It’s a wonder that this wonder-filled film ever got made. Work began on Les enfants du paradis in 1943 when France was occupied by the Germans, there were power shortages, rationed film stock, and a suspicious Vichy government that declared that films couldn’t be longer than 90 minutes. The epically involving Les enfants du paradis runs at three hours, and the Jewish composer Joseph Kosma and set designer Alexandre Trauner were forced to make their contributions clandestinely. To have made a simple, domestic drama in these circumstances would have been impressive, but Marcel Carné’s film is a riotous, romantic costume melodrama, with magnificent sets: the action takes place in a foggy duelling ground, backstage at the theatre, in a grand mansion and a rough and ready rooming house with over a thousand extras, many who were in the Resistance, milling through vividly recreated 1840s Paris.
The opening shot is a tumultuous, joyful street scene, a miracle of perspective in which a thronging crowd mass along Le Boulevard du Crime, in the theatrical district, where a dizzying array of street acts, from strong men to tight-rope walkers advertise forthcoming attractions. The camera gradually focuses on individuals in the crowd, Garance, the enigmatic heroine of the film, played with a cool, self-possessed insouciance by Arletty, and aspiring actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), who flirts with her. Falsely accused of being a pickpocket, Garance is saved by the melancholy Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), who wittily mimes the true circumstances of the crime, earns a rose from Arletty’s breast, and is immediately overcome with love. There are two more men in Arletty’s life: Lacenaire, a ruthless dandy of the criminal underworld with a villainous moustache, a frilled shirt and a neat line in bleak, cut-throat wit, and the Count Edouard de Montray, a cold-hearted, upper-class duellist who makes his aristocratic appearance towards the end of the first part of the film.
Affection, unrequited love, jealously, obsession and artistic ambition are played out against this theatrical background. It’s a complicated film that explores the nature of performance, with Baptiste’s clever mimes adding an extra layer to poet Jacques Prévert’s witty, stylised script. Baptiste acts out his heartbreak on the Funambules’ stage, as he falls in love with a statue, played by Garance, who comes to life and heads off with Harlequin, acted out by Frédérick. In the second half of the film (entitled ‘The Man in White’), the love story remains as complicated as ever, an unhappy, but involving drama of domestic pragmatism versus melodramatic passion. The ending returns to the crowded boulevard, crammed with festive Pierrots, for a spell-binding finale.
Carné’s film about actors acting was made in the most trying of circumstances, but the elaborate sets, sumptuous costumes and lovely, poignant orchestral score reveal nothing of the harsh realities of life in occupied France (many of the extras were starving members of the Resistance). The post-war nouvelle vague critics initially admired this impressive example of French poetic realism, but with its careful attention to detail and stylised script, it was a far cry from their own, spontaneous guerrilla-style approach to storytelling and filming and they soon turned against Carné, dismissing his work as the quaint, hidebound ‘cinéma de papa’. Yet Les enfants du paradis, for all its costume drama accoutrements, has a surprisingly subversive heroine in Garance. Older than the typical starlet, enigmatic rather than beautiful, she is entirely self-possessed, her character is adventurous, mysterious, prepared to experience all that life has to offer, and a deliciously elusive counterpoint to the emotional melodrama that surrounds her. Even Truffaut conceded in the end: ‘I have made 23 films, well, I would swap them all for the chance to have made Les enfants du paradis‘.