Film Reviews (Seriously) – CHILDREN OF PARADISE (LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS)
Children of Paradise is a love story told in two parts. Part One is titled “The Boulevard of Crime,” and it’s where we meet the film’s five key characters. The title refers to a French street that is mobbed with revelers and sideshow attractions (think Mardi Gras in New Orleans without topless women pandering for beads), and Frédérick Lamaître (Brasseur), an aspiring actor, is looking for work at the Boulevard’s main attraction, the Funambules Theater. In the crowd, Lamaître meets the beautiful performer Garance (Arletty), but his efforts to woo her fail. Garance, leaving Lamaître to find another conquest, visits her acquaintance, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Herrand), a brilliant criminal and aspiring playwright who fronts as a public scribe.
Garance and Lacenaire stroll the Boulevard and stop to watch a performance by Baptiste Debureau (Barrault), a mime with the visiting troupe. When Debureau becomes a key witness in proving that Garance did not steal the pocket watch of a man standing next to her (Lacenaire stole it), she throws the mime a flower as a gesture of appreciation. Love immediately fills Debureau’s heart. Despite his engagement to fellow performer Nathalie (Casarès), Debureau pledges his love to Garance, who makes her move to sleep with him. But her emotional feelings for him are not the same as his are for her, so he rebuffs her physical advances and leaves her. Looking for immediate physical gratification, Garance sleeps with Lamaître behind Debureau’s back. When Garance and Lamaître join the performers at the Funambules Theater, Debureau learns of the affair and he is heartbroken. Enter the fourth man in Garance’s life, and the fifth of the five key characters, Count Edouard de Montray (Salou), a theater patron who is also smitten with Garance. The Count offers Garance a life of love and luxury, which at first she declines, but when she is suspected of aiding Lacenaire in a failed murder/robbery attempt, she uses the Count’s clout to get herself out of the jam.
Part Two, titled “The Man in White,” picks up the story several years later. Debureau is now a wildly famous and successful performer, headlining shows and selling them out nightly. He is married to Nathalie, and they have a young son. Garance is in a loveless marriage with the Count, Lamaître is a successful actor in a bad play who is chased by demanding creditors and irate husbands (thanks to his wily bedroom ways with their wives), and Lacenaire is still a criminal who mingles with theater people instead of being a playwright who writes about crime. With the onstage performances of Debureau and Lamaître as backdrops, the lives of these five people intertwine at once, with a climax that will leave four of them unhappy … and one of them dead.
What I love about this film, in addition to the stage work depicted (and I’ll get to that), is that it’s about the sorrow brought on by, and the prices paid for, concessions. The five members of the “love pentagon” are such different characters, yet their actions, generally speaking, are the same, because all five settle for something less than what they truly want.
Let’s start with the Count. He is rich and powerful (his wealth is plainly evident, and his power is displayed when Garance gives the police his business card to get herself out of that Part One-ending jam), and his ultimate desire is for a loving relationship with Garance … something his money or his power cannot readily grant him. Rather than not have her at all, he settles for at least being married to her, even though she does not love him; she even refers to him, to his face no less, as only a friend. Still, the Count has his marriage.
To compliment (or perhaps to offset) this distinguished gentleman is Lacenaire, the criminal. A man of great intelligence, Lacenaire’s legitimate career is that of public scribe, but his true passion is writing plays. However, because of his lack of success in theatrical endeavors, he must settle for using his intelligence as a criminal; at times, he even settles for being far less than a mastermind by ordering his thugs to take care of menial physical abuse. As for his relationship with Garance, I certainly wouldn’t describe it as love, or even as friendship; I get the sense that he settles to have her as an accessory – a 19th Century gun moll who looks good on his arm.
Lamaître, the actor, is the romantic scoundrel of the group. In the ways of romance, he is content to find love not in his heart through a relationship, but in his loins through indiscriminate sex with willing female partners, as illustrated in the suggestion that he bedded his landlady, in his known relationship with Garance, and in the ire of those husbands who pursue him as adamantly as his creditors. Prior to his fame, he is desperate to act in serious works, but he settles for work at the Funambules, lest he have no work at all; and when he becomes famous, he still winds up settling for a role in a sub par play to earn money to pay his creditors.
