Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du paradis) [Blu-Ray]
Director : Marcel Carné
Screenplay : Jacques Prévert
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1945
Stars : Arletty (Garance), Jean-Louis Barrault (Baptiste Debureau), Pierre Brasseur (Frédérick LeMaître), Marcel Herrand (Lacenaire), Louis Salou (Count Edouard de Montray) Pierre Renoir (Jericho), María Casares (Nathalie), Gaston Modot (Fil de Soie), Fabien Loris (Avril), Marcel Pérès (Director), Palau (Stage master), Etienne Decroux (Anselme Debureau), Jane Marken (Madame Hermine)
Often referred to as the French answer to Gone With the Wind (1939) and certainly among the most beloved (if not the most beloved) of French films, Marcel Carné's gorgeous and sprawling Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du paradis) is a lush romantic epic set against the backdrop of the theater world in 1820s Paris. Full of melodrama and intrigue, glimpses behind the curtain, dealings in seedy bars, duels to maintain honor, and characters both outlandish and deeply humane, it is dramatic filmmaking on a grandiose scale—soap opera redeemed by art.
But, more than that, Children of Paradise is also one of the great examples of artistic perseverance under the most dire circumstances. Filming commenced in 1943, and the production took more than two years as Carné and his production team labored in war-torn France beneath the occupation of the Nazis. The extravagance of the film itself plays like a willful cinematic rejection of the Nazis' oppression, as Carné triumphed in the end with his masterpiece despite shortages in film stock and funds, power outages, and the fact that two of his most significant collaborators (production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma) were forced to work covertly because they were Jewish and being hunted by the Gestapo.
The story, written by screenwriter Jacques Prévert in the sixth of his seven collaborations with Carné, is divided into two parts, “The Boulevard of Crime” (“Le Boulevard du Crime”) and “The Man in White” (“L’Homme Blanc”), which played as separate films during the film’s initial release in 1945. Covering nearly a decade in time, Children of Paradise is set against the gay backdrop of Paris in the first half of the 19th century, an era in which the arts were indulging in romanticism and the great novelist Honore de Balzac was at the peak of his creativity (Balzac’s focus on the entire human spectrum—characters from all walks of life—is replicated here in Prévert’s cast of characters, which ranges from a homeless man pretending to be blind in order to get more alms, to the wealthiest of the social elite).
The story concerns a beautiful, self-reliant courtesan named Garance (Arletty) who is loved by four different men, all of whom represent different facets of what love can be. There is the dashing, carefree, and self-absorbed but lovable actor Frédérick LeMaître (Pierre Brasseur), who quotes Shakespeare and tries to pick up Garance on the street. Garance has a causal friendship with Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a fiendish dandy who goes by many names and whose petty crimes become more brutal as the film progresses. The one man Garance ends up marrying is Count Edouard de Montray (Louis Salou), although it is clear that he loves her more than she could possibly love him. This is because Garance’s heart is always with Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), a sensitive and gifted mime who is her true love. The film’s tragedy is that Baptiste and Garance are soul mates who, for various reasons (some of their own making), will always be apart.
Of course, as with any epic narrative, simple plot summary does nothing to indicate what Children of Paradise is about. The characters move in and out of Prévert’s richly textured narrative (which is reminiscent of 19th century literature), and it contains all the requisite elements of a romantic epic, from duels, to sudden discoveries of betrayal, to hushed scenes of intense romantic awakening. Yet, the film’s vision is much broader than this, focusing as it does on the role of art in life. Carné gives great amounts of screen time to the various stage performances, which allows him to engage unobtrusively in an examination of the art of theater on two levels: Within the narrative, he shows the centrality of theater to the characters’ lives, while outside the narrative, on a metacinematic level, he illuminates how film and theater are both vastly different and yet still interconnected.
The film’s tone varies broadly, covering a wide gamut of human experience. There are scenes that are enormously funny, such as Frédérick’s hilarious on-the-spot reinterpretation of an awful dramatic play in which he’s acting. In a self-consciously spectacular display of breaking the fourth wall, he engages the audience by stepping out of character and actively turning the play into a ridiculous farce, much to the consternation of the play’s three authors (two of whom always speak at the same time). Yet, there are also scenes of great drama, such as when Lacenaire revels in literally pulling aside the curtain to reveal to Garance’s husband that her heart is still truly with Baptiste. Because of the Nazi occupation during the production, there is little in the film that is overtly political. Yet its genuine populism fills the political void, allowing the film to take a strong and meaningful philosophical stand about the worth of human life to which the Nazi censors would be largely oblivious.
