Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Marcel Carné | Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)

a sleepwalker on a roof
by Douglas Messerli
“I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise.”

                                                                              —François Truffaut

Jacques Prévert (screenwriter), Marcel Carné (director) Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) / 1945

I love movies so much that I don’t like picking out my favorites—there are so many!—but if I were required to select my very favorite film, I might be tempted to name Les Enfants du Paradis, which I watched with absolute delight once more the other day. Certainly it is a “stagy” film, a film in a grand theatrical manner, with dramatically-acted performances that might be said to represent the very last great example of its own genre. Later films of the novelle vague would be far more spontaneous, clever, and more deeply involve their audiences, but none has the luster and polish—like a perfect pearl—as does Prévert’s and Carné’s tale of the Paris theater scene of the early 19th century. And there are very few films made that can match its sophistication, and no film that I know has its narrative depth, even though the storyline is quite simple. Gone with the Wind, the American film to which the French one has been likened, in comparison, is a tinny music box, while Children of Paradise sings out like an organ accompanied by an entire orchestra.

      Much has been written about the miracle of the making of this film during the Vichy rule of France, when the director and cast feared not only censorship but Gestapo arrest: one of the leaders of the Resistance was arrested as an extra on the set, and the film’s set designer, Alexandre Trauner and one of the composers, Joseph Kosma had to remain in hiding because they were Jewish. Starving extras, so Carné revealed in an interview, made off with food to be filmed on the banquet table, even going so far to hollow out the bread from beneath the crust of a baguette.         

       Yet Carné insists that it was a work largely free from internal tension, which can only be attributed to the high level of professionalism among the entire cast, at the center of which stands the beautiful and calm Arletty, playing Garance Reine, a woman loved, each in their own manner, by three very different men, a shy romanticist who acts as a pantomime (Baptiste, played by the unforgettable Jean-Louis Barrault), a loquacious and self-assured actor (Frédérick Lemaître, acted by Pierre Brasseu), and wealthy and snobbish Count (Comte Édouard de Montray, performed by Louis Salou). A fourth man, the true villain of the piece, Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) might also love Garrance if he had a heart, but he is so selfish, so locked within himself that when he finally acts out his jealousy by killing the Count, it represents more of a meaningless murder than an act of honor.

       Surrounding these central characters are numerous other actors, including the gentle Nathalie (Maria Casares) who deeply loves Baptiste, various street figures—in particular the ragman Jérico (Pierre Renoir) and a blind man who turns out to have perfect sight—and a cast of thousands who throng the Boulevard du Crime and the audiences, particularly those “gods” hovering at the top of the grand Funambules theater. These “gods,” the poor who shout, clap, boo and openly evaluate the performances below, are the “children of paradise” who make or break the actors’ careers, and ultimately through the course of this more than three-hour epic, bring both Frédérick and Baptiste to fame.

     No one in this Breughel-like world is entirely appealing. Although Garance may be beautiful and desirous to all, she, from the first scene presented as a narcissist as she gazes at herself in a tub of water, while men pay to ogle her. She is also witness not only to Lacenaire’s robberies, but is told by him of his murderous deeds without her even blinking an eye. The only statement of morality she utters, when Lacenaire declares “I’d spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamonds,” is the muted “I’d settle for less.”     

     Frédérick may be suave and handsome, but is also a rake, willing even to bed his landlady, Mme. Hermine, in order to keep his room and double bed. The actor is also quite self-centered.

      The Count, with whom Garance ultimately and unhappily settles into a relationship, is dismissive of almost the entire world of the everyday people who make up this movie, and is willing to duel with almost anyone at whom Garance smiles. Even the self-centered and truly despicable Lacenaire is more honest than the self-deluded Count.

     Although Natalie may appear innocent in her true love Baptiste, she is selfish enough to try to prevent Garance from even seeing him.

      It is Baptiste, finally, who we realize is the true “hero” of the piece. He is the only one who, when he speaks of love, truly means it, even though he has never comprehended love’s simplicity, only its difficulties, which he plays out time and again in the great pantomimes he performs before us. Like his character, Baptiste is a willing lover, but has no ability to effectively express himself; he is mute, able to express his seriousness only through comic gestures and the pained expressions of his beautifully gaunt face. Yet, it is only he who wins the love of the two central women of the work, Garance and Nathalie.

       But even the likeable Baptiste is dishonest, if not with his wife, at least with himself. He is a dreamer always, a man of the moon, who, as Natalie aptly describes him when he finally does attempt to consummate his love with Garance: “He is a sleepwalker on a roof,” a man who if he is not carefully left to awaken himself may fall to his death.

       Several critics and directors, over time, have complained that the film, despite its length, seems attenuated, cut away from a series of deeper stories we still desire even after the rich narratives the film has revealed. In part this is simply because the film, like a Balzac novel or great Victor Hugo epic, is a fiction that has given us such a rich palette, we feel slightly betrayed that it must come to an end. At the same time that I viewed this movie, I was reading Proust, and the similarities of the texture between the two are notable.

      But also, I think we feel the work is slightly truncated not only because of its narrative density, which seemingly demands, in turn, more and more stories, but because we never do observe Baptiste’s awakening. At work’s end, the lovestruck “clown” goes rushing after Garance’s carriage as she, a seasoned cynic when it comes to love, determines to awaken him by rushing back to her wealthy Count (without knowing he has been murdered). The great film ends only with Baptiste’s pleading gestures, the welling tears in his eyes (as well as in the audiences’ eyes surely); he remains a sleepwalker, a dreamer rather than a skin-and-bones character who might come to terms with the love of his wife and son. The theater of Carné’s world, in short, does even come to a close with the curtain’s fall, and certainly everyone in those 1945 showings must have realized that the world it was depicting, the allegorical presentation of a golden pre-War France, had in fact died. If love was still possible, it was only through the cold vision of more open eyes.

       Just as Proust’s vision, Carné’s was a remembrance of things of the past, allowing little in the way of direction for what lay ahead.

Los Angeles, June 18, 2013

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