As I run down the list of the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? top 1000, I've been surprised to find how much I've loved just about all of the films I've gone through. Now, granted, I'm still tying up the top 100 and one assumes those would be there for a reason, but I've come a long way from my childhood dismissal of any monochrome film it would seem. However, I have at last found a high-ranking entry in the list that I'm just not crazy about, and that film is Michael Carné's epic Children of Paradise.
Billed as "the French answer to Gone With the Wind," Les Enfants du Paradis concerns itself not with war but the theater; the original French title refers to the "paradis," the upper balcony of the theater in which the rowdy poor shout their (dis)approval of the play. The actors refer to them as the 'gods' and strive to please them above all others, for impressing the rich regulars is simple; winning over the uneducated who won't be impressed by form and stucture requires talent.
The opening shot of the film is simply one of the best I've seen in classic cinema. A tour through the bustle outside the Theatre des Funambules, it captures a the dreamlike quality of the stage shows outside designed to entice gods into Paradise while also revealing the thriving crime that exists in the form of thieves. At one exhibit, the beautiful Garance sits in a bathtub admiring herself so she supplies "truth, but only from the neck up." Frédérick, an aspiring actor, spots her and immediately falls in love. A thief, Lacenaire, also takes a shine to her, but believes in business before pleasure and nicks a wallet.
The victim blames Garance, but Baptiste, the performing pantomime, comes to her aid while proving his silent skills. She hands him a flower in gratitude, and yet another man falls for the beauty. What makes Garance so alluring? She's beautiful sure, but not launch-a-1000-ships beautiful. Really, Garance attracts men because she's so dominant and knowing in a society that keeps women simple and obedient. A fourth suitor, the rich Count Edouard de Montray later in the film, and he completes the roster of men irresistibly drawn by this independent woman.
It's a tangled web, and ultimately it's the reason why the film never clicks for me; love triangles (or pentagons, as the case may be) are well and good, but Carné structures things so we never really get involved with the melodrama. The men figure out the identities of their "competition" fairly quickly, but no one takes action on it until the last half hour in a three-hour film I'm not expecting shootouts or anything, but why let them figure it out if they'll do nothing for the next hour? At some point we wonder why they all cling to this woman when she divides her affections between them, genuinely attracted to at least one aspect of each man; clearly she'll never be able to pick one, and if she does she'll not stay with him, so why bother?
The only real emotional connection I had to the film was with Nathalie, a mime in the theater, who deeply loves Baptiste and even marries him, but knows deep down that her husband will never love her. She speaks in leaden tones as she buries her agony under propriety, and it's heartbreaking. When she finally catches the two in Baptiste's room at the end, her mild outburst deafens more than any shouting match ever could. It's the only bit of drama that worked for me.
Honestly, I find the production of Children of Paradise more interesting than the film itself. Carné and writer Jacques Prévert had to make the film in Vichy France under Nazi rule, and collaborators and resistance fighters stood side by side as extras. Production started and stopped for years due to budgets limited by rationing, forced location changes, a destroyed sets. The set designer and the score composer worked in secrecy due to their Jewish heritage. No film in the country could be longer than 90 minutes, so Carné split the film into two parts: "The Boulevard of Crime" and "The Man in White." It's a fascinating history I'm barely summing up here, and frankly I think a documentary on the filming would be a much more telling experience.
In the end, though, I'm glad I watched it. It's one of the most technically proficient films of the period, using all sorts of techniques that had only recently been developed to craft a visually resplendent world that looks like a wild dream. When Terry Gilliam cites this as a major influence on his work in the Criterion intro, I could see it immediately. Nevertheless, the plot itself never sucks me in, and it's not enough of a fantasy for me to place visuals over storytelling. Children of Paradise certainly isn't a bad or even merely "good" film, but I wouldn't rank it as one of cinema's finest achievements. And it's definitely not, according to an old Cannes proclamation, "the greatest French movie ever made." Go sift through Renoir or Godard for that.