One welcome development over the last decade or so is the increased visibility of foreign-language films in commercial cinemas. Commercial is the operative word: the audience for arthouse fare is a limited one, whatever language the film may be in, but in cinemas and on television as well there is an increasing viewer base for which subtitles are not a deterrent if the film otherwise works. But in a sense this has been the case for years. There are foreign films which have become textbook classics, and one of them is Les enfants du paradis. Up until the Eighties, it was a standby at the old Academy cinema in London's Oxford Street, and a repertory favourite, and it's a fair bet that many went to see it who would not normally set foot inside an arthouse cinema. (The film is known Children of Paradise, a literal translation, in the USA, but here in the UK this is one case where the original French is usually preferred, so that's the title I'm going with in this review. The title refers to the audience in what would be called in an English theatre “the gods”.)
Les enfants du paradis begins in the 1840s, in Paris's Boulevard du Crime. At the centre of the story is Garance (Arletty), a beautiful woman first seen playing Truth in a street exhibition. Three men are in love with her: aspiring actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), poet and criminal Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), who has made her his mistress, and finally mime artist Baptiste Duburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), who is too shy to make his feelings for her known...
The result is one of the great bittersweet romances in cinema, not to mention one of the great films about the theatre, the most popularly celebrated of the many collaborations of director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert. (Whether it the best of them, given that the others include Quai de brumes, Les visiteurs du soir and Le jour se lève, is up to you.) Given the circumstances in which it was made, it's remarkable that such a film, and one on such a scale, was made at all. In 1945, France was an occupied country and the film industry was under the control of the Vichy Government. Technically, Les enfants du paradis is two films, being twice as long as the maximum length the government allowed. (This is reflected in its structure. The film is divided into two parts, the second arriving just over halfway through – at 97:35 on this DVD - with a second set of credits and a written recap of the events of Part One and a jump in time of six years.) Filming took place in Paris and Nice, with the large Boulevard du Crime set being transported back and forth. Much of the production was in secret, with Resistance members hiding from the Germans by working on the film as extras. The film can be seen as a celebration of a French people who might be controlled in actuality but in their hearts they are free. The French certainly took the film to their hearts: it ran for nine months on its original release.
Carné and Prévert may well be the joint auteurs of this film, but the contributions of others should not be dismissed. Roger Hubert's black and white cinematography and Alexandre Trauner's production design mean that the film is never less than spectacular to look at. Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma were Jewish and worked clandestinely on the film. And in front of the camera you have a perfect cast, many of them playing the defining roles of their careers. Standards of beauty change over in time and between cultures, and Arletty is maybe best described as jolie-laide, but you can still believe that the three men all fall for her in their different ways. But if there is an object of beauty, it's Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste, a character who is distinctly epicene, and coded as “feminine” in many ways, though is straight. By contrast Lacenaire is implied to be homosexual (or perhaps bisexual, given that Garance is his mistress), and his “love” for her is more like covetousness. And Nathalie (Maria Casarès), who loves Baptiste but he does not return her love, comes over as more than a little butch. (You have to wonder how much of this Carné, a gay man, aimed to “smuggle” into this film, and I'm not the only one to speculate on this – see the extras on this DVD.)
All in all, Les enfants du paradis works: a great story, impeccably told by masters of their art or craft on both sides of the camera. It may be nearly seventy years old, but while cinema exists, I doubt it will ever fail to find an audience.
Second Sight have released Les enfants du paradis on a two-disc DVD encoded for Region 2 for Disc One and all regions for Disc Two, or a single-disc Blu-ray encoded for Region B. The DVD edition was the one sent to me for review, and affiliate links are those for the DVD. For links for the Blu-ray go here.
The film was shot in black and white and in Academy Ratio (1.37:1). Therefore the DVD is in a ratio of 1.33:1 so anamorphic enhancement is not necessary. Les enfants du paradis has undergone a digital restoration and scan at 4K resolution, and it would be good to report that this DVD – and indeed the Blu-ray – looked stunning. Unfortunately this is not the case. I haven't seen this film in a cinema – my previous viewing before receiving this DVD was from a television broadcast – but I have seen 35mm film of similar or older vintage projected in one. Even if that were not the case, there are DVDs and Blu-rays available which show us what a black and white film from the 1940s should look like. One word: grain. It seems to have been largely removed at some point during the process, giving a waxy, shot-through-Vaseline look. I viewed it on a 40-inch television and it's playing on a PC monitor as I write this. I'd imagine that larger and more unforgiving equipment would make it look worse. Very disappointing.
No problems with the audio, which is in the original mono and is clear and well-balanced. The English subtitles are fixed.
The above is more a pity because in other respects Second Sight have made a great effort with the extras, which are on the second DVD disc. The main extras are two documentaries.“Theatre, Love and War: Making Les enfants du paradis” (49: 36), a newly-made piece, follows a standard format: tributes to the film by several well-known fans – many of them speaking in French (English subtitles provided) but some, including director Andrzej Zulawski, talking in English. Then this documentary moves on to discuss the lives and careers of Marcel Carné, Jacques Prévert and Alexandre Trauner and the way they intersected in this film.
“Once Upon a Time...Les enfants du paradis” (51:17) is a documentary made for French television in 2009. Inevitably it does overlap the other documentary to some extent as it covers the making of the film., with interviewees including Bertrand Tavernier. There are accounts from people who were on set. Jean-Roger Btontemps. an electrician tells how Carné was a hard taskmaster, making Maria Casarès cry more than once. Arletty, on the other hand, often answered back. Carné is represented by archive interviews, and his biographer Edward Turk is on hand to discuss his homosexual sensibility and how that affected the film and how his childhood informed his view of women in particular. Prévert and Trauner and Arletty also appear care of the archive, Arletty being fiercely proud of her working-class background. English subtitles are provided with English speakers subtitled on screen in French. Both documentaries are presented in 16:9 anamorphic.
Les enfants du paradis: The Restoration of a Classic (7:15) describes the restoration process The film was scanned in 4K resolution, both from the (heavily damaged) original nitrate negative and a positive and countless examples of dirt and scratches (not to mention French customs stamps) were removed digitally. The sound was cleaned up as well. The interviewees speak in English, though hard-of-hearing subtitles are available. This is followed by a before-and-after comparison (3:57)
The extras are concluded by a trailer (2:03) for the restored version.