Les Enfants du Paradis

(Children of Paradise, Marcel Carné, France, 1945)


When it comes to revisiting the canon of great films – at any rate, those movies that get hailed, promoted and re-released as deathhless masterpieces – I tend to wheel through a wide range of mixed emotions. The anti-authoritarian in me kicks against canons,  received opinions and consensus evaluations. I get very suspicious when a supposed classic is unveiled for us today – whether it’s Citizen Kane  (1941) or Apocalypse Now  (1979) – and reviewers fall into line, parroting: well, yes, all of us agree that this is one of the finest, the greatest, the richest of films!


But we collectively know far too little about the history of film to assume that we have naturally sifted out the best and brightest from the vast pile of regular dross. And the process whereby something gets to be hailed as a classic over time often has much more to do with luck, circumstance and promotion than any kind of intrinsic merit. That’s certainly the case, to give examples, with The African Queen (1951) or Cinema Paradiso (1988) – they would never ever get anywhere near my personal list of the one thousand favourite, most valued or significant films ever made. I guess what this complaint comes down to, is that I’m more taken with individual, even eccentric responses to cinema than I am with group siftings or consensus opinions.


But, on the other hand, it can be a surprising and positive experience to come up against the film canon. The American scholar Dudley Andrew has written a lot about how the movie classics – at least some of them – may be in their elevated position for very good and valid reasons. Andrew proposes we approach these canonical classics humbly, at a kind of double angle: we have to understand what these films meant in their day, in their particular time and place; and then, what they can mean to us now – that is, if they still mean anything to us at all.


I like this attitude, because it opens up the classics to new responses and interpretations. I will never forget, years ago, when I was teaching a film course at first year university level. I was trudging through a few of the familiar, old classics; including some which I hadn’t actually seen before screening them – I was secretly grabbing myself an education, too. I’d read a lot about about one particular classic by Jean Vigo, Zero for Conduct  from 1933 – mostly rather stuffy material about the film’s noble sense of struggle and freedom, and its sublime cinematic art. OK, let’s give it a whirl. The students were as shocked and as pleased as I was to suddenly discover a film that’s a rude, anarchic, low-budget marvel – with also what seemed a rather pronounced element of queer propaganda in it. I certainly hadn’t been warned about that element in the literature – and I was glad.


So I took myself off to see, once again, Marcel Carné’s celebrated Les Enfants du Paradis. Is this film an absolute, deathless, canonical masterpiece? I’d probably dispute that claim, most days. But then again, I’ve always approached this movie through some fog or other, on those most days. I first saw it when I was 16, and remember feeling restless and bored all throughout. I was already a fan of the later, more ragged and energetic films of the Nouvelle Vague, and to me Les Enfants du Paradis was just too conventional, too stately, too academic, too static … and too long. I still think, after my third viewing, that it’s a bit too static and long, and that its second half is not nearly as good as the first. But it is, all the same, a remarkable and haunting film, and I’m in a better position to appreciate the fact of that, as well as the why of that, now.


Les Enfants du Paradis is a deeply theatrical film, in so many ways. In the first place, it’s about the art of theatre – theatre in its diverse forms and traditions. Set in the 19th century, it is the story of a group of actors, the rather shady Parisian world they move in, and all the unusual characters that somehow intersect in this world. It is a grand melodrama (quite a soap opera, in fact) – a grandiloquent tale of love thwarted and unrequited, of honour, murder and deceit. The centre of this melodrama is Garance (played with cool seductiveness by the still controversial “collaborator” Arletty [1898-1992]). Many men pursue Garance, but the one who pines over her in tormented silence is Baptiste, a mime artist played by the incomparable Jean-Louis Barrault (1910-1994).


Les Enfants du Paradis is one of those films based on a dizzy interchange between the melodramas happening on-stage, and those happening off-stage. Life imitates art and vice versa, over and over; the characters find their lives mirrored, or even frankly fictionalised, in the plays that they inhabit or behold as spectators. This sometimes merry and always complicated game of playing or being, acting or looking, on-stage or off-stage, standing under the spotlight or waiting in the wings: that has been one of the cinema’s great subjects, from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) to Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952), from Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) to John CassavetesOpening Night (1977).


