In every sense, Marcel Carne's Children of Paradise is larger than life and more emphatically intense. First, the 1945 film produced under German occupation is very long -- the picture runs for three hours and ten minutes. Second, the production is lavish -- the sets are vast and impressive; the forty minutes of proscenium theater reproduced in the movie is a lavish spectacle of another kind, a lost world of pantomime and melodrama lovingly recreated for the screen. Images of exteriors, Parisian thoroughfares, embody an adage about filmed versions of the past: the streets were more crowded in those days, elbow to elbow with pedestrians, and representatives of the various human types and occupations were far more vivid in the past than they are today. A vista of the so-called "Street of Crime" shows about a half-mile of extras on promenade under detailed matte-glass paintings of tenements and theater buildings. Third, the film's screenplay is less a script than a kind of poetic libretto -- everyone speaks either in an impassioned demotic consisting of insults or imprecations or utters aphorisms or, even, verse poetry of a very high order. (The script is by the great surrealist poet Jacques Prevert.) Fourth, the movie's plot jams more conflicts, love entanglements, and criminal enterprise into a film than we are used to encountering. In general terms, the complex plot involves a spectacularly beautiful woman who is adored and wooed by not two, or, even, three admirers but, at least, four -- and one has the sense that Carne's affection for his leading lady, Arletty (playing the courtesan and actress Garance) is such that he might gladly have multiplied her lovers (and, therefore, complicated the narrative) by adding dozens, if not hundreds, of inamorata. Indeed, Carne takes it for granted that everyone who sees Arletty in this role will fall in love with her and, therefore, she is the central solar radiance around which the various plots and subplots revolve. In one scene, Garance walks in the rain with a great pantomime artist, comes to his garret, and, then, nonchalantly offers herself to the young man -- the scene has a blatant, direct eroticism that is still startling today and Garance's unmistakably direct proposition is one of the few instances in screen history of a great and beautiful actress suggesting that a man sleep with her that is both delicate, impressively forceful, and, for some curious reason, neither emasculating nor demeaning to the male character.
Simply stated Arletty's Garance is the prize sought by the young, fantastically poetic and fragile-looking pantomime -- the actor has something of the quality of a very fine, and elegant, piece of chinoserie; he is like carved ivory. Although the mime loves Garance with his beautiful soul, the woman's body belongs to a garrulous and vain Shakespearean actor -- a figure whose volubility contrasts with the mime's silence on stage; it is the classic duel between gesture and word. (Although the Shakespearean actor performs parts in the Theatre des Funambules, the pantomime venue, where the company seems to be enacting variations on Venetian commedia dell'Arte -- the young mime is a suitably balletic and refined Pierrot whose love, played by Garance, is also the subject of the ruder and more aggressive intentions of Harlequin. Throughout the film, Carne reprises famous etched and painted images of the French theater including Watteau's monumental and enigmatic portrait of the melancholy Pierrot.) A wealthy baron also yearns to make Garance his mistress and courts her. Finally, there is a roguish thief, a sort of bandit, whose criminality is based on Nietzschean philosophical proposition, a figure who seems like someone in a novel by Dostoevsky -- the thief also loves Garance, but is too proud to woo her, although she seems to express an interest in him. (Prevert's notes in the film's script indicate that the bandit, Lacenaire is "impotent.") The complex interaction between these figures and a host of minor characters provides the subject matter for the film's melodrama.
The Children of Paradise is presented in two parts with an intermission -- apparently, you could either see the film complete on one night or in separate installments. The first part, "The Street of Crime" sets up the complicated story, climaxing with Baptiste's inexplicable flight from Garance's bedroom -- an exodus that provides an opportunity for the Shakespearean actor (Frederick Lemaitre) who is opportunistic, with less refined scruples, and conveniently lodging in the next room with balcony access to Garance. The first half of the film isn't flawless -- the pacing flags in a long and mostly extraneous scene set at the "Red Breast" tavern, a sort of picturesque "lower depths" milieu where nonetheless all of the major characters are implausible congregated. The film is full of portents and prophecies -- most of the characters in the movie were real people living in the years 1827 and 1828, the time that the movie portrays, and Carne delights in teasing his audience with allusions as to what would actually happen to these people, portents that had to come true since Carne knows the fortunes of his characters after the film's final curtain. The long and dull scene in the tavern, however, is followed by the sublime love duet between Baptiste and Garance that ends with him bolting from her room. After that debacle, Garance becomes the mistress of a wealthy baron, a man who is savage and remorseless duelist. This development occurs only after Baptiste, playing the somber and melancholy Pierrot at the Funambules glimpses Frederick Lemaitre flirting with Garance backstage -- Carne and Prevert have designed the film so that exquisite reconstructions of 19th century pantomime mirror (or comment on) the narrative. The second half of the film, "The Man in White", ostensibly resolves the plot conflicts in the first part of the movie, although the tone is different, darker, and the plot seems not so much a continuation of the film's first 100 minutes but, rather, a variation on its themes. With the lethal Baron, Garance has returned to Paris after living for several seasons in Scotland (where she inspired a duel resulting in death involving a young man.) Frederick Lemaitre is now a successful actor on the stage and no longer forced to rely upon pantomime to make a