Saturday, December 13, 2008

Review – Children of Paradise

December 13, 2008

Children of Paradise – France, 1944

The line between love and obsession is a thin one, and it is often hard for someone to judge when he has crossed it. Is a man who sees a woman once and cannot stop thinking about her afterwards in love or simply governed by obsession? Can a man who seeks to control the object of his affection by imposing restrictions and prohibitions on her movements and the company she keeps truly be in love? I believe the answer to each of these questions is no, but I know many people who would disagree, reasoning that it is the depth of a person's love that makes someone obsess or attach rules to relationships. I suspect that Count Edouard de Montray would agree with this as well. After all, the Count is a man who upon seeing a woman named Garance for the first time brings her a dazzling bouquet of flowers, professes his undying love for her, turns orthography, and offers her a new life in exchange for simply saying the words he longs to hear her say. Working against the Count is the fact that he does this before formally introducing himself. In addition, his timing couldn't be worse, for she's heard all of this before. The Count's proposal comes right after hearing a similar speech from her lover Frederick Lemaiture, an actor who quotes romantic poetry and Shakespearean sonnets like no one else and whose sentences are filled with jests and puns that perhaps mask inner disillusionment. After all, Garance reasons, would Frederick try so hard to make her laugh if they were truly happy?

In truth, it's hard to find anyone who is truly happy in Marcel Carne's masterpiece Children of Paradise, for the Boulevard of Crime seems replete with cases of unrequited love. Nathalie, the daughter of the manager of the Funambules Theater, loves Baptiste to such a degree that she believes no one else capable of loving him. To her disappointment, Baptiste, a mime whose sole job appears to be to sit idly on a platform just outside the theatre as his father uses him as fodder for jokes, is in love with Garance despite the fact that he has only seen her twice and does not even know her name. Garance is also being wooed by Frederick, who is interested in every woman he sees and throws the word love around as if it were as common the air we breathe. Garance herself has given up on commonly-held romantic notions such as everlasting love and perfect happiness. "People love that way in books," she explains, "…not real life." Perhaps the most honest character in the film - at least when it comes to feelings - is Pierre-Francois Lacenaive. A self-described "thief by need" and "murderer by calling," Pierre-Francois is clear about his feelings for Garance. He doesn't love her, but he also doesn't despise her. He is attracted to her, but can live without her - at least that's what he says.

Children of Paradise begins with a fascinating view of an area called the Boulevard of Crime in pre-1840s France. It is an area filled with theaters, mime troupes, acrobats, and roaming criminals. It is there that we meet Baptiste and Frederick, the former an unappreciated mime, the latter a struggling actor. Frederick is in need of a job; Baptiste is in need of an opportunity. They both get their wish on the same day. Outside the theater, Baptiste comes to the aid of Garance when she is accused of stealing a man's wallet. Instead of simply telling a police officer that it was Pierre-Francois who stole the man's wallet, Baptiste elects to explain it in pantomime, much to the delight of the crowd that has gathered to see what the commotion is all about. His reward is applause from the audience and a rose from a grateful Garance. That same day after a brawl erupts among the performers during a show, Frederick quickly dons a lion costume and Baptiste is called upon to play the part of Pierre. Apparently, they are a smash hit, for soon they are the theatre's main attraction, as well as good friends. However, they have more than just a love of performing in common, for they both have an interest in Garance. But while Baptiste approaches Garance timidly, Frederick is direct and takes advantage of even the slightest opportunity for romance. Given the opportunity for a relationship with Garance, Baptiste hesitates, preferring to wait until she loves him in the same way that he loves her. It is a decision he will later regret, for Garance does not wait for her feelings for Baptiste to emerge. Instead, she becomes Frederick's mistress and by doing so sends Baptiste emotionally spiraling out of control.

Children of Paradise is told in two parts, the second part taking place several years after the first. During these missing years, partnerships end, couples get married and have children, and legends grow, yet in spite of all of those changes, one gets the sense that underneath the smiles and the laughter, something remains unresolved. Perhaps it's jealousy; perhaps it's the realization that fame does not bring personal contentment. Most likely though it is regret, regret for lost loves and lost opportunities, sentiments that time and experience are supposed to lessen the severity of. However, in Children of Paradise time does not heal all wounds. It just buries them deep enough to allow someone to convince himself that it's OK to move on, that the time is right to start a new life. As the film shows clearly, this can have tragic consequences.

Children of Paradise stands as one of cinema's greatest accomplishments, for the film is simply astonishing. I was particularly impressed by the length of time that the film devotes to Baptiste's and Frederick's performances. Instead of just being asked to believe they that are immensely talented, we see their performances, observe their talent, and witness the emotion with which they dazzle their audiences. Equally developed are the Count and Pierre-Francois. As the film progresses, we get the sense that they are actually very similar, but the ways in which they are similar put them on a collision course rather than enabling them to become close friends. At the heart of the film though is Baptiste. Whether his feelings for Garance are truly love or just a case of severe obsession is a matter of interpretation. What cannot be denied is the impact these feelings have and the sacrifices that Baptiste makes as a result of them. Perhaps paradise has never looked as lonely as it does in the final moments of Children of Paradise. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

5 stars

*Children of Paradise is in French with English subtitles.

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