Marcel Carné’s “Children of Paradise” (1945) occupies a unique place in French film culture for at least a few reasons. It was shot, with much publicity, entirely during the Occupation, but premiered in March 1945 for a recently liberated French audience eager to rally around a point of national pride and for a world-wide audience happy to welcome a Free France back to the international scene.
Even more unusual is the fact that this three hour plus costume drama’s reputation has survived generations of white elephant hunters and tradition-of-quality hecklers. Surely this “bloated” historical melodrama, also a massive commercial success in its day, would be the perfect target of scorn for critics looking to purge the canon of the lumbering, dessicated “cinéma de papa.” Yet “Children of Paradise” remains a perennial entry on lists of all-time great French films, and even sometimes on lists not limited by the adjective “French.”
You will only need to ask why if you haven’t seen the film. This sprawling epic, written by the poet Jacques Prévert, takes full advantage of its running time not simply to linger in its glorious recreation of 1820s and 1830s Paris, though the elaborate sets and costumes are indeed glorious, but to constantly reinvent its characters, who begin as seemingly graspable “types” and wind up being as complex as, well, people.
Critics love the phrase “networks of desire” – it sounds both academic and steamy – and few films have drawn such highly articulated networks. Everything revolves around Garance (the French star Arletty in her signature role), a woman who maintains an aura of alluring mystery by offering just a little bit of herself to each of the men she attracts. And when she winds up on the Boulevard du Crime (the fanciful name for the theater district in Paris) she seems to attract one of just about every type, each of whom falls in love with Garance in different ways.
The great actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur) loves Arletty almost as much as he loves himself, perhaps because he senses she is as great of a performer off-stage as he is on. The mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) pines for Garance the instant she becomes the first person to really pay attention to him, and his desperate longing is a mix of idolatry and lust suppressed in the pursuit of a pure romantic ideal. The criminal and poet Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) prefers the company of men, but is still mesmerized by Garance’s unique presence; could she be as great a psychopath as he? De Montray (Louis Salou) simply wants to possess Garance because her love is the one thing even his privilege will never allow him to possess.
Yes, you need a program to keep them all in order, but you get one over the course of 190 minutes spanning about seven years in their lives. Fortunes rise and fall. Inspired in no small part by Garance, both Lemaître and Baptiste (based on real historical figures) become stars of the stage, one with his signature booming voice, the other a master of silent storytelling. Garance always exudes a sense of total control but even her steadfast facade crumbles when she is threatened by the law and must turn to one of her suitors for help. Garance disappears from the scene for years, Baptiste gets married but never forgets his true love, the once smug Lacenaire winds up down on his luck, the Count never gets what he wants… yes, yes, it’s all a rich tapestry.
The film is justly admired for its rich evocation of the vibrant theater life on the Boulevard, with many parallels drawn to the next century’s flowering of cinema, but the movie remains vital today because the characters are so organic. Though they are all adults when we meet them, it feels as if we watch them grow up before our eyes, sometimes finishing as different people than when they started, and always capable of surprising us along the way. There’s simply no way Carné and Prévert could have fleshed out such detailed and intimate portraits in a film with a more traditional running length; indeed one could happily imagine a “Children of Paradise” that runs twice as long or longer still, its characters dynamic enough to command our attention and affection the whole way through.
Arletty is magnificent (let’s also give the film credit for casting an actress in her mid-forties as one of cinema’s greatest objects of desire) but the stand-out performance belongs to Barrault, an accomplished mime artist and actor who can capture just about every shade of desire (fear, joy, vulnerability, resignation) in a single glance or gesture. The movies have probably never seen a performance quite like his since, and “Children of Paradise” would be worthy of praise for him alone. But, of course, he has plenty of company in this masterpiece.
The film’s portrayal of love is as fatalistic as it comes. We only live when are in love, yet love condemns us to misery. What is this, a documentary?
I will quote from Criterion’s booklet:
“The digital restoration of ‘Children of Paradise’ presented in this edition was performed by the legendary film company Pathé in 2011. Made by Pathé during the German occupation of France in World War II, ‘Children of Paradise’ was shot on whatever types of scrap stock the filmmakers could get their hands on. That original nitrate camera negative was the main source of the restoration, but it was in poor condition, with significant damage from scratches, dirt, and mold, as well as some tape residue from old splices, all of which had to be digitally removed. Also, in several instances, frames were missing from the original negative. These were reconstructed from multiple sources, including two 35mm nitrate fine-grain positives.”
Criterion goes on to note that some shots could not be improved, and also emphasizes that the film was shot with an unusual amount of soft focus, something that is very noticeable throughout and might lead some viewers to think the image resolution on this 1080p transfer is lacking. It is not razor sharp perhaps, but the soft focus is part of the design, though I am less certain if the softer contrast in the black-and-white photography is as endemic to the source.
However, this digital restoration represents quite an improvement in the way most viewers are accustomed to seeing “Children of Paradise.” Though there are still some shots that show signs of damage, a remarkable number have been cleaned up and the level of detail is starkly superior to Criterion’s old SD, as you would expect. Quality varies at times because of the “patchwork sources” used for the restoration, but this is a very fine transfer.
The audio has also been restored and this linear PCM Mono track is crisp and even gives a bit of a sense of depth in many of the crowd sequences. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Disc One includes the 190 minute film broken into two parts (they play as one film, however) and the commentaries from the 2002 SD (this Blu-ray retains the old spine Number 141) have been included: Part One by film scholar Brian Stonehill and Part Two by film scholar Charles Affron.
Disc Two includes the extras. Imported from the 2002 SD are a 5-minute introduction by director Terry Gilliam, the U.S. Trailer and a short Restoration Demonstration (4 min.) obviously not from the 2011 digital restoration.
Criterion has also added a strong array of new extras for this Blu-ray release.
“Once Upon a Time: ‘Children of Paradise’” (51 min.) is a 2009 documentary directed by Julie Bonan. It ranges all over the place from gossip to useful production details and historical context. Some of the experts interviewed are a bit too worshipful for my taste, but snippets of archival interviews with Carné and Prévert are definitely of interest, and clips from a 1969 interview of a feisty Arletty (scorned at the time of production for her affair with a Gestapo officer) is pure gold.
“The Look of ‘Children of Paradise’” (22 min.) is a visual essay by film writer Paul Ryan which focuses mainly though not exclusively on the sets and costumes in the film, discussing the contribution of both crew members and the 19th century artists who provided inspiration for the film’s look and setting.
“The Birth of ‘Children of Paradise’” (63 min.) is a 1967 documentary directed by Peter Gehrig. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to watch this yet, but it is described as Gehrig traveling with production designer Alexandre Trauner back to locations where he and other cast members were living during the Occupation; the documentary also includes interviews with directors Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, and Louis Malle who discuss the film’s influence on the New Wave.
The 40-page insert booklet includes an essay by professor and author Dudley Andrew, a transcript of part of an audio interview with Carné that was included on Criterion’s old laserdisc of the film. It runs 18 pages and is pretty wide spanning.
Film buffs have been eagerly anticipating this extensively restored edition of “Children of Paradise” for a while. There will no doubt be the usual arguments over whether certain shots were overly buffed in the digital restoration process, but I think most people will be very pleased with the results. The new extras are impressive as well. This will place on a lot of year-end best of lists.
Criterion has also released Marcel Carné’s 1942 film “Les Visiteurs du Soir” on Blu-ray the same week as “Children.”