If the Count is the sophisticate, and Lacenaire is the criminal, and Lamaître is the scoundrel, then Debureau is the romantic. In addition to this moniker, he is also the most tragic of the four primary male characters. Yes, he is the most successful theatrically, making him a bigger success than Lacenaire and Lamaître, but his decisions on how to handle Garance make him a greater failure than those two (and the Count) combined. This is terribly ironic because his refusal to settle, early in the story, is exactly what leads to his settling for something even less later in the story. When we first meet Debureau, he is engaged to Nathalie, and that is fine for him, until he meets Garance, and then he knows that love can be much better than fine. But his idea of love is different from Garance’s definition, and that difference forces him to take a step back in their quickly developed relationship. He is a man who loves a woman with greater intensity than she loves him, and he is willing to carry a torch for her while her feelings ascend to his level. When this doesn’t happen, Debureau settles for returning to Nathalie, the one who was carrying a torch for him. (It’s important to note that Nathalie, while a secondary character, also settles; she marries a man who placed her behind another woman.)
Ah, and what of Garance, the object of no less than four men’s desires? Her tragedy puts Debureau’s to shame. She is first introduced as part of a sideshow attraction. She is known as THE TRUTH, and the barker outside of her tent promises anyone who enters (for a price, of course) that they will see a beautiful naked woman. As is the case with most sideshows, the trick is on the customer. Yes, she is beautiful. Yes, she is naked. But this woman, THE TRUTH, is seated in a barrel of water that stops just above her cleavage, and every person who passes by can’t quite make out anything below the water line (and they try). The great irony here is that, as THE TRUTH (which is an accurate attraction name, but only in the slimmest of technical senses), she tricks people into thinking they are getting something that they are not. Throughout the rest of the film, she tricks herself into thinking she is getting what she wants, when in fact she settles for everything but. What does she want? She wants the pure love that Debureau offers, but when first presented with it, she doesn’t realize it. She thinks that Lacenaire’s dangerous ways, and Lamaître’s passion, and the Count’s money, are better than what she can have with Debureau, when all of those elements pale in comparison to what the mime can offer.
As mentioned earlier in this piece, the other gems of this film are three notable plays starring Debureau. The first is when Debureau is introduced, when he enacts the theft of the stranger’s watch. It’s simplicity is indicative of the purity of Debureau’s future love for Garance, and its silent brilliance is reminiscent of Chaplin. Without words, the mime relates to a policeman exactly what happened, without a question left unanswered, and in the process entertains the onlookers. It sounds simple, but try it sometime. My guess is that your effort (like mine) will look more like a game of charades after too many cocktails.
The second play also occurs in Part One. In it, Debureau plays a mime who falls in love with a statue (played by Garance), but that statue is stolen away by a harlequin (played by Lamaître). This play was written by Debureau before he knew that what was to be enacted is what would happen in real life. Look at the similarities. In the play, the silent romantic, in love with the statue, has his heart broken by the statue and the harlequin, while in real life, the silent romantic who plays the silent romantic, in love with the aloof woman who plays the statue, has his heart broken by the woman who plays the statue and the scoundrel who plays the harlequin. It’s as if Debureau predicted his own future. In the play, his character threatens suicide, and in real life, after learning of Garance’s affair, he does the same. Did he simply act out what he wrote, or did he prophetically write what was to come? The debate could go on.
The third play, in Part Two, was also written by Debureau, and was written prior to Garance’s reentrance into his life after several years. The story is about a man who cannot gain access into a fancy ball because he wears rags. His character kills a clothes peddler and dons fancy attire to get in. This illustrates Debureau’s screaming regret, as his character represents himself, and killing the clothes peddler represents his character’s refusal to settle with being denied access to where he wants to be, and taking whatever means necessary to ensure he gets what he wants. Had Debureau not settled in Part One, he might have been more like the character he created in Part Two. That being said, Debureau’s life might have gone down a happier path.
This film has been called France’s Gone With the Wind, and I must confess, if I have three hours to fill and I’m looking for a long film to watch … frankly, my dear, I’m picking Children of Paradise.