What makes a film a classic? What causes a movie, in an age when nobody watches old movies, to grow in esteem, to become timeless, to burn itself into world culture as a legendary work of art?
Sometimes, it’s an image or handful of images. Maybe it’s a line of dialogue, here and there — “We’ll always have Paris.”
It’s the performance — thrilling, hilarious or touching — sometimes all at once. It’s the story — tragic, moving, poignant.
“Children of Paradise/Les Enfants du Paradis” is one of those movies. You see it in your youth, maybe in a college film society, even on cable TV, and it lingers in the memory — it haunts. It’s the zenith of French pre-war/pre-New Wave art, not as important as “Rules of the Game” or “Grand Illusion,” not as romantic as “L’Atalante,” perhaps. But magical, more a “Wizard of Oz” than a “Citizen Kane.” Here, in a film made during the Nazi occupation, French filmmakers summoned up everything that was lost, everything they knew about cinema before the Storm Troopers goose-stepped through Paris. Context alone makes it moving, but Marcel Carne and his cast see to it that there’s so much more to this masterpiece than that.
The title comes from the French phrase for the cheap seats in a theater or cinema — high up, near the angels often painted on the ceiling — and the setting is 1820s Paris, a riot of poverty, crime, class war and theater. In two acts — the film was made in two parts to get by Nazi/Vichy restrictions on its three hour length — we are treated to pantomime and pick-pocketing, stage farce and off-stage tragedy, and not a love triangle, but a love pentangle.
Four men long for — lust after — the inscrutable, Sphinx-like Garance, played by Arletty, an actress still stunningly sexy in her 40s, as she was when she made this.
Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) is a swindler, a crime boss capable of violence. Garance is aloof, but he keeps her under his protection.
Frederick (Pierre Brasseur) is a would-be actor who stumbles into her in the crowded “Street of Crime” where rogues, beggars and actors congregate. He sees them as lovers, and she coyly plays along. The genius of Arletty’s performance is her quiet, still confidence in the face of such proposals.
Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) is a put-upon mime whose genius only earns a showcase when Garance is accused of a crime Lacenaire commits. Baptiste, in full makeup, mimes the crime as a witness and the cops let Garance go based on his hilarious testimony. This is the film’s first great scene.
And Louis Salou plays a jealous, duel-happy count who falls under the Garance spell.
We are set up for tragedy as the characters meet, fall in love, move on with their lives and up in the world. Frederick will become a great and popular actor. Baptiste will become a folk hero, the King of French mimes, marry and have a family.
But always, there is Garance — kept, treasured, or missed and pined for.
Director Marcel Carne spent a fortune on sets and extras and makes this world of cafes, theaters, street lowlifes and highly-strung actors come to life.
The funny lines still land laughs — shouted from the peanut gallery where the “Children” watch the shows — “Shut up! We can’t hear the pantomime!”
But it is the performances that linger — Brasseur’s hilarious, cocksure dandy of an actor, trapped, for a while, working in pantomime — “I’m dying of silence, like others die of hunger and thirst.”
Americans long ago made mimes a punch-line, but Barrault’s lovely pantomimes and tableaus return the pathos and wit to the profession.
Herrand is thoroughly vile and frightening.
And around them all is the inscrutable Arletty. Only an actress with some years, some worldliness, could play a character this bored with love, yet simmering with sex, even for the dull and violet count.
“Not only are you rich, but you want to be loved as if you are poor.”
Like most long films, this one is stately and slow for long stretches as Carne sets up the misunderstandings and treachery and builds the character’s back stories. Like many a vintage classic, it can seem quaint and dated, at times. But only in the odd moment. It feels fresh and timeless. And the rewards are peppered throughout it, from start to finish.
The no-expense-spared restoration of the film makes it more lovely than you remember, with those scratchy prints college film professors were forced to use, or the inferior cable, vhs or early DVD transfers.
“Children of Paradise” might have been overwhelmed by its legend, by its biography — started during World War II, made by the actors who weren’t able to flee occupied France, the teeming street scenes peopled with members of the French Resistance, working as extras and hiding from the Nazis.
But it wasn’t and isn’t. It’s as funny, moving and thrilling as any movie made 78 years ago has any right to be. You will be thrilled and yes, you will fall in love with a movie about a mime, no matter how many punch-lines about the powder-faced princes of silent acting you’ve been exposed to.
And thanks to this new restoration, “We’ll always have THIS Paris.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, worthy of a PG
Cast: Arletty, Pierre Berasseur, Jean-Louis Barrault, Louis Salou, Marcel Herrand
Credits:Directed by Marcel Carne, written by Jacques Prevert. A Pathe/Janus release.
Running time: 3:10