Children of Paradise ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The signature film and probably the climax of the French poetic realism movement, this handsomely photographed, sprawling three-hour treatise on the love lives of a few members and acquaintances of a thrifty pantomime troupe in early nineteenth century Paris, inspired by historical hangers-on at the real-life Théâtre des Funambules, is much more frivolous and soapy than implied by its reputation; perhaps cinephiles across generations have romanticized it due to the difficulty of its production under Occupation. The intricate story pans outward from a sad-eyed courtesan portrayed by Arletty and her ragtag collection of suitors, and ignores any arbitrary structural notion of a single-conflict tale; but being a story about theater people it often leans very heavily on its occupants living out the exaggerated poses and ideals of the characters they portray, an especially glaring flaw in the performance of Pierre Brasseur, whose pending Othellian matinee idol feels so much more like a cartoon than any of the sociopaths, weirdos or romancing losers populating the better works of Vigo, Duvivier and Renoir from the prior decade... and this carries through to most of the grumbling, simplistic male characters brought to the screen here by Marcel Herrand (as the playwright, poet and murderer Lacenaire) and the particularly tiresome Louis Salou as a well-off Count buying love for himself. And the women (Arletty as well as María Casares in an especially thankless role as a wife whose love for her husband is unreturned at best, ignored altogether at worst), perhaps inevitably, are even more one-dimensional. The great irony in Jacques Prévert's script, and Marcel Carné's beautifully artificial compositions, is that its seemingly fanciful people and places have more to do with actually lived scenarios than probably any other film that was part of the movement; after all, does anything here feel as dreamlike or ghostly or bizarre as Dita Parlo flowing across the screen or underwater in her wedding dress in L'Atalante? And yet does that film not feel infinitely more like a detailed, wholehearted expression of real emotion than this one?

The great exception to all this is Jean-Louis Barrault's genuinely electrifying performance as the mime Baptiste, who locates the aching unrequited passion in his character with far more delicacy and nuance than is provided for by the frequently ludicrous dialogue; yet like the other characters, and as implied by the title, he in the end is a child whose spurning of his own family and responsibility is only the most troubling manifestation of his violent self-destruction and disregard for anything beyond his own lofty sense of romantic justice in the first half. This seems largely to be Carné's point, that life is as farcical as the pathetic Chaplin-like tales of woe Baptiste dramatizes in his celebrated work, that comedy is nothing more (as one of the film's most memorable speeches, eventually coopted by Mel Brooks, expresses) than someone else's tragedy. The curtain comes down all too forcefully, mockingly at the end, laying to rest a bunch of lives now in ruins. Maybe I'm being as barbaric as the film's aristocrat who, in response to Othello, condemns Shakespeare's "savagery and lack of decorum"... but I don't think so; rather, I think Carné's confused treatment of haphazard matters of the heart as important enough to warrant three hours of detailed absorption and yet simultaneously as pointless nonsense worthy of derisive laughter is deep-down cynical in a way that more obviously horrific, pessimistic films of the period like Pépé le Moko and La Bête humaine somehow are not.