Marcel Carné is one of the great directors of French cinema, with his films always managing to reflect the massive social shifts in France that he’s lived through. Les Enfants Du Paradis is quite possibly his finest work, made during France’s darkest hour in history; the times of Nazi occupation and Vichy government. Yet it is during times of adversity that the finest, most cunningly subversive art can be conceived, and this film – a straight-forward tragic love story on the surface but so much more underneath – is a classic example of that trend.
Set in the mid-eighteenth century, during a time of temporarily-restored monarchy in France (a parallel period in history to the Nazi occupation), Les Enfants tells the story of Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), an overlooked but talented mime artist who falls in love with a cynical, free-spirited sideshow performer, Garance (Arletty). Garance has many admirers, however, and while she is drawn to Baptiste’s naivety to the often tough realities of love, she leaves herself open to other suitors. Among them is the charming libertine Frederick, local gang leader Larcenaire and the wealthy Count, Edouard de Montray.
Les Enfants is a film that basks in its own charms, many of which derive from the script and performances, each of which fits a classic theatrical archetype. There are few films these days that make their characters so delightfully distinctive, and the relish with which each actor carries out their role makes watching Les Enfants a soul-warming experience.
It’s rare to see a film from the 1940s that clocks in at over three hours, but you don’t have to wait long to realise that the film is meticulously paced. There is not a single point where the plot dips, thanks once again to that combo of script and performance that highlight each character’s quirks. There is not a moment of dull dialogue, which is nonetheless complemented by the interludes where we watch the cutely-choreographed plays at the Funambules Theatre.
As the object of everyone’s affections, Garance is not your classic cinematic muse. Not one to easily fall in love and observing the men hovering around her with quiet amusement and detachment, she is decidedly anti status-quo. This is made poignant in light of the situation in France at the time, when the Nazis were encouraging traditional ‘good wife’ values in women via the Vichy government.
Garance, standing in polar opposition to these values, can be seen as a standard-bearer for the millions of French people who refused to bow to the laws of a treacherous government. In some ways, she is also a character ahead of the time, representing many of the values of the modern-day individualistic urban female.
Barrault’s miming abilities are utterly captivating (more so than his acting, in truth) and it’s just a shame that his finest display of these talents happens near the start of the film, where he brilliantly mimes out a crime he just witnessed to a captivated crowd. The film’s cheeky charm is epitomised best however, through Brasseur’s performance as Frederick. His obsessive referencing of Shakespeare plays never grows old and (true to Shakespearian style) his roguish performance adds a perfectly-tuned note of light-heartedness to proceedings.
If there is one qualm about the film’s colourful array of performances, it’s that of leading man Barrault, whose portrayal of Baptiste’s obsessive love of Garance borders somewhere between the infantile and the psychopathic. Any physical set-pieces involving him are guaranteed to charm, but that makes it all the more of a come-down when he is forced to act the lover, which he never quite convinces as.
Les Enfants du Paradis is one of the finest pieces of classical cinema to come out of France. With this film, Carne proved himself to be one of France’s greatest directors by making an accomplished piece of cinema that will forever bedazzle with its art design, script and performances on the one hand. On the other, it’s a politically subversive piece of cinema, calling on a nation to stay true to itself in the face of treachery, and fight for its freedom (represented by Garance), no matter how evasive it may seem.