Les Enfants du Paradis is the masterpiece of poetic realism, the story of a woman chased by four very different men. Shot in black and white, it features great mime sequences, impressive acting and one of the best writing ever.
In the rather lively Boulevard du Crime, the Paris theatre quarter during the 1830's, the Funambule show consists of wonderful mime. The son of the lead perfomer, Baptiste, joins the spectacle, and also falls in love passionately with Garance, despite being promised to the director's daughter, Nathalie. Yet Garance doesn't consider love as something to be taken seriously, but rather as a game to play ; she seduces Frédérick Lemaître, for fun, on the same night she has spent romantically walking through Paris with Baptiste.
Also attracted to her are the dandy criminal Larcenaire and the aristocrat Count Edouard de Montray. This love hexagon stops as Garance, unjustly accused of a murder commited by Larcenaire, flees to the protection of the well-connected Count. A few years later, Garance is back at the Funambule, still fond of Baptiste. The loveplay starts again, Baptiste now a successful mime, Fréderick a famous actor, and Larcenaire the most dangerous assassin in town.
This brief summary of the plot misses many of its wonderful circumvolutions, such as its many plays within the film. Baptiste mimes are clear allegories to his life, yet are great - the actor, Jean-Louis Barrault, has been taught by the greatest of all mimes, Etienne Decroux, who plays his father in the film. Fréderick is finally able to play Othello, as he discovers jealousy as Garance prefers Baptiste. Larcenaire, an unread farce writer, stages his murders as if they were conceptual art.
One highlight of the film, that everyone remembers, is the memorable mime sequences. Yet the movie enjoyed the presence of one of the best writers ever to grace French Cinema : the poet Jacques Prévert, who had already teamed with director Marcel Carné for the previous films Hôtel du Nord and Les Vistiteurs du Soir. His lines participate in giving Arletty her legendary poise, but he is also funny, for example when Fréderick makes fun of the piece he is contracted to star him, both on and off-stage... But all during its performance.
The direction and the sets all participate in making this movie a poetic experience. The movie is able to find the romantic mood that was in fashion when the story is set, in the early Nineteenth century. The movie perfectly embodies that vanished time, when blind beggars could enjoy mime, and the poorest spectators sat on the highest and cheapest balcony, "Le Paradis" in French, thus the title "Les Enfants du Paradis" - the actors and mime all play for those people. Despite being shot entirely on movie sets, the crowd scenes look gigantic ; the last one in that aspect is particularly memorable.
Children of the Paradise is indeed a wonderful film. Yet its shooting has an interesting story too - making a movie in France between 1943 and 1945 wasn't an easy task. Both the score writer and the set designers were jewish, and had to work in clandestinity, being chased by the Nazis occupying the country at the time. Many among the crew were participating to the French Résistance. Vichy had forbidden movies longer than an hour and a half - thus the movie, scripted to last three hours, was made in two parts. One of the actors was a collaborator, and the Résistance killed him ; his part was reshot. These many difficulties do not show on the wonderful film.
And now the cast and the crew :
Paris est tout petit quand on s'aime d'un si grand amour