The pleasures of Les Enfants du Paradis ("Children of Paradise," 1945, dir. Marcel Carné) come from the constant movement. Seething crowds, carnival performers, plays, jokes, romantic imprecations, intrigues. A film about performance, Les Enfants is itself a performance. In the opening, we enter the film through theatrical curtains that part to reveal the world of 19th century France. The very production of the film is a legend. It was made during a two-year period in Vichy France. Some of the actors and crew worked under false names, some wearing makeup to hide their identities from the Nazis, who wouldn’t allow Jews and Communists to appear in a film.
In the film four men vie for the love of a beautiful and intriguing young woman named Garance (Arletty)--I write the word “young” wondering exactly how young she is supposed to be—she could have been 40—Arletty herself was 47 when the film was released). She is beautiful, but also mysterious. Only as we see more of her do we realize how corrupt, corrupted and corrupting she is (in part 2, she becomes less a mystery and more an unrequited lover). The film brims over with good acting and overacting, and much of the latter relates to the carnival in which many characters play a part. Everyone overacts. Even the carnival’s proprietor, full of extreme emotion, overacts, constantly throwing comical tantrums and fining actors for mistakes or misbehavior on stage. In one great scene one carnival performer offends another on stage during the middle of a performance. They begin to fight and the entire cast and crew storm in to engage in the battle.
The center of the film is the pierrot character, Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault) son of the carnival owner, a romantic, anxious, willowy mime who falls passionately in love with Garance. At least in part one of the film (“Boulevard du Crime”), she never shows emotion, except when she is accused of thievery. When Baptiste has the chance to make love to her and instead flees the scene, she chooses the next man who comes along to sleep with for the evening. Baptiste believes in love as an eternal commitment while Garance views it as a matter of the moment. The other men vying for her attention see love as a commodity, a goal, moment of mastery, a means to some end. Only Baptiste is the true romantic.
Baptiste suffers magnificently. His face, whether made up or not, is a perfect emblem of suffering and sorrow, except in those few moments when he thinks he might win Garance’s love. As the film moves forward, his suffering gradually wears him down, to the point where he attempts suicide in a montage series of scenes that might be part of his dramatic performances or might be real. When he plays the figure of a pierrot, his suffering, formally stylized, still seems real. When he suffers out of character, it is even more real. He acts with his eyes. He is a fascinating figure, and Jean-Louis Barrault’s acting in this role was the film’s best element. Arletty as Garance is fascinating in a different way. She plays the unattainable, marble beauty. All men are attracted to her, but she keeps her own counsel, picking and casting off as she chooses. In one scene she plays a statue. Baptiste’s pierrot figure pays passionate court to her, but she never reacts. Only when another man woos her, clearly a conniving man of the world, does she react, come to life, and leave with him. This is one of the messages of the film, the dangers of idealization, of romanticism, though the film itself is intensely romantic.
Part two of the film, “The Man in White”) occurs some years after part one. Pierrot, accepting the loss of Garance, has married and is the father of a son. He appears to be happy with his family. He’s also famous for his acting. Garance returns to Paris and secretly attends his performances. After all, it turns out, she really does love him. When they are briefly reunited, Baptiste is perfectly content to leave his son and wife behind. After meeting Baptiste’s wife and child, Garance rides away in a carriage, with Baptiste chasing after her. There the film ends. To bring a close to the film by having a firm conclusion, one in which Baptiste leaves with Garance or remains with his family would violate the principle of motion that energizes the film.