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Children of Paradise
Remind Me

Children of Paradise

In 1827 Paris, three remarkable personages find themselves drawn to Garance (Arletty), the beautiful and enigmatic artiste of working-class origins: the romantic, idealistic mime Jean-Gaspard "Baptiste" Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), the narcissistic actor Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur) and the master criminal and misanthrope Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). They each pursue their respective careers on the teeming "Boulevard du Crime" and vie for the affections of Garance, but all three are suddenly upstaged by the Count Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou) when he enters the scene. Six years after her sudden disappearance with the Count, Garance returns to Paris and the rivalries are sparked anew. This time, however, the stakes are deadly.

Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du paradis, 1945) is undoubtedly the most important film produced in France during the Occupation and one of the great French films of all time. The film was shot under exceptionally difficult circumstances: by 1943, when production started, much of France's best talent had already left for Hollywood or other countries in Europe, including Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Michele Morgan, Jacques Feyder and his wife Francoise Rosay. Many Jewish figures in the film industry were forced to flee the country or go into hiding. At great personal risk, director Marcel Carne and screenwriter Jacques Prevert invited set designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, both Hungarian Jews, to work clandestinely on Les Visiteurs du soir (1942) and Children of Paradise. Carne later wrote: "I do not know if the danger of the enterprise is understood today. More than Jacques [Prevert], who as a scenarist could claim to ignore the choice of anonymous co-workers whose selection was my responsibility alone, I ran the risk, if the ruse were discovered, of being blacklisted for good, and of even worse. But I didn't hesitate. It seemed the right thing to do." Trauner's and Kosma's names are even listed on the credits for Children of Paradise; this was possible only because the film wasn't released until March of 1945, after the liberation of France.

Children of Paradise was the most expensive film shot in France up to that time, with final production costs totaling some fifty-eight million francs. Almost ten percent of the budget was dedicated to the vast recreation of the Boulevard du Temple (the "Boulevard du Crime") at the Victorine Studios in Nice. In the summer of 1943, in response to the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Germans halted production of the film and ordered Carne and the crew to return to Paris. When it was discovered that the producer Andre Paulve had part Jewish ancestry, he was forced to leave the production. Shooting didn't resume until November of that year, and then only in Paris. In the meantime, the Boulevard set in Nice had been damaged, requiring extensive repairs, and the Germans forbade any shooting to take place at night because of the general curfew in Nice. Robert Le Vigan, who was originally intended to play the role of Jericho, supported the Fascists and had to flee when the fortunes of Germany took a turn for the worse. He was replaced by Pierre Renoir, brother of the film director Jean Renoir. Miraculously, the turmoil behind the film's production is scarcely visible in the polished and serenely confident final product.

Set during the reign of Louis-Philippe (1773-1850), the film brings together three real-life personages: Jean-Gaspard Debureau (1796-1846), Frederick Lemaitre (1800-1876) and Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (1800-1836). Debureau, who performed at the Theatre des Funambules, revolutionized the art of pantomime by imbuing the character of Pierrot with greater expressiveness and even a tragic dimension in pieces such as Chand d'habits (depicted in the film). Lemaitre, one of the most popular actors of his day, appeared in a broad range of plays, from the melodrama L'Auberge des Adrets (depicted in the film) to the Victor Hugo dramas Hernani and Lucrezia Borgia. Lacenaire was known as the "dandy du crime," an impeccably dressed murderer and poet whose ruminations about social injustice no doubt influenced Dostoyevsky's conception of the character Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

The richly imagined sets and costumes of the film are largely the work of Alexandre Trauner (1906-1993) who was, along with his mentor Lazar Meerson, the preeminent production designer in France at the time. At the center of the film is the outdoors set recreating the Boulevard du Temple -- known as the "Boulevard du Crime due to the plethora of crime melodramas presented onstage -- populated with strollers, street acrobats and sideshows. The actual Theatre des Funambules burned down in the 1860s and the district depicted in the film was eventually replaced by the Place de la Republique. The look of the film was inspired by paintings and engravings of the era; specific shots in the film were even inspired by French painters such as Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Children of Paradise is often described by critics as an allegory of the Resistance; for instance, as Peter Cowie writes: "Garance, with her stalwart commitment to liberty and the simple things of life, represents Occupied France. The count serves as a chilling paradigm for the Nazi regime, believing that his opulence can purchase anything in sight. Jericho is the archetypal informer, flourishing in the atmosphere of confusion and mistrust of the Boulevard of Crime." However, as Edward Baron Turk -- author of Child of Paradise (1989), the definitive English-language study on Marcel Carne -- rightly points out, the political position of the film (and many of the people involved) is considerably more ambiguous. For example, at the time of the film's premiere, Arletty had been sentenced to house arrest due to her lengthy affair with the Luftwaffe colonel Hans Soehring. One possible motive of Carne for delaying the film's release was the hope that the Arletty scandal would blow over.

Regardless of how it is interpreted from a political standpoint, The Children of Paradise is first and foremost one of the great films about acting and the theater. All the relations between the major characters, from Baptiste and Lemaitre to Garance and the Count de Montray, involve performances of some sort; indeed, every level of French society depicted in the film, down to the beggar masquerading as a blind man, is engaged in various kinds of role-playing. The word "Paradise" in the title refers to an archaic term for the upper balcony of the theater, whose inexpensive seats make it accessible to the poor; thus it is the French equivalent to the English term "the gods." The film celebrates the theater as a popular medium, for its ability to move audiences on all levels of society. In that respect, French theater of the early nineteenth century anticipates the medium of cinema today.

Director: Marcel Carne
Producer: Raymond Borderie
Screenplay: Jacques Prevert, from an idea by Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert
Photography: Roger Hubert and Marc Fossard
Editing: Henri Rust and Madeleine Bonin
Production design: Alexandre Trauner, Leon Barsacq and Ramond Gabutti
Music: Joseph Kosma and Maurice Thiriet; pantomime music by Georges Mouque
ast: Jean-Louis Barrault (Baptiste Debureau), Arletty (Garance), Pierre Brasseur (Frederick Lemaitre), Marcel Herrand (Pierre-Francois Lacenaire), Maria Casares (Nathalie), Pierre Renoir (Jericho), Louis Salou (Count Edouard de Montray), Fabien Loris (Avril), Gaston Modot (the Blind Man), Jeanne Marken (Madame Hermine).

by James Steffen