Recently Jeffrey St. Clair polled a group of CounterPunch contributors on what they considered to be the greatest 100 films ever made (coming soon). My list omitted “Children of Paradise”, a 1945 French film that was sitting on my shelf for a couple of months incarnated as two Netflix DVD’s (the film runs for 195 minutes). Let me make amends for that now after having seen it for the first time—where have I been all these years? Although I didn’t rate my top 100 in order of greatness, Marcel Carné’s masterpiece, about which Francois Truffaut once said “I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise”, would certainly be among the top ten.
When you enter the world of “Children of Paradise” that is set in the 1830s, you recognize immediately an air of artifice that begins with the opening scene, an image of a curtain that upon lifting reveals hundreds of Parisians milling about a street filled with acrobats, clowns, magicians, jugglers and other artists performing in the open air. The street was known as the Boulevard of Crime, not so much for assaults on the citizens who flocked there but for the theaters that specialized in policiers.
There is motion and energy across the entire screen as ordinary Parisians mingle with the artists. In such a tumultuous environment, it might be expected that pickpockets would be about—the only type of crime that would occur in a generally safe locale. As a mime performs on an open-air stage, an old man yells out that a woman has stolen his gold watch. The accused, a beautiful woman named Garance, has teamed up with a thief named Pierre, her sometime lover, to separate the petite bourgeoisie from its wealth. As a cop is ready to haul her off to jail, the mime intervenes to let everyone know that he has seen the entire incident from the stage but indicated through gestures rather than words. Never going out of character, Baptiste the mime puts together an impromptu performance proving her innocence.
Eventually Baptiste and Garance hook up, much to Pierre’s annoyance. That is not the end of it. She also enters into an affair with an actor named Frédérick who helps her get a job with the Funambule Theater, a major attraction on the Boulevard of Crime. And later on, she becomes the courtesan of Édouard de Montray, a haut bourgeoisie who after seeing her perform is smitten to the core. The film can be described as a love pentangle, with the woman at the center coming close to and holding men back simultaneously. It is film that will remind you of Stefan Zweig, with its omnipresent sense of rapture mingled with longing and despair.
Like other classic French directors such as Jean Cocteau and René Clair, Carné is devoted to creating a totally theatrical experience. “Children of Paradise” is like a Verdi opera but without the singing. The film score is by Joseph Kosma, a Jew who worked in secrecy since at the time the film was being made, Jews could end up in a death camp. Charles Munch, who would go on to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 50s and 60s, leads the orchestra that performs Kosma’s score.
The acting takes a little bit of getting used to if you are accustomed to the more naturalistic style of modern cinema. There is something rather arch about it that will remind you of the silent films of the 1920s. Eyebrows are raised throughout and actors use arms and hands liberally to underscore their words. But it all fits in with the general theme of the film, which is the transcendent role of art in general, and theater in particular.
Throughout the film, there are lengthy performances seen on the stage of the Funambule Theater with Baptiste in pantomime or Frédérick in conventional dramas, including a performance as Othello toward the end of the film. Afterwards, still in costume and greasepaint, Frédérick chats with Édouard de Montray and his rich cronies in the lobby. They express their distaste for Shakespeare whom they find vulgar and much too geared to the common man. When de Montray says that he might bring his servants to the theater next time to see a Shakespeare performance since it would cater to their crude taste, Frédérick suggests that he bring his horses as well and would even reserve a box for them.
Although the film is a sweeping panorama of striking images from the street and the stage, it really soars to its greatest heights when the characters exchange words. That might be expected with a screenplay written by Jacques Prevert, a poet as well as a screenwriter. Born in 1900, Prevert was part of a school called poetic realism that despite its name was much more about lyricism than the cold, hard facts of life. Supposedly, it had an influence on Italian neorealism but the only common strand that seems obvious to me is its identification with ordinary people, as might be expected from a school that flourished during France’s Popular Front.
Wikipedia notes that Prévert was involved with the Surrealist movement, teaming up with Raymond Queneau and Marcel Duchamp in the Rue du Château group where he wrote diatribes against the clergy, army, cops and schools. He was also a member of the agitprop Groupe Octobre.
In Claire Blakeway’s “Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema”, we find the following description of Groupe Octobre. (The F.T.O.F. referred to below was the Federation of Workers’ Theatres of France):
Of all the groups which proliferated in France, the Groupe Octobre was perhaps the most successful example of political theatre to emerge during the 1930s. Performing in factories, parks, at open-air fétes and political rallies (organised by the F.T.O.F.) and in the working-class banlieues, of Paris (including Asnières, Sesnes, Noisy-le-Grand, and Villejuif) it attracted large proletarian audiences. Bussières recalls that at one performance which took place at Avenue Wagram, the Groupe October played to an audience of some twenty thousand people.
‘The Groupe Octobre (. . .) snow-balled, people who had attended a performance were very impressed, they spread the word, and in this way the audience grew bigger and bigger. I never saw a Groupe Octobre performance take place in front of an empty auditorium, never! It was free, admittedly, but this was not the only reason that people came.’
It was exactly such people (or their 1830s equivalent) who are referenced in the title of Marcel Carné’s film. The paradise was a nickname for the highest tier of seats in the French theater, equivalent to a baseball stadium’s bleachers. The working class people who could only afford tickets in the “paradise” were likely to drape their legs over the railing and shout encouragement or disdainful remarks at the actors, as was the case during Shakespeare’s time. In one of the most engaging moments of the film, Frédérick dispenses with a script that he finds lacking and improvises with new lines for the benefit of the “children of the paradise” who respond lustily.
Like a scene out of “Inglourious Basterds” or Truffaut’s “The Last Metro”, Carné had to dodge the Nazi occupying forces throughout the making of his film. Many of the film’s huge number of extras were fighters in the Resistance who used the film as daytime cover. In addition to Kosma, stage designer Alexandre Trauner, a Jew, also had to work in secrecy.
There is very little in “Children of Paradise” that can be interpreted as an anti-fascist message except in the broader sense of trying to breathe life into a French national identity that had been crushed underfoot by the Vichy dictatorship. By comparison, Henri-George Clouzot’s “Le Corbeau” was a far bolder attempt to challenge Nazi occupation through its scathing take on snitching and the ban on abortions, a pillar of Catholic reaction.
Ultimately, however, this is a film about the redemptive power of art. It is both a celebration of theater as well as a director and a screenwriter’s statement on the proper role of film, which is to celebrate the gains of civilization when barbarians are at the gate.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.