“Vous êtes beaucoup trop belle pour qu’on vous aime vraiment. La beauté est une exception, une insulte au monde qui est laid. Rarement les hommes aiment la beauté, ils la pourchassent simplement pour ne plus en entendre parler, pour l’effacer, pour l’oublier.”
Le Comte Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou)
Les Enfants Du Paradis, Marcel Carné, 1943
Les Enfants du Paradis, released as Children of Paradise in North America, is a 1945 French film directed by Marcel Carné. It was made during the German occupation of France during World War II. Set among the Parisian theatre scene of the 1820s and 30s, it tells the story of a beautiful courtesan, Garance, and the four men who love her in their own ways: a mime artist, an actor, a criminal and an aristocrat.
Marcel Carné described his greatest work, Les enfants du paradis , as a “tribute to the theatre,” and the story breathes with the very life and soul of French theatrical tradition. Three of its characters are based on historical personages famous during the reign of Louis-Phillippe (two actors, the pantomimist, Debureau and the ambitious romantic actor, Frederick Lemaître, and a debonair but ruthless criminal known as Lacenaire). Their meeting ground is Paris in the vicinity of the Théâtre des Funambules, in the Boulevard du Temple, sometimes called the Boulevard du Crime because it was the scene for many unsolved thefts and murders. A quarter of a mile of street fronts, as well as the complete theater, were constructed at great cost.
The film, made during the Nazi occupation of Paris, took over two years to complete. Production was often deliberately sabotaged, or halted because actors had disappeared and had either to be found again or their roles re-cast. Some performers active in the Resistance arranged to have their scenes shot secretly.
The Nazis, anxious to keep film production active in France, were more than willing to cooperate. German films were not patronized by the French people, and the Nazis decided that making films in the French language was essential to the Occupation. Over 350 feature films were shot in occupied France, and the most ambitious of these was Les enfants du paradis , yet Carné contrived to slow up production, sometimes deliberately hiding key reels already shot from Nazi supervisors, waiting hopefully for the Germans to be forced to evacuate Paris before the film was premiered.
On March 9, 1945, Les enfants du paradis was finally presented in Paris, the first important movie premiere after the end of the Occupation. It was received with adoration by the public. Comprised of two parts, each of which is feature-length, the film’s running time was originally 195 minutes. This shortened by 45 minutes when the picture was first shown in New York. Most of the edited film was later restored, and prints of Les enfants du paradis now run 188 minutes.
The genesis for the story occurred in Cannes during the second year of the Occupation when actor Jean-Louis Barrault met over lunch with director Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert. When Barrault learned that they were seeking a subject for filming, he suggested a story be written about Debureau, who had been France’s greatest pantomimist. (In 1950, Sacha Guitry, forced into inactivity during the immediate postwar years, would create a play on this subject in verse.)
Carné and Prévert’s fame was established by three fatalistic, romantic melodramas, Quai des brumes, Hôtel du nord and Le jour se lève , generally considered to exemplify “poetic realism.” Under the Occupation such films were banned, and they turned to a radically different style of period spectacle, first seen in the medieval fableLes visiteurs du soir . The scope of the movie envisioned by Carné, Prévert and Barrault was very wide. Its message—that the drama could only flourish where men are free—required a subtlety of interpretation that eluded the Nazi mind; otherwise they would never have authorized production of the film. The script is one of Prévert’s finest, full of wit and aphorism; farce and tragedy are effortlessly combined. Carné’s handling of both his all-star cast and the complex crowd scenes is masterly.
In French, “paradis” is the colloquial name for the gallery or second balcony in a theater, where common people sat and viewed a play, responding to it honestly and boisterously. The actors played to these gallery gods, hoping to win their favor, the actor himself thus being elevated to an Olympian status.
Screenplay: Jacques Prévert; scenario structure: Marcel Carné, from an original idea by Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert; photography: Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert; editors: Henri Rust and Madeleine Bonin; sound engineer: Robert Teisseire; production designers: Léon Barsacq, Raymond Gabutti, and Alexandre Trauner; music: Joseph Kosma, Maurice Thierte and Georges Mouque; music director: Charles Munch; costume designer: Antoine Mayo.
Cast: Jean Louis Barrault ( Baptiste Debureau ); Arletty ( Garance ); Pierre Brasseur ( Frederick Lamaître ); Marcel Herrand ( Lacenaire ); Pierre Renoir ( Jericho ); Fabien Loris ( Avril ); Louis Salou ( Count de Montray ); Maria Cassares ( Nathalie ); Etienne Decroux ( Anselm Debureau ); Jeanne Marken ( Madame Hermine ); Gaston Modot ( Blind Man ); Pierre Palau ( Director ); Albert Remy ( Scarpia Barigni ); Paul Frankeur ( Inspector of Police ).