living. There is an amusing sequence at the beginning of Act Two, extraneous to the film's plot but very funny about Lemaitre subverting a poorly written play in which he is the principal. Ultimately, all the characters attend a performance of Lemaitre's Othello, another commentary on the jealousy that is now rife among the protagonists. (Lemaitre wants to renew his affair with Garance; Lacenaire continues to hover around her protectively and Baptiste, who is now married with a young son, obsessively laments his lost opportunity with Garance on the stormy night several years earlier. For her part, Garance is determined to make love to Baptiste -- although she doesn't want anything like a relationship with him.) The dead-eyed Baron, grasping that Garance can't love him, tries to induce Lemaitre into a duel -- we've already seen that Lemaitre is inept in this realm. Lacenaire joins the verbal fray and, for a delicious ten minutes, the characters exchange barbed witticisms until Lecenaire theatrically draws a curtain to reveal Baptiste outside the theater window in Garance's arms. Of course, the Baron is too noble to waste a bullet or sabre-slash on a mere mime and, instead, forces poor Lemaitre into agreeing to a duel. Garance makes love to Baptiste and, the next morning, Lacenaire, not someone you want to trifle with, goes to the Moorish bath where the Baron is relaxing and stabs him to death -- an act so vicious that Lacenaire's loyal henchman looks like he is about to throw-up. Baptiste's wife arrives at the rendezvous between Garance and Baptiste. The carnival is in full, chaotic spate on the street below -- there is now not one, but a hundred Pierrots dancing down the boulevard. (I think this is Carne and Prevert's ironic comment that the Sturm und Drang depicted in their story could be replicated in the lives of a thousand men and women a thousand times -- ultimately, we are all trapped in the primordial roles of the Commedia dell'Arte: either moribund jealous husband, or prancing Harlequin or a moonstruck doomed lover.) Garance departs through the crowd and is lost. Presumably, Baptiste returns to his family. Lacenaire coolly awaits the police anticipating that he will be guillotined for the murder. Curiously, we don't see Lemaitre again -- this is, perhaps, due to the fact that for the French audiences Lemaitre was a famous 19th century thespian on the order of Edwin Booth and they understand that he was unscathed by these episodes and went on to be a famous actor and favorite with Victor Hugo.
Children of Paradise is brilliant but strangely uninvolving. The film feels designed for eternity -- each scene splendidly acted and staged. In part, the movie's emotional detachment relates to Arletty's problematic performance. Commentators are too chivalrous to mention this point but it deserves notice: Arletty was 46 when the movie was filmed and she is no longer in first blush of her beauty. This doesn't mean that she isn't spectacularly, even fabulously gorgeous, but it is a curiously cold and marmoreal beauty. There is something impregnable and unapproachable about her perfectly symmetrical features -- indeed, she looks very much like a Greek or Roman statue of Venus. In the opening sequence, we see her exhibited as a kind of sideshow attraction -- naked Truth in her bath looking only at herself with a small mirror. The show is a bait and switch: men enter expecting to see a nude woman and instead find the actress allegorically impersonating Truth in a kind of rotating tub, only her bare shoulders, throat, and face visible. Carne and Prevert clearly refer to the notion that Truth is Beauty and Beauty Truth, but this formula doesn't get you too far with a plotline. Furthermore, Garance's perfect and almost mask-like beauty seems classically simple, stripped of ornament or decoration -- her face requires no make-up; it is perfect unadorned. This comports with Garance's motto: "Love is simple," a motif repeated with almost Wagnerian regularity in the film. But, of course, the entire narrative is designed to show that love is not simple and that it exists, at least as far as this plot is concerned, in, at least, four variants -- one for each of the male characters. It may be that Carne and Prevert felt that love was simple for women but made overly complicated ("sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thought") by the male characters with their habits of erotic displacement, sublimation, jealousy, and intellectualizing. If that was their concept, I don't think anyone would accept that notion today.
The Children of Paradise occupied a contested position in the history of French cinema. The nouvelle vague critics, particularly Truffaut, pretended for many years to detest the movie and its genre, the high-toned "cinema of quality." But, of course, these young men had an oedipal fixation on the film. The movie was the most exquisite product of their father's generation and carried with it suspect values and history -- Arletty was the mistress of a Gestapo officer and people who marvel that the movie was made during the Nazi occupation of France are naïve. The film was made with the complicity of the Germans and, of course, was intended to demonstrate that French culture could not only survive, but thrive, under the Nazi regime. Although Carne and Prevert wove Resistance themes into their huge canvas, the movie is, by and large, the product of collaboration with the Germans. These facts alone would give people like Truffaut and Godard a basis to disrespect the film's achievement. But the film's Oedipal influence runs deep -- in my view, Truffaut's Jules and Jim, involving the relationship between a French man and a German both in love with a beautiful and dangerous woman is a response to, and commentary on, The Children of Paradise. Similarly, a number of Godard's films, most particularly Contempt, a movie that relies upon the perfect beauty of Brigitte Bardot also unconsciously I think mirrors certain aspects of Carne's film -- in Contempt, the characters are making a movie that we see from behind-the-scenes and the themes in the film within the film resonate with the love triangle that drives the film's narrative. Toward the end of his life, Truffaut apologized to Carne and said that he would have given all of his films to have himself created The Children of Paradise.