“Children of Paradise” (1945)

Directed by Marcel Carné
Pathé
France, 190 minutes
Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Herrand, Pierre Renoir

The world is at war and France is occupied by foreign forces. What does the country need? A three-hour-ten-minute epic ode to days gone by. Children of Paradise was held back and not completed until after Paris was finally liberated by the Allies, but most of the film was produced when the country was Nazi-occupied. It is a remarkable film whose troubled production today, I think, overtakes what the film is actually about. Troubled film productions today usually revolve around a star getting to work late or endless script re-writes. This is nothing to the war that Children of Paradise had to deal with.

The film itself is a true showcase of what black and white photography can do. The opening and closing claustrophobic vistas (oxymoron? – yes, but when you see the film for yourself, you understand that immediately) are true testaments to this. Jacques Prévert’s script is also probably one of the best ever filmed. All four of the men going after Garance (Arletty) are easily the most dense and complex characters put on screen. It is just genius for four men to love the same woman for different reasons. They don’t love her just for her beauty – that’s too easy an idea for Prévert. These characters even have presence when they are missing from the film. Baptiste (Barrault) is missing for a good 45 minutes in the middle of the picture, but we know he is only around the block, still effecting – and being effected by – the scenes on film. 

The main difference between this and Gone With The Wind, which Children is always compared with (‘The French Gone With The Wind‘) is that this is a thinking film that sets out to engage the viewer, not just give eye candy. Gone With The Wind prays on nostalgia, an incredible length, great technological advances and wonderful one-liners – in essence, the epitome of American film making. Children is the polar opposite. The biggest technical achievements come from acute camera work and set design, which only works to better capture the amazing acting performances in this film. It is heavy on relationships and emotional depth – in essence, the epitome of French film making. (I’m not saying that French films can’t be as mind-blowingly showy as Gone With The Wind or that American films can’t be as emotionally involved as Children of Paradise, but sometimes it sure feels that way.)

Finally, Children is also a look back not only at a time gone by, but to art forms that weren’t exactly at their peak at the time of the film’s creation. Both parts of the film open and close with curtains in front of the image. The sequences in the theaters, like Frédérick’s acting and Baptiste’s mime performance in part 2, show the care that Prévert and Carné took in crafting this story.

Criterion released the film way back in 2002, giving each part of the film its own disc. There are only two video features (an introduction by Terry Gilliam and a restoration demonstration – both on disc 1), the commentaries are more then enough to make up for that. Scholars Brian Stonehill (part 1) and Charles Affron (part 2) provide probably the most engaging and informative commentaries I’ve ever heard. The two barely overlap on any information and the fact that neither of them stay quiet proves just how many layers there are to this film. Disc 2’s features are all text and stills (including the first treatment and stills galleries) as well as the US trailer. The 26-page booklet is also a great addition, with notes by Peter Cowie and Stonehill’s interview with Carné done for the 1990 laser disc.

The Verdict:  In case you couldn’t tell, I really, really enjoyed this film. After seeing it, you’ll want those 190 minutes back – only so you can watch it again. I don’t think Criterion has any plans to release it on BluRay, although since Amazon doesn’t have it in stock, it might be a sign that Criterion is working on some kind of re-issue. While I think the extras are great, it would be nice to see more video supplements and new artwork (there is just too much white!). Still, if you can find a good price, jump on it. You won’t regret it.

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