Stage Direction: Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants Du Paradis (1945) – Blu-ray review
French critics famously voted the film the best ever made in that country. In truth, it’s better than that.
Les Enfants Du Paradis
(Marcel Carné, 1945)
“A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet,” reckoned William Shakespeare – but then Shakespeare wasn’t French. Some film titles just sound better in that language, none more so than the work of Marcel Carné. Port Of Shadows sounds like a B-movie; Le Quai Des Brumes sounds mysterious and tragic. Daybreak is a breakfast show; Le Jour Se Lève is poetic and inevitable. And Children Of Paradise sounds like turgid Oscar bait, but Les Enfants Du Paradis is… well, exquisite.
It’s actually an ironic title, referring to the inhabitants of the cheap seats (‘the gods’ in England; Paradis in France) in 19th Century Paris – and also, obliquely, to the actors at the mercy of their audience. And so the film already conjures up its essential dilemma; if their Eden lies on stage, does that mean that real life is a form of exile for them? This is weighty stuff… even before you learn that this film, whose period detail is so immaculate you’d swear it was actually filmed in the 1820s, was filmed under extreme pressure under Nazi occupation, throwing the film’s themes into sharp relief.
Across the Channel, Powell and Pressburger were turning propagandist commissions into tart, irreverent treats, but short of Churchill getting grumpy they were never in any danger; what Carné and his regular screenwriter Jacques Prévert were doing here was tantamount to suicide. It’s a film of reckless bravado, hiring banned (because Jewish) talents like set designer Alexander Trauner in secret, and getting around a limit on movie length by pretending that this single three-hour epic was two brisk 90-minuters.
And the film soars on that tension. When the curtain goes down on the ‘first act,’ it actually means something; the uncertainty as to where these people will be when the story starts again mirroring the real-life turmoil. And the incredible recreation of Paris’ theatre district, the Boulevard of Crime, on a quarter-mile set, is one of cinema’s greatest trompe d’oeils. Remember: there’s a war going on – and yet here Vichy collaborators and Resistance fighters alike are working as extras in crowd scenes so dense and detailed few filmmakers could pull them off in peacetime. There are scenes where Carné is filming interiors, and he has the cojones to shoot into a window so that he still has to march the crowds past in an otherwise simple dialogue scene.
Also: check the period of the film’s story. Most of the main characters – the mime Baptiste; the actor Lemaître, the criminal Lacenaire (but not Garance, the woman for all they all fall who acts as the story’s anchor) are based on real-life historical figures, yet there’s an implicit message in setting a film a few decades after the French Revolution. There was bloodshed and tragedy back then, the story says, but don’t stop dreaming. So the film becomes a celebration of French culture – from the high to the low – and the tone varies accordingly. Just when you think the film is about to enter into the grandest of tragedies, Prevert takes a detour into a hysterical farce (practically a film in its own right) about Lemaître’s tussle with a trio of dour playwrights over control of his performance, driven by a superb comic performance by Pierre Brasseur. Such laissez-faire irreverence has to be a dig at Germanic bureaucracy; orders are there to be broken.
But it’s not all about the Nazis. Prévert’s script sets up an incredible dialectic between mime and ‘acting’ – the physical action and the written word – that plays as a duel between literature and cinema. The script is incredible, juggling various strands of narrative with the complexity and skill of a 19th Century novel – you have to pinch yourself to appreciate that this is a screen original. But then, Carné’s direction is equally impressive, as the camera locks onto Jean-Louis Barrault’s elegant, elegiac mimes as Baptiste. The location of the camera does things that theatre cannot – one minute we’re watching, as if from the gods; the next, we cut to the actor’s PoV, seeing backstage and not liking what he finds there… but he’s still marooned away from real life.
And everything’s a performance – a sly piece of satire when so many Frenchmen were lying to the occupiers, but also the product of a great period of cinema when characters were allowed to have ambiguous motives and multi-faceted personalities – “everyone has their reasons,” as La Règle Du Jeu put it. The most dashing, dandyish character is a thief and a murderer who fancies writing a play; the heroine casually hops from bed to bed while thinking of just one man. It is Baptiste’s curse that his priorities are upside-down: on stage, he is so lifelike as to melt your heart; in real life, he cannot dissemble or hide his true feelings and so engineers his own downfall. These people frequently do things that are maddening and repulsive, but immaculate performances and the sensitivity of script and direction help us to care so much that a long running time flies by.