Children of Paradise has been called the greatest movie ever made in France, their equivalent to Gone With the Wind. Originally released
in 1945 and directed by Marcel Carné, the three-hour historical epic is big in
scope and ideas, and yet it is simplistic in its story about four men in love
with the same woman. The excellent Criterion Collection label released the
picture on DVD several years ago, but now they have given it the deluxe
treatment with Pathé’s 2011 restoration and uncompressed monaural soundtrack in
new Blu-ray and DVD editions. It looks and sounds amazing.
story of the film’s production is just as fascinating as the picture itself.
Made in Vichy France during the Nazi Occupation, Carné and his collaborator/writer
Jacques Prévert had to work in secrecy, for the Nazis acted as “studio
executives” and approved everything being made. The production designer and
music composer were Jews, and they had to keep their presence under wraps.
Allegedly many of the 1800 extras were Resistance agents using the film as
daytime cover, who, until the Liberation, had to mingle with Vichy supporters
and sympathizers imposed on the production by authorities. The production also
came under natural obstacles (some large sets were destroyed by a storm), film
stock was rationed, and principle photography had to be stopped and started
numerous times over two years. Only after Liberation in August 1944 was the
film able to be completed.
place in Paris between 1830-1848, mostly centered in the “Boulevard du Crime,”
the city’s “theatre row,” where the plays produced were typically crime
melodramas. Thus, the film is a massive period costume drama to begin with. The
protagonist is a mysterious woman named Garance (portrayed by the actress
Arletty, one of France’s most famous stars), who is a feminist long before that
word was invented. Four men vie for her attentions—notably the mime Baptiste
(the magnificent Jean-Louis Barrault), the actor Frederick, the thief Pierre,
and the aristocrat Edouard. Each have their own way of wooing the object of
their desire, and Garance, in turn, has her own ways of dealing with them. Other
minor characters complicate the proceedings by initiating their own seductions
and pursuits of the four main men.
script is extremely poetic. One might think the dialogue was written in verse,
but it wasn’t. Combined with Carné’s lush, fluid direction, the picture becomes
an exquisite, flowing piece of art. The acting is top-notch, the
black-and-white cinematography is breathtaking, and the overall power of the
epic will stay with you long after its finish. When I was in college in the
early to mid-70s, Children of Paradise was
a popular on-campus import, shown in scratchy 16mm prints. Even then I fell in
love with the picture, and now, seeing it in its restored, near-perfect glory,
it’s like manna from heaven.
take up an entire second disk. Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam provides an
insightful (and humorous) introduction to the film and cites it as one of his
favorites. A 2009 documentary on the making of the picture is extremely
enlightening. A new visual essay on the film’s design is a welcome addition
since the former release, and a vintage 1967 documentary features interviews
with Carné, Arletty, Barrault, and others. The film itself sports audio
commentaries by film scholars Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron, and a new
serious student of film history should pick up Criterion’s new edition of this
important, wonderful motion picture.
on Blu-ray and DVD simultaneously with Children
of Paradise is another Marcel Carné film from 1942, also made during the
Occupation—Les Visiteurs du Soir (aka
The Devil’s Envoys). This is a
fantasy along the lines of Bergman’s The
Seventh Seal, in which two emissaries of the Devil arrive at a medieval
castle to wreak havoc on love lives. Also starring Arletty, the picture is
definitely overshadowed by Paradise,
but it’s a little-seen gem that’s worth checking out.