Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 15, No. 16. August 14, 1952
"Les Enfants du Paradis" — Carne and Prevert Triumph
"Les Enfants du Paradis"
Carne and Prevert Triumph
English and American film studios are, compared to the French, fairly well off economically. They have technical resources that are almost unknown to the present Frech cinema; but taken all in all is the average film better? Technically, perhaps, but often "the heart of the matter" is missing. What we want is "more matter and less art."
It is a common fact that great works of art often spring from economic frustration; Dosteovsky's novels, Beethoven's music. And a handful of films produced by French script-writers and directors during the occupation of their country by the Germans. It would be an exaggeration to say that this occupation was the cause of the success of the French cinema, but it is true to recognise that the artist was the only one to draw a new creative inspiration from suffering, repentance and compulsion. They had the pride of getting over, by this newly gained inspiration, good taste and intelligence in spite of the lack of material for film-making which grew a little worse each month.
Marcel Carne and his script-writer were artists of this period, but their creative talent was not new but directed along a different channel Whereas before they had produced films that carried the "creative interpretation of actuality" to the highest flights, they now turned their abilities to providing appropriate film fare for the cruel-reality soaked French people. Their films of this period were romantic.
"Lew Enfants du Paradis" is a product of this mood. Carne and Prevert wanted to help their countrymen forget their difficulties and hardships. They gave them a story of the past, a story with a theatrical setting. But the film goes deeper than this.
"All the world's a stage; and the men and women merely players" is the film's motto. The curtain goes up and we see a section of those players en masse in a street of 19th century Paris. A gallery of infinite human characters gathered together in the Boulevard du Temple, with its vaudeville theatres and pantomimes, its freaks and sideshows, its clowns, strongmen and motley crowds surging along in search of pleasure. The "three francs" side shows: one advertises to show the Naked Truth. But when you get Inside it is half-covered with water.
Out of this cast of players the producers pick their leading actors the beautiful Garance and the mime player Baptiste Deburau. Baptiste loves Garance and she returns her love in spite of the advances of Lacenaire. A petty crook, and Frederick Lemaitre, a young and unknown actor. Count Edouard de Montray who offers her, with his fortune, an escape to a new life is also one Of her suitors, but Garance is not for sale. However, the Count leaves his card with her and begs her to call on him if she needed his services. Meanwhile the criminal Lacenaire is plotting a hold-up; he fails and the innocent Garance falls into the hands of the police in his place. All she is about to be arrested she remembers the Count and shows the detectives his card. The detectives arc frightened and Garance is allowed to free. The curtain falls on Art [unclear: I]
Five years later Baptiste and Frederick have become the idols of Paris. Baptiste is married, but not to Garance who has disappeared. She is now with the Count de Montray, still madly in love with her: but Garance's heart still longs for Baptiste. Finally, the two silent lovers meet but their happiness is shortlived. Let the film's programme finish the synopsis: "Garance realises that it must be so when Nathlice. Baptide's wife, finds them together, for she knows that she no longer has the right to be happy with the one she loves. She leaves, alone, bound for an unknown fate, down the Bouleevarde du Temple—which, invaded by masked revellers on a day of [unclear: ous] carnival is seeth with mass madness."
The story is not original and startling; it is merely the thin wire to support the clay. It is an illustration of what the French call "malaise," which Roger Manvell describes poetic feeling for emotional frustration, anticipating sorrow and desiring purgation." But that is not, by any means, the main theme. Carne is dealing with something fundamental governing human behaviour; the relationship between the mass and the individual.
The crowd throws Bapiste and Garance together; they are eventually parted by the crowd, ruthlessly intent on its own pleasures and indifferent to the heartburn of the individual. We are, alt of us, actors on a stage, absorbed in our loves and petty intrigues, but the thrusting and impersonal crowd in the pit or the gallery or the dress circle will demand their pleasure, scream and revolt if they arc not satisfied. They will eventually make us or undo us.
"All the world's a stage" . . . and Marcel Carne loves and understands the players. He has portrayed humanity with a sympathy that is not inspired by patronage and cheap sentimentality. The film is the art of seeing better and the test of a true director is:. "Does he help us to see better?" With Carne I would say "Yes." We see humanity through the eyes of a man who has a catholic, humane and ironic outlook. That's all we want from a great director.
Technical brilliance can go to blares. There's none of it in "Les Enfants du Paradls," but It's more aesthetically satisfying than "The Tales of Hoffman."
Although without inspiration. Carne uses his camera well, pausing to pick up a detail here, moving to underline a line there.
Any camera-inspiration Carne may have had has been cancelled out by his script-writer's slightly too wordy script. But even if there is too much dialogue what we get is brilliant, if not from a cinematic point of view. Jacques Prevert is a miracle. Without the characters he has provided, without the situations, without his felicities of expression, with out the aptness of the philosophy in his lines and without his wit. "Les Enfants du Paradls" would not be what it is. His flare for situation and witty dialogue provides one of the funniest scenes I've seen in the cinema for years. The rehearsal of the play by the three authors in black and the First Night when Frederick brings the house down by ad libbing left, right and centre, mainly to the right where the three authors in black sat, stiff-backed, in their box. In fact, Prevert handles all the backstage panic and excitement in such an ironic and understanding manner that It's certain to set any member of a drama club land laymen, too!) on a roar.
Prevert and Carne are loyally backed up by the brilliant cast who seem to have as much enthusiasm for human nature as they have. Acting honours must go to Jeanlouis Barrault, who as Baptiste (a part which reminds me of Dostoevsky's Idiot. The whole film reminds me of Dostoevsky's and Dickens and Dumus. The same teeming parade of people in variety.) He is memorable as the tragic clown, passionately in love with Garance, played without fuss and with effortless charm by Arletty. They both do much to preserve the unity of the theme and to illustrate its meaning. Pierre Brasscur does a magnificent bravura as Frederick and he goes deeper than mere Flynn bumptiousness.
Of the minor parts the Count de Montray is for me the most interesting. A down and out prig, who loves no one but himself. I'm not surprised he does not like Shakespeare. He is a man so caught up in his own lust that he is finally murdered because of his jealousy. The murderer is Lacenaire, an unpleasant study in villainy, and it's a pity his career finished interestingly. He kills the count in cold blood (in a Turkish bath, too, incidentally, a fitting place for such a person) sits down and awaits the arrival of the police, glorying in the fact that he has achieved the true criminal's final goal. And of course, there is always the director of the "Funabules" to provide comic relief, which of course most producers do. How does the producer of the Tournament play like the idea of a three franc fine for every unwanted giggle or resounding crash backstage?
"Les Enfants du Paradls" does not follow the mood of Carne's apparently greater films. It has no serious social message to grind; no stark observation of the more unpleasant side of life. It is escapist, provided for audiences in occupied France. And I think perhaps the Trench liked it, or if they did not they came out of the theatres with a better understanding of human nature.