The simple and the complex. The sensational and the ordinary. The tragic and the sublime. A prime example of poetic realism, Marcel Carne's 'Children of Paradise' juxtaposes a series of contradictions against one another, breathing life into abstractions through heightened authenticity. Focused on the romantic fringe of society, the film presents an epic love story full of allegory, subtext, and complicated characters. An insightful drama drenched in the playful whimsy of the theater, the movie is an intricately layered, meticulously plotted, and beautifully designed piece of filmmaking. A visually extravagant, emotionally turbulent, and lyrically insightful masterpiece, it's a true classic of French cinema.
Set during the 1820s against the backdrop of Paris' theater district, the story focuses on Garance (Arletty), a beautiful but enigmatic woman. As four separate men -- a criminal (Marcel Herrand), an actor (Pierre Brasseur), a count (Louis Salou), and a mime (Jean-Louis Barrault) -- all compete for her love, Garance becomes torn by her desires. Capriciously moving from suitor to suitor, she is a slave to her own impulsive whims. But when she finally realizes who she truly loves, it may be too late, threatening any potential happiness with bitter tragedy.
A sweeping, epic romance, the film is home to rich plotting and literary characterizations that all carry the sumptuous texture of a great novel. Famed writer Jacques Prévert's script is peerless, blending love, whimsy, and tragedy into an effortless dance of poetic realism. While the movie flirts with storybook love, the script is far too nuanced to settle on mere glorified romanticism. Instead, Prévert presents a complex examination of all of the many contradictory types of love -- pitting passion, lust, infatuation, jealousy, and true affection against one another in a heart wrenching, theatrical ode to dreamers and outcasts.
As pointed out in the included commentary, the storytelling is inherently paradoxical. Throughout the runtime, hints of unfettered idealism glow with rabid passion, while more realistic stretches bring the high drama back down to earth. Even the dialogue presents an effortless meeting of two extremes, naturally blending lines that soar with lyrical beauty, with more colloquial, matter-of-fact observations. The characters' conversations are witty, laid-back, and achingly romantic all at the same time, and somehow the filmmakers balance the potentially conflicting tones perfectly, forging an infinitely deep narrative rife with metaphor, realism, and multifaceted characters.
While they all vie for the same woman's affection, each of the male leads could not be more different. Inspired by actual historical figures, the men all represent different archetypes and forms of love, but prove to be much more than mere symbols. The high class criminal Pierre-François Lacenaire is an unsavory figure who has closed himself off to the allure of women, and yet Garance holds an irresistible pull on him. Though he's one of the most unlikeable characters, Marcel Herrand infuses Lancenaire with just the right amount of cunning and ambiguity, crafting a complicated and dangerous threat. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the actor Frédérick Lemaître is something of a loveable rogue seemingly open to any and all advances from the opposite sex. Through Pierre Brasseur's charming performance, Frédérick becomes one of the film's most entertaining personalities, and his good-hearted scoundrel charisma is certainly fun to watch. The aristocratic Édouard de Montray is the least developed of the bunch, but his domineering, possessive presence is well executed by Louis Salou, and the scenes he shares with Garance are some of the movie's most enlightening.
Of course, the real heart and soul of the film rests within the loveable, tragic mime Jean-Baptiste Debureau. A hopeless romantic if there ever was one, Baptiste's love for Garance is so pure that it's nearly overpowering. Innocent but not quite naïve, the character is prone to introspection and lonely, late night walks where he simply "takes in things." Though kind and seemingly benign, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and when it's crushed, it leads to bitter anger and rage. Actor Jean-Louis Barrault handles the role brilliantly, bringing a child-like sense of wonder, spirit, and palpable sorrow to the character. Several scenes feature extended performances of the mime in action, and Barrault demonstrates an incredible gift for the art form, evoking so much joy and sadness through simple motions and facial expressions. Through Baptiste's unashamedly sentimental heart, he offers Garance the kind of love only dreamt about in poems and fairy tales. Unfortunately, this passion proves to be too intimidating for her care-free philosophy, sparking the film's central dilemma.
