Thursday 9 May 2013

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)

Not sure if this is a romantic or a cynical statement.  Maybe both?
This film was made in German-occupied Paris in 1945, at a time when the authorities forbade the production of films any longer than ninety minutes.  Consequently, 'Les Enfants du Paradis' masquerades as two films, or as a film and its sequel, which are always to be shown as a double bill, thus giving us one long story which just happens to have credits before and after its intermission.  Premiere Epoque: 'Le Boulevard du Crime', Deuxieme Epoque: 'L'Homme Blanc'.  I knew I was onto a winner as soon as the words 'The Boulevard of Crime' came onto the screen.  It stirred something within me.  This is one of the most excellent films I've ever met, and I count it a great pity that it's not more widely watched and celebrated.

The story is set in the Paris of the 19th Century, at a time when there were two types of theatre: the classy sort with dialogue and wealthy audiences; and the Pantomime - not the Panto of modern Britain, but a mute sort of melodrama, somewhere between mime, ballet and cartoon, to which the poor flock for their entertainment, and, on a good day, get to see unplanned physical fights break out among the cast on stage.  The 'paradis' of the title, by the way, is the uppermost circle of audience seating, which in the UK is called 'the gods'.

Shakespearian charmer Frédérick Lemaître, and the elusive Garance
Much of the film is set in and around these two sorts of theatre, especially The Funambules, which can only afford a licence to stage pantomime.  Rising to prominence is the truly brilliant Baptiste, who when we first see him witnesses a robbery on the boulevard and reports what he saw to a policeman, communicating only through the medium of excellently enjoyable mime.  Baptiste is a clown of the truest and best kind, like a 19th Century Chaplin: hilarious, but tragic, sentimental and beautiful.

It's an interestingly stylised work, perhaps drawing inspiration from the theatres it describes.  When I first watched it, I wondered whether this was a melodrama of sorts, with everything 'writ large', since some characters seemed at first to be types: the optimistic charmer with theatrical ambitions, the villainous cad with the moustache and the murderous manner, and so on.  As it goes on, though, the characters show themselves to be far more interesting, and far more real, making intelligent decisions at odds with my expectations, and showing themselves to be much more nuanced than they first appeared.  Though told very colourfully, even joyfully, this is a world of real human mistakes and rectifications, passionate but destructively asymmetrical love-affairs.

Lacenaire is kinda the villain I've always wanted to be, except...
Much of the story revolves around Baptiste, who is the first truly great mime performer, the first to compare with the greatest of actors, whose performances are convincingly heartbreaking or cruel.  He falls passionately, too passionately, in love with Garance, a courtesan who matches him for beauty, and who stands out as an unusually interesting and independent female character for this era of films, not at all cold, but never dependent on the male characters, nor ever under their power except for a dark period between the two films.  I'm often surprised by the merits of female characters in the older films I've viewed, especially compared to the stereotypes that come up in more recent, more popular works.  I ought to praise the script here, which is uniformly excellent in dialogue and in the engaging, entrancing story that unfolds in a manner fresh, amusing but ultimately terrible.  I must also add Jean-Louis Barrault and the mononymous Arletty to my list of actors worth watching in anything, though of course there are, of course, many more excellent performances in this double film, but these two deserve special attention.

The film also follows Lacenaire, who somehow manages to be the film's villain without ever really opposing the film's heroes, and Lemaître, a chancer who leaps into acting on a whim, and finds himself excellently popular.  Lemaître has a dream of acting some Shakespeare (oh, you know, that British guy who wrote all those brutal and vulgar melodramas), and tears apart lesser writers, memorably ad libbing a new ending to a disappointing play, refusing to die on cue, and taking the whole audience with him into a magnificent condemnation of the playwrights.

Baptiste and Garance
The four characters all prosper, in some way or another, whether growing in fame or in notoriety, or getting married and having children, but with the wrong person.  None of them seem to find any great security, though Baptiste and Lemaître seem to draw a lot of their skill at performance from their volatility - though this leads to the odd duel or cancelled performance.  Many fine and upsetting things ensue, and twists I yearned for refused to arrive, or are terribly undermined by more complicated, more painful answers.  In the end, in the midst of the bustling carnival, Garance slips away forever into the crowd, and Baptiste, in desperate pursuit of his true and obsessive love, finds himself fighting helplessly through a sea of revellers, all dressed as his famous stage persona.  It's a desperate scene, and a distressing end to a character.  I don't like to spoil endings, but this moment is just a small fraction of the conclusion to the film, and the many stories of the two theatres.

Despite having seen this only twice, I'd happily claim it as one of my favourite films, and even in translation one of my favourite scripts to anything.  Despite its tragic turns and complications, few films make me so happy as this, and very few are so suited to my tastes.  Said François Truffaut, "I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise".  As a writer of sorts, I'd happily say something very similar of the screenplay.  Off-hand, I'd be hard-pressed to find something I'd more happily be responsible for than this.  Its lightness of touch, its sense of freedom, beauty and delight is all the more notable for the fact it was filmed in an occupied country in the midst of a war.

P.S. It turns out the actors I praised are both in 'The Longest Day' (1962), which I accidentally bought from a charity shop last year, so I imagine I'll be slipping that in somewhere later in the project.  Is it any good?

I'd urge you to watch this film some day.  It's extremely good, and it saddens me to think something so good, so well-made, so enjoyable, with these performances and this dialogue, is as good as unknown in the UK.

No comments:

Post a Comment