“What a strange and sad fate – to be universally acclaimed as the director of several of the finest films ever made, and to go on making films to which no one pays any attention.” So wrote Richard Roud, my predecessor as Guardian film critic, of Marcel Carné, the maker of Les Enfants du Paradis.
Roud added that Les Enfants was to 30s French cinema what Gone With The Wind was to American cinema: a fully realised expression of the period, and also the death-knell for a certain kind of cinema some people wish we still had now.
Les Enfants du Paradis was inspired by the popular theatre of the 19th century, and translated into an epic cinematic romance that will probably never be equalled for both substance and style. Three of its extraordinary gallery of characters, are based on historical figures – the pantomime artist Baptiste Debureau, the romantic actor Frederick Lemaitre and the criminal Lacenaire. Each falls in love with, and is briefly loved by Garance, a beautiful actress who leaves them only when her freedom is threatened by their attempts to possess her.
They meet in the neighbourhood of the Funambules theatre in Paris, sometimes called the Boulevard du Crime, which was reconstructed, amazingly enough considering that the Nazis were occupying Paris, at great expense and with sets stretching over a quarter of a mile. Actually the Germans encouraged the production which caused it to be either sabotaged or halted when various members of the cast could not be found. Some of them, working for the Resistance, had their scenes shot secretly. And Carné and Prévert hid key reels from the occupiers hoping that, by the time the film was finished, Paris would be liberated.
Carné pointed out that “paradis” is the colloquial name for the theatre’s gallery where the “real” people watched and vociferously commented upon their entertainments and to whom the actors pitched their performances. You could say the film is about freedom, symbolised by the sophisticated Garance, but it is as much about our reactions to what is going on, and the actors reactions to our own.
Certainly the performances are marvellous and superbly directed by Carné too, easily transcending Prévert’s sometimes precious though undeniably skilful text. They are led by Arletty as Garance, an actress whose beauty and grace was matchless (she had posed for Braque and Matisse) and whose capacity to suggest not only the spirit of popular theatre, but also the “new woman” who needed and deserved her liberty, made her every moment vivid. She was jailed as a collaborator when Les Enfants opened, largely because she had had an affair with a Luftwaffe officer during the war.
But if Arletty is unforgettable, Jean-Louis Barrault as the pantomime artist (which he was in life), Pierre Brasseur as the romantic Lemaitre and Marcel Herrand as the criminal are very nearly as good, centering the huge canvas of the film securely for its three-hour duration. Cinema and poetry are the same thing, Prévert said in an interview before the film’s first showing. Not always, alas. But it’s surely true here.