The directorial style adopted by Carné (1906-1996) for this story is also theatrical – and deliberately, not accidentally or lazily so, which is something I didn’t previously grasp. His style stresses mid-shots and ensemble groupings of the actors (who mainly stay still). It’s a very measured and geometric way of framing, always placing the characters in their environment of the theatre or the street, the mansion or the Turkish baths. This film about the theatre, which stresses the look and function of the procenium arch, creates its own, very theatrical point-of-view for the camera. The lighting (cinematography is in the hands of Roger Hubert), very exquisite and intricate, is really much more crucial than any mobile mise en scène of the actors, or agile camera work, here; the Australian French-studies scholar Anne Freadman wrote a spectacular piece in a 1986 Framework (issue 30/31) demonstrating the superb logic of the film’s patterns of shape and décor as sculpted by the manipulation and arrangement of light.


Only very rarely does Carné break this sense of distance, this front-on view. My favourite moment comes from one such trangression, and its dramatic power arises from its rarity in the film’s overall system. Baptiste, in his white mime costume, is doing an act on stage with Nathalie (María Casares), the woman who, off-stage, pines hopelessly for him. Suddenly we get a shot not from in front of the stage, as usual, but from the wings: Baptiste is staring, alarmed into this off-stage space. And then we see the horible thing that he sees: the object of his desire, Garance, speaking intimately with his male rival. Baptiste is subtly but utterly shattered, and Nathalie knows it right away. She cries out, on this otherwise silent stage, a single word: “Baptiste!” It’s an incredibly thrilling, grave moment; I wish this classic film had more like it.


But watching it today, in 1996, the hero behind Les Enfants du Paradis turned out to be not so much its director as its screenwriter, Jacques Prévert (1900-1977), celebrated author of Paroles in 1947 (Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s English-translated selection from it is rightfully a City Lights publication classic). What an extraordinary career this guy had! From his dalliances with Surrealism in the 1920s to this own wacky short films, from his feature scripts for Carné and Renoir to his later poems and songs, Prévert was one of the great populists of this century – and Les Enfants du Paradis is the veritable manifesto of his special, intoxicated populism.


Prévert wrote in one of his visionary poems: “I phonograph for the splendid idiots of the outer boulevards”. His art (across all media and genres) was an intense mixture of sublime, poetic realism and the socialist, Popular Front politics of his time. He was also an artist and an intellectual, and so he probably romanticised the unwashed masses from a safe, aesthetic distance. But who cares, when his romantic vision attains the beauty and coherence that it does in this script?


The film is a giddy mixture; on the one hand, it is a celebration of the little, anonymous people with their little, inarticulate, stunted, briefly flickering lives. On the other hand, what incredible poetry these humble folks use when they talk about the moon and love, about desire and fate – what grandiloquent visions they have of themselves, like when one of Garance’s many suitors says at crucial intervals of the story: “Paris is a small city for great lovers like us”!


We tend to think that debates about high, elite culture versus low, popular culture are a modern obsession; but Les Enfants du Paradis is utterly devoted to this debate – and that’s all because of Prévert. Once again, there’s a giddy sort of romantic projection and exaggeration going on. What we see of official, three-act, dramatic theatre here is stuffy, stiff, dead. Popular theatre on the other hand, is wild and chaotic, semi-improvised, with more than a touch of the circus about it. Prévert suggests that this popular theatre has been censored and repressed throughout history because it is politically scandalous.


But it is also light and sublime, and that sublimity is captured in the breathtaking mime performances of Barrault as Baptiste. Barrault is the soul of this movie; he and Prévert are what make it as great and memorable as it is.


Curiously, in this showdown of high and low culture that the film stages for us, there is a middle term that escapes criticism – because it is sublime and spectacular, poetic and oafish all at once. That middle term turns out to be Shakespeare, and specifically the play Othello. Prévert’s melodrama and Shakespeare’s melodrama become progressively entwined in striking, imaginative ways. So, if you can arrange it, try to watch Les Enfants du Paradis in some kind of double bill (however makeshift) with any decent screen version of Othello (such as those by Orson Welles or Oliver Parker). It will be well worth your intertextual effort.

© Adrian Martin 1 June 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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