Many film-lovers rank Les Enfants du Paradis (The Children of Paradise) as the greatest movie in motion-picture history.
Such evaluations are totally subjective. It certainly would stand at number one with more worth and honour than the flashy but shallow bit of film-making usually put up there, Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Whether it would take first place from any of Sergei Eisenstein's three sound-era films is more debatable. But it certainly deserves to be right up there amongst the tightest handful of 'greatest movies ever made'. And this beautifully-restored version, running for slightly more than three hours, is a fantastic commemoration of this cinematic masterpiece.
Director Marcel Carne filmed Les Enfants du Paradis in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Paris. It's difficult to conceive how he was able to marshall the resources to film this bustling, incident-crowded film of theatrical life in the Paris of the early 19th century during those wartime years. How could he assemble such a cast? Build such wondrous sets (although the actual streets of Paris form the greatest sets of all), or find the film-stock to shoot his vision?
'The Children of Paradise' is a title with a slight double-meaning. At its most literal, it refers to the audience who fill the highest (and cheapest) tier in the theatre - the occupants of what we call the Gods. They are the most avid theatre devotees of all, not afraid to shout, cheer or jeer. But in the context of this movie, the Children of Paradise can also be taken to refer to the other denizens of the theatre - to the artificially-heightened, emotional world of the actors who each night create life on stage.
At the core of the movie is the beautiful Garance, played by Arletty. She is a semi-actress, part kept-woman, whose beauty has become legendary in the world of the Children of Paradise. Young aspiring mime-actor Baptiste Debureau (Jean-Louis Barrault) has fallen in love with her. Unfortunately, his love is initially made up of more idealisation than passion. Garance is swept away from him by the more earthy Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur), who might love her as well, but who certainly is keen to bed her. Following, watching, and always fascinated by her is Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), a sinisterly-debonair thief and murderer. And to round out a quartet of amorous complexity, the Count of Montray wins Arletty from Frederick by simply showing her his wealth.
The performances are wondrous. Jean-Louis Barrault is unfeigned simplicity as the young man who becomes Paris's greatest mime-artist (don't despair; the fast-forward button is great for getting rid of the abomination which is mime!), Arletty is distinguished, if a tiny bit matronly, as the great beauty Garance and Pierre Brasseur is superb as the actor who becomes the triumph of Paris, as both comic and tragedian.
But the highlight, for me, is the sinister performance of Marcel Herrand as the murderer Lacenaire. He is used less than the other three actors; his presence though is felt throughout the movie.
The script, by poet Jacques Prevert, seems to set the drama along a riveting but somewhat predictable path. But Prevert manages to pull out the stops at the end and produce a totally unexpected culmination to this rich slice of Parisian life. Carne's direction is well-nigh flawless. The pacing, the editing and the performances combine to create a world which is so tangible you feel you're living.
This is a triumph both of cinema and of French culture. I look forward to entering its world again soon.
For a film of this vintage (1943), made under wartime conditions, the quality on this DVD is simply terrific. I've seen Les Enfants du Paradis twice before, and never before have I seen it in this condition.
There is some wear, but artefacts are negligible, and fade out of mind when considered alongside the artistic worth and historical value of this masterpiece. The tones and shadings of this black and white movie are beautifully rendered.
The two-channel mono presentation is harsh at first, during the opening credits, but improves rapidly during the body of the film to give quite a reasonable audio track.
It is fairly low-fi compared to more modern movies, or compared to the sound quality being achieved elsewhere around the same time - just listen for instance to the soundtrack on the new DVD of the American musical Meet Me in St Louis, made the same year. But it is acceptable in its context.
During the first half of this three-hour movie the sound vanishes completely three times, but for only a few seconds each time. That seems to be the only unrestored damage left on this version - which is remarkable, considering the appalling condition of some prints I've seen of this movie.