As the universal object of desire for all four men, Garance is the glue which holds the epic romance together. Each of her potential suitors sees something different in her, highlighting various aspects of her personality -- but in reality, the real woman defies any of the constricting labels imposed upon her. An independent, fickle spirit, she simply wants what she wants, and is unashamed to admit it. Enigmatic, alluring, and seemingly unattainable, she may be confident in the pursuit of her own desires, but there are times when she seems to be unsure what those desires actually are. Arletty tackles the role head on, blending sophistication with hints of vulnerability. When she finally realizes what her heart truly longs for, the actress sells her pain and delight with heartbreaking emotion.
Extending the film's air of poetic realism, Marcel Carne's visual style furthers the juxtaposition of the stylized and the modest. With the help of acclaimed production designer Alexandre Trauner, the director recreates the exciting, erratic world of 19th century Paris' "Boulevard du Crime," evoking the lively, playful atmosphere of the stage through his images. The intricate sets and costumes replicate the natural spectacle of the theater, bolstering the film's deeper themes while still maintaining an effective sense of realism. While numerous simple setups let the actors and production design take center stage, Carne does inject subtle hints of poetry through his compositions, cuts, and camera movements, enhancing the drama through delicate artistic associations.
The sequence where Baptiste witnesses Garance and Frédérick together is a perfect example. The manner in which the director cuts back between his subjects heightens the emotions of the reveal, and the way Baptiste's hand slowly drifts over his face, temporarily masking his eyes in shadow, serves as a simple but potent visual metaphor for his devastation. Likewise, extended takes with specific pans, tracks, and dollies help to expand the mood. One particularly memorable tracking shot focuses on the eccentric back-stage happenings of the theater, and the uninterrupted movement reinforces the lively, unpredictable atmosphere, offering the perfect introduction to one of the movie's central locations.
As the curtain finally closes on the film's troubled lovers, we are left without a true resolution. Much like the story's characters, the audience remains unfulfilled -- and we are forced to imagine how the narrative might continue to play out. Though in some ways Carnes' previous film, 'Les visiteurs du soir,' could be interpreted as a bittersweet tale of love conquers all, with 'Children of Paradise,' the director's examination of love is much less triumphant. Instead of a storybook ending, Carne and Prévert opt for a more open-ended, and even fatalistic conclusion. On the "Boulevard du Crime," love leaves an equally exuberant and devastating wake for all who dare step in its path. A literary drama focused on the absurdities of beauty, life, and romance, 'Children of Paradise' reveals the contradictory simplicity and complexity of happiness. Through the metaphor of the stage, Carne creates a world of poetic realism, where love is both celebrated and tragically unrequited. Where thieves, scoundrels, aristocrats, and romantics all ache for companionship. Where heightened lyricism is dashed by sobering reality. Where curtains rise and fall -- but signal no true beginnings or ends.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Children of Paradise' in a 2-disc set packaged in their standard clear case with spine number 141. A single BD-50 Region A disc houses the main film and commentaries, and an additional BD-25 disc contains the remaining supplements. A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Dudley Andrew, and excepts from a 1990 interview with director Marcel Carne is also included.
The film is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Though painstakingly restored from the original negative -- to be honest, I'm still not quite sure what to think of the results. The source is now clean and nearly pristine, but it's also extremely soft and lacks the type of natural, filmic texture one might expect. Is this a botched restoration riddled with overzealous processing? Or are the picture's weaknesses simply inherent to the original photography? Well, let's examine it all step by step…
The restored print is almost immaculate with virtually all major traces of specks, scratches, tears, debris or other signs of damage cleaned away. With that said, grain is suspiciously subdued, and at times essentially nonexistent. On that same note, when it is visible, the grain doesn't always look very natural, and in several scenes it has a faintly compressed, clumpy, noisy, and digitized appearance (check out the shot of Garance at the 01:32:37 mark). Overall clarity is also frequently lackluster, and the image is often exceedingly soft with a blurry, almost smudgy appearance that lacks much in the way of fine detail. At its worst, there are some sequences that actually resemble an upscaled VHS more than a high-definition image (Baptiste and Garance's nighttime stroll is a good example). Thankfully, these extreme instances aren't the norm. While soft focus pervades the running time, a few sequences set outdoors with large crowds (including the finale) demonstrate pleasing detail, pop, and even some impressive dimension. Unfortunately, contrast is a mixed bag. White levels are bright, but blacks are noticeably elevated, resulting in a faded, washed-out appearance that can be distracting.
