There is so much to say about “The Children of Paradise”, this 1945 cinematic gem directed by Marcel Carné. Filmed during the Occupation period, “The Children of Paradise” is one of the last emblematic movies of French poetic realism art. This cinematographic movement, born in the 1930s, features working-class characters (hence the realism) marked by fatality (hence the poetry).
Poetry runs in “The Children of Paradise” thanks to the screenplay by Jacques Prévert and thanks to one of the protagonists who is a sensitive and romantic mime, to whom the actor Jean-Louis Barrault lends his features and talent.
The movie follows three historical characters from the 1830s: the mime Baptiste Deburau (played by Barrault), the actor Frédérick Lemaître (played by Pierre Brasseur) and Lacenaire the criminal-poet (played by Marcel Herrand).
The three men are linked by a place and by a woman.
The place is the Parisian “Boulevard du Temple”, nicknamed the “Crime Boulevard” because of all the melodramas and bloody scenarios offered by the numerous theatres of the area every evening. On the Crime Boulevard were a myriad of café-concerts, cabarets and theatres. Only the Folies-Mayer theatre (known today as the Déjazet Theatre) remains nowadays following the Haussmannian destructions of 1862.
The Crime Boulevard may have disappeared in 1862, but in 1830 it is the place to be, especially for our three protagonists. Lacenaire is a scrivener but also an anarchist criminal. Frédérick Lemaître, at the start of his career, tries to get hired by the “Théâtre des Funambules”. Baptiste Deburau is a mime in the street, his silent art being hardly recognized, except by Nathalie (played by an incandescent Maria Casarès), the daughter of the director of the “Théâtre des Funambules”.
The three men court a young woman, Garance (a fictional character played by Arletty – this will be her favorite role ever).
Garance lives in the present. Garance likes simplicity. Garance loves freedom. Lacenaire wants to possess her, Frédérick Lemaître wants to seduce her but the one who wins her heart is the romantic Baptiste. Baptiste’s love is so pure that he doesn’t dare to take what Garance offers him on a beautiful starry night – her heart and body.
Left alone, she succombs to Frédérick Lemaître, who is her roommate in their boarding house.
Garance, Frédérick and Baptiste soon find themselves together on the stage of the “Théâtre des Funambules” in a much acclaimed pantomime. The Count of Montray (played by Louis Salou) who attends the show, falls madly in love with Garance and offers her his love, his name and his fortune. Garance first declines the offer but must soon seek his protection to get out of the mess into which Lacenaire and his criminal activities have unfairly thrown her.
Garance disappears for several years. She is the passionless mistress of the Count but cannot help coming incognito every evening to applaud Baptiste, who enjoys a great success at the “Théâtre des Funambules”.
Garance keeps deep in her heart the memory of a starry night and a fervent and pure love. Frédérick Lemaître, who is a great star of a nearby theatre, recognizes Garance. She confesses to him her deep love for Baptiste – but the latter married Nathalie.
Will Baptiste and Garance meet again?
The movie is a beautiful tribute to the world of theatre, especially when it is dedicated to a penniless audience, hanging over the edge of the second balconies (the “gods” in the British theatre). In French, “paradis” is the colloquial name for the second balcony in a theatre, where common people sat and wiewed a play, responding and reacting to it honestly and noisily.
The Baptist of the “Children of Paradise” is far from his historical reality, but he is eminently romantic. Jean-Louis Barrault is perfect in this role – and his ethearal appearances as the stock character Pierrot are incredibly striking.
The care given to the lights detaches the faces of Garance and Baptiste to transform them as pure children enlightened by love.
The film, which lasts three hours, is divided into two eras. The first era – “The Crime Boulevard” – ends when Garance seeks the protection of the Count. The second era – “The Man in White” – begins six years later with the success of Baptiste. The two eras were presented in theaters one after the other – an intermission separating them.
Marcel Carné, who filmed in Nice on the French Riviera (in the Victorine studios) to reconstruct the monumental set of the Crime Boulevard and in Paris (in the Francoeur studios) for the indoor scenes, delayed the production and post-production, so that the movie would be released for the Liberation in March 1945.
I read somewhere that “The Children of Paradise” was a resistance film. It is true that Alexandre Trauner (for the sets) and Joseph Kosma (for the music), both Jews, clandestinely participated to the film.
However, the film was partially financed by an Italian production company supported by Mussolini’s government and it is still one of the 190 films made under the Occupation. Marcel Carné would always justify his cinematographic activity of the time by the need to make the French movie industry exist.
Also, the premiere of the film on March 2, 1945 was deprived of its female star since Arletty was arrested on October 20, 1944 because of her rowdy love affair with the German officer Hans Soehring.
The film was a resounding critical and commercial success. Only the “Nouvelle Vague” movement would despise “The Children of Paradise”, but François Truffaut would make amends years later.
So here I am on what remains of the Parisian Crime Boulevard, in front of the Déjazet theater, to pay homage to Garance and Baptiste. I trust that Garance would have loved this original Alexander McQueen dress.
September 10, 2022
Alexander McQueen dress – Lanvin purse – Armani flat shoes – Miu Miu sunglasses