Will Noah reflects on catching up with the film canon, in which Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise has a secure spot.

The one-week New York run of the new 4K restoration of Children of Paradise has elapsed, but you can look forward to a stunning Criterion Blu-Ray in the coming months.

Children of Paradise

It has been my experience in working my way through the canon of film that my reactions to the classics tend to split them off into two categories: those films I love and those that I merely respect.  This should be a familiar sentiment for young cinephiles who share a reverence for the history of the medium along with the various inflections of personal taste.  Though the canon is and should be a dynamic entity, with films rising and falling in collective esteem over the years, the fixtures of Greatest of All Time lists tend to be there for good reasons.  So while I may not be able to profess a passionate affection for Battleship Potemkin or M like I can for The Rules of the Game or Persona, I recognize that all four are valuable and important works of art that merit continued viewing and study.  In fact, to find a film I actively dislike, you’d have to go all the way down to number 128 on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s aggregate list, Birth of a Nation, whose moral repugnance all but precludes any fandom in this day and age.  Some may see an unquestioning acceptance of the value of the canon as foolish and even dangerous—‘where are all the minority filmmakers?’ being perhaps the most significant objection—but every art form has its tradition, and the tradition of film serves as a vital common cultural base from which conversations can branch out and diversify.  Which is all a way of saying that, as a student of film, I feel I have an obligation to see the canonical classics and seek to appreciate what makes them valued, but I do not have an obligation to love them.  Which, furthermore, is all a way of setting the stage for an expression of my ambivalence about Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise.

 

Carné’s 1945 film, was, until I settled into my seat at Tuesday night’s sold-out final show at Film Forum, the fourth-highest film on the They Shoot Pictures list I had never seen (it’s #36).  On paper, I should by all means have loved the film.  It’s a period piece filled with lush production design and fluid camera work.  It’s got a Dickensian cast of rogues, thieves, beggars, and murderers.  Above all, it’s a film about the many intersections between theatre and life, a theme I can’t get enough of.  Yet I emerged from the theater curiously disappointed.  Sure, I was impressed—the film was enormously accomplished, and easy on the eyes—but I remained largely unmoved.  Why did Children of Paradise fall—not with a thud, but at least with an anticlimactic squish—into the “dutiful respect” category?  I’m still grappling with the answer, but here are three potential reasons.

 

  1. It’s Been Done Better Elsewhere

This is a frustrating response to the classics, and should be eyed with mistrust, but it is sometimes true that a great film can lay the groundwork for further improvement that subsequently diminishes the original in the eyes of a modest audience.  And a number of Children of Paradise’s most distinguishing aspects have since become far more commonplace in the world of cinema than they were in 1945.  The film’s broad scope and novelistic sense of sprawl, for example, seem a little quaint when compared with later triumphs produced by the 60+ years between the film’s production and the present.  Additionally, the theme of life as theatre, which I consider the film’s principal strength, has been imbued with more emotional urgency in the films of Bergman, Rivette, and Carné’s contemporary, Renoir.  In fact, it is by comparison with Renoir that this film suffers the most, which is entirely unfair, but sort of unavoidable.  Renoir made The Rules of the Game six years before Children of Paradise, and it remains funnier, sadder, richer, and more revealing than the later film.  Both directors share a humanistic worldview, a fluid camera style, and a love of performance, but Renoir’s employment of these characteristics still feels fresh and modern, while Carné’s fails to resonate, at least with this viewer.

 

  1. All You Need Is Love (And Character Development)
Most of Children of Paradise’s characters are underdeveloped.  This is not inherently a bad thing.  Dickensian rogues, thieves, beggars, and murderers were never known for their complex psychology, and as long as the film keeps them bouncing off each other, it’s a blast.  In particular, most scenes featuring either the volatile criminal Lacenaire or the flamboyant actor Frédérick Lemaître are terrific, as they are the two liveliest of the cast.  When the film settles down into the romantic yearnings of its principals, however, it becomes far less engaging.  Which is not to say the film ever dips into true boredom—its running time feels shorter than 2 hours, let alone 3—but I often found myself wishing the camera to return to the more boisterous characters.  I’ve often found that for romantic yearning to really work, a film needs to provide details of space, time, and character.  Yet, with one possible example, the characters of Children of Paradise are fully reducible to a few key attributes.  So the central love triangle plays out wonderfully when Frédérick and the mime Baptiste compete for the object of their love onstage, but when the frame of the proscenium is stripped away, their yearnings become generic.  I know it may be foolhardy to demand more complex characterizations from a film in which the declaration “Love is simple” serves as a romantic climax, but I still find Carné’s emotional design unsatisfying.  The film is masterful at playing with and moving between dramatic forms, but whenever it settles into those forms and attempts to play them straight, it comes up short.  The film presents the philosophy that everyone is an actor, and ends up so overwhelmed with the aesthetic possibilities of this idea that the roles inhabited by these actors feel less consequential than the backstage machinations that guide them.  Also, I must include a personal caveat: I tend to roll my eyes whenever I’m expected to invest emotionally in “love at first sight.”  I’ll accept it as a plot device if the real meat of the film lies elsewhere, but don’t expect me to shed any tears over characters falling madly in love with each other based on glances across the marketplace and then being forced by the tide of circumstances to spend years apart.  Even in a film that rides the currents of fantasy, personal connection requires a bit more than that.
  1. Nathalie

This is really more of a 2a), as it addresses a particularly poorly sketched character.  The film’s portrayal of the character Nathalie, whose love for Baptiste remains unrequited until Garance leaves with a rich man, is borderline offensive in its one-dimensionality.  Even in a world full of somewhat cartoonishly defined characters, a woman whose inner life is wholly defined by her complete submission and unconditional servitude to a man she loves sticks out as a difficult pill to swallow.  And yes, I’m aware that women in 19th-century France would not have had the opportunities their male counterparts did.  This does not mean that they did not have complex and rich inner lives.  What’s more, Nathalie shares a profession with many of the male characters in the film as an actor.  Yet we rarely see her performing, onstage or off, while nearly every other character in the film manipulates their identities playfully.  In fact, the film’s most three-dimensional character (who I alluded to before as a possible exception to Carné’s method of characterization) is an actress as well: the mysterious Garance.  Where Garance plays a game with men, offering teasing glimpses of her personality (we first see her naked but submerged up to her neck in a barrel full of water at a peep show), Nathalie flatly declares her love for Baptiste and throws a fit whenever he does not return it.  Now, it is true that Nathalie is given a few lines at the end of the film that speak eloquently about the difference between the fantasy and reality of love (a distinction the film could use a bit more of, writes this cynic), but this last-ditch attempt to extend sympathy to her does not add much to her characterization, and only makes her feel even more like a device than a human being.

That said, Children of Paradise is not a bad film, by any stretch of the imagination.  A bad film would have a hard time generating the level of acclaim that this one has accrued over the years.  A bad film would not be so playful and mischievous in blending theatre and life, celebrating the power of performance as an escape from the crushing realities of existence.  Or, who knows, maybe it might (bad films have been made about beautiful themes), but it surely would not possess an iota of the grace that Children of Paradise displays in its best passages.  My criticisms of the film are mostly not “objective” ones, but humble attempts to explain why I failed to connect with it.  If given a ballot for this year’s new Sight & Sound poll (a guy can dream, right?), would I vote for it?  No way, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who did.