Friday, May 21, 2010

Film #27: Les enfants du paradis (1945)

Title I Can Understand: Children of Paradise

Director: Marcel Carne

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: Once, about a dozen years ago. Quite frankly, I remembered virtually nothing about it.

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers)

Various characters, including circus performers, fall for the same woman. Love abounds and confounds.

Full Blow-by-Blow (A complete summary, with spoilers)

In 19th century (?) France, two young actors, the mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and the bombastic stage actor Frederick LeMaitre (Pierre Brasseur) are just starting to make their marks on the Paris stages in the lowlier quarters of the city. Simultaneously, they both fall in love with Garance, a mildly jaded though clever and loving woman who makes a living posing for nude paintings or being the object of desire in a circus side show. Added to this list of lovers for Garance is the misanthropic, cunning criminal Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, and later, the wealthy Count of Montray, Edouard.

The playful, charismatic Frederick makes one of his countless advances upon Garance.

While the ultra-sensitive Baptiste falls most deeply for Garance, his shyness and romantic propriety preclude him from simply giving himself to her. Thus, Garance takes up with the incredibly pretentious, though affable, Frederick for a time. Shortly after, the Count shows up and offers Garance a life of luxury, if only she commits to him. She refuses, but the love-stricken Baptiste finds out about it and erupts with emotion over his plight of unrequited love.

A short time after, Garance is arrested due to her casual associations with the nefarious criminal Pierre-Francois. Instead of allowing herself to be prosecuted, she calls in the favor of Count Edouard, thus abandoning her life in Paris and leaving the country.

Fast forward roughly six years. Baptiste and Frederick are the toasts of the Parisian stage, Baptiste due to his miming artistry and Frederick his unparalleled acting skills. Frederick is more rakish than ever, but Baptiste has married and had a son with Nathalie, a young fellow stage actor who has always proclaimed deep and true love for him. All seems relatively well.

Then Garance returns, throwing things into chaos again. Fredrick makes advances that are rebuffed, and Pierre-Francois is no longer interested in her affections but is plotting careful destruction of the love that he is incapable of feeling. Baptiste is hit the hardest upon learning of his true love's return, abandoning his wife and son, and Garance's sugar daddy, Edouard, challenges Frederick to a duel for having insulted his honor. (Dizzying, I know)

In the end, the assassin Pierre-Francois kills Edouard, thus saving Frederick. Nathalie discovers Baptiste and Garance together and demands an honest answer from her husband as to whether or not he ever loved her. Rather than answer, Baptiste instead leaves his wife standing in a room so that he might pursue Garance, who has fled the scene and jumped into a coach. She rides off, leaving Baptiste standing in the middle of a Carnival festival, love-stricken and emotionally alone.

Close curtain.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing & before any research):

A general summary doesn't do this film justice. It's great.

The movie is a monster epic - it's over 3 hours long and divided into 2 parts. And yet, it never felt tedious. Right from the get-go, we start in the middle of throngs of circus performers on the street, captivating the hordes of onlookers. Before you know it - you're one of the onlookers, hypnotized by the show. This has to be what would inspire the likes of Federico Fellini in films like La Strada and 8 1/2, as well as Terry Gilliam's fascination with the same, as evidenced in his recent The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The liveliness and lust for spectacle keeps these creators' films humming with energy, and Children of Paradise caught onto this early.

Not long after the opening, the actors start to show their chops, which are considerable. The playful, overwhelming arrogance of Frederick makes him more charming than annoying. Pierre-Francois is an Iago-like misanthrope who is almost soulless in his pursuit to make a mockery of the rest of humanity. Played by Marcel Herrand (who oddly looks like a shifty, French Charles Bronson), he is certainly the darkest, and maybe the most fascinating character in the whole tale. The final of the three "suitors" is Baptiste the mime, who may have been the most arresting to me.

Now, you may be saying, "A mime? Seriously, dude?" To which I say, yes. While the Baptiste character is rather pityable and childish in his hopelessly romantic love for Garance, his stage performances are incredible. I know, I know - the goofy, standard mime gear of the black skull cap, super baggy costume, and mascara may be laughable. Still, Jean-Louis Barrault's athleticism and body control are amazing. With agility and grace that may surpass the amazing Buster Keaton, Barrault conveys an immense array of powerful emotions. Even if this is too "touchy-feely" for you, I would challenge anyone who has ever attempted any athletic endeavor not to be impressed by the sheer skill of Barrault's movements.

