Today: July 20, 2024

Les Enfants Du Paradis

Voted ‘The best French film ever made’ by the French Film Academy, this stunningly restored edition of Les Enfants du Paradis is a sumptuous cinematic treat.

Voted ‘The best French film ever made’ by the
French Film Academy, this stunningly restored edition of Les Enfants du Paradis
is a sumptuous cinematic treat.
Garance, a courtesan and actress
iconically played by Arletty, one
the great beauties of the twentieth century, is pursued by four very different
yet equally amorous gents.

Principal among them,
and the only one for whom Garance has any reciprocal feeling, is the
unappreciated but brilliant mime-artist Baptiste. At their first meeting, the mime uses his performance skills
to demonstrate Garance’s innocence when she is falsely accused of pickpocketing. Their paths diverge however when Baptiste
hesitates in wooing her and they each settle for loveless relationships whilst
longing that their paths might cross again.

Jean-Louis Barrault plays Baptiste, a character modelled on real
life nineteenth century mime-artist Jean-Gaspard
Deburau
, whom Barrault had been fascinated by ever since hearing how he had
beaten a street-boy to death for taunting him in front of his family. The other male characters are largely
also based on real people, such as intellectual criminal Pierre-François Lacenaire, who stakes his own claim to Garance’s
heart. The romance is a catalyst
allowing these disparate characters to be explored in one story.

Director Marcel Carné is known for his
affinity with the working classes and, though Les Enfants du Paradis is about
the theatre, it is also about the paying masses on who’s dreams and fantasies
actors and writers live. The
cheap-ticket holding common folk are even affectionately referred to as ‘the
gods’, as their laughs and gasps at whatever drama unfolds on stage is
acknowledged as the theatre’s true lifeblood. The balconies where these ‘gods’ are seated were referred to
colloquially as ‘paradis’, hence the actors are their dependent offspring.

The Oscar nominated
script by Jacques Prévert
is a soul-searching, despairing treasure-trove of wit and humour, with dazzling
dialogue full of memory-branding lines.
The soft, abstract-shadow filled cinematography is an interesting
contrast to the razor-sharp imagery that is in fashion today, and Maurice Thiriet’s fabulously restored
score is a frenzy of orchestral emotion.

Many will likely be
daunted at the prospect of an old black and white French film that runs over
three hours and takes place largely in the confines of a theatre setting, but
anyone who gives it a half a chance is sure to have their hearts won over. It is unashamedly melodramatic but
uproariously entertaining, not to mention technically dazzling and even something
of a miracle, given that it was shot during the years of France’s Nazi
occupation.

The anguish filled
finale is every bit as much a sledgehammer to the heart as those of better
known dark classics like The Third Man
and Brazil. At one point a character muses
“Audiences want something new… novelty, what does that mean?” Les Enfants du Paradis could be that ‘something’
for present day audiences, a rediscovered relic of cinema from another time and
place.

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