Once voted the best/most popular French film of all time and showing almost continuously in Paris for forty years or more after its release, Les enfants du paradis is almost a sacred institution. In the 1960s and 1970s any aspiring cinephile would be expected to have seen the film on one of its numerous outings in North America or Western Europe. Now it has been re-released in the UK by the BFI on a restored digital print. At 190 minutes and showing, as originally intended, in two parts within a single programme, it was a real Christmas treat for me and if it comes your way isn’t to be missed.
The title translates loosely as the “children of the Gods” – a reference to the popular audiences of working-class people who occupied the cheapest seats in the the ‘illegitimate theatres’ of Paris in the 1820s. By extension this includes the popular audiences of 1940s French Cinema as well. This is a crowd-pleasing picture of great intelligence, lovingly crafted under difficult circumstances and it hasn’t dated at all.
Background to the production
In 1940 the German occupation of Paris and Northern France had a significant impact on French Cinema. Many important directors (e.g. Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier), technicians and actors fled to the US or the UK (where they could join the Free French forces). Some Jewish film personnel moved to the South, hoping to avoid persecution under the Vichy puppet regime. The German authorities banned showings of certain pre-war films and forced filmmakers into productions with innocuous narratives. They also set up a new company, Continental Films, with a healthy production budget and recruited some of the best of the remaining French film personnel. One of the production teams most affected by these developments was that of director Marcel Carné and scriptwriter Jacques Prévert. These were two of the creators of what was known as ‘poetic realism’ in France in the second half of the 1930s – the forerunner to film noir with the use of low-key lighting and doom-laden narratives. It was these films with their dangerous romanticism imbuing desperate narratives in titles such as Quai des brumes (1938) and Le jour se lève (1939) which the Nazis banned.
Like all the other French producers Carné and Prévert were forced to consider historical subjects for their next production in 1941. Les visiteurs du soir turned out to be a medieval tale of the battle between Good and Evil. This was deemed distant enough from contemporary reality for the Nazi censors. Contemporary stories had to ignore any references to wartime conditions and so the only way that filmmakers could comment on the Occupation was via allegory or metaphor. It was in this context that Carné and Prévert conceived Les enfants du paradis. Work began in 1943 on two out of a possible three linked stories based on real characters and events in the Paris theatreland of the Bourbon Restoration (1814-30). The production was based at the Victorine Studio in Nice where a giant Paris set of what was known as the ‘Boulevard of Crime’ was to be erected. Nice was chosen so that long-time collaborators like the Jewish art designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma could be close by (though still in hiding). It was also good to be away from Paris which was only to be used for some interiors and post-production. The production proved very difficult once the Allied invasion of Italy altered security considerations in Nice and the production was halted for a period. Carné then appears to have delayed completion until virtually all of France was liberated. At this point he was able to convince distributors and exhibitors to agree to show both stories in the same programme with an interval and the premiere was in March 1945.
Film historians disagree as to whether the film is part of the poetic realism movement or whether it marks a new mode of ‘quality cinema’. Certainly it continues the tradition of finely crafted films. It was these films that Truffaut would attack so mercilessly in the early 1950s as the ‘cinéma du papa‘. It is certainly true that many of the films were built around their carefully honed scripts and this was Prévert’s contribution. For monolingual audiences it’s difficult to know how well the French language is used but even in translation it is possible to recognise that Prévert has a poet’s sensibility. But the main defence of these films is that they weren’t dependent on script alone, they also delivered high class performances, fantastic sets and lighting and great cinematography. Truffaut was being polemical of course and I haven’t seen any of Carné’s 1950s films but the important point to make is that tastes change and it was important to denigrate the ‘quality films’ in the 1950s in order to promote La nouvelle vague. Now, with more distance, we can appreciate the achievements of the 1930s and 1940s in French Cinema.
The subject matter of Les enfants is of interest to us partly because it helps to explain how melodrama developed as a theatrical practice. The narrative is constructed around Garance, the character played by Arletty, and the men who attempt to have a relationship with her. Garance first appears as a beautiful woman with no background who is obliged to work as an ‘attraction’ in a sideshow on the ‘Boulevard of Crime’ – the main thoroughfare for entertainment in Paris. Walking through the crowded streets she is pursued by a gifted young actor (played by Pierre Brasseur) and then rescued by a mime artist (Jean-Louis Barrault) when she is accused of pickpocketing. The mime artist is drumming up business for Le Théâtre des Funambules (a theatre originally specialising in acrobatic displays where the great mime artist Jean-Gaspard Deburau established himself). Theatres like this were not allowed to stage performances with speech so mime, dance and elaborate display with musical accompaniment were what the crowds paid their few sous to see. Thus was melodrama born. By the end of the century as cinema appeared the stage melodrama would feature live animals, steam trains and spectacular sets. The relationship between this illegitimate theatre and the classical patent theatre down the street is explained through the story of the young actor Frédérick Lemaître who begins in Le Théâtre des Funambules but ends up in the patent theatre where he transforms a dull play into something that appeals to more popular tastes.
As well as the actor and the mime, Garance is also pursued by two other men. Lacenaire is the local master criminal, again based on a historical figure who would have become the focal point of the third part of the film, and Le comte de Montray is the nobleman (based on the Duc de Morny) who rescues Garance at the end of Part One. The other character worth picking out from the long cast list is ‘Jericho’, a figure akin to the ‘spiv’ of austerity Britain in the 1940s – the man who can get you anything on the black market. He’s the one who trades in gossip and supplies the Funambules with all the odd props it needs.
By delaying the film’s release until after most of France was liberated, Carné in a sense avoided both the scrutiny of the censors and the possible pleasures of making comments on the Occupation (though making comments on recent history was still a sensitive matter post 1945). Still, it is fascinating now to try to discern how French audiences (who clearly loved the film) might have ‘read’ the narrative and characterisations. Garance is clearly France, the ‘prize’ to be captured. As played by the extraordinary Arletty, she is beautiful and gracious but also mischievous, deceptive and intelligent. After the war, Arletty, despite a wartime affair with a German officer, became something of a national icon. Lacenaire is possibly representative of the Communists working in the resistance and Jericho represents the collaborators, spying on everyone else and profiting from their misery. The mime artist and the actor seem to me to be two sides of the majority of the French population – keeping silent and getting on with life but keenly observing or hiding their real thoughts behind the bluster of a masquerade. The comte who comes to Arletty’s rescue is possibly the agent of the Brits or the Americans.
You don’t have to struggle to identify the story of 1940-44 in the narrative. The film is full of spectacle, action and witty dialogue and they alone can provide the basis for a highly entertaining three hours – but a bit of background helps to explain why Les enfants du paradis is such an important film.
Here are some notes I put together for an introduction to the film at the National Media Museum in Bradford. I titled them ‘Contextualising Les enfants du paradis‘ and included background on ‘Poetic Realism’: LesEnfantsNotes