This week, as reports continued about the enthusiastic Cannes reception of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and Americans went about their Memorial Day rituals—grieving, grilling, grousing about world affairs—I was thinking of Marcel Carné, the most important French filmmaker you probably haven’t heard of. Carné’s eighth film, 1945’s Children of Paradise, also holds an unusual distinction from Cannes, where it was once named the best French film of all time. The chances are good that if you go to Paris right now, it’s playing somewhere. It is still much harder to find on big screens in North America, but at least we have the fine Criterion Collection DVD.
Children of Paradise is absolutely beautiful, and, as I’ve been reminded recently, it offers surprising answers to some difficult, eternal questions: What is an artist supposed to do when there’s a war going on? What is any civilized person supposed to do?
Unlike some of his contemporaries, including Jean Renoir and René Clair, Marcel Carné stayed in France during the German occupation. His response to Nazi control of the French film industry was to make a movie that needed no censorship because it completely ignored the bleak political reality of the day. Carné had the audacity, instead, to mount the country’s most expensive motion picture to date, a 190-minute epic period piece of poetic realism. You wouldn’t think to call Children of Paradise a war movie, but in a way it was. Carné’s form of resistance was a total dismissal, the ultimate act of passive aggression.
How French, you might snort. Why, yes! Set in a bustling, seamy sector of nineteenth-century, pre-Haussmann Paris, the film explores the entwined lives of four men—a mime, an aspiring actor, a cerebral poet and criminal, and a starchy aristocrat—loosely connected by their common love for an enigmatic, elusive woman. Three of these men were real people, already enmeshed in France’s collective cultural memory. As imagined by Carné and his longtime moviemaking partner, the surrealist poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, their tale is quite romantic, but never precious, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. There are some fierce emotional battles, a bar fight, an abortive attempt at a pistol duel and an off-screen murder, but all told the violence is light enough that Variety even called the film “downright dull.”
Artsy, in other words. Children of Paradise is a flamboyant, finely detailed spectacle, a triumph of aesthetics. It celebrates the legacy of French theatre and apologizes neither for the literary ambition of its characterizations, nor for the painterly plenitude of its visual sweep.
Getting it made during the war was no easy feat. With basic resources unavailable or unreliable, the production stretched over close to two years. Rumours persist about hungry extras stealing banquet feasts before they could be filmed. When discovered to be of Jewish decent, the film’s original producer, André Paulvé, was fired, and Carné worried constantly about several other Jewish members of his crew, including production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma, who had to work and live clandestinely in a farmhouse near Nice. The Germans pressured Carné to include collaborationists among his 1,500 extras, but he evaded the mandate as best he could, citing aesthetic reasons for decisions on whose faces should populate his artificial streets. Later, in an episode that would haunt Carné for the rest of his life, an extra was arrested and never seen or heard from again. One of his supporting actors was discovered to be a Nazi sympathizer and compelled to flee (to be replaced by Jean Renoir’s older brother, Pierre), and Arletty, Carné’s leading lady, had an affair with a German officer during the shoot. Calling the movie aloof to its own context of current events isn’t accurate.
Children of Paradise premiered in Paris in early March of 1945—after the city had been liberated, but before the war had ended. Its initial Paris run lasted more than a year. In the next half-century, Carné made fourteen more movies, but nobody really wants to talk about those; a critical consensus has arisen that his later work simply wasn’t as good. But Children of Paradise is so good that it’s just not fair. In that way it’s easy to compare Carné to Orson Welles, who was and is always measured, often unfavourably, against the early mastery of Citizen Kane.
I hadn’t heard of Carné myself—inexcusably, I went through film school without seeing a single one of his pictures—until a few years ago, when I asked Terry Gilliam to name some movies by other directors that he wished he’d made. Gilliam doesn’t like making lists of this sort, but he admitted that Children of Paradise tops his list. Now that I’ve seen Carné’s film (and Gilliam’s introduction to it on the DVD), the influence is wonderfully obvious.
More surprising, though, is an admission from François Truffaut that he would have given up his whole body of work to have made Children of Paradise. After World War Two, the rueful, exquisite detachment of classical French cinema seemed terribly dated to New Wave filmmakers like Truffaut, who wrote sharply about Carné and, in fact, helped to dismantle his legacy. “The New Wave assassinated me,” Carné once said. “But then it assassinated the cinema too.”
Well, vive Carné, vive le cinéma. This has been a weird week, in which war’s horrors mingle with poignant remembrances and the romantic, hopeful first stirrings of summer. It’s a good time to consider Carné’s achievement. Superlatives aside, Children of Paradise is a conspicuous stitch in the fabric of film history, French or otherwise—a summation of what came before and a point of departure for what followed. It may be nostalgic and escapist to say so, but to me this film is precisely the epitome of high sophistication, the embodied achievement of human civilization, for which we’ve always turned to, or blamed, the French. It will outlive the real war movies. I wish I’d made it too.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Read his exploration of San Francisco cinema ("San Francisco Dreaming") in Issue 9, on newstands now. Film Flâneur appears every other Thursday.