-inspiring sets and Joseph Kosma penned the yearning-filled music, and yet both men, being Jews, had to perform their work in the strictest of secrecy. The actor Robert Le Vigan (who originally played the part of the informer-thief Jericho) was sentenced to death for collaboration by the Resistance, and fled the country. His scenes were reshot, this time with Pierre Renoir (brother of the director Jean) playing the part. Just as real-life events threatened to disrupt the project, the film itself used as its central metaphor the tension-charged relationship between theatre and life.

Set in the teeming theatre district of 1840s Paris (the “boulevard du crime”), the paradise of the film’s title is a reference to “the gods”, the highest, cheapest seats in the theatre, occupied by the poorest of the poor. As Prévert said when asked about the meaning of the title, “it refers to the actors (…) and the audiences too, the good-natured, working-class audience”.

The film follows the Garbo-like Garance (Arletty) and the four men in her life: moonstruck mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault); philandering thespian Frédéric Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur); murderer-dandy Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) and the wealthy, loveless count Edouard (Louis Salou). Each of the film’s two parts begins and ends with the rise and fall of a curtain on a stage, explicitly situating the narrative as a theatrical spectacle. Within this spectacle, the film plays with opposing theatrical forms (silent mime theatre versus melodramatic spoken-word theatre). At the pantomime theatre Funambules, all performers are summarily fined for making noise backstage (or, horror of horrors, uttering a sound during a performance!).

The dreamlike passions and fragile sensitivity of Baptiste the mime form a strong contrast to the loud and blustery Frédéric, who booms, “I will die from silence like others die from hunger and thirst”. Yet, while Frédéric later achieves fame as an actor-star on the boulevard, the common folk are drawn to Baptiste and his delicate stories wrapped in the gauze of pantomime.

In one poignant piece, Baptiste plays Pierrot as he loses his beloved, a statue, to Harlequin, played by the flamboyant Frédéric. The object of their love, this moon-complexioned statue, is played by Garance. The amoral and dissolute Lacenaire writes farces which remain unperformed and unread. He ends up mounting a real-life assassination with the loving detail of a theatrical production. After the meticulous murder of the Count, the murderer waits calmly after the “performance” for the arrival of the police. The Count’s open contempt of theatre (“I don’t like this Monsieur Shakespeare: his debased violence, and his lack of decorum”) co-exists with a passionate bent for casual killing in the name of honor – thanks to that old tradition, the duel. Thus, theatre weaves its thread intimately into the fabric of every life we witness in the film.

The sad, elusive, and sublime presence of Garance is at the very heart of this film. Richard Roud praised Arletty’s towering performance and called it “one of the greatest portraits of a woman in all of cinema (…) a performance for the ages.” Garance casually invites Frédéric into her bed minutes after Baptiste professes his deep love for her. To her, love is simple, as simple as the tune of a music box (“When I want to say yes, I can’t say no”). After several years away, drawn back to the theatre by her desire to see Baptiste, the one man she truly loves, she confesses in a speech of quietly moving dignity: “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.”

A complex and tragic character, Garance’s easy devotion to the fleeting passions of love is innocent yet destructive; her flighty nature brings her a succession of moments filled with pleasure, yet the comfort of love eludes her. At the end of the film, when Baptiste runs into the carnival crowd, attempting unsuccessfully to catch up with the departing Garance, he is swallowed up by the “audience”, he is one with them, unable to be anything other than what they are. We have grown accustomed to seeing him in the privileged space of the stage, gazed upon by the admiring audience, straining forward silently in their seats. We are not ready for this fall from the rarefied spotlight of the stage to the bustling anarchy of the oppressively celebratory carnival crowd. It is a descent from artifice to reality.

The invisible membrane between theatre and life is repeatedly ruptured in the film. When Frédéric mocks the melodrama he plays in (“Brigands Inn”), he throws away his lines and turns the play into an acerbic farce, improvising lines that luxuriate reflexively in condemning the solemn pretensions of the play he is mocking. He then bounds off stage and appears in one of the audience boxes, and upon pleading, returns to the stage. When Baptiste runs into a blind beggar and befriends him, he discovers when they arrive at a tavern that the man has been “acting” blind. He is assuming the character of a sightless person to improve the quality of his performance on the street of life (and improve the state of his alms!). Lacenaire the murderer is also a public scribe. He assumes the character of his client and writes a love letter from the client’s point of view. In these explorations, the film looks presciently forward to the mid-1950s theatre-as-life-as-theatre period of Renoir (Golden Coach and French Can-Can) and Ophuls’ piercing Lola Montes.

Perhaps the most crushing lesson to emerge from the theatre-life dialectic by film’s end is probably this: Love and happiness are much more easily achieved in the indoor make-believe space of unreality than on the wide-open boulevard of life.

— Girish Shambu, sensesofcinema.com

There will be more of Les Enfants du Paradis in the next few days.

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