Children of Paradise (1945)
Directed by Marcel Carné
Children of Paradise is an atypical film about theater. It doesn't hold a mirror up to Nature—the mirror's cracked, and characters keep picking up shards and dropping them because they've cut their hands. The film's hero, Jean-Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault), is an ugly, frustrated misanthrope whose professional mime work echoes his inability to communicate out loud; its heroine, Garance (Arletty), is a smiling, aging beauty queen whose perpetual poses of loveliness turn every man she meets into a spectator. Their encounters onstage—her on a pedestal, him dancing below—should be a continuum of their offstage relationship, but even this inequality cannot last. Marcel Carné's three-hour-plus film, whose action occurs occurs on six days spaced years apart, keeps cutting you off, angling you away from the stage, into the faces of actors whose close-ups don't last for long. The overall mood should be bitter; instead, it's bittersweet.
Why? Perhaps because, as Garance says, love is so simple. The children of this 1945 film are audience members circa 1828, Paradise the rafters at the top of the theater from which they watch the mortal gods onstage below. They're stand-ins for the film audience, and Carné rewards their love and ours (though in a cruel way) by letting us watch and get as close to the performers as a movie screen permits.
That's why, the more I watch the film, the more my sympathy shifts to Nathalie (María Casares), the theater master's daughter, who in time becomes Debureau's wife and the mother of his child. He's a creep, forever insulting or ignoring her in favor of Garance's neatly closed arms, but there she is, always backstage, always watching her star. And when she holds her own arms out and calls "Et moi, Baptiste?" to a man running away from a person towards an ideal, something runs through me. What's onscreen, in addition to a story about theater, is a deeply diseased, deeply romantic portrait of extreme movie buffs.
Opens March 9 at Film Forum