Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Children of Paradise (1945)

Director: Marcel Carné

Produced during the worrisome World War II period of German occupation comes one of French cinema’s greatest motion pictures. Deemed “the French Gone with the Wind,” 1945’s Children of Paradise is an epic sized drama set within the teaming populous of Paris’ theater scene about the complications of overwhelming love that pains individuals in diverse ways. Technically released as two separate films, a complication that was a result of its time, the two are never meant to be viewed separately and serve merely as two parts of one continuous feature. Produced at the tail end of World War II under uniquely difficult conditions, the picture has come to be considered one of, if not the, very best motion pictures ever produced in French cinematic history.

Children of Paradise is a drama of four men’s pursuits to attain the love of a beautiful woman who is romantically unobtainable, and its destructive results on each man, set to the background of Paris’ performing arts scene, told in two parts. The first part entitled “The Boulevard of Crime” sets the scene and introduced to us Garance (Arletty), a woman of the streets of Paris, who finds her means of living through her beauty and ability to attract men who will take care of her. Stricken by her kindness and loveliness the mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) becomes utterly infatuated with her, only to be broken with the idea that she has had a romantic history with one of his friends, actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur). Her relations with other men included serial criminal Lacencaire (Marcel Herrand), who only wants her for his own, but when legal troubles find her Garance uses the protection of the wealthy and power Count Edouard (Louise Salou) to help protect her. The Count uses this opportunity to enjoy Garance’s company, taking her to all the romantic far off place she ever wished to see, even though she has noromantic feeling  for him.

The Second part, “The Man in White,” see the return of Garance to Paris several years later. Frederick has become one Paris’ greatest actors, Lacencaire one of the most notorious criminals in Paris, and Baptiste the greatest mime performer in all the land. Garance secretly pines to return to Baptiste, but cannot come to make her presence known as Baptiste had married and had a child in her absence, hoping to move on from his own heartache. When it becomes known Garance has returned to Paris each man, including the Count, continue to vie for the beauty’s love and quarrel amongst each other only to reveal that Baptiste is the man with whom she is having the secret, passionate affair. The pain of this news helps drive Frederick to take on the greatest dramatic role he has dreamt of playing, Othello. Meanwhile Lacenaire and the Count become rivals, concluding in the murder of the Count. Baptiste’s wife, Nathalie (Maria Casares), is shocked to discover her husband’s relationship, and it becomes apparent that Baptiste has only been in love with Garance throughout their marriage. Garance flees with Baptiste desperately taking pursuit of the woman he loves only to forever lose her in the crowded theater district of Paris’, presumed to never see each other again.

It is a film with such a sad and open ended conclusion that leaves the audience wanting more. That is why this picture has gone on to become one of the most beloved French film s of all time. It is a sad story about passions that are shared, and yet go ultimately unfulfilled. The tragic, open-ended finish makes for a far more poetic motion picture than any happy ending where perhaps Baptiste and Garance would have gotten together and lived happily ever after. This leaves far more to the imagination of how life would have continued for both of these characters, thinking about how love, despite how beautiful it was, was lost and will never be attained again. It is a sorrowful conclusion that allows the imagination of the audience run wild with what might have been, or what would be to come for our two lovers.
Produced during the troubled period of German occupation of France, Children of Paradise was a difficult picture to fashion, consisting of layers of interesting stories that surround its assembly. German appointed administrations overseeing the French cinematic industry restricted all feature films of the time to run no more than 90 minutes. This regulation caused the film’s producers and director, Marcel Carne, to restructure the story in a way where it could be divided into two pictures in order to share the entire tale without cutting it short. The idea was to release the two features at the same time, making it necessary for audiences to watch the first film in one theater and go to another theater to conclude the story as theaters typically ran only one film for weeks at a time.

The vast external sets for the feature took place on a quarter mile piece of road in Nice, France that due top natural causes was in a state of disrepair. A decent share of the already small budget had to go to repairing many of these structures external features to make it presentable for the teaming crowd settings. Thousands of extras, many with particular costumes, would be staged for these impressively large settings for a film produced in the heart of war torn France. With the size of the production Children of Paradise gave a form of employment to many members of the French Resistance sympathizers during this trying time, allowing there to be a form of income and a front that did not attract attention of the Vichy government ever on the hunt for those opposed to the Nazis.

Supplies were always on short supply on set, including film stock, which was being rationed. The film suffered from financial troubles through much of its production. Many times production was halted, including changes in production companies, actors, and even for the invasion of Normandy and the liberation of France. In mid production some characters were in need of reshoots due to recasting from actors that left production for purposes of beginning other projects or fleeing the country as being aids to Nazis. Director Marcel Carne feared that the war would somehow destroy his own film during production, taking action to preserve multiple copies hidden in multiple locations in order to assure the reels would last through the carnage and siege of French towns and cities. With all these trials surrounding Children of Paradise it would be a miracle that it was ever completed at all.

The film starred Aletty in the role that made her one of the highest paid and most respected actresses in French history. Her aging beauty as a 46 year-old, gave the film a sense of maturity and class. Jean-Louis Barrault portrays the tragic Baptiste. Classically trained actors of stage, screen, and even as a mime allowed this role and this film to be filled with the complexities of a character torn by his love for Garance and everything else he knew. These two along with co-stars Pierre Brasseur and Marcel Herrand would all become best associated with their roles in Children of Paradise as each performance was unique and gripping.

The film, even though being released as technically two features, would become the most popular French picture of 1945, eventually seeing an international release in 1946. Universally acclaimed for its complex look at romance and loss, critics at the time would praise the film, with even the Motion Picture Academy nominating Children of Paradise for an award for Best Original Screenplay for the year 1946.

With the passage of time Children of Paradise would grow in its cinematic majesty. French and international critics and historians continue to praise the feature as one of the finest works ever to be produced by France. Some have come to call Children of Paradise “the French Gone with the Wind” due to its length and its complex, tragic love story. It is unfair to compare these two works as the two film though only six years apart in release, they are literally and figuratively an ocean apart in context and subject matter.  Rather these two features are perhaps meant to be held in the highest honor for their respectful motion picture centers as a testament for what artists can create for the screen.

For a motion picture produced under such difficult and ever changing conditions, to have it come together as one the highest praised features of all time remains a miraculous feat of French cinema. It is a wonderful piece of classic filmmaking that is complex on a very simple level. For fanatics of cinema history Children of Paradise provides a unique look into a nation’s very best during very uncertain times. Its historic value, both cinematically and contextually make it a true treasure of the medium’s mythos.

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