Les amours de Baptiste et Garance: The Children of Paradise reborn

“And they traded away forever, wonder, for reason”.
Samson’s monologue, Carnivale.

“In our embrace I could hear
the motion of the sea”.
Ode to Messaline.

After a long pause due to interesting developments, TheNightShift was invited in june at Pathé’s screening theater in Paris to attend the forthcoming 4k restored print  of Les Enfants du Paradis, previously shown during the 2011 Cannes Classics selection. Praised as one of the greatest film ever made in France, for-so-many-reasons-it’s-difficult-to-even-know-where-to-start, Children of Paradise is about to be blessed with a blu-ray release set for october. 

A labor of love from Marcel Carné, Jacques Prévert and stage actor Jean-Louis Barrault, this magical lesson in cinema is dealing in depths about the hubris of creation, art and its relationship with desire, ideals and love lost. An extravaganza created under German occupation, it recreates a semi realistic and fully poetic version of 1840’s Paris. This “cour des miracles” is full of trestle stages, overcrowded boulevards, taverns, crooks, blind men recovering on sight, assassins and artists wanabes, all playing their lives out on surrogate identities.

In this 3h long film of popular literature proportion, as Molière is standing in the way of Hugo and Balzac… Garance gives a hard time to three imitators of life, Baptiste, Frédérick and Lacenaire.

Three men, a woman, and the shades of Art in between
The mime Baptiste observes and imitates life in a glance yet shies away from it, while Frédérick‘s sole purpose is burning up the stage, embracing full-on Shakespearian roles. Brooding in shadowy circles, Sir Lacenaire is a failed playwright whose murderous art pulls the string of a vengeful melodrama when all comes to The End. Their craft, dreams and loss is all revealed through their encounter with one exceedingly mysterious & beautiful woman, Garance, a street child, surviving by any means as it is suggested she uses her body to “get by”. Her beauty, class and impenetrable mystery remains intact and leaves every man in  her midst agap with longing and wonder. A fourth man will add to this scheme, the kind of rich man to buy what cannot be bought. This one is wealthy and dull while the three others are starving and brilliant. All these men are looking for their own truth and self realization through her. One wants to leave it all behind, the other turns the failure of their romance into an inspiration for Othello, and the third masochistically declares that she will eventually betray him.

Words of freedom 
The writing of this intricate web of relationships, layered with “life-as-a-struggling-actor-101”, gives this 3h film a “comédie humaine” vibe. It is the work of national treasure Jacques Prévert, whose poetry is taught to generations of french kids. His words, already vibrant on paper, high on sub-urban, streetwise dust and pathos galore, strike at every turn on the silver screen. We talk about a festival of incredible one liners here, on a level that is both a part of a French tradition wit truculence in literature and a father to subsequent smart, fun and poetic dialogs by fellow screenwriters Henri Jeanson, Michel Audiard and Joel Seria.

For instance, Garance is busted for a crime she didn’t commit and that’s what she says to the overzealous cops, finally letting her loose, in Arletty‘s high pitch voice and streetsmart attitude: “Ah mais ça tombe bien moi j’aime bien ça la liberté” / “That’s alright pal, coz I kinda like the freedom”. Some 25 years later the famous author of the poem “Barbara”, fantasizing about some lovers longing for each other against the backdrop of the war, will write an end for Le Roi et l’Oiseau, that creates some kind of echo to this line, when the giant robot smashes the small cage holding an emprisonned bird.

Director Marcel Carné (on the left), teaming up with writer extraordinaire Jacques Prévert (on the right).

In Les Enfants du Paradis, Prévert‘s humanism shines through a vision of what life, as an act of imperfect yet beautiful creation, is. We want it to be perfect and play ourselves to the fullest, desire of self realization, beauty and lust blended with fiction and poetry. Yet perfect it is not, and reality is standing in. The freedom, the art, the cage and reality: Prévert bares it all through well developped characters with different looks at life and creation. The film  is brilliant in its tale of fiction and dreams, shattering with reality and reason.

The acting benefits from powerhouse performances by Jean-Louis Barrault as the sad Pierrot-like figure Baptiste, Arletty who revels at being both beautiful, mysterious and down to earth streetwise, and Pierre Brasseur as Frédérick, whose outspoken charisma and truculence offers a balance to Baptiste‘s silent and recluse talent for onirism. The balance and friendship between these two characters could very well be a nod to cinema’s evolution from the silent to the speaking era…

The art cover for the French blu-ray release.

This film reminds me France invented cinema. And when I started writing this article I thought “Oh god what have we done with it”. In the side content of the release, director and cinema expert  Bertrand Tavernier says: “French cinema could very well get some inspiration from Les Enfants du Paradis. It is much needed”.  This is our legacy and it is now shining more than ever thanks to the restoration effort undertaken by Pathé, helping the film to give a fresh look at its main visual features:  an incredible talent with the lightning and framing, with an emphasize on the faces and glances between the characters, an inheritance of the silent era. There are reports that some parts of the image is not pitch perfect, yet, technically, it’s a wonder to be able to witness such beauty in such a form. For a film made in the forties, It would be harsh to ask for more as my forehand Criterion release on DVD is now clearly outgunned.

The restored blu-ray hit the shelves, along with theater screenings, on the 24th of october in France, while Criterion had it for the american market since september. Following this key release, the Cinémathèque opens a showing of rare documents and costumes, from the 24th of october to the 27th of january.

Thanks to  Mrs Imbert for inviting me to the press screening.

Pour papa et maman
et Madame Desfeux.  

June-November 2012


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