If you know anything about Children of Paradise, you know that it was made during the Nazi Occupation of France. Marcel Carne, the director, employed both Resistance fighters and Nazi collaborators, mistresses of Gestapo officers and symbols of the resilient French people. He hid people from the Nazi wrath and chose to employ people who were actively in hiding. It is clearly a miracle that this film with the budget it had and the people involved on it got made at all. It is an even bigger miracle that it is one of the best French movies ever made.
The film is set in 1820s Paris on the Boulevard du Crime. This is where the important and not so important entertainment of the masses takes place. Every character in the film is an actor or an admirer of actors. Garance is a beautiful woman, cursed with bad friends and bad luck. She watches a preview on the streets of the Boulevard du Crime for a pantomime show with a thief friend of hers. As the preview goes on, the thief (Lacenaire) steals a watch from the man standing in between them. Lacenaire leaves and Garance is accused of the crime. One of the mimes on the stage rises to her defense and pantomimes a witness interview. She is relieved of the accusation and tosses this mime her flower. The mime (Baptiste) is instantly smitten with this beautiful creature. That night Baptiste has a chance encounter with Lacenaire and Garance at a bar. Baptiste declares his love for Garance and gets into a fight with Lacenaire’s henchmen. Baptiste rescues Garance from the clutches of Lacenaire and gives her a room to board in. He shies away from her sexual advances. This is Baptiste’s fatal mistake. Left alone in her room, she invites another actor just hired at the same theater Baptiste works at, Fredrick Lemaitre, to keep it warm. Fredrick and Garance become lovers but they do not seem to have the same passion for each other that Baptiste has for her. We see Baptiste rise to become a great and influential mime as his passion for Garance explodes. But Garance will have neither Baptiste, nor Fredrick or Lacenaire. Instead she will have a fourth man, a count, who whisks her away and dotes on her. After some years, Garance returns to Paris and brings to the surface the feelings that all three rejected men have for her.
Garance is the ultimate symbol of a beautiful creature morphing in the eyes of the lover to suit their sensibilities. To Lacenaire, she is a bright and intelligent woman who is the only one that can appreciate his work. To Baptiste, she is a soft and delicate flower that needs to be loved in order to be happy. To Fredrick, she is another gorgeous conquest. To the count, she is pretty arm candy. The the credit of this film, she is able to resist these labels and become her own person. She loves everyone and no one at the same time. Her presence is enough to make every man doubt their preconceived notions of her. Over time, she reveals herself as more complicated and interesting than what is known to them. Garance is not just inspiration for these men to continue with their respective crafts, but a living and breathing person. Garance is played by the lovely Arletty, who was the lover of a Gestapo officer that I was talk about in the first paragraph. This knowledge about her history informs this performance. She is caught in between the lives of these four people and she chooses to do the least moral thing possible, which is to walk away. She does so with regret and resilience, but she still leaves and disappears into the Carnival crowd.
Baptiste gives Garance a run for her money as being the most interesting character in the film. There is something about clowns, especially mimes, that just oozes sadness. They make large audiences laugh and cry and love every night, but they themselves are incomplete in some ways. For Baptiste he is pursued by the theater owner’s daughter but he loves Garance violently. He cannot seem to ever let go of that love even after he gives into the theater owner’s daughter. At one point he even says that he cheated on her every night as he was falling asleep, because he was emotionally with Garance. He is played by a famous mime (at least in France), Jean-Louis Barrault. He is able to portray this bitter-sweet love that he has with an alarming beauty. Just looking at him in several scenes was enough for me to feel the emotional weight of the plot.
I wanted to see this movie because of its history. I stayed and watched the whole three-hour film because of the story. Due to the limitations of this medium and the restrictions I put on myself, I cannot accurately show how just how magnificent and transporting this film is. I can only praise the things I have tools to praise and let you find the rest.