‘Les Enfants du Paradis (Children Of Paradise)’
Les Enfants du Paradis (Children Of Paradise)
Directed by Marcel Carné
Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Pierre Brasseur
France, 190 min – 1945.
Les Enfants du Paradis is a film about that class of people that hangs on the outskirts of 1820s and 30s French society, exuberantly enjoying theatre productions in the ‘Boulevard du Crime.’ It is very much a piece that celebrates the bohemian artist (of an earlier generation than the famed bohemians depicted in Moulin Rouge) and the tragedies of love. This love centers around the beautiful woman-about-town and artist, Garance (Arletty), and the four men who fall in love with her: Jean-Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), a famous pantomime actor, Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), an aspiring, classical actor, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a criminal, and finally, Count Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), a rich aristocrat. Each man falls in love with Garance, but she only gives her heart to one of them. This unrequited romance leads to tragedy that could only happen from a slew of jealous lovers.
The original USA trailer for Les Enfants du Paradis quotes The New York Times, as calling the film “The French reply to ‘Gone With The Wind.’” There are definitely clear similarities between the two. Both are largely expensive, costume dramas, where the romance depicted covers the undertone of social injustices (class hierarchy and women’s inequality, to name a few). In addition, the film centers on a strong woman, loved by many men, distrusted by women, and understood by very few. Cinematographically, Roger Hubert also focuses, at some points, on portraying the ‘Boulevard du Crime’ to an epic scale. This is seen in the opening sequence of the film, as well as greatly, when the carnival celebrators separate Baptiste from Garance’s carriage. However, this is where most of the similarities stop.
Unlike its American counterpart, Les Enfants du Paradis places its narrative squarely in the French theatrical world of the time. This allows the characters more freedom to explore the fantastical world around them (in fact, Garance’s lovers are all based on actual people in early 19th century French history). Baptiste and Frédérick, in particular, are in love with making audiences happy (and the latter with making audiences fall in love with him). This affects the love that each can have for Garance. While Baptiste’s love is gentle and true, Frédérick’s is based on amusement. Their love differs even more sharply from the egotistical love for Garance that Lacenaire and the Count both have. They only love that which they cannot possess. Therefore, they are separated from this theatrical world of artists (though Lacenaire seeks a similar kind of fame through his crimes).
Perhaps the most interesting depiction of bohemian love is in Garance. She is pegged as the French counterpart to the spoiled Scarlett O’Hara, but in the film, she is anything, but vain. Garance seems to be a very misunderstood character. Considering the fact that Garance speaks the truth “from the neck up,” she should be believed, when she admits the man she loves. This is not the case. The same USA trailer points to Garance, when it discusses the ‘bad women’ of the film and introduces her as, “the promiscuous lover of many men.” While watching Les Enfants du Paradis, it is apparent in her calm actions, even amidst often rude remarks from her supposed lovers, that Garance attracts the love of many men, simply because she does not need it, or in most cases, return it. That is something that cannot be held against her character.
Les Enfants du Paradis surpasses many other 1940s films. It does so, not only because of its honest depiction of several different kinds of love, but also because of the adversity it overcame to be produced. Marcel Carné made the film in two parts, during the German occupation of France, during World War II (Nazi supporters and resistance fighters alike worked on the project). It is in many ways a resistance to the occupation at the time, not in the least, because it is French classical cinema at its height. Despite the struggle to make such a large production, Carné succeeded in creating a film that even French New Wave titan, François Truffaut, said he would have liked to sign his name to.