Now, with all of these issues in mind, one might be quick to assume that misguided digital processing is to blame -- but here's where things get a little tricky. You see, there is actually a disclaimer that runs before the movie that makes special note of the transfer's faithfulness to the original photography's use of soft focus. Could the film's lack of fine detail simply be a result of the director's original shooting methods? To a certain degree, yes, but there's still an "affected" quality to the presentation that gives me some pause. Likewise, the disclaimer and included booklet also point out that certain shots had to be taken from different sources of variable quality. A detailed write-up about the restoration published by Creative COW Magazine (viewable here) also makes note of this, and offers one potentially enlightening tidbit:
"The last thing they did was take a careful look at grain. 'We had certain shots coming from different film elements and the grain on those shots was very, very poor,' says Lurin. 'To a point, it was really distracting to the audience. You'd look at an image with fine grain and then you'd switch to the next shot from a dupe positive with lots of grain.' Post-restoration, the team used Cinnafilm Dark Energy to manage the grain and texture."
Could this "grain management" be the cause of the transfer's smoothed over qualities? Unfortunately, it's very likely.
Muddying the waters even further, the 2nd disc includes a before and after demonstration of the restoration, and while some of the "before" shots do indeed appear to feature a little more grain and apparent detail (along with tons of damage), other shots feature negligible differences in grain structure and clarity. It's at this point that I noticed something even more perplexing -- the "after" shots actually look a bit different than the finished film on disc 1. After doing a direct comparison between the two, I discovered that the "after" shots feature a little more grain, and slightly better contrast and clarity than the actual feature presentation. For instance, the "after" shot of the opening main title sequence clearly demonstrates a thin layer of natural looking grain, while the main title sequence in the actual film appears to feature no grain at all, giving it an odd, static quality. This implies that some extra (and seemingly unnecessary) processing was applied to the image even after the restoration.
Regardless of the cause, what we end up with here is an impressively clean but often exceedingly soft, smudgy image that features distractingly faded black levels. As far as I can tell, the video's shortcomings are a combination of naturally soft focus, unnecessary processing, and unavoidable side effects that result from legitimate restoration techniques. With a print as badly damaged as 'Children of Paradise' was, there is always a give and take with restoration. Unfortunately, it seems Pathe (the company behind this restoration) was a bit overzealous in this regard, and while it's now nearly pristine, 'Children of Paradise' lacks the kind of cinematic texture one might expect. This is still the best the movie has looked in decades, and the absence of damage is truly remarkable -- but some aspects of the image are suspicious. Much of the soft detail may simply be inherent to the original optics and shooting methods, but the elevated blacks are distracting, and there is an overly smooth, occasionally video-like quality to the picture that is at odds with how a movie of this period should look.
The audio is presented in a French LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. While some aspects of the video's restoration are suspect, the audio mix is actually quite good.
Dialogue is clean and relatively full-bodied (for a film of this age). Likewise, while the score can strain slightly, dynamic range is decent. Effects work is also handled well, and comes through with solid fidelity and distinction, avoiding the overly muddled, mushy quality that some older tracks have. Notable pops, crackles, and background hissing are thankfully absent.
Clear and free of any major signs of distortion, 'Children of Paradise' sounds good. The mono presentation doesn't offer a lot to get excited about, but it is authentic and does the film justice.
Criterion has included an exceptional collection of supplements that provide a comprehensive look at the film's sometimes fascinating production. All of the special features are presented in upscaled 1080i with optional English subtitles for the foreign language portions (unless noted otherwise).
'Children of Paradise' is a true classic of French cinema and poetic realism. An epic romance full of high drama, lyrical insights, and sobering tragedy, the film's plot is layered with literary depth and texture. While there is a lot to admire about the movie's elaborate restoration, the transfer features some troubling aspects, with an overly smooth, video-like quality that points to overzealous processing. Thankfully, the audio mix is faithful and Criterion has included a fantastic collection of supplements. The film itself is essentially a masterpiece, but the disconcerting video transfer makes me reluctant to give this release my full approval. Still, the audio and special features are great, and while not ideal, the video is certainly watchable (and even impressive at times). Despite my concerns, when factoring in the entire package, this disc still gets my recommendation, but with some notable reservations.