Carné stages the narrative in a grandiose scale befitting it, carefully orchestrating long shots of huge crowds wandering down the Boulevard du Crime with the same attention to detail that he lavishes on intimate scenes between two lovers. Yet, despite the scale, the human element of Children of Paradise is never lost; the film’s populism emerges in Carné and Prévert's humane treatment of their characters, particularly the romantic and tragic Baptiste.
This film is generally referred to as being the height of “poetic realism,” a term used by Georges Sandoul to describe the tendency in many French films of the late 1930s and early ’40s to deal with “realistic” subjects in a lyrical and poetic manner. This is exactly what Carné does here on a scale larger than he had ever attempted before, which leaves one with the seemingly contradictory, yet deeply moving, impression of both reality and dream.
|Children of Paradise Criterion Collection 2-Disc Blu-Ray Set|
|Children of Paradise is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||French Linear PCM 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||September 25, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The high-definition transfer of Children of Paradise on Criterion’s Blu-Ray comes from Pathé’s 2011 4K restoration of the film, which was made from the original camera negative and selected parts of several fine-grain master positives to fill in parts of the negative that were either hopelessly damaged or missing. In addition to ultrasonic cleaning of the film elements themselves, the transfer was given extensive digital restoration that removed thousands and thousands of bits of dirt and scratches, tears, tape residue, and the like, as well as stabilization of flicker and jitters. While Criterion’s 2002 DVD was a massive improvement over their 1991 laser disc, the new Blu-Ray marks another quantum leap in improvement, bringing the film to a near pristine state. Of course, there are some inherent limitations to the image, mostly because Marcel Carné had to shoot on whatever bits of film stock were available, resulting in a film that does not have a consistent visual quality. Nevertheless, the 1080p image on this Blu-Ray is stunning; the heightened levels of detail, which bring out both the nuances of the set design and the grain structure of the film stock, is mesmerizing, and contrast and black levels look spot on. The original monaural soundtrack was restored from a number of different sources, primarily a new preservation positive made from the original soundtrack negative, and digitally restored. While still suffering from the general limitations of monaural recording and mixing from the 1940s, the sound is surprisingly rich and generally free of pops, ambient hiss, or distortion.|
|Criterion has kept some of the supplements from their 2002 DVD release of Children of Paradise and also added new extras from the archives, which requires a two-Blu-Ray set. From the previous release we get a pair of audio commentaries, one for each of the film’s two parts. “The Boulevard of Crime" features an audio essay by the late Brian Stonehill, a communications and media studies professor at Pomona College, which was also featured on the 1991 laser disc, while “The Man in White” features an audio essay by Charles Affron, a professor of French at New York University. Both men are exceptionally well-spoken and have done a thorough amount of detailed research into every conceivable facet of the film (Affron credits much of his insight to Edward Baron Turk, whose book Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema is a must-read for anyone interested in this period of filmmaking). What is most rewarding about listening to these commentaries is the socio-historical context in which these two scholars place the film, not only in terms of its being produced during the Nazi occupation, but also its rich connections to French history and culture (almost all of the main characters are based upon or inspired by real-life historical people). |
Also held over from the 2002 DVD is an interesting, if somewhat rambling five-minute introduction to the film by director Terry Gilliam, which was recorded as part of the “Janus Films Director Introduction Series” (oddly, it is included on the second disc, so if you want to actually watch it before the film, you have to switch discs). Also held over from the DVD is the embarrassing U.S. theatrical trailer (leave it up to the Hollywood Studio Era publicity machine to make such a sublime masterpiece look silly and banal). Dropped from the earlier release are several still image galleries, including two production design galleries and an extensive gallery of production and publicity stills, as well as filmographies for Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert.
And now on to the new stuff! There is a four-minute restoration demonstration that offers side-by-side comparisons of the scan of the original negative before and after digital clean-up was done to remove all the scratches, dirt, tears, and even stamps from French customs. In addition to a new 22-minute visual essay on the film’s design by film writer Paul Ryan, we also get two retrospective documentaries: the 51-minute Once Upon a Time: Children of Paradise, a 2009 documentary about the film’s production that features interviews with film scholars Edward Turk and Pascal Ory and director Bertrand Tavernier, as well as archival interviews with members of the film’s cast and crew, and the 60-minute The Birth of Children of Paradise, a 1967 documentary that features interviews with Carné; actors Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Pierre Brasseur; and production designer Alexandre Trauner, among others. The thick insert booklet features a new essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew and excerpts from a 1990 interview with Carné conducted by Brian Stonehill that was originally included on Criterion’s 1991 laser disc edition.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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