Sunday, May 26, 2024

Paradise Threatened: The Making of Marcel Carne’s ‘The Children of Paradise’

In 1945, to celebrate the liberation of France and the victory of World War II, the first major film to make its debut was the most expensive French film made at the time with a large ensemble. Marcel Carne, leader of the poetic realist movement, had directed his ultimate masterpiece, The Children Of Paradise, which remains, almost 80 years later, one of France’s greatest films. Despite changing tastes and the constant re-evaluation by the decade, Paradise remains highly regarded in French cinema history, in part because of what it took to make it. It was shot during a two-year span while the country was under Nazi occupation and made with limited funds and supplies which everybody worked together to complete the three-hour epic.

The story follows a courtesan named Garance (Arletty) in 19th century France who has four very different suitors who desire her love. A mime (Jean-Louis Barrault), an actor (Pierre Brasseur), a criminal (Marcel Herrand), and a aristocrat (Louis Salou) all meet the courtesan and she has certain feelings for them, but will only go about on her own terms. The mime adores Garance and has to work hard for her attention; while the criminal, who is also a known poet, is strongly implied to be gay. Garance begins an affair with the actor while seeking help from the aristocrat when accused of conspiring to commit a theft and murder.

Following the success of Les Visiteurs du Soir, Carne and his collaborator, screenwriter Jacques Prevert, were given the power to make a bigger movie as period dramas were the norm in occupied France. Barrault pitched to Carne a film on a famous mime, which was then expanded using other real-life inspirations to create a much bigger story than officials had allowed at the time. The third figure in this collaboration was set designer Alexandre Traener, who worked with Prevert on another film on which Carne was an assistant director, establishing the three gentlemen as close friends. Prevert and Traener, especially, would be friends for the rest of their lives and are buried near each other. 

(Re)Building A Boulevard Of Dreams

The most a film could be length-wise was 90 minutes, meaning that Carne’s film was split into two parts. From the start, power cuts and rationed film stock dictated how much of the movie could be shot, even though the costumes and production design was easily made. Original funding from Italy ended when the Allies invaded Sicily and Mussolini was deposed, ending Italy’s relationship with the Nazis. Then, the producer was banned from being on set because of his Jewish ancestry, so Gaumont surrendered production to their rivals, Pathe. A storm damaged their long exterior set, the Boulevard of Crime, and it had to be rebuilt. It would be months before filming resumed, but other key members of the crew, who were Jewish, worked in hiding. 

Despite the power cuts, Carne was able to film on schedule exactly as the script was written. He was known to be dictatorial as a director, commanding respect from everyone to attune to his perfectionist ways. Notably, it was an open secret that Carne was gay when Vichy France sought to repress and imprison known homosexuals. Some Jewish crew members hid, while others, who were half-Jewish with Christian surnames, worked openly and risked arrest. Food was scarce and members of the crew would moonlight as members of the Resistance, especially when they were filming in Paris in the months before the Normandy invasion, discreetly using the studio to trade important information. 

Filming ended on the eve of the invasion of Normandy, meaning France was weeks away from being liberated. This caused one of the supporting actors, Robert Le Vigan, to flee as he was a known collaborator with the Vichy government. (Arletty had a relationship with a German officer and was tried after the war and given a brief jail sentence. She famously said, “My heart is French, but my ass is international.”) Le Vigan was replaced by Pierre Renoir, brother of film director Jean Renoir, and the scenes were quickly reshot. To avoid the hands of Vichy censors, which were very disapproving of content that went against family values,  Carne reportedly kept the negative of the film. 

Love And Fraternity

The story of the courtesan and her suitors follows the traditional poetic realism virtue of keeping fatalism with its characters who are stuck along the fringes of society. They have had nothing but failure and disappointment in their lives, but then get one last shot to have a happy resolution, namely for love. However, it ends sadly, the opposite of a fairy tale, and bitterness remains. The courtesan is the key for men who want that missing piece of their lives and the courtesan, while attaining her beauty, does not simply accept what is in front of her. 

Children Of Paradise refers to the upper level of seats in the theater, the cheapest of seats, where the audience of working class backgrounds celebrated their favorite performances. Shots of them are seen constantly and to their applause is to win their favor for an actor or actress. In this world of art does reality blur with fantasy between Garance and her suitors of all classes. The mime is the one with the strongest passion and who is not of upper class backgrounds compared to others, so he is himself part of those “children.” The theater would be the ultimate setting for all of these star-crossed lovers who desire for a better life.

The release was a massive triumph for Marcel Carne and French cinema post-war. Children of Paradise was in theaters for 54 consecutive weeks and is considered the most quintessential poetic realist film ever made, but was also the last one before the trend turned to a more modernist view. The French New Wave, despite their criticisms for Carnes’ films as outdated with credit going more to Prevert’s writing than Carne’s directing, widely praised the film in the decades after. Carne would never direct another film of this caliber again and Prevert, who would receive an Oscar nomination for his script, would part company to write other films and books.

Contemporary views still hold the film in high regard as one of the best French films ever made, even remaining in the Top 10 from Sight & Sound until 2012. French critics and historians ranked it number 1 in a poll in 1995. Time Out France ranked it number 3 in the list of Greatest French Films in 2017. Francois Truffaut said, “I would give up all my films to have directed Les Enfants du Paradis.” It is a French epic that romanticizes the period completely and lives within the skin of its past, as well as carry the surge of France’s golden age of cinema to a victorious climax after the war and rebirth the industry into a new era.

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