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.