Elena Lazic writes about Les Enfants du Paradis, the first film in our new Club Ciné strand showcasing the best of French Cinema at Picturehouse Central.
Whilst the scope of the story, the set of characters and the period setting in the 1830s recall the novels of Charles Dickens, Marcel Carne’s classic of postwar French cinema Les Enfants du Paradis shares none of the English author’s fondness for broad strokes of misery, violence or fatality. Quite the contrary, the 1945 film – shot during the German occupation of France – offers a more pragmatic and realistic view of life and its disappointments. As far from the pessimism of Dickens as it is from the ideal of total resolution promoted by Hollywood romance today, Les Enfants du Paradis evolves in a space where characters’ shifting desires, true affections and reprehensible moral traits are given the full dimension of life.
The film follows beautiful courtesan Garance (played by French legend Arletty) who spends her time with various men, mostly out of interest or rather disinterest. Although each of them has precise reasons to want to be with her, making real conscientious efforts in that direction, Garance only visits them or accepts their company out of boredom. The film is refreshing and remarkably modern in its completely disillusioned, realistic understanding of relationships and the power play that they often involve. Most of these men do not truly love Garance, but only desire her or are too proud to accept that she could love anyone else. Yet Les Enfants du Paradis does not adopt a tragic perspective on such unromantic human traits – deemed all but intolerable by so much of current cinema – but instead has its characters openly discuss them, perhaps a very French thing to do.
It is in the dialogue that a lot of the film’s genius lies. Written by classic French poet Jacques Prevert, the script has each character clearly establish and describe their desires, intentions and pursuits without ever seeming as though they deliver information that could be offered elsewhere visually in a more cinematic style. This openness and honesty also makes sense within the narrative context. When stating their intentions, no matter how selfish and patriarchal they may be, each of the four men are more often addressing Garance and simply trying to provoke this singularly disinterested beauty into caring about them in any small way. “I wish you loved me like I love you” is a recurrent line and unreciprocated love is a dominating theme.
The great honesty of the dialogue is supported by the quality of the acting, some of the best that has ever been put to screen. Each of these four men is played with utter brilliance and still appears realistic though the film was made so long ago. The mime Baptiste (played by Jean-Louis Barrault) is especially striking. Dressed all in white, his eyes piercing and imploring, his slender figure glides across the frame. He is a beaming presence on stage as a mime and off stage as a dreamer, offering a transcendent and undeniably modern performance. But the most arresting of all, alone worth the price of the ticket, is Pierre Brasseur as womaniser and struggling stage actor, Frederick Lemaitre. His disarmingly naturalistic performance pierces the screen, hooking us into the film.
Set in a world starkly divided between starving artists and rich aristocrats, the film’s harsh sense of reality is counterbalanced by the sweet melancholy and hope of the mime Baptiste dreaming of happier days. True love eventually finds its way in this Paris full of actors merely using one another, even if it is ultimately to be dashed. Francois Truffaut, director of the seminal French New Wave film The 400 Blows (playing Picturehouse Central Sunday 20 Nov) himself said “I would give up all my films to have directed Les Enfants du Paradis.”
The film screens in the latest restoration from BFI at Picturehouse Central on Sunday 23 Oct, 3.00.