Children of Paradise (1945) had been on my “to watch” list for several years, waiting patiently for me to give it a chance. I knew it has been called both one of the greatest films of all time and the greatest French film ever, but I also knew it’s over three hours long. And in French.
I also know I am frequently an idiot.
But sometimes idiots take steps in the right direction. After watching the movie on FilmStruck recently, I posted on Twitter: “I just watched Children of Paradise (1945) on FilmStruck and my life will never be the same.”
I wasn’t joking. I was overwhelmed by the film’s enormity, its humanity, humor, wisdom, foolhardiness, recklessness, precision, performances, sets, and the fact that the film was made at all. (It was miraculously filmed in Paris during the Nazi occupation in WWII. Don’t ask me how.) I love this film.
The problem that stands before me now? How to get other people to see it. It was a hard sell even for me, someone who loves movies. Consider the problems in convincing someone who may not like (1) movies in a language other than English, (2) black-and-white movies, (3) movies about the theatre, and (4) movies over three hours long.
So I decided to challenge myself. I’m going to try to convince you to see a three-hour black-and-white French language movie about the Parisian theatre in the 1820s. And I’m going to try to do so in under 300 words:
The opening of Children of Paradise shows an enormous parade down the streets of 1820s Paris, an almost endless procession, before the days of CGI. We’re impressed that these are real people; more impressed that they were suffering under the Nazi occupation of WWII. We watch a pantomime act. A mime named Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) performs while observing a woman named Garance (Arletty) accused of being a pickpocket. A policeman arrives. Baptiste explains what really happened without saying a word.
All at once Baptiste loves her, but so does the young actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), who isn’t as shy and reserved as Baptiste, the mime who catches the eye of the theatre manager’s daughter.
Garance also attracts the attention of the villainous Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand, sporting the worst men’s hairstyle of all time), a man who can make trouble for all of Garance’s would-be suitors. Children of Paradise isn’t just a love triangle, it’s a love enneagram.
There’s more: theft, deception, comedy, drama, music, threats, a barroom fight, a duel, desire, heartbreak, murder. Two men reach the pinnacle of greatness and want more. Passions lead to love. Passions lead to tragedy. The play’s the thing. The show must go on.
The film is filled with great lines, such as: “Your head’s too hot for me and your heart too cold. I worry about drafts.” “Shut up! We can’t hear the pantomime!” “Jealousy belongs to all if a woman belongs to none.”
Howard Hawks once said that a good film contains three good scenes and no bad ones. Children of Paradise contains dozens of good scenes (many of them exquisite) and no bad ones. It is a masterpiece, a treasure, a miracle.
Photos: DVD Beaver, Speakeasy