Children of Paradise, Blu-ray (1945/2012)
Director: Marcel Carné
Screenplay: Jacques Prévert
Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, Pierre Renoir
Studio: Pathe/The Criterion Collection 141 [9/18/12] (2 discs)
Video: 1.37:1 B&W 1080p HD
Audio: French PCM mono
Extras: Commentary track by film scholars Brian Stonehill and Charles Affron; Video intro by Terry Gilliam; Restoration demos; U.S. trailer; “Once Upon a Time: Children of Paradise” – 2009 documentary; Visual essay on the film’s design; “The Birth of Children of Paradise” – 1967 documentary with interviews with Marcel Carné, Arletty, Jean-Louis-Barrault & Pierre Brasseur, production designer Alexandre Trauner & others; Illustrated booklet with essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew and excerpts from a 1990 interview with Carné
Length: 190 minutes (in 2 parts)
Les enfants du paradis is regarded as one of the two or three greatest French films ever made. It had the largest budget of any French film up to that time, had top French actors, and was made under the difficulties of the Nazi occupation (but premiered just after the war was over). In the printed excerpts from an interview with Carné he oddly speaks about the ease of getting financing for films during the occupation, but also of the hunger situation (bowls of fruit put on the set quickly disappeared among the crew and extras) and dealing with the Gestapo. The fact that Arletty was at the time the mistress of a top German officer didn’t seem to help much, especially when she fell into the clutches of the Resistance.
The story depicts early 19th century Parisian theatrical people in a lengthy classic felt by critics to be the height of poetic realism and the Golden Age of French film. It’s been described as a tale too ample to be easily digested in one viewing. Arletty plays a beautiful courtesan loved by four very different men (all based on historical figures): an outrageous actor, a criminal, a noble wealthy count, and the other main star—played by master of mime Jean-Louis Barrault and called Baptiste in the film. The world of 1820s-30s Paris teems with a variety of both high and very low social strata. Garance’s touching romance with Baptiste seems to be the most real of all of them, although she says she doesn’t really love him either. The costumes are perfect and the ties to the art, history and conventions of the period are strong. There is even a scene where Garance tells the police she models nude for Monsieur Ingres (recall the famous painting La grande odalisque). The cast’s dialog has great poetic weight and is often declaimed in a stylized rather than realistic fashion. The lives of the various characters are woven together in extraordinary ways.
Baptiste is moony-eyed over Garance while ignoring the theater owner’s daughter, who loves him. The actor comes on the scene at the dialog-free theater and ends up living with Garance, but he wants to be in standard plays where he can speak, and moves to another theater where he becomes a major star. The criminal is up to no good but speaks extremely well if in a very stilted fashion. The count makes Garance a proposition but she turns him down. However, he leaves his card with her and when she is picked up by police she uses it to get her freedom and then becomes the count’s mistress.
That ends Part 1 of the long film and Part 2 has Garance living in luxury with the count, both Baptiste and the actor highly successful in their stage pursuits: Baptiste married to the woman who loved him and with a little boy, the actor appearing in Shakespeare’s Otello (pointing up the element of jealousy in the plot), and the criminal at one point visiting Garance and having a conflict with the count—to whom he explains that he won’t duel over anything. Garance, unknown in a disguising veil, goes to every performance by Baptiste, who is finally made aware of her presence by the actor. The touching conclusion follows out of this.
I must admit that I wasn’t that impressed by the 2002 Criterion DVD release of Children of Paradise, but after the introduction by Terry Gilliam (who directed my favorite movie, Brazil) I was anxious to give it another try. The film and the extras are about the same on both, except that all the extras (including some new ones) are on the second disc, whereas the DVD version had to employ both discs for the feature. Although the booklet talks about the new restoration done in 2011, I didn’t find that much difference between the DVD and the Blu-ray visually, except that the English subtitles are greatly improved and much more readable now. Usually there is a major enhancement of classical B&W films between the DVD and Blu-ray versions, especially from Criterion. The aspect ratio is slightly more widescreen than the usual 1.33:1, perhaps due to a narrower soundtrack on the original film. Its sonics are just about the same. The 2009 documentary about the making of the film is most interesting, as is everything in the printed booklet.
If any recording is essential to the genre, this is it.