Here's a perfect sample. Start it at about 2:00 and watch the full play, for the full effect. Keep in mind that this little play analogizes the dynamics between Frederick, Baptiste and Garance, who are all three in the play together. Even though there are no subtitles, you shouldn't have any trouble figuring out who each person is, or how they feel about each other:

The story may seem sappy on the surface, being a romance. Don't let it fool you, though. There is an incredible amount of depth here.

Garance is worth looking at first, though the character is an interesting enigma. She is obviously the source of all of the tension in the film - the object of the various men's desires. But she is almost a fleeting mirage. When pressed, she admits to no tangible past, and never truly commits to any one man. I suppose one could read into these things that she symbolizes the quixotic nature of love itself; ever inspiring action, but rarely satisfying the actor. This ambiguity is one of the things that I truly like about the story.

Each of the four men who desire Garance represent a certain philosophy of love, and each one lives and articulates it in different ways. Any person who has pondered the nature of love for another human will find something to chew over in this film's expositions; whether it's Frederick's devil-may-care hedonism, Pierre-Francois' selfish nihilism, Baptiste's starry-eyed dreamy romanticism, or even Count Edouard's cultured notions of honorable love, any viewer will likely find one or more of them empathetic, at the very least. Writer Jacque Prevert created an excellent script, weaving in appropriate literary references and creating many a memorable line about the nature of art and human relationships. They were so memorable, in fact, that I found myself wishing that I spoke French, as certain nuances are nearly always lost in translation.

Before one thinks that the entire film is merely a 190-minute jaunt through the tender fields of love, I need to point out that there is suspense and intrigue, supplied mostly by the criminal Pierre-Francoise. His nefarious nature results in more than a few robberies, fist-fights, duels and murder, though none of them seemed gratuitous to me. Just thought I'd add that, for those who like a little action.

The look of the film is also outstanding. While color film was gradually becoming more common, most films were still in black and white, and Children of Paradise was no exception. Despite the limitations of the two-tone technique, this movie doesn't lose much of anything by it. The framing, set and costume designs are so good that one can't help but come away with a very vivid impression of the tale's setting and characters. Each place and character has a particular look and feel, which is a testament to the work of the creative forces of the film.

While the movie is a commitment, in terms of time, I would suggest it to nearly anyone who doesn't mind reading subtitles and who has even a shred of the romantic in them.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research)

Apparently, the time that this movie was made is of significance. Filmed over three years, mostly during Nazi occupation, it has been posited that much of the film's narrative can be seen as allegory for the occupation with Garance as France and the suitors each representing some aspect of French ethos. Some analysts would say that this may be reading a bit too much into the script, but all agree that if it was meant as allegory, it was an absolutely masterful job of subtlety.

Of greater interest to me are the revelations about the historical sources for some of the characters, which Brian Stonehill explains in this essay, and Peter Cowie looks at as well. Baptiste was the preeminent mime of his day, and Frederick LeMaitre was a stage actor of such prominence that Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo themselves wrote plays just for him. Not exactly light-weights. As if those references weren't enough, the anarchist character Pierre-Francois Lacenaire was also a real figure; one who would meet the gallows and eventually be the inspiration for Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov character in Crime and Punishment. Apparently, 1830s Paris produced its share of memorable figures.

Don't let this guy's "pampered dandy" get-up fool you - he's stone cold enough to chill Dostoevsky.

The original TIME review is an interesting one that points to a certain lack of patience on the part of the reviewer. The review shows a quality of frustration with what they see as a lack of a coherent theme to tie everything together. I disagree with this, as I think many reviewers in the subsequent decades have. Funny to note that that original review uses the superlative "Frenchest" to describe the movie. True, that.

Nifty historical stuff aside, this film is, by most accounts, a national treasure of the French people. It has been described as "the French Gone With the Wind," for being constantly shown on big screens and consistently ranked within France as the greatest film of all time. While I personally think that the Gone With the Wind comparison does a disservice to Children of Paradise, I can easily see what makes this film a titan of French film.

That's a wrap. 27 shows down, 78 to go.

Coming Soon: Detour (1945):

A return to film noir. Awesome! As much as a liked the sublime theme of Eros in Children of Paradise, it'll be good to wallow in the gutter of lust and murder for a bit. Come on back and see how this little knuckle duster stacks up.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.