A film that is poetic realism realized, Children of Paradise incandescently studies the world of a struggling theater troupe through its moments of success all the way to its moments of abject failure. The masterpiece of French director Michael Carne, Children of Paradise is a brutally honest look at love, lust and the troubling links of romance, ultimately, positing the failures of true romance in the face of bourgeois oppression. The film is uniquely its own work, incorporating tight and claustrophobic cinematography that still manages to flow with grace, as well as acting that is theatrically excessive, yet manages to be achingly real. The film clocks in at an epic three plus hours, yet the viewing experience seems all too short and ends abruptly, all be it appropriately, leaving those witnessing the magnificent work yearning for something more, but like the films characters viewers are left with a fading flicker of something soulful that has forever escaped their grasp.
As noted the film follows the interconnected narratives of a theater troupe located on the appropriately named Boulevard of Crime. The films central character is certainly the aging beauty Garance (Arletty) whose illustrious beauty proves irresistible to the men living on and around the crowded boulevard. The first to approach Garance with interest is the aspiring actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur) who at first sees the gorgeous woman as a conquest, but quickly finds himself in a state of perpetual infatuation with Garance. Not soon after Frederick’s advances, Garance is accused of thievery, however, she is saved by a mime named Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) who explains that it was in fact a conman named Laceneire (Pierre Renoir) who stole the watch, while also expressing his own interests in Garance. Garance thanks Baptiste for taking her side and offers him a flower in gratitude. Baptiste, like Frederick, is quickly infatuated by Garance, however, it appears as though she actually shares similar feelings. All appears set for Baptiste and Garance to fall madly in love, until Count Edouard (Louis Salou) enters the picture. Described in the film as a dandy, Edouard is an extravagant man who uses his monetary extensions to get what he wants, proving successful even with Garance. Garance is shown choosing Edouard over the other gentlemen at the end of the first act, and we are brought back in a few years later showing both Frederick and Baptiste as successful actors, although Baptiste appears to be in a state of constant depression over his loss of Garance. These issues are only made more severe by the constant meddling of Laceneire who believes he can use guile to win over Garance. Ultimately, the four men roguishly trick one another into winning over Garance, who is obviously lost in thoughts of Baptiste. Tragically it is their relationship that is never rekindled as they fail to cross paths and Baptiste is left chasing after Garance in the crowded Boulevard of Crime, only to be consumed by the mass of people. In this moment, Garance dismisses Baptiste as nothing more than a face in the crowd, literally becoming a faceless man behind the makeup of a mime.
The film is stunning and absolutely enthralling, yet in the back of my mind I fell bothered by the overarching assumption that all masculine camaraderie is somehow ruined by the interference of a female. All the men act in a ludicrous manner over their desire for Garance and at times the film suggest that it leads to their disconnection. In fact, a rather endearing scene between Baptiste and Frederick over their mutual respect for each others craft, is quickly dismissed when Frederick sleeps with Garance, despite knowing that Baptiste is only a room away. This assumption is only made worse as it is assumed that Garance is entirely incapable of truly choosing her own mate. Garance only settles with Edoaurd in order to avoid a serious prison sentence, however, once she chooses to settle with the count it is mutually believed between viewer and characters that she is inextricably tied to him, despite her continuing longing for Baptiste. Incidentally, a male character must even assure her of her love for Baptiste, specifically when Baptiste’s son states that she cannot have his father, because he is happy with his own family. It is patriarchy working at its most destructive level, one in which even a male child proves to have more authority than an aging woman. I consider most of the problems to be indicative of forties Europe, yet I could not praise this film, without also making note of these glaring gender issues.
Sadly, Criterion has yet to release this gem on Bluray, however, that should not deter you from getting a copy, because it is one of the rather moving pieces in the collection and a definitive example of French Poetic Realism.