I saw Children of Paradise (1945), which was at some point voted the greatest French film of all time, in a new print at the IU Cinema a few days ago. It is absolutely gorgeous, the luminous newly-restored print as blemish-free as a new movie (as if a movie like this would be made today). The film, about bohemian theater folk in 1820s-30s Paris, is often described as the apotheosis of what the French New Wave was reacting against: a thoroughly luxurious, labor-intensive, classical cinema in which every shot, performance, and piece of design was obviously planned with extreme care and forethought. It “marks the culmination of France’s Golden Age of moviemaking. Never again would the French cinema produce a film so unashamedly literate and lavish” (Edward Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carne and the Golden Age of French Cinema, 1989). Because the Nazis, occupying Paris at the time of its filming, would only allow 90-minute maximum films (why were 100-minute movies degenerate?), it was shot in two 90-minute parts with an intermission between. The narrative’s main love quadrangle (or quintangle?) is established in Part I, and then 10 years have passed in Part II when the various principals re-encounter one another, some of them now famous and successful.
Children of Paradise contains a protagonist, Baptiste, who must be one model of that much-maligned French type, the mime. My favorite scene may be the very first one, a very famous (I believe) panoramic tracking shot of the “Boulevard de Crimes,” teeming with activity and commerce, where Baptiste (at this point an unemployed and disrespected mime whose unloving father is a star of a local theater) witnesses a pick-pocketing of which the small-time actress-model Garance is initially accused (he provides her alibi). Garance, with whom Baptiste promptly falls in love, has a not-so-successful highbrow peep-show act in which she plays a nude Venus who is only partially visible because immersed in an elevated barrel of water. This opening scene brilliantly establishes the film’s preoccupations with theater, duplicity, disguise, ambition, love & lust, and crime. (It has probably influenced countless other movies, but Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy came to mind for me in particular as an analogue in its depiction of a chaotic 19th-century backstage theater world.)
I learned from Wikipedia that the star Arletty, who plays Garance, “was imprisoned in 1945 for having had a wartime liaison with a German officer…. She allegedly later commented on the experience, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”” Good line, but yikes! Arietty seems to have been 47 or so when the movie was filmed, and I found it a bit confusing that she was supposed to be playing a fresh young ingenue in the first part.
Edward Turk again from 1989: “Until that unlikely time when movie viewers become unresponsive to impeccably mounted displays of grand feeling and form, Les Enfants du paradis will retain a privileged position among film masterworks.” Let’s see, top grossing films of 2011 include Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides— is it possible that this sad day has in fact arrived? Anyway, be sure to catch this new print of Children of Paradise when the DVD comes out…