The Criterion Collection has a section on their website dedicated films about “amour fou,” or “crazy love” for you non-Francophiles. Although Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise is not included in that category, it should be, because it is a film that is laser-focused on love and its effects on people, the good and the bad. Seventy years have not diminished the power of the film one bit, despite its intentionally overwrought melodrama and constant, emphatic declarations about L’amour. In the same way that everyone in the Pokémon video games talk almost exclusively about Pokémon, the characters in this film follow suit about love.
In its broad strokes, Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis) is about a woman and the four men who love her, each in their own distinctive way. Her name is Garance (Arletty), a pseudonym that derives inspiration from a flower. Her moniker is significant, because the delicate object it invokes is very much emblematic of the woman herself, who seems to exist to be desired. She herself declares that she is incapable of doing anything at all, leaving her almost utterly without agency in the film. Paradoxically, she mysteriously and defiantly carves her own path, perpetually beguiling the four men and never seeming to settle on just one of them. Although this film doesn’t stand a chance at passing the Bechtel test, Garance is nevertheless seemingly in control of her destiny, yet without having to lift a finger.
The men are an actor, a criminal, a dandy and a mime, all of whom over the course of the film change in our estimation; like Garance, we never quite are on even ground in terms of how we feel about these men. The actor, Lemaître, is initially a cad, chasing one woman after the other, even going so far as to use the same pickup line with each of them. By the end of the film, however, we’ve come to witness his maturity, and his ability to stand up for honor and what is right. Conversely, the criminal, Lacenaire, is dashing and endlessly witty, but he’s also cold, cruel and manipulative. We spend the least time with the dandy, de Montray, but we realize that he has suffered in the name of unrequited love, and he has our sympathy.
Perhaps the clearest protagonist for whom we may be rooting is the mime, Baptiste, played unforgettably by Jean-Louis Barrault. We meet him in the midst of a performance, in which he saves Garance from being wrongfully arrested for thievery. He is immediately thunderstruck by her great beauty and grace, and falls hopelessly, irrevocably in love with her. The man’s waifish stature and enormous, expressive eyes make him almost a prototype of the besotted lover, but his character develops in ways you don’t expect that make him even more compelling. I won’t spoil how, but suffice it to say that everyone has shades of gray to them.
The reason why Children survives to this day, and is so revered, is because of its pervasive sense of place and time. I wait until this point to reveal that the film is set in early 19th-century Paris in the theater scene, because its story and themes are so universal that they could pass as secondary to the setting. But Carné’s direction is so graceful and his production design so meticulous that you get effortlessly lost in the world. The mise en scene is packed to the gills with brilliantly costumed extras, all of whom are doing something that feels specific and researched within an inch of its life. Carné uses pervasive deep focus in order to give us a clear sight of all the work he’s put into populating his film. The term commonly used to describe the film is poetic realism, which is precisely correct. There are no strains of the supernatural or uncanny in the movie, just a tangible sense of nostalgia and longing for a bygone era.
The film was produced in 1945, during the German occupation of France. It is defiantly, consumingly FRENCH, in massive, stone-hewn letters. In the wake of the tragedy that has befallen Paris, there’s probably no film more patriotic to watch right now than Children of Paradise.