Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Children of Paradise

Les Enfants du Paradis aka Children of Paradise (1945), directed by Marcel Carne, is a classic French film that is considered to be one of the greatest French film's of all-time. French cinema's answer to Gone With the Wind. A very ambitious film, yet it's sprawling story is really just about a handful of characters who either work at and watch performances at the Funambules theatre and the heart of the story is a romance. Four men all vying for the affections of the beautiful Garance (played by Arletty). Four men including a soon-to-be famous mime, Baptiste; an actor, Frédérick Lemaître; Pierre, the thief; and Edouard, an aristocrat.

Excellently written dialogue, beautiful set pieces, long periods of wonderfully silent pantomimes on stage. This film was made, nearly impossibly, during WWII where the Nazis were occupying France. The film is largely known for the difficulties it had getting made, but once you start watching Children of Paradise, you're amazed at just what they were able to do. The large outdoor scenes taking place in the Boulevard du Temple in Paris and the scenes inside the Funambules and the Grand Theater... the film feels epic despite the fact that it never really leaves these parameters and that's probably because the film is filled with huge personalities.

Carne, along with his screenwriter Jacques Prevert, do a great job of characterizing the four male characters. What was also striking to me was just how humorous and light the film felt, there wasn't the overwrought drama of a Gone With the Wind. Its light touch gave each characters more depth. Pierre, the thief, is not just a cold-hearted criminal as shown in the scene between him and Frederick. Pierre shows up in Frederick's dressing room with the intent to rob and kill him, but Frederick's overwhelming kindness and bubbling personality winds up with the two of them drinking all night. The characters aren't one-note, they feel alive and realistic even if their chosen profession is anything but realistic.

It's tough for a film you hear so much to live up to your expectations. I think what helped the most for me was being able to see it on the big screen thanks to Film Forum. It was definitely a special experience and probably the best way to see it since it's three hours long and really is a visual affair. The characters really come alive on the big screen and it reinforced how I feel about watching a film at a theater as opposed to the comfort of my own home. It's easy to get distracted at home, but when you pay for your ticket and you're sitting there, it definitely helps you get into a long movie like this.

Children of Paradise is every much the classic critics claim it to be. If you can get to the Film Forum between now and March 27th, I would definitely recommend seeing it. If not that, I would wait for the inevitable Criterion Collection blu-ray release. I haven't seen the DVD version and I'm sure it's fine so don't let me stop you. Still, being able to see it on a big screen will make the experience that much more special.

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