Children of Paradise (originally titled Les Enfants du Paradis) is one of the most beloved classics of French cinema. Shot over the course of 18 months in the midst of the German occupation, the film was released in 1945, just two months after the Nazis were driven out, and was received like a celebration of French pride and resilience. Though set in 19th century Paris, far from the reality of the occupation, it was embraced as a proclamation of French identity and culture.
Its reputation seems somewhat in eclipse in the age where home theater has supplanted repertory cinema. Children of Paradise played continuously in Paris for decades and it was a major arthouse event in the U.S., playing for years in New York City before the heyday of repertory theaters, and then constantly revived on repertory calendars, becoming an annual pilgrimage for many in the big cities. It’s considered by many to be the greatest French film ever made (as one poll of French critics in 1995 proclaimed), yet in the recent Sight and Sound poll, it placed at number 75. Respectable, but behind many other, more critically fashionable greats. Times and tastes change and a new generation has adopted their own canon of classic cult experiences. Which means there is a new generation to discover the beauty, the novelistic density, and the theatrical celebration of this one-of-a-kind tribute to art and artists.
Children of Paradise opens and ends on a stage curtain, which rises to reveal the Boulevard of Crime, the theater district of 1830s Paris, where street performers and pickpockets alike ply their trade amidst the buskers and food vendors and civilians who have come to be entertained. It is an exhilarating sequence, lavishly executed by Marcel Carné with a huge recreation of the Boulevard and hundreds of extras moving through it, and Carné introduces the four central characters of his drama amidst the bustle: Garance (Arletty), the beauty who has no illusions about her talent and makes no excuses for her lifestyle; Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the cold-blooded criminal with the flair of a poet and ambition to become a playwright; Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), the actor whose confidence and ego is as large as his talent; and Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), the street mime who, without speaking a word, serves as witness to saves an innocent Garance from being arrested as a pickpocket (she, of course, refuses to name the true criminal, Lemaître). The three men all love Garance, each in their own, somewhat imperfect ways. Garance loves only one but lives practically.
Among the best reasons for feeling optimistic about the expanded reach of SIFF Cinema—the new facilities at Seattle Center and the acquisition of the three Uptown screens nearby—is that it increases Seattleites’ chances of getting access to institutional film programming from elsewhere in the movie universe.
Case in point: the imminent sampling of “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema,” from UniFrance and New York City’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. This smorgasbord of Gallic screen fare has been an annual event since its inception in 1996. SIFF is one of 50 exhibitors nationwide to be offered a touring version of the 2012 edition, a weekend’s worth of feature films representing about a third of the festival that concluded March 11 in New York City. The eight movies will show Friday-Sunday, March 16-18, at the Uptown.
As a showcase, “Rendez-Vous” has developed something of a split identity. One of its missions is to highlight the sort of commercial French moviemaking that exerts widespread box-office appeal back home, yet rarely gets picked up by U.S. distributors for art-house play. At the same time, without giving itself whiplash, the festival also has reached out to and supported such ambitious and challenging film artists as Philippe Garrel, André Téchiné, Catherine Breillat and Benoît Jacquot, often playing a crucial role in opening the U.S. market to them.
The offerings at the Uptown will be a mixed bag. Alain Cavalier, a veteran director best known for his 1986 hagiography Thérèse, has contributed Pater (5:15 p.m. Saturday, March 17), a largely improvised political satire. Cavalier himself steps in front of the camera to play a mythical French President sizing up his new Prime Minister—which is to say, sparring with the unpredictable actor Vincent Lindon. For The Screen Illusion (7 p.m. Friday, March 16 and 2:15 p.m. Saturday, March 17), actor-turned-director Mathieu Amalric updates a 17th-century play by Corneille to the video age. (On the basis of it and the SIFF 2011 offering On Tour, I recommend Amalric keep his day job, at which he is invariably superb.)
Smuggler’sSongs (12 noon Saturday, March 17) is reportedly a jazzed-up period piece about (per the Lincoln Center website) “Louis Mandrin, a notorious, Robin Hood–like bandit in the years before the French Revolution.” 17 Girls (9:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, and 8 p.m. Sunday, March 18), a first film by sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin, spins an unlikely-sounding tale with a real-life basis: a village confronted with the willful decision of 17 local teenagers to get pregnant simultaneously. MoonChild (7:30 p.m. Saturday) offers Vincent Lindon again, costarring with Arnaud Desplechin’s favorite actress Emmanuelle Devos (Kings & Queen) in a story centered on a man with a rare disorder that condemns him to a life bereft of sunlight.
I had advance looks at two other “Rendez-Vous” entries. The Last Screening (10:15 p.m. Saturday, March 17) posits a small-town movie projectionist who divides his time between serving up the visual and aural splendors of Jean Renoir’s FrenchCancanand stalking local females for a grisly shrine to his late, quite mad mom. Laurent Achard’s film invokes no end of distinguished forebears, most notably Psycho and Claude Chabrol’s LeBoucher, but its psychology is absurdly reductive and it stumbles over more implausibilities than even Hitchcock could have got away with.
But even if everything else in the schedule made you go pfui, “Rendez-Vous” would redeem itself with The Well-Digger’s Daughter (5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 18). This remake of the 1940 Marcel Pagnol classic marks the directing debut of Daniel Auteuil, who won a César playing Yves Montand’s nephew in the 1986 Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. Those, too, were Pagnol remakes, and like Claude Berri before him, Auteuil honors the maître’s decision to open his earthy storytelling to the sun, wind, and ripeness of Provence: one’s eyes virtually breathe this movie. The tale is both elemental and rich, and in addition to giving a masterclass in screen acting as a patriarch at most one generation removed from peasantry, Auteuil is generous with opportunities for his fellow players, especially Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (in the title role), Kad Merad, Sabine Azéma and the ineffable Jean-Pierre Darroussin (the Inspector in Le Havre).
If that doesn’t seal the deal for you, how about the 4K digital restoration of one of the most splendiferous movies ever made? That would be Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s 1945 Children of Paradise (2:15 p.m. Sunday, March 18), often described as “the French Gone With the Wind“—except that this movie isn’t kitsch, and its artistic excellence and superb production values were achieved under the Nazi Occupation, with key creative personnel obliged to work clandestinely. The setting is Paris’ Boulevard of Crime in 1840, with the denizens of the theater and the underworld conspiring to make art of life, life into art. Never seen it? Your life is seriously incomplete. But don’t worry. We can fix that.
Tickets are at the regular Uptown prices; series pass $50 general, $30 for SIFF members.