Within the immense gallery of great French films, Children of Paradise stands out like a grand mural painted with many colors, bold brush strokes, and precise attention to detail. Directed by the great Marcel Carné and written by his regular collaborator Jacques Prévert, it is an ambitious feat of cinema; a period piece set in Paris in the 1820s and ‘30s that seemed to have all the odds against its creation. Its production slowly progressed throughout the German occupation of France during World War II, which made film stock and construction material for the sets in short supply. The project served as a fortuitous hiding place for Resistance fighters who worked throughout the shoot as extras while two more central figures, production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, had to made their contributions covertly due to their Jewish roots (in the cut presented on the Criterion Collection DVD, they share a special title card at the end of the opening credits). Following France’s liberation, the film was finally released in 1945, its three-hour running time split into two parts entitled The Boulevard of Crime and The Man in White due to a restriction on film duration at the time.
Children of Paradise’s narrative is one of art, the theatre, and romance with one woman at its core: the famed actress and love object Garance (Arletty). In the splendid first act, she and most of the other key players are neatly introduced at certain points along the wondrous, constantly bustling Boulevard of Crime. Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) is an aspiring writer and sinister rogue; a thief and murderer whose oily charm always comes spiked with a hint of genuine menace. A much lighter presence is provided in the form of Frédérique Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), a witty and spirited man determined to make a name for himself as an actor who fortuitously joins the Funambules Theatre. Also at the Funambules is Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), a renowned actor’s son who soon begins to draw audiences with his marvelous mime performances. He is positively smitten with desire for Garance, which makes him unreceptive to the attention touchingly directed at him by the actress Nathalie (María Casares). Later on, another contender for Garance’s affections appears: the proud Count Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou), who eventually becomes involved in a deadly rivalry with Lacenaire.
To watch Children of Paradise is to be pulled into a seductive spell of cinema, one so strong that the dramatic details of the film’s wartime production can become forgotten in the wake of the narrative twists, otherworldly period setting, and larger-than-life characters. This is a film that bears the scope and splendor of Victor Hugo, mapping out a vast ecosystem of crime, dreams, humor, poverty, ambition, and, of course, love. Along with the excellent work carried out by the actors, who perfectly commit themselves to the essence of their respective characters, much of the film’s richness stems from its beautiful, often flamboyant language, which for English-speaking audiences can be attributed to both Prévert’s writing talents and the superb translation work done for the Criterion DVD. Grandiose expressions, witty innuendoes, and tender confessions all further invest the world with earthy emotion and spirit. This quality becomes all the more invaluable when the film enters its second part, in which the focus turns from a revealing, almost leisurely tour of the story’s settings and key players to ever-more impressive mechanics of plot development that begin to go into motion, raising new dilemmas, crises, and nightmares.
Children of Paradise is assembled from many splendid parts, but what makes it truly great is the way in which they are all interwoven into one smoothly flowing whole. Carné’s nimble direction and the similarly careful efforts of the various members of his creative team all keep the film from sagging and collapsing under its own weight. Instead, the audience is treated to a consistently intoxicating epic that hinges upon scheming scoundrels, searching lovers, the rules of the street, and the haven of the theatre. That such pure and potent storytelling could exist at all is a rare miracle; that it could emerge from a chapter of France’s history forged in danger, violence, and fear is certainly a miracle, plus an undeniable testament to the bravery of its creators.