06 November 2005

100 films: Les Enfants du Paradis

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starring: Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty, Pierre Brasseur, and Marcel Herrand
written by: Jacques Prévert
directed by: Marcel Carné
NR, 190 min, 1945, France

Filmed in Paris during the Nazi occupation of WWII, Les Enfants du Paradis is an epic tale of tragedy where it is not enough to love and be loved in return. The story revolves around the theatre scene of 1830's Paris. Baptiste (Jean Louis Barrault) is an exceptional mime who falls in love with Garance (Arletty), but in a moment of timidity when he does not allow his love to flourish he misses his opportunity and she ends up with aspiring actor Frederick instead. However, when she's fingered as an accomplice to attempted murder, she seeks refuge with a wealthy admirer. Years later she returns to Paris to find that Baptiste and Frederick have become the pillars of the theatre and that her feelings for Baptiste have only grown stronger with time, but his wife is able to run interference and they are kept apart.

While Les Enfants du Paradis is commonly hailed as the greatest achievement in the history of French cinema, the argument has been made that this is perhaps one of the greatest achievements in all of cinema. If that is wrong, it is not wrong by much. This is a big-budget studio movie that feels like a small, personal drama. A large portion of the French Resistance worked as crew members to keep them out of concentration camps, and the entire production took over three years to complete. Under those conditions, it's amazing the film was even made at all. Somehow, they managed to come up with one of the best things you'll ever see on film.

Simply stated, this is a tragic tale of love lost. Screenwriter Jacques Prévert infuses the film with a sense of poetic beauty that informs every bit of the production. Somehow he manages to make even a coarse bit of dialogue feel sublime. There are several extended mime performances that would stand alone outside the framework of the film as a whole, but add a fascinating dimension to the proceedings. Director Marcel Carné films on numerous sets because, well, that's what he had to work with. But in a film that revolves around the world of the theatre, it works to the film's advantage. Just as in the theatre nothing is truly as it seems, so it is in the film. All of the characters, for that matter, seem to have a different idea as to their standing in the world at large. At least four primary characters are in love with Garance, all of them thinking at various points that their love is reciprocated, so when she is revealed to be kissing Baptiste on the balcony, Frederick comments that, "Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to no one."[1] And when Baptiste's wife discovers the affair, Garance is gone. He chases her into the street, brushing past his son as if he weren't there, but is unable to navigate through the carnival crowd full of people dressed as his famous mime. He's left struggling against the crowd, desperate and forlorn.
[1] I think they used that line in Moulin Rouge! (2001) as well.


mattreed said...

Wow. You a breezing through these. I need to try and catch up.

lucas said...

some of the reviews aren't that well written, but